Museum Websites: The Big Idea

Based in Washington, D.C., Innate is literally surrounded by world-class museums. (In fact, if we hurled a rock off of our balcony, we could probably hit the Phillips Collection — not that we would want to, of course.) Plus, we count the wonderful Muscarelle Museum in Williamsburg as a client. We’ve begun to think more and more about the online presence that museums provide to their audience, from online collections to logistical help to mobile apps. This post explores the realities and possibilities of the digital museum experience in the first entry of a new blog series.

So, there is this big idea brewing among the minds and talents who curate and run museums across the country. It’s about re-conceptualizing the function or role of museum websites in order to enhance the user’s online experience.

Up to now, the typical museum website has basically been used as a virtual replacement for the brick and mortar building it represents (as well as a logistical guide for potential visitors). That approach made sense back when museums were first venturing online.

But we are living in a culture where Internet and mobile technologies are evolving rapidly (read: daily!) and people’s expectations of an “online experience” are different than they were five years ago — or even two years ago.

Museums should start thinking about ways to re-position their websites to serve new functions in order to meet the demands of a mobile-savvy and social media-captivated audience. After all, visiting a museum website is not like physically being at the museum. Why should it try to be?

We wanted to start thinking about how museums can start to create a new type of user experience. And we came up with three guiding words: enable, enlighten, and engage.

Enable:

For every person that can visit a museum, there are literally millions more who can access it through technology, mobile or otherwise. Rather than merely replicate their collections online — although that’s a good start — museums could view their websites as a way to experience their collections and content in new and expansive ways. Using social media, museums can also proactively enable their audience members to not only experience content, but to share it with others. By allowing the visitor to comment, tag, or pin information, the museum will reach a much wider (social) network.

Enlighten:

Museums, and the people who curate them, are regarded as experts in their fields.  But the majority of visitors (online and offline) to museums are not experts — most are unfamiliar with the academic language of art, history, science, etc. Most museums have educational programs or components, so why not extend that online? There’s no reason that museum websites can’t interactively educate users directly on their sites. By exploring innovations in online education, museums could attract a younger, more diverse audience that could eventually translate into more actual visits to the physical museum.

Engage:

Museums have one incredible asset when it comes to the digital space — content. They should take advantage of the possibilities inherent in digital technology and innovate on the ways users experience content. Videos, podcasts, streaming collections and apps are only a few of the tools that museums could use to create a truly unique online experience for users.

These are initial thoughts about expanding the online museum experience.

[Updated Sept. 20, 2012] The next post in this series reviews the interactive Smithsonian exhibit “The Art of Video Games” and how it leverages viewer participation through social media and other channels. In a future post we’ll also take a field trip to the Phillips Collection to give their mobile app a try, and see how it adds to the museum experience.

In the meantime, if your museum is looking for a digital solution, contact Innate.

[Photo credit: David Gaines, Flickr Creative Commons]

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