Museums and the Web: What We Learned

By the time spring shows up in the South, our team is already eagerly awaiting Museums and the Web, an annual museum conference that attracts professionals from some of the world’s leading museums, industry experts, and technologists. This year, Sean and I ventured out to LA for the 20th installment, excited to catch up with friends, colleagues and museum technology enthusiasts. We had many exciting discussions centered around the community’s shared goals of refining and pushing the boundaries of the web to better serve museums and their visitors.

After a couple weeks to catch up and process, I took a chance to recap a few insights from sessions that stood out, and then take a cursory look how we plan to integrate them in our process here at Cuberis.

The Metrics Behind Museum Personas

Lightning Talk: Falk Meets Online Motivation
Those immersed in museums have definitely heard of Falk’s 5 personas of museum visitors, a study which examines on-site visitors through their visit motivation instead of their demographic data. In a lightning talk by Sarah Wambold & Marty Spellerberg, they laid out their recent research to start understanding how the five Falk types align with museum website users. Much needed research! With a survey deployed on 24 museum websites, their team first had users self-identify their motivation, then tracked the interactions throughout their website visits. The metrics revealed that all but one of the 24 websites recorded the largest number of site visitors to fall under the “Facilitators” persona type, a huge revelation for museum web managers!

This research adds a much-needed digital dimension to Falk’s persona types, but is just the beginning of exploring the motivations for web visits. This is especially true as museums increase the amount of interpretive content available online. At Cuberis, we have worked to incorporate these findings into our internal discovery process, thinking about how we can best understand and prepare for these facilitators and thus the people in their circles of influence, specific to each site we build.



Pushing Museum Storytelling Online

Session: Big and Slow: Adventures in Digital Storytelling
The idea of enhancing and further supporting a museum’s physical experience with its online interface isn’t anything new. However, I saw the concept in a different light after attending this session. In an age of instant online gratification, the case studies shown during this session invite their guests (just like in a physical museum) to slow down and get lost, diving deep into digital room after room of virtual content and artifacts, peeling back the layers of a story.

Led by Danny Birchall of UK’s Wellcome Collection, and Anna Faherty of Strategic Content, the session started with the history of what Snowfall did for the longform story and how the Google Cultural Institute has created a wealth of immersive cultural resources (like Bruegel Unseen Masterpieces). They then showcased two of their own projects at the Wellcome Collection: Mindcraft and The Collectors. Both invite the narrative to unfold as the user interacts with varying content of different depths and kinds, allowing them to become immersed in a deeply-involved story.

Seeing these projects gave us concrete examples of ways that the digital and physical experiences of a museum can challenge and promote each other through storytelling. I would highly recommend just setting aside a couple hours to get lost in the Wellcome Collection’s longform examples or Google Cultural Institute’s wealth of content, as they shift our understanding of how digital stories can be told.


Connecting Users to Museums through Varying Lenses

GLAMi Award Winners: ArkUK and MetKids
We always look for inspiration for new and different ways to connect users to the museums. Two sites that I found particularly innovative in their approach were and metkids, both showcased as GLAMi Awards winners at MWXX.

ArtUK’s approach takes a big step back, presenting over 200,000 pieces of artwork assembled from public art collections across the UK (over 3,000 venues). With everything indexed right there at your fingertips, and so many different ways to discover and stumble upon art throughout the region, this resource encourages you to uncover work that you might not have ever known existed so close by (who would ever have time to visit over 3,000 venues?) Once you discover an artifact, the site connects you its artist, related stories, and how to visit the museum, encouraging you to go on and experience the physical piece yourself.

MetKids shows the Met through a completely different lens. It’s a site “made for kids, with, and by kids”. Viewing the site rekindles my childhood curiosity, tapping into a desire for exploration akin to searching for Waldo and uncovering hidden clues through a treasure hunt.

Both of these sites offer a completely different approach to connect their potential audience to their physical museums, a key goal for many museums’ digital projects. Their examples reinforce the need to constantly change your gaze and look through the fresh eyes of your users if you expect to innovate.



Turning a Microscope on User Experience

Web Crit: The Nasher, ICA Boston, The Tech, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab
For those brave souls willing to have their sites in the crit, it was evident from the start that each and every piece of their site’s user experience would be under the microscope, and if you were sincerely looking to improve your site, you came to the right place. The Nasher, ICA Boston, The Tech, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab all went through an in-person live user test in the hands of expert UX designers. Clarity of navigation and consistency in behavior of UX elements were the two elements that were repeated throughout each crit.

For the Nasher, this crit served as a springboard for further site evolution with UX changes and new functionality, and we are partnering with them to use feedback from the crit to lay the groundwork for a larger discovery and site audit.



Quick Quotes

There are always too many sessions to take in and too much info to pass along but I will leave you with a few quotes we overheard that seemed to support the overarching themes of the conference. Some offer new ideas while others reinforced existing thoughts, but they all should be considered with our work in this industry.

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.” – UX Humor

“Simplicity is not your starting point; it’s the end result of a long perfection process” – Daria Shualy

“When it comes to mobile, people seek convenience above all else”Charlotte Sexton

Lastly, I want to leave you with a quote from Douglas Hegley and his talk on The Agile Museum.

“Museums do not and should not compete with each other. To the general public, museums might as well be franchises of a single corporation. If a visitor has a bad experience at one museum, they’ll assume that all museum experiences are bad. It’s our shared duty to provide delight, because a great experience at your museum is likely to drive that visitor to spend time in other museums too.”

It was this quote that best summed up our experience at the conference. Museums are a very collaborative group who don’t hesitate to share information and resources. Everyone we met and interacted with earnestly promoted the collective group and worked to better inform and inspire its members and thus their museums. It is this collaboration that makes these conferences so enjoyable and our work with museums so rewarding.

It was another great year at Museums and the Web and we look forward to applying all we heard, and to contributing to the overall mission of improving the digital presence of museums. We are excited with these challenges and look forward to pushing the boundaries for museums as well as fueling our own passions with these cultural institutions. Can’t wait to see what projects this next year brings as we already look forward to next year’s conference.