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Posted on January 24, 2022
by Eric Holter

Organizing Your Museum’s Event Calendar

Our previous article Anatomy of Museum Information Architecture analyzed some of the challenges of organizing content rich websites. Because museum websites are so chock full of content, they require a clear top level navigation system that provides a quick skimable orientation to site visitors. 

But it’s also important to organize from the bottom-up. Serialized content types such as blog posts, events, exhibitions, and collection objects all need to be categorized with clear and consistent taxonomies that enable visitors to search, filter, and explore.  

Each instance of serialized posts will require its own unique set of categories and taxonomies. In this article we’ll explore organizational structures specifically for events

Multi-Faceted Event Categories 

Museum events are a primary means of engagement, and one of the most concrete ways museums fulfill their missions. Therefore an event calendar is an essential part of any museum website. We discussed some of the platform options available for WordPress-based museum calendars in our article Managing Events on Museum Websites. But once you’ve picked an event platform you still have to figure out how to configure and organize it. 

Museums offer a wide variety of events: exhibitions, exhibition openings, lectures, films, performances, community events, classes, educational opportunities, fundraising events and so many more.

In addition to having a wide variety of events, these events often interrelate with other content. For example, some events may be a part of an overall exhibition’s schedule, or associated with ongoing programs. 

With so many event types and relationships it is equally as important as it is complex to provide your calendar with a cohesive and easy to use interface. 

Before we jump into event categories we need to consider a fundamental principle of search and filter interfaces that apply to all content-rich serialized posts. Namely, how the overall quantity and diversity of content needs to inform the types of search and filter tools best suited for content discovery and exploration. 

Quantity of Content Dictates the Form of Your Search and Filter Tools

The more items a post type contains, the more taxonomies and search tools you will need. This dynamic is most observable in a collection database. If a collection contained just a few dozen items you wouldn’t need any search or filter apparatus. A simple one-page grid would suffice. But when you have thousands of items, or hundreds of thousands or even millions—as is often the case with historic archives—you’ll need an increasingly sophisticated search apparatus in order to search and filter on multiple criteria. 

If you provide too few search options on millions of records, researchers will never find what they’re looking for. The converse is also true. If you add multiple sets of search criteria on a list of only a few hundred items, combinations of filters will, more often than not, generate no results. 

Finding the right balance of categories, and search and filter options for each data set is one of the important parts of architecting a museum website.

Searching and Filtering Events

Applying the quantity/search criteria rule of thumb to your events can be tricky. That’s because one of the typical ways of displaying events is the calendar view. But a calendar view is already one kind of filter—a date based filter. If you present events in calendar view one month at a time, then you have already applied one significant filter to your event data. And if you only have a few events per week, then you would not likely need any additional filters since a quick scan of a month view is easy enough to digest. 

But if you have multiple events per day then you will need additional filters. This is where categories and labels come in handy. But also where some confusion can slip in. 

Avoid Internal Category Terms

It can be hard for museums to break free from internally meaningful categories, and focus instead on labels and terminology that mean something concrete to users.  

For example, you might have a “branded” program called something like “Creative Communities.” Internally, everyone in your organization knows that “Creative Communities” is a series of interviews with local artists engaging your community. But to an outsider that branding would be extremely vague and unhelpful in filtering through your events. Rather you want to create categories that communicate with a general audience. Categories such as “camps,” “classes,” “workshops,” “performances,” “films,” and “openings,” for example. Concrete categories that describe the nature of the events, not how they fall within your internal organizational structure, are going to be most helpful for your audience.  

The Problem with Demographic Categories 

Another problematic approach to categorizing events is audience segmentation. Internally, museum event planning is often structured around age-based audiences or focused interest groups: events for youth, events for young adults, events for families, events for members, scholarly events and so forth. While some events may be tightly associated with particular audiences, many are audience agnostic. And so, if you use audience segmentation, those events that are not clearly audience specific will end up being “tagged” for every audience. The result is a set of categories that offers no meaningful differentiation between events. And that obscures those events that do fit a demographic segment. 

Generally speaking, your events (and all your content for that matter) is better off being categorized by what it is, concretely, than by which audience you believe it would most appeal to. If you develop clear and concrete organizational categories, every audience will be able to easily find what they are looking for, regardless of whether they are a teacher, a parent, an art enthusiast, or a researcher. 

Applying Helpful Labels

In addition to high level event categories, most calendar systems also offer event labels as another means of organizing and displaying your events. Labels should consist of attributes that can apply to any event, and not become a second set of organizational categories. For example, labels can be used to indicate member only events, free events, virtual events, canceled events—aspects that might potentially apply to any event, independent of their fundamental types.

Other Attributes of Events

Of course events have other special attributes, in addition to their topical or typological categories that need to be thought through. 

Date and Time

By definition, events occur on certain dates and at certain times. But date and time information is not always straightforward. Some events may occur only once, others may repeat. Some events repeat on an ongoing basis. Making matters more complicated, ongoing and repeating events don’t always happen on exactly the same day, or time, or even in the same place. Most calendar systems offer built in mechanisms for recurring events, and some have features to set exceptions. 

For example, if you have a recurring event, say every Friday at 7:00pm, most calendar systems will enable you to set exceptions to skip certain dates. But if you change the day of the week altogether, or the time of the event, more often than not you’ll need to create an individual event that is broken free from the recurring series, since automated systems don’t usually anticipate every anomaly to day, time, place, or pricing when these exceptions occur. 

Other Event Metadata: Locations, Organizers, and Prices/Ticketing

Another common feature of event systems is the ability to add locations to an event. Museums often host events in various galleries, libraries, or auditoriums—or virtually which is also a kind of location. Including this information will make your event listings even more helpful to attendees.

“Organizers” is another common meta-field in event systems. In most museum implementations, this field is not used, which makes it available to hijack for custom uses. For example, if you want to set relationships between exhibitions and events, you can treat exhibitions as “organizers” and use that field to create exhibition and event relationships. 

Most event systems also offer ticket pricing fields, RSVP buttons, and links for more information.

Are Exhibitions Really Events?

One of the major event types for museums are exhibitions. However, because exhibitions run for months at a time, it’s impractical to include them in a daily calendar system since that would overwhelm the calendar with current exhibitions showing up every day, thus causing the more date-sensitive events to get lost. For this reason museums typically handle their exhibition schedules separately from other events by creating dedicated exhibition content types and listing them in as current, upcoming, and past. 

While exhibitions are not technically listed in your calendar (aside from their openings) exhibitions should certainly be a facet used for filtering the overall event calendar. Likewise, individual events need to be able to be associated with corresponding exhibitions, so that they can be listed on exhibition landing pages (and on other blog posts, or pages where the exhibition is promoted). As mentioned above, the “organizer” field can be used for this purpose, or alternatively, the event’s tag taxonomy can be used to set exhibition relationships. Of course, this assumes that tags are not being used for other purposes. Yet another option would be to create a custom meta-field for this relationship, but while that will enable you to display exhibition connections, implementing a sorting and filtering system with custom fields would require adding a significant amount of custom code to pre-built calendar systems—a practice we avoid whenever possible. 

Events are a very important part of your institution, and can be surprisingly complicated to manage. Thinking through your event structures, categories, and filters will help you to manage and promote these important occasions.

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