It’s been more than a month now since we first stepped off the plane in Phoenix, AZ for the start of the Western Museums Association (WMA)’s 2016 annual meeting, our first of two regional conferences we attended this fall. We loved seeing museums across the country come together to talk about change and innovation in the museum space, and felt like the number of great conversations on change and inclusion are a sign of good things to come for museums in the future. Now that we’ve returned home from WMA and the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) we want to take a closer look at how websites can augment museum professionals’ work as they move museums into the future.
With the conversations from WMA and SEMC in mind, we went back and looked at our past and current projects, as well as other well-designed museum websites. From these we distilled ways in which websites can help museums move forward into four key categories: education, development and fundraising, audience engagement, and community outreach. This post will be a broad overview of how a website can help museums reach their objectives in each area; stay tuned for posts taking a deeper dive into each topic in the coming weeks.
Websites as tools for educational outreach
Educational programming accounts for a huge portion of museums’ outward-facing efforts. Education as a whole can cover a very broad range of activities, such as summer camps, field trips or evening events for audiences ranging from pre-K to post-retirement. Several sessions on education at the conferences talked about changing the way we currently think about education in the museum to open the doors to a wider audience. A key takeaway from these sessions focused on educators within museums creating innovative educational programs by collaborating with internal departments like collections, or with external partners like teachers with interdisciplinary backgrounds.
To further such initiatives, museum educators can post lesson plans from past collaborations on their museum’s website. Museum educators can also present curated content directed specifically towards teachers and keep all education-related information in a resource hub for engagement and collaboration. Posting resources like lesson plans and educational content online makes it easier for professors and teachers who want to do something but don’t have the time, resources, or familiarity with collections to plan on their own. In addition to sharing lesson plans, some speakers at WMA and SEMC talked about writing lessons that culminated in the students writing about their experience. Museums can make use of the web for activities like this, and share students’ experiences by featuring stories from a lesson on the museum’s blog, which can then be shared at a later date or used to show other educators the value of such educational programs. These are just a couple of examples of how museum educators can enhance their programming using the web. There are many more opportunities, including programming that’s actually available through the web and thus accessible to people and classrooms all over.
Websites as tools for development
Development and fundraising efforts are essential to many museums due to the lack of public support for the funding of new exhibitions, daily operations and outreach programs. Discussions around fundraising at the conferences focused on tools museum professionals can use for effective fundraising like volunteer coordination and strategies that lead to higher returns for museums. Another thing that can help fundraising efforts: a website. Museums can utilize their websites for fundraising efforts by creating unique landing pages for development campaigns and integrating the site with fundraising software to make it simple for donors to give online. The biggest asset that comes from using a website for development is data analytics. Using analytics allows a museum to track donors’ movements through the site, see if there are any drop-off points, and allow the development team to track trends over the years.
And these are just the beginning. In the lead-up period before a large fundraising campaign, a website can serve as an interactive way to display a museum’s value proposition to current and potential donors. Using elements such as data-driven infographics to display metrics on museum attendance, programming, and lectures supported by donors can encourage others to donate. Additionally, museum development staff can showcase photos from donor-funded events, and use the blog to feature stories from donors or museum members about their decision to support the museum. These are just a few examples of ways a website can serve as a development tool and make space to create conversation and continue the connection with donors after they have given.
Websites as tools for audience engagement
Another aspect of museums’ operations that websites can assist with: audience engagement. This may be the easiest place to make great use of a museum’s website as a tool. In the digital age today, potential visitors are already turning to the web for visitor information, and it’s up to museums to make sure their websites are ready when potential visitors do. Imagine how welcome people would feel if instead of just a page with a museum’s visiting hours and some paragraphs on the collection, they found space to add their own opinion on the theme behind an exhibition, or a scrolling box that lets them view tweets from visitors as they explore the museum’s space. Facilitating audience engagement through a website allows visitors to see and experience the conversations that take place in the museum even if they can’t be there.
Websites as tools for community outreach
Following the same train of thought as audience engagement, museums in the 21st century have a place in the ever-present conversations that surround social issues. The biggest social issue discussed at both conferences was inclusion and and how it relates to community outreach. Attendees and speakers in sessions talked about how the modern museum isn’t just a keeper of history, but a steward that should relate to its community in direct and meaningful ways. When a museum chooses to start a conversation with the community, a website is the perfect space to facilitate it. Whether it’s in a moderated comments section on a blog post, or through hashtags and conversations created on social media and streamed on the site, a website is a versatile tool that can help museums quickly respond to and facilitate conversations.
Museums don’t have to take stands on a topic, they can just open the space for discussion. By using a website to introduce visitors to some of the conversations taking place in the physical museum, they will be interested and open to listening to the story a museum has to tell. As museum lovers and museum professionals, we sometimes forget that not everyone sees museums as spaces where all are welcome. What better way to combat false views than through open conversation on a website?
By augmenting the conversations on educational outreach, development, audience engagement and social commentary with ways a website can help, we’re not suggesting that there needs to be a complete overhaul of museum websites around the world [wide web]. Many of these suggestions can be implemented now by taking a deep look at how a museum website can be leveraged to meet the museum’s goals. The bottom line from all four examples: websites, if done right, can inspire action, facilitate conversation, give the public an engaging look into an organization, and connect visitors to the person, place or thing the site represents. Whether it’s conversations among donors, educators, visitors or the community, museum professionals can and should take advantage of the potential their website gives them to connect and further communication between the museum and the different groups of people that interact with it.
These four topics are not the only areas of a museum’s work that can benefit from the website. What areas of your museum does your website serve as a tool for? Is there an area you feel is not supported by your website that should be? Lets chat! Tweet your comments at @Cuberis or @amvaughan16