Posted on April 8, 2022
by Eric Holter

The Art of Classifying Museum Website Content

Museums are all about classification. The rise of the modern museum was highly influenced by the uber classifier himself, Francis Bacon. Whether you visit a natural history or modern art museum, as you move through its galleries, you’re wandering a path laid out by artistic eras, genre associations, or geographic locations. And when you read the labels of a painting, or historical artifact, you will find terms and descriptions laden with categorical language of mediums and genres, periods and ages, species and phylum. Organization and classification is fundamental to the museum experience. 

How Should Museum Website Content Be Classified?

But what about a museum’s website? Unfortunately, the professional discipline of content organization that typifies the museum itself is often not applied to their websites. Instead of clear transitions, and mutually exclusive groupings of art and artifacts, museum websites often mix content under vague and confusing categories.

In our article, Anatomy of Museum Information Architecture, we tackled this problem at a high level, and in a more recent article, we applied content organization principles specifically to the organization of a museum’s events calendar

In this article, I’ll be applying the same principles of extension and intension, concreteness and vagueness, and mutual exclusivity to the related categories of a museum’s programs and resources (and how these also relate to exhibitions and events).

The interrelationships between museum content make organizing them into a single menu system a challenge. But unless this categorization and classifying project is done well, the valuable content provided by your museum may get lost in the shuffle.

Consistency is Utmost

I will be proposing a certain set of definitions and practices in this article, but while I believe what I propose is sound and helpful, it may not fit every case, and there is always room for alternative approaches. However, one principle that is not up for grabs with respect to organizing any website navigation menu is maintaining consistency with whatever underlying definitions you end up adopting

Whatever labels you choose, and whatever organizational structure you deploy, it’s critical that you remain consistent with your own working definitions. 

The Problem with “Learn” and “Explore”

For example, as I mentioned in the Anatomy article, most museums end up with at least one vague navigation label called something like “Learn,” “Explore,” or “Experience.” These sections house various resources, programs, and events. But they also end up being the home of all the stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into the other clearer categories such as “collection,” “exhibitions,” and those that provide information about visiting the museum.

Terms such as “Learn” or “Explore” have high extension. If you recall from our Anatomy article a term with high extension is one that covers many subcategories. It’s a large umbrella term. For example, the term “Art” has high extension. “19th century French Impressionism” lives within the extension of “Art” but it has much lower extension, or conversely it has high intension

The terms “Learn” and “Explore” not only have high extension, but they are also vague and ambiguous. In what sense is someone learning or exploring the content within those areas in ways that they are not doing so when they are exploring the collections, or learning from past exhibitions? 

In some cases the terms “Learn” and “Explore” carry a stipulated definition of “educator-oriented content.” In fact many museums will use an alternate form of these labels such as “Educate” or “Educators.” These terms do work better when they consistently include only educator-oriented content. Unfortunately, such consistency is often not maintained.

The Liabilities of Audience Classification Systems 

A consistently applied Educator oriented “Learn” or “Explore” section is better than the generic use of these terms. But other challenges arise when you have a menu term that’s essentially driven by audience segmentation rather than by the nature of the content itself. Because while a lesson plan, or field trip gallery guide may clearly fall within such an educator-oriented section, there are many other resources that fit, but are just as relevant to other audiences. 

This creates a catch 22. If you are rigorous about maintaining an educator-oriented working definition for “Learn” or “Explore,” anything you place there, which may have broader relevance, will end up being obscured to those other audiences. 

But if you loosen your working definition, then just about any content could fall into these categories. 

Audience based classification is particularly difficult for museums because they have such wide and diverse audiences. In fact, what demographic segment would not be a part of a museum’s audience?  If you were to push an audience segmentation approach to the extreme you would need to build an organization system around all of your various audiences. And to the extent that any particular piece of content relates to more than one it would need to be referenced or included multiple times throughout the system. 

When you find cases where multiple content types need to be included in multiple areas, this is a strong clue that your top level organization principle is not functioning properly. And the culprit is usually a vague use of labels, or audience segmentation.

For all these reasons audience based classification systems are a slippery slope toward unclear and unintuitive navigation.

Classify by Essence, Not Audience

A better approach is to classify your content by the essential nature of the content, and less on who it is for. I’ve found that a well organized and concrete navigation system will optimally serve all audiences. Educators will be able to find the resources they need, and so will everyone else. 

The Easy Categories

There are a few categories that are almost universal in museum menu systems: An “About” section for history, mission, and staff. A “Visit” section with information about planning a visit and buying tickets. “Collections” of course, and “Exhibitions” are typical and concrete areas. And finally, most museum sites will include a “Support” area.  

The Hard Categories

That leaves three content types that are less clear, and often end up getting packed into a “Learn” or “Explore” section. These are “Programs,” and “Resources.” 

In order to organize a consistent classification system, we need to offer stipulated definitions for these categories. The definitions I propose here are not one size fits all. You may choose to adopt them, but if not, you need to establish your own definitions and hold to them as you organize your menus. Loose definitions lead to confusing user experiences. 

Events. Above I isolated “Programs” and “Resources” as the primary culprits that tend to frustrate a menu system. But I’m including the term “Events” here, not because it is as vague as the terms “Programs” and “Resources,” but because they sometimes get mixed into these other content terms, and therefore lose clear meaning. Merging “Events” and “Programs” is a common problem and so we need to stipulate our definitions in order to distinguish them in our menus.  

An event can be defined as a special occasion that happens on a specific day, at a specific time, and in a specific location. Some events are recurring, but each instance still has a specific time and location. Some require tickets, some RSVP, and some are open. 

All events have these qualities, but sometimes, when the working definition of an event merges with that of a program, confusion slips in. 

Programs. I’ve encountered many instances where the term “program” is used interchangeably with “event.” But most of the time “program” carries a broader definition. A “program” is an ongoing set of museum initiatives that organize many events and various resources around a set of targeted goals or that serve a particular audience. And so, an educator outreach program might include several events and offer many resources such as lesson plans and gallery guides. A program might even include an entire exhibition. Another common museum program is the “artist in residence.” This program often includes exhibitions, classes, lectures, workshops and other related events.  

There are occasions when a program is made up of just one ongoing event. A film series, for example, is a popular museum program, and it might consist of a series of recurring Friday night showings. In this case it can be easy to conflate the terms “program” and “events” since they both reference the same series of events. But since programs can also be broader, it’s important to maintain the distinction when organizing your navigation system. 

Resources. The term resource is very extensive. Anything you use, is a “resource.” An exhibition is a resource for experiencing art. But we want to establish narrower, more stipulated definitions that will function well for concrete and intuitive navigation systems. Therefore, for this purpose, I define a resource as any piece of media that augments the collections, events, and programs of a museum.  

So, for example, a lecture is an event. But if it is recorded, and the video is posted to your website, then that video becomes a resource. Lesson plans, scholarly essays, recordings, even your archive pages of past exhibitions become resources that can then be used to augment other content throughout a museum website. 

In this respect a museum blog can also be considered a resource. Adding “articles” and “news” as subcategories of a resource section is one way of integrating a “blog” into the rest of the website. 

Exhibitions. I did not list exhibitions among the hard categories, and it’s not hard to define an exhibition, but I’m including them here in order to distinguish them from Events. As I discussed in our previous article, Organizing Your Museum’s Event Calendar, I generally prefer keeping exhibitions away from the museum events calendar. Since exhibitions are open daily during their run, listing exhibitions can clog up an event calendar, obfuscating all the other events. This is why most museums have a special area for exhibitions, usually filtered by the labels current, upcoming, and past.  

I hope this exploration of museum content classification and these definitions will be helpful to you as you manage your museum’s website. You may well choose other definitions, but going through the exercise of clearly stipulating your content definitions will ensure that all of your museums’ valuable content will be easily found and enjoyed.

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