We conducted an analysis of museum web sites almost ten years ago, with the purpose of understanding how good are local museum web sites compared to the best in the world, and we repeated this study four years ago. We have recently commenced a new such survey of South African museum web sites to understand how best practice is evolving, and how we can better advise museums on how they can use the web are a core medium of communication.

This is the first in a series of articles which address how you can build a great web site for your own museum.

The first question we ask is to what extent a museum is communicating properly with its target communities through the web? Are there minimum standards and best practices for museum web sites, or should each museum just do their own thing?

A well-managed web site is one element of a larger communications programme, but over the past five years the web has become increasingly a necessity, and less of a luxury. Everyone who wants to visit your museum will first try to find you on the web, and to obtain sufficient information to help plan their visit.

One of the most important considerations when designing a new web site, or in updating your existing web site, is who is your audience on the web site, and for your museum, and what you should say to them.

An issue raised by some museum managers is┬áthat “if we put ourselves onto the web then we will get no visitors, since they will get what they want on the web”. However, today the opposite is increasingly true, that if you are not on the web then it is likely that your visit numbers will decrease. So the first function of a web site is to act like an electronic brochure, showing enough information to make it easy for people to find out about the museum and to stimulate them to visit.

If you are designing such a brochure then you will include the following:

  • some pictures of the museum, exhibitions, surroundings, and perhaps some of the people
  • the name of your museum, and perhaps the origin of the name
  • the history of the museum
  • what story the museum is telling
  • highlights of the museum
  • etc.

We am not including all of the items here, and rather would like you to look at your current marketing materials, including all brochures which you have, and see what should be put onto the web site as the minimum. This is a task you should do immediately, and to then compare this to what we recommend as the minimum in the next post.

One benefit of a web site is that it is cheap to build and maintain, when compared to the cost of printing a brochure, and that is can also be distributed far and wide without having to hope that people find your brochure.

There is also no limit to how much information can be placed onto a web site, but the challenge is how to attract the potential visitors with as little information as possible, hoping that they then dive deep into your web site, and then decided to engage with you.

So who are these visitors, and why do they want to visit you. Let us divide these up into a number of groups:

  • schools – as part of their history field work, or often for other non-history work, such as literature, mathematics, science, etc.
  • tourists – who are visiting the town, or even passing through, and who want to learn about what this town offers and its history
  • researchers – who want to find out more about the details of the collections to aid their own research activities
  • local residents – who want to learn more about their own town and its cultural offerings

For each there may be a different message, but each of these should be accommodated somehow in the initial message.

So, we encourage you to first reflect on the message which you want to send out to your potential visitors, and then to break this down into specific elements which should be included into the web page.

In the next post we will address the minimum information which is relevant to a web site for a museum, and how this is also applicable to all cultural organisations which attract visitors, such as libraries, archives, historical sites, and repositories.