April 16, 2010  |  Tech
Notes from Museums and the Web
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One of the great things about working in museums is the amount of information exchange there is with our fellow colleagues at other cultural institutions. While we all want our museum to be the best it can be (whether its an arts institution, history or social history museum, science museum, or other), there is also a real interest in sharing our experiences and learning from each other. Some of this dialogue takes place informally, one on one; other times it takes place at conferences. There are several museum-focused conferences, including AAM (the American Association of Museums), which is perhaps the largest; MCN (Museum Computer Network); and Museums and the Web. I am currently attending the Museums and the Web conference that is taking place this week in Denver, Colorado, along with Beth Harris and Lisa Mazzola, my colleagues in the Education Department.

Thursday was actually just the first day of sessions, but already there’s been a lot of information exchanged. The conference began with a pre-conference workshop with people from Wikipedia and various museums gathering to talk about how museums can better contribute to Wikipedia. I’m not sure we figured out all the answers, but the questions and discussion were valuable in thinking about how to move forward.

And then Wednesday, I attended a half-day workshop with Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, who was talking about Google Analytics. Many museums use Google Analytics, which is a free tool for tracking traffic to your website. Seb is head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the Powerhouse Museum and speaks frequently at conferences and to other individual museums. What I appreciated from Seb’s presentation is that he wasn’t focused on the numbers, but instead on how better to understand what our Web visitors are doing and what they are telling us about our content through their actions. This is not meant to be a “big brother is watching you” kind of thing, but rather a way to create content and experiences that match what people are looking for online. Segmenting out different types of visitors and looking at their behavior helps us prioritize revisions to our site and new projects—the new version of just passed its first birthday, but we are still very much in the process of refining it and adding new features. And we will continue to be in that process indefinitely.

Yesterday I attended sessions that were about how we present our collections online. While previously museums were focused on just getting the collection information online to begin with, now they are thinking more about what to do with those online collections. How do people search them? How do they use the material, whether in the classroom, for research, or otherwise? How can we bring together collections from different museums? And the conference day ended with an “unconference” session on browsing the Web without a screen. Try figuring that one out!

Today brings demonstrations, case studies, and more one-on-one interactions. I’ll be demo’ing our exhibition site Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity, 1919-1933, which is up for a Best of the Web award. And later in the day, will be subjected to a critique from my peers as part of a Crit Session.

While it’s a bit early to tell what the overall takeaways from the conference are, it does seem in general as if there is an emphasis on apps and mobile sites, and thinking about how museums extend our online presences beyond our own museum websites. Whereas the conference in recent past years focused on Web 2.0 and the upsurge in Twitter, this year seems more varied, and the emphasis is more on the content, reach, and experience than the specific technology used. Our kit of tools keeps growing, but unless we are delivering material that you, our visitors, want in a format that you want, we haven’t really done our jobs, have we?