Museum Web Design logo, composed of the letters M and W stylized to look like a classical museum facade.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Edit More than Pages with a Content Management System

A Content Management System (CMS) makes updating your website content easy. Want to add a page? Just log into the CMS, click "new page," type some text, and click submit. Need to edit an existing page? Click "edit page," edit the text or add a photo, and save your changes.

The number one way to make your museum website popular is to add interesting content, and add it often. A CMS makes this easy.

While we usually think of a CMS as a way to edit web pages, websites are no longer just pages of text and graphics. Modern websites serve up audio, video, and interactive content. Others provide classifieds, forums, or online stores with hundreds of products. All of this content can be edited and organized by a CMS.

Museums typically exhibit some items and care for many more items in storage. CMSs can be tailored to present all of a museum's collections online and categorize items by type. Even better, CMSs can integrate directly with a museum's internal collections database so a museum's entire collection can be viewed online by the public (or researchers with other institutions).

And the potential for CMSs to mange content don't end there. Many museums manage member accounts and donations via CMSs. Others use a CMS to publicize upcoming events and sell tickets online.

What does it take to get a CMS integrated with your website? Depending on your needs, it can be a complex process or a surprisingly simple one. CMSs range from free open-source solutions like Drupal and Joomla, to expensive, proprietary offerings from Microsoft and other vendors. Some CMSs include free hosting but these are usually less customizable and extensible or are intended to serve a specialized area such as blogging (for example, or Blogger, the platform on which this blog is running).

Most museums will find these solutions are best deployed by a knowledgeable web developer. While using a CMS to manage website content is easy, initial setup and configuration usually requires knowledge and know-how of web server technologies. And customizing a CMS (either in terms of function or design) often requires web development skills including web programming abilities. Hosted CMSs are relatively easy for individuals to set up but are also best suited to individuals because they lack the breadth of features required by institutions like museums.

So if your museum website is not running on a CMS platform and you're tired of editing html pages to update your site (or paying someone else to do it), consider investing in a CMS. If you already run a CMS, consider whether there is other content you could provide your audience by updating your current CMS or deploying a new CMS.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When Web Accessibility Standards Fall Short

I'm a huge advocate of usable websites. But then, most people say they are these days. Conscientious museum professionals take care to ensure their museum websites meet or exceed accessibility standards.

However, usability extends beyond accessibility standards. And not all "accessible" website are highly usable.

Graphic designers are often young people with strong eyesight. That may be why tiny gray text on gray backgrounds is so popular right now. I've been known to make use of small gray text (there's some on this page), but I try to restrict that use to legal disclaimers or other less critical content.

On some websites, core content is presented in low-contrast shades of very tiny text. An example of this can be seen on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some of the pages (like the one linked here) feature truly tiny dark text on a dark green background.

Now here's the rub: technically, such a presentation meets the baseline of accessibility standards. But is it legible? Probably just barely for 50% of the art museum's audience.

And tiny text isn't the only common violation of legible design. One I see often is columns of text that expand to fit browser window widths. With the rise of wide-screen monitors, this can result in text columns that stretch out 2 feet!

What's the problem with that? Well, when our eyes reach the end of a line of text, they dart left to pick up the next line and continue reading. When the distance covered reaches more than the width of a paperback novel, our eyes have trouble finding the next line. Have you ever found yourself reading the same line of text twice? The cause is column widths that are too long. A solution is to increase the space between lines, but this isn't something that web pages do automatically, and it's only helpful to a point.

Thankfully, the text on the Met website page can be re-sized in the browser. But who bothers to re-size? Sure, us web savvy folk will do it, but many users will just move on. Similarly, users can adjust their browser widths to be more reasonable on pages with wide columns of text. But again, most users won't do so. Which brings up another reason to focus on usable web design.

Users with disabilities are not the only users who benefit from good interface design. If your website is a struggle to read, or interact with, or find information on, people just won't bother with it. Users already spend less than a minute or two on most websites. We must not only give them a reason to want to stick around but also to not be turned off. Making a website hard to use is a sure way to lose an audience.

What's the solution? Same as it always was when you needed a well-designed book, magazine or advertisement: consult a professional graphic designer. Typographic theory has been around now for several hundred years. Some things have changed with the advent of desktop publishing and the internet. But the rules of legibility and good layout design still mostly apply. There are a lot of rules—and a lot of quirks—to good typography, but an experienced designer will be versed in their proper application.

So be sure to insist that your website meets accessibility standards. But also make sure you employ a graphic designer with professional training and knowledge of classical design. Only then can you expect to call your museum website truly usable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When in Alaska, Use Volcanic Eruptions to Your Advantage

Follow the News to Generate Interest in Your Museum's Website

Search Google for "interactive volcano" and you're likely to find hundreds or thousands of results. The quality and educational value of the volcano animations will vary greatly. But what if your museum has just created a truly great, truly interactive volcano module for your website and you want to gain some exposure?

Fortunately for the Alaska Museum of Natural History, volcanic eruptions are a pretty common occurrence. Shortly after we released a new volcano simulator on our website, a volcanic eruption not far from Anchorage provided a way for us to capitalize on the media interest. As Alaska's only museum of natural history, our website was a popular destination for the public during the month-long eruption. All we had to do was add a link to our volcano interactive on the homepage to promote this educational module.

Every museum has a unique area of expertise. What is yours? Think about how you can tie your specializations into popular topics. In particular, look for timely ways to tap into popular stories in the news, either locally or nationally.

Are you an art museum hosting an exhibit of art from a particular region? When that region hits the news headlines, why not create an interactive exhibit on your museum's website? You can highlight talent from that part of the world and generate interest in your exhibit at the same time.

Perhaps you are a municipal history museum with a large collection of historical photos. When the next anniversary of your city comes around, release an interactive photo gallery online that celebrates the occasion and draws attention to your unique collection.

There's nothing wrong with featuring content that is not popular or newsworthy. But in your efforts to reach a wider audience with your museum's website, consider how you can connect popular stories to items in your collection. A well designed interactive module with a promotional tie-in can help you educate more people and expand your mission.

Auschwitz Memorial Facebook Page Gains 10,000 Fans in First Week

Last week, the Auschwitz Memorial launched a Facebook page to connect with younger supports of the memorial. A vivid example of the potential power of social media for museums, in just 7 days the page garnered over 10,000 fans.

This is an astonishing number of fans for a Facebook page sponsored by a nonprofit organization. While the Auschwitz Memorial is a popular historical site (it's visited by over a million people a year) few such entities enjoy such a large online following.

Without social media tools like Facebook it would be difficult to duplicate such an effective social network online. Or looking at it another way: most museums and educational institutions miss out on the opportunity to connect with younger audiences online when they fail to make use of Facebook and other social media destinations.

Facebook is the popular social networking website used by millions to keep in touch with friends and family. Organizations can't open user accounts, but they can build pages that promote their mission. Facebook fans are users who associate with a page to keep in touch and voice their support for the page's creator. In turn, owners of a Facebook page can then communicate more directly with those fans.

The Auschwitz experiment has not been without controversy. The page editors have been monitoring users' postings for inappropriate content, including that from holocaust deniers. Also, they have had to address the issue of making use of a service that allows loosely regulated speech. The Auschwitz owners addressed these concerns in a posting Monday:
"More than 8,000 people of different ages and nationalities have joined our site within the first six days. They use it in a very respectful way. Thank you for your trust. We are moved by all the posts on the wall of the site and the way people respond. And, we are also very pleased with the positive reaction of the media and internet users to our presence on Facebook. It does not mean, however, that if we come to a conclusion that Facebook policy or technical issues put us in a position that is highly contradictory to the memory and respect of the victims of Auschwitz, we will not hesitate to close this site despite such positive response."
Despite these challenges, the Auschwitz Memorial Facebook project provides a compelling case for the benefits of social media for museums on the web.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Welcome to

Museums face a unique challenge on the web: reaching audiences that have grown accustomed to captivating online experiences. The internet makes this possible, but employing assets like interactive learning modules, rich-media websites, and social media interfaces often means breaking new ground for museum professionals. With this site we hope to share our experience with these technologies, explore effective solutions and help advance the cause of museums on the web.