Dog in glasses on tablet computer
Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash

What is your museum website for?

This is a question many museums have been asking themselves and which has taken on new resonance in 2020 and 2021 when in-person visits have been so limited.

Many smaller museums don’t have the benefit of digital and web specialists on staff. Can we take what we know about planning for in-person visits to create a good museum website? Interpretation planning is about making connections between content, medium and visitor. We can use this to focus our thinking about museum websites too. I always tell clients that in order to make connections between your content and your visitors you need to understand your visitors as much as you understand your content.

So maybe a better starting point is who is your museum website for?

Starting with WHO

Interpretation plans always asks: WHAT are interpreting? WHO are you interpreting for? and WHY would they be interested? Audiences for digital are probably even more diverse in nature, needs and preferences than audiences who come in through the museum’s doors. Classic balances need to be found between things like expertise vs casual interest, searching for the specific vs browsing, first time vs repeat visitor.

The digital-only visitor may want to interact with your website for many reasons:

  • Browsing for entertainment/distraction
  • Searching for info on particular items or topics
  • Directed from social media / links elsewhere online to ‘Find out more’
  • Deciding whether the content of the physical museum appeals for a future visit
  • Looking up practical details for visitors; location, facilities, what’s on, shop etc.
'Passion Led Us Here' on pavement
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

In addition to thinking about user actions and motivations, understanding a user’s relationship with the museum will affect how you deliver content to them. Users’ relationships with the organisation run on a spectrum from ‘never heard of the place, got here through Google or from social media’ right up to ‘regular user of this website’ and many in between.

WHAT is your online ‘content’?

WHAT you have to offer becomes an interesting question when we move it online. Many museums are used to thinking of themselves as being all about their artefacts. But what is an online artefact? is it a 2d photo? a 360deg photo? a 3d model?

Or is the WHAT actually expertise? An informed viewpoint? a quote? a story?

WHY do online visitors come to you?

WHY would your virtual visitor be interested in viewing your photo of a real-life object? That is the key question. What is it about the picture of the object that will connect with a virtual visitor? What is the story that will draw them? What can you offer that nobody else can?

Planning it out

As with before, there’s no single answer, there are almost as many answers as there are people visiting your website. To get started, I would suggest that you create some ‘pen portraits’ of key user groups, write out the reason they’re visiting your website and their relationship with your organisation and anything else you know about them and give them a name (even a face if it helps). Then you can brainstorm that user’s ideal visitor experience on your website.

Handwritten planning notes
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Once you have sketched out six or so of these examples you can start to plan how the different sections relate to each other and how each user finds the bit they’re interested in. A reasonable approach would be to assume that the more strongly motivated the user and familiar with your content or similar content, the harder you can ask them to work. The casual, first time user of your site, who has no established relationship with you or your subject is the one that must have the easiest journey and fewest ‘clicks’ to get to where they want to be.  

With thanks to Ken Boyd who worked with me on one of the client projects that led to many of these thoughts.