Years ago when BioMedNet’s HMSBeagle was still sailing the high seas, I wrote a feature for the Adapt or Die careers column on scientific jobs in museums, the feature, which is available on Sciencebase is still relatively valid, but one big aspect of museums that has changed significantly since the Beagle was abandoned in dry dock is that museums the world over have virtualised themselves.
It has reached the point now, that a museum without a web presence and moreover without a beautifully designed, powerful, comprehensive, informative and interactive web presence is no museum at all. I’m sure that curators the world over reading this will by now be gnashing their teeth, and if any of them have no teeth to grit, teeth will be provided.
Anyway, it’s not to say that a purely offline museum would not be attractive to passing trade. However, Thomas Fotakis and Anastasios Economides of the University of Macedonia, in Thessaloniki, Greece, a country of multiple museums to say the least, suggest that museums cannot afford to remain offline. In a rapidly evolving and changing society where the internet has become an almost ubiquitous tool and entertainment device museums – whether art, history, or science and technology – have to get online if they are to stay current. Moreover, they suggest that the creation of a virtual meta museum is the next logical step.
“Museums should collaborate in order to develop a unified huge multimedia database that will contain all of their artefacts (either exhibited or in repository), information about art, culture, science, history, artists, exhibits, related events,” the researchers say.
Virtual and offline visitors would be able to search such a meta museum to find things of interest, participate in discussions with other visitors, and from the research point of view, unearth relationships between disparate artefacts in different parts of the world that may not be apparent to those merely browsing dusty shelves and cabinets in the offline world.
Through their websites, museums would create an environment in which visitors are not only able to explore the exhibited objects and art works, but also deal with new original experiences and ideas. Therefore, visitors can have a more essential and important experience.
But before that happens there are various concerns that have been raised about the web presence of almost all museums. For instance, many museum sites have been built without firm foundations and with no particular aims other than to create a web site. Further, many have never been assessed as to how well they actual meet their visitors’ needs and with no clear aim for the site, this is perhaps not surprising. Most worryingly though, is that much of the material on museum web sites simply duplicates in digital form the materials found in the bricks and mortar museums rather than rethink and developing the possibilities offered by the web. There are exceptions, of course.
Now, Fotakis and Economides have reviewed more than 200 museums having an online presence setting a range of criteria to reveal successes and to uncover problems. Their system, MuseumQual, provides a way to evaluate museum websites based on quality, quantity and most of all, user experience. “It is not enough to present a lot of information on the website,” they affirm, “It is also important that a visitor easily explores and utilises it.”
They tested 70 art, 70 science/technology, and 70 history museums using their program, looking at layout, multimedia, interactivity, feedback, and technical aspects such as whether or not a site force-fed the user browser cookies, had any “under construction” pages, privacy or security issues, and good navigation.
“Our evaluation showed that museums present websites that stay at a satisfying, yet not exceptional, level,” the researchers say, “Science museums’ sites lead the list, with art museums’ sites following closely and history museums’ sites coming in next. Almost all sites outperformed with respect to technical characteristics. However, many sites present inefficiencies regarding Interactivity and Feedback.”
They also emphasise that virtual museums have a role to play in providing access to people with special needs and unfortunately only few of the 210 sites tested provided access to culture, art and knowledge equally, having failed to account for people with alternative accessibility requirements. One aspect of accessibility could benefit anyone and that is the creation of virtual tours in the form of audio podcasts or video files or newsfeeds.
Nevertheless, having tested sites around the world, they specifically highlight the Miami Science Museum (www.miamisci.org), Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science (www.mods.org), and Science Museum of Minnesota (www.smm.org) as offering a huge amount of practical and valuable information. Most scitech sites were easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing, with Scitech Science Museum (www.scitech.org.au), Pusat Sains Negara Science Museum (www.psn.gov.my/en/) and Science Museum in London (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk) being particularly strong on multimedia. The best sites for interactivity and e-services were the Science Museum of Minnesota (www.smm.org) and Infoage Science Center (www.infoage.org).
The overall winners on all aspects of the MuseumQual analysis were:
- Museum of Fine Arts of Boston (www.mfa.org) (4.55/5.00)
- Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr) (4.53/5.00)
- The Science Museum in London (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk) (4.48/5.00)
Some museums have been on the web for a decade or more but most, even the old hands, are failing to exploit the full potential of the modern multimedia internet. No one wants a museum that exists only in the past, it’s time to bring them together into the twenty-first century to enrich our lives whether in science, art or history. By doing so the virtual meta museum suggested by the University of Macedonia team will bring the past to life, in the most un-cliched sense.
I asked Economides about the possibility of using the test system for other types of website, science blogs for instance as it is open for anyone to use. “With some modifications (e.g. regarding e-services) MuseumQual could be used to also test other types of site,” he says, “However, other dimensions (e.g. usability, technical) are almost common for any type of site.” He points out that the tool is not automatic. “It is a quality framework that includes many criteria,” he explains,
“A user would use it to evaluate a website and consider the proposed criteria.”
Thomas Fotakis, Anastasios A. Economides (2008). Art, science/technology and history museums on the web International Journal of Digital Culture and Electronic Tourism, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1504/IJDCET.2008.020134