Disambiguating the physical from the digital

One of the best parts of Museums and the Web for me is always the interesting thinkers one gets to meet. And a highlight of this year was finally getting to hang with Koven Smith from the Denver Art Museum. I’ve followed him on Twitter (@fiveeasypieces) for ages, and he was a great sounding board when I was trying to write my article for the upcoming AAM ePub on mobiles in museums. In our Mobile “Unoturs” workshop, a lot of the discussion centered on trying to rethink the usual way of approaching mobile experiences. That desire to question the dominant paradigm kept cropping up throughout the conference, and at the unconference sessions. Koven proposed re-imagining museum websites as his topic, and not surprisingingly, drew a large crowd.

It usually takes me about a week to digest and process all the content I consume at a conference, and MW is definitely the biggest firehose of all the conferences when it comes to sheer amount of new idea per capita. Koven managed in less than a week to pull off a talk at Ignite Smithsonian that almost gets at the meat of a really big question. You should watch it. It’s short. It’s provocative. It’s good. The title of his talk was “What’s the point of a museum website?” and he started off by saying, “I don’t think I believe in museum websites anymore.” Wow.

The gist of presentation was that we continue to make more sophisticated versions of a kind of construct that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the people who we want to use them. It reminds me of the old adage that if Henry Ford had given his potential customers what they wanted, he would’ve invented a better horse, not an automobile. Our websites, Koven says are “the most kick-ass Conestoga wagons you’ve ever seen.” For you non-Americans, the Conestoga wagon was the premiere form of land transport for people migrating south and west across the North American plains from the 1750s until the railroads came along in the mid 19th Century. Our digital product design philosophy is, in other words, wicked out-of-date.

Conestoga wagon from the B&O Railroad Museum courtesy of Flickr user elh70

When he talked about online collections, I think he made one of the most powerful points of his talk, and it’s a throwaway line. Discussing online collections research, which is often held up as one of the pillars of museum web efforts, Koven asked, “How much research are you doing here? You don’t link to external sources, you don’t get other things here.” And as one of those rare few who use online collections databases, that drew me up short, because it’s true. I very rarely am interested in an object exclusively as it relates to the current collection it resides in. I’m after deep content and broader context, and I usually wind up disappointed on the latter count.

When I started thinking about counter examples, the only one that sprang to mind was the MFA’s Giza Archive site (http://www.gizapyramids.org/) which has been around forever, but just won a Best of the Web award this year. The Archive manages to provide a pretty good sense of where else one might start to look for more information on the Giza plateau and gives one access to a tremendous amount of primary material relating to the decades of work the Harvard/MFA expeditions carried out there.

Gize Archives site

It’s the exception that I think proves Koven’s point. We build our collections databases and our websites with ourselves in mind more than our audiences and it limits their utility.

The main point of his talk was really a question. Aside from the purely logistical and visit-planning content (maps, hours, ticket sales) what should we be building online? Koven didn’t have an answer (yet) or a mental model, but it’s a great question. What he does offer is a suggestion. We should disambiguate the physical visit from the digital experience This brought me back (again) to Kristen Purcell’s MW2011 keynote about what roles museums can play online. I’d been thinking a lot about her suggestions and looking for a context to examine them through. And having the traditional museum website in mind, I was having difficulty. Freed of that model, these suggested roles might be ways to conceptualize how we could make new digital experiences. Think about your museum’s digital offerings, forget about the website structure, and take a look at Kristen’s list below. What kind of experiences could you make that would deliver on these roles? I bet it wouldn’t anything like your current site. And it might be a whole lot more useful to your digital audiences.

Role #1: Filter
People still need trusted experts to help them discern when information is accurate and trustworthy
People also need filters to explain how information relates to them
Show people how/why information is relevant
Allow people to customize information to meet their own needs
Provide people with direct access to the information that means the most to them

Role #2: Curator
Be a one-stop shop
Collect all relevant work/info (not just your own content)
Provide links to primary and related sources and material
Recommend other sources, experts and places

People seek both aggregation
and deep dives into information

Role #3: Node in a Network
Be a node in a network
Each person you touch represents an entire network
Make your information easy to share
Your information can have an organic life beyond your presentation of it – package it with that in mind
Networking can be multi-layered
Be prepared to loosen control but monitor conversations around your content

Role #4: Community Builder
Create your own networks and build communities around your content
Facilitate shared experiences, connect people with shared interests
Get, listen to, and respond to feedback
You can identify and meet people’s needs by tuning in to the online conversation

Role #5: Lifesaver
Provide timely information when and where people need it most
Make your information portable
Operate in a 24/7 world in which there is constant connectivity

Role #6: Tour Guide
Geo-location changes everything…
In-gallery tours and information provision
Connecting your content to real-world locations, sending the information to the patron
Create opportunities for information immersion and augmented realities