Thursday, March 01, 2007

Aging Museum Websites

This week, I ran across an article (login required) by Andrew Marton in the Dallas Star-Telegram and winced. In the piece, Mr. Marton writes "a more robust online presence is an attempt to entice a potentially huge number of younger patrons." This perspective is more than a little simplistic in its understanding of the demographics of web users and websites.

Taking a step back, the polarity presented here between grey-heads and cyber-babies is just blatantly false. According to comScore, Internet usage increased by over 24 percent last year. Of particular note here is the list of fastest growing properties for web user over 55. This list of sites includes MySpace, Wikipedia, Washington Mututal and Craigslist. A rhetorical question: what then is the older audience doing online? Well, the same thing as younger audiences. They are finding ways to communicate, research, educate, transact and connect themselves through the online channel.

Though the reality is interesting, it is the misconception of whom the web serves that is essential to understand and dicuss. From my own experience, it is exactly this mode of thinking that drives many Museums to keep websites and online services on the back burner in terms of priorities and strategic thinking – especially when it comes to discussions of funding projects and returns on investment.

The results are easy to see - most museums that I have reviewed are recycling the basic HTML containers they have used for the last five years. This is a pity because, as the comScore survey makes clear, audiences are maturing, growing and moving on. While museum-goers often cherish a more traditional experience of Museums and exhibitions, website visitors do not cling to a similar sensibility. As technology raises the bar of possibility on the web, Internet users raise the bar of expectation.

No Director would permit an exhibition hall to inspire a ho-hum reaction, yet this is frequently the net impact of museum websites.

This is an incredible resource to let go to seed. For perspective, according to the annual report of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, their website enjoyed almost 20 million visitors in the 2006 fiscal year. That is almost five times as many "visitors" than the actual Museum hosted. It is impossible to imagine that all 20 million of these visitors are “younger patrons”. Clearly, how that Museum represents itself on the web impacts a substantial portion of its in-person visitorship across demographic segments.

Lesson: We (technology practitioners and managers) need to be very careful of how we frame discussions on website technologies and whom they serve.

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