A SELECTION OF MULTICULTURAL/WORLD CULTURE MUSEUM WEBSITES:

1. The Bowers Museum: http://www.bowers.org/

2. Penn Museum: http://www.penn.museum/

3. Mingei International Museum: http://www.mingei.org/index.php

The museum websites chosen fall into a category that can be defined as multicultural or world cultural heritage museums. Their primary focus is on cultures that are non-Western, and experiencing that diversity.

The primary museum website employed comes from the Bowers Museum located in Santa Ana, California that I have visited several times. Comparable museum websites chosen include the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California (which I have visited) and Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (which I have never visited). The Spurlock Museum would also have been an excellent choice, but did not realize this till after making my selections. However, this has provided me with the impetus to employ this exercise before going to the Spurlock Museum for the first time during Spring LEEP on-campus session.

In choosing seemingly comparable types of collections, I looked also at the various museums’ mission or about statements that they had posted on their sites. These mission and vision statements clarify their “world cultural heritage” collection positions. The mission statements were generally found under the “About” category.

However, on the Bowers website, there is no defined “About” category, but instead “Information” is used at the end of the navigational bar. This is then offered within a selection called “History and Mission” as the vision to “celebrate world cultures through their arts” and the mission to “enrich lives through the world’s finest arts and cultures. On Mingei’s website, “About the Museum” is located strategically at the end of the navigation bar. It highlights its mission in large text as “dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of ‘art of the people’ (mingei) from all cultures of the world. On Penn’s website, “About” was located outside of the navigational toolbar and in a small grouping of text selections on the upper right of the screen. In this, the Penn’s mission is stated as “the research, collections, and dissemination of knowledge, advances understanding of the world’s heritage.”

Even in this seemingly innocuous exercise of locating and defining these museums websites in order to describe their genre similarity, location and description of that information resource is different.

The following describes the use and analysis of the primary museum website of the Bowers Museum with comparisons to Mingei and Penn; with some commentary on issues of functionality, usability, and usefulness “sprinkled” throughout; and in regards to the possible usage of the websites for visit types and some discussion related to the readings that is interwoven in the commentary.

USING THE WEBSITE….
BEFORE AN ACTUAL VISIT

Generally, before making a physical visit to the museum, you usually want to see what the hours are, the location, parking and general logistics plus what’s in the collection, what’s currently on exhibit and any special events that are occurring. There is a need to know the “aboutness” of this museum, what’s in it, what could be intriguing, and how to plan to get there and visit it.

Paul Marty’s article “Museum Websites and Museum Visitors: Before and After the Museum Visit” utilized a survey about museum websites in relation to physical visits. He identified that the sites were used in a “complementary” fashion and acted as a “bridge to connect their pre-visit and post-visit activities.”

To get a sense of what the Bowers museum is and its collection, the home page has large images that transition every 5 seconds that illustrate and describe their special collections. Directly on the website and viewed in a passive way, I can see that the following special collections are being exhibited: Masks of New Guinea, Headhunter Art of the Pacific Islands, a coming exhibition of Secrets of the Silk Road, and the Gold of Troy (interestingly enough on loan from Penn Museum). I see on the home page that they have programs, you can shop, join it, and they have a special “Kidsmuseum.”

However, to dig deeper, I have to go under the selection “Art” to see their other collections, and particularly their permanent ones. The “Art” dropdown from the main navigational bar includes “Permanent Collection” with additional dropdown of “Collection Highlights, Conservation, Collection Blog, and Digital Collection” as well as “Exhibitions” with dropdown of “Current, Upcoming, Past, and Special Exhibitions.” However, when selecting exhibition options, only short amount of descriptive, with one central image and dates is provided. Once cannot see the extent of the diversity of the exhibition offerings here.

For a sense of what the permanent exhibitions are, the page “Collection Highlights” is of most value for a pre-visit overview. On one page in simple and chunked layout is a quick overview of the permanent collection. I can see quickly that it includes Native American Art, Art of the Pacific, Art of Africa, Pre-Columbian Art, South American Ethnographic Collection, Art of Asia, early American and Local Paintings, and all types of Decorative Arts.

I also take a peek at “Events” on the main navigational bar to see what other things might be happening and of interest. “Event” is strategically placed on the navigational bar after “Visit” and “Art.” The dropdown divides those choices as “General, Family, Members Only, and Calendar.” It seems like too many choices and eventually I get to the standard “Calendar” which provides a whole month with hyperlinked activities that can be clearly viewed.

Now that I have decided to visit, I select the most prominent and obvious choice “Visit” from the main navigational bar. The dropdown includes “Hours and Tickets, Direction and Parking, Book Your Event, Dining and Shopping, and Tours.” Somehow, I would prefer “Book Your Event” under Events rather than a visit choice. The hours and pricing are clearly labeled with a link to purchase tickets online. The directions and parking page needs a bit of help. It posts a Google Map that shows its location locally off the I-5 freeway. However, for those who are not locals, one doesn’t have a sense of where in Orange County the museum is situated. The page also uses large numbers that have no meaning to label location, transportation and parking information. It looks like something you have to do in sequence, and it is not. There are no additional visuals, pictures or maps for the parking and for what the museum building looks like.

The “Dining and Shopping Page” is a little strange. The picture of the restaurant is very abstract and doesn’t give a sense of the location or of people in it. The menus have to be downloaded rather than clickable. However, it is beneficial that the menus are included at all. The emphasis seems to be more on catering, renting space over individual visitors. Strangely, there is no information or pictures of the Museum Shop under this category. There is already a separate “Shop” choice in the main navigational bar that takes you to a full-bodied e-commerce store. They should drop “shopping” from the “Dining and Shopping Page.” A little disconcerting clicking throughout the various “Visit” pages is that sidebar information and buttons are offered that don’t relate to the content – such as pushing joining the museum or placing menus and advertising space rental in the museum hours location.

The oddest thing that is missing for my pre-visit preparation is that there are no floor maps, museum illustrations or actual concentrated pictures of the museum itself. This left a sort of ambiguous feeling as to what this museum is really like.

Mingei Museum: Unfortunately, the Mingei website adheres to some poor early conventions of website design – the torturous and useless intro splash screen that does nothing else but force a user to click each time before going to the site. This should go the way of the Dodo Bird. In essence, the website acts more like “brochure-ware” more than the Bowers website, yet there are two distinct additions that are better than what the Bowers offers – a more detailed collection overview and a separate collection website called “See-Mingei.org” (with the added distinction of also being saddled with a splash screen as well).

The navigation and organization of the website needs some help. The calendar choice is offered twice, under “Visit” and oddly under “Exhibitions.” The “Collections” choice on the main navigation bar gets me into a dropdown of their particular permanent collections – Mexico, India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Africa, Pre-Columbian, Middle East and American. Each collection page is filled with some representational images that are clickable. Each of these brings up its title and basic attributes. Viewing the “Exhibitions” choice under the navigation bar provides choices of current, past, future, traveling and the odd calendar choice. The “Current” page is very minimal in its information and provides a mini-list of the exhibits.

One usability element that comes up for the entire website is its propensity to use very small typeface. This is not beneficial for online viewing or for older patrons. It is perhaps used due to some design logic that small typeface means “prestigious” or “high-design.” Again, this reflects that “brochure-ware” mentality.

Descriptions of future exhibits are very slim and non-compelling. However, the past exhibits choice brings some advantages that are lacking in its website and in comparison to the Bowers. When selecting a past exhibit, there is extensive write-up on the collection plus clickable featured objects.

After having looked at the collections and exhibits, I turn to the first choice on the main navigation bar “Visit.” It’s a bit of a mess – combining its location page in San Diego, its other museum space in Escondido, and completely out of nowhere – tours, private events, calendar and subscribe. It is a hodgepodge.

There is really only one page that works for visiting and it is the location page. Here is quite a bit of small type with location, hours, pricing and a short description of the museum with an actual photo of the museum exterior. The map choice is another hyperlink off of this page and should be a choice under “Visit.” The page is also unfortunately littered with more calendar information and numerous hyperlinks that instead should be choices off the main navigation bar. There is no floor map provided as well.

Penn Museum: Perhaps picking the Penn Museum was not a truly fair comparison – being a much larger collection, larger square space, and its position as an academic museum on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. There seems to be a greater budget and likely greater academic and global support. However, it does fit the concept of museum type examined.

There are many outstanding elements that can be seen off the home page, and already it can be seen that this website has much to offer. The home page highlights in newspaper fashion key aspects it wants to advertise. An advertisement space promotes a lecture series called “Great Discoveries of the World.” The Collection of the Americas is highlighted with text describing how the image present represents one of 400,000 objects that can be viewed online. A Youtube video is offered.

The main navigation bar consists of “Visit, Exhibits, Programs, Research, Archives, Collections, Publications, Support” and a Search box. Tabbed spaces below highlight upcoming events, news, latest press releases and new books. The dropdown selections for the main navigation are numerous. The exhibit pages give very detailed information about each as well as being populated with imagery. The collections pages are fully documented with text and have been tagged. It also offers a Flickr Gallery Highlights page, though still not populated. Its use of cloud tags can help users see what’s popular among visitors and allow them to quickly view the top items that may be of interest.

Under the “Visit” option on the main navigation bar, the items are the dropdown have been wisely chosen – “Events Calendar, Hours and Admission, Directions and Parking, Museum Map, FAQs, Accessibility, Group Discounts, Tours, Museum Shops and What’s Nearby.” Its “Visit” choices are superior to the Bowers and Mingei.

USING THE WEBSITE….
DURING A VISIT

The Bowers does not actually have computers available to use the website on location. I believe their use of technology is used more minimally in an attempt to not distract from the collection itself, and any technology used is employed such as LCD screens for events or partially lit-up or touchable transitional spaces. Therefore, it is not integrated as an element to use during the visit. However, if looking at the website, the parts of the website that could be employed might be perhaps the “Join” or “Learn” options on the navigation bar. I might be so enthused after visiting the museum that I would want all the detail on how to join, support or volunteer. However, the Bowers already has membership applications and strongly markets i.e. pushes this in both a verbal and visual campaign on-site.

I might like some learning activities related to the collection while I am there. However, there are no interactive options but some curriculum resources. Even to perhaps get more information on the artifacts does not work for on-site because their “Digital Collection” is not working or hasn’t been built yet.

Mingei Museum: There is absolutely nothing of worth off the Mingei Museum to use during the physical visit. Also, no computers are set up to be part of the museum space or work as information resources. A physical brochure would actually be of more benefit to the user than this website. Under “Education” on the main navigation bar, there are absolutely no learning resources that can be used at the visit or even prior.

Penn Museum: Since I have never been to the museum, I do not know how integrated computer access is onsite. I would assume that there may be some due to it being an academic museum and its use of some technology on its website. There are quite a number of educational resources that could be utilized while onsite. Its very extensive archive and research section could be accessed when working on a paper or report at the museum.

USING THE WEBSITE….
AFTER A VISIT

In the Marty study, 69% of those questioned would visit the museum website after visiting the actual museum. That is a huge amount. Perhaps the greatest use I would put to website use after a visit is to look more in-depth at the artifacts and collection information that I have seen. I want to know more. There are some objects and information that intrigued me and I’d like to know more. I want to see the object up-close and get a sense of it and see what I missed when I was there. I’d like to listen to the videos that were played in the exhibit theater spaces. Yet, the Bowers website lacks these critical elements.

As Paul Marty states, a key post-visit activity is the desire to see the artifacts online. Again, the “Digital Collection” is offered as a choice but has nothing in it. There are no details or extra pictures of any of the collections. There are no audio or video offerings. Additional learning options are some print-based curriculum for students or dates to return to the museum for lectures (that are frequent). This part does intrigue me as a post-visit user. Now that I have seen the collections, what interesting lectures could I attend? Movies and documentaries are also presented in the main auditorium and those may be of interest. I might want to shop online for something that reminds me of that exhibit. I’d also look at the “Events,” “Calendar” and “Home” page again to see what’s coming up that would lend me to return.

Other statistics from the Mary study regarding online resources after visiting museums reference the desire to have research materials and archives. That is non-existent here. Also important were programs, tours, special events, and current and future exhibits of which the Bowers website does an excellent job promoting and displaying. The study suggests that for both pre- and post visits, the quality of images and graphics is high. The Bowers uses visuals extensively and they are of high-quality. However, some of these are used out of context and none are used in an image collection database. Visuals of the museum space, floor plans and exterior are missing. Above all, the study suggested quality of information. The Bowers presented well-written concise summaries online but lacks any depth on its collection, artifacts and learning resources.

Mingei Museum: To reiterate the point that has been made about the Mingei website, is its use after a visit is limited to its static offering – one can view the calendar, see samplings of past exhibits and of the current one, and perhaps plan for a coming exhibit. Even shopping is awkward. The “Store” choice has a dropdown of categorized items you can purchase. However, one has to continually go to the home page to look at different categories, such as books or home décor. The store should be its own separate page.

One promising addition is a “Search” option located on each page. Where the Mingei tries to break out of brochure-ware is in its offering of its “See-Mingei” collection. Unfortunately, this operates as a separate website and is not prominently located for a user to see or access. However, the “See-Mingei” project is an attempt by the museum to offer a more interactive presentation of its objects. A global map is clickable, and if I click on the “Middle East” area, it brings up a list of object view by material. Then, these items are viewed in a slide view or clickable mode with brief descriptive text.

Penn Museum: The Penn Museum has quite a number of resources that makes it invaluable for a post-visit. Again, its research, archives and searchable collections are quite impressive. This is a “working” museum website. Its use of Web 2.0 technology, Youtube, Flickr, clouds, tagging, and the like enhances its currency and its activity usage. In addition, the Penn offers its own special online exhibits that can be visited from home. The Penn website far outstrips the Bowers and Mingei on its resourcefulness and use for post-visit activities. However, I do like the Bowers’ focus on activities and events at the museum that would draw a user back into the physical space.

USING THE WEBSITE….
POSSIBLY INSTEAD OF A VISIT OR TO WHAT EXTENT IS VISITING THE WEBSITE LIKE VISITING THE ACTUAL MUSEUM?

Though the Bowers website is beyond “brochure-ware,” and it gives a sense of the strong visuals, collection highlights, and many activities of a very active and dynamic museum, it cannot in any way replace visiting the actual museum and does not really extend itself enough for someone who will never visit. One gets a taste of the possibilities but most of the action and information is on-site. The Bowers is such an incredible resource not to be shared. Perhaps because it started out as such an intimate, “secret” museum (that has recently received national accolades by its acquisition of prestigious traveling exhibitions), it has stayed conservative in its online presence. Part of this, which I am aware of, is that there is little budget for this expense. I found out that it was literally ONE person who the Bowers has used for all their exhibition design spaces.

They pride themselves on being a learning museum with the on-site activities and its children’s museum, but it still needs to break out of the small-community mold in order to present its collection and exhibition offerings to a national and global community. It is really is a jewel of a museum and has offered incredible exhibits, and its website does not significantly convey that enough or offer these items nor space for access.

Mingei Museum: It is fair to say that the Mingei website cannot in any fashion take the place of an on-site visit. However, it does give a taste of its collection, its specific mission to be a collection of the “art of the people” (mingei), and its attempt to use an interactive collection component to present some of its international artifacts.

Penn Museum: Penn comes closest to attempting to be either a replacement for an on-site visit or at least an approximation to that in offering access, education and learning, research, online activities, and collection viewing. It’s a meaty website not for the faint-hearted or for someone just wanting to get a quick hit of information. However, the website demonstrates what museum websites should portend to be – not just means of promotion, but those “complementary” extensions of the physical space.

In Teather’s paper “A Museum is a Museum is a Museum…Or is it?: Exploring Museology and the Web,” there is the discussion of moving from “object towards information” and that “technology can help all of us see new relationships between objects.” There is also the discussion on Duncan Cameron’s classic article “The Museum: A Temple or Forum?” and the desire to move from temple to forum mode. The analysis of these multicultural museum websites demonstrate that the use of online technology can and should enhance our relationship to the artifact, which more importantly brings us to our relationship to the culture, to others, to the world and to ourselves as humans. I take issue with the separation of “temple” and “forum” for museums and this plays into online museum spaces as much as physical. It is in the museum space that one can find liminal, sacred or differentiated space that takes us out of the norm. It would be unwise to eliminate this basic essence. And it is imperative and useful to inform. I contend that museums and museum websites can be temple forums – places whereby we suspend ourselves to receive and become informed. A beautifully designed (within and without) museum website with structured and populated information and resources can act as this “temple forum” and thus act as Marty says in “complementary” fashion to the physical museum.

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