Monday, April 25, 2011

Answers to the Ten Questions I am Most Often Asked

Note: the title of this post pays homage to Elaine Heumann Gurian's excellent and quite different 1981 essay of the same title.
I've spent much of the past three years on the road giving workshops and talks about audience participation in museums. This post shares some of the most interesting questions I've heard throughout these experiences. I like to use half of any allotted time slot to talk and half for Q&A, so we usually have time to get into meaty discussions. Feel free to add your own questions and answers in the comments!


1. Have you seen attitudes in our field about visitor participation shifting over time?

Yes. Granted, I live in an increasingly narrow world of people who are exploring these topics and want me to work with them, but I still learn a lot from the questions and struggles I hear from colleagues and people who comment on the blog.

The Museum 2.0 blog has been going for almost five years now, and I've seen people's concerns and questions evolve over that time in the following way:
  • For the first couple of years--2006-2007--most of the questions were about the "why" of participation. Why should institutions engage with people in this way? How could staff members justify these approaches to their managers? I've seen this line of questioning almost completely disappear in the past two years due to many research studies and reports on the value and rise of participation, but in 2006-7, social media and participatory culture was still seen as nascent (and possibly a passing fad).
  • In 2008, the conversation started shifting to "how" and "what." In 2008 and 2009, there were many conference sessions and and documents presenting participatory case studies, most notably Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean's book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. I wrote The Participatory Museum in response to this energy--to put together case studies in the context of a design framework so we could talk as a field about what works and why.
  • In the past year, I've seen the conversation shift to talking about impact and sustainability of these projects--how we evaluate audience participation and how we can shift from experimental pilots to more day-to-day implementation.

2. Are there certain kinds of institutions that are more well-suited for participatory techniques than others?

Yes and no. I honestly think the only kind of cultural institution that cannot support audience participation is one in which staff members don't respect visitors or what they have to contribute. I've never heard people say they don't care about visitors, but I've seen it in how they pay attention to visitors' needs and contributions. This anti-participatory behavior is also sometimes manifest within staffs where only certain employees' ideas are recognized and solicited, floor staff are ignored, etc.

But for institutions with a genuine interest and respect for visitors, participation is always possible. It looks different in different types of institutions. Small organizations are often best at forming long-term relationships with community members, whereas large organizations can rally lots of participants for a contributory project. Art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to initiate participatory projects but the most likely to work with artists whose approach to participation might be quite extreme. For more on the differences among different types of museums (with examples), check out this post.

3. A lot of these projects are about getting people to be more social and active in museums. What about traditional visitors and supporters who may not want to participate?

In my experience, staff members are more sensitive to this issue than visitors and members are. I've met beautifully-coiffed ladies in their 70's who are hungry for conversation, and I've met pierced teenagers who prefer a contemplative experience. Most people who really love and support a museum want it to be loved and well-used by the larger community, and many of these folks are thrilled by techniques that engage new people with the organization.

That said, I think it's really important for all these engagement strategies to be "opt-in." It's common in many museums to offer cart-based activities that invite visitors (mostly families) to play a game, try an experiment, or make art. Just as those kinds of activities offer opt-in deeper engagement for some visitors, participatory techniques can offer opt-in social or active techniques for those who want them.

Sometimes, staff will claim that certain engagement techniques are so distracting for non-participants that they should not be offered even on an opt-in basis. I frankly think this is ridiculous. We know from research that people like to engage with content in different ways, and many museums tout the fact that they offer multi-faceted learning experiences. If we accept that sometimes people want to read the long label, sometimes people want to discuss things, sometimes people want to touch, and so on, then we have to offer a diversity of options. If we prescriptively decide you can only talk over here and you can only read the long label over there, we limit the quality and impact of the visitor experience.

4. Do you see any cultural differences in whether and how people like to participate around the world?

This is a really interesting question, and if I had any friends who were international social psychologists I would probably spend all my free time pestering them about this. My limited experience and research has led me to believe that people in every culture want to express themselves and connect with each other--the differences are how they prefer to do so.

Sometimes the difference comes down to preferred tools. In Taiwan, I noted that many more visitors and staff members were enthusiastic about taking and sharing photos than they were writing on a talkback board. In Denmark and Amsterdam, I experienced radical dialogue programs like Human Library, but also a strict formalism as to what happens in galleries.

Other times, the differences come down to social conventions. Some cultures value individual expression, whereas others prioritize the group. At the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (search "Vietnam" here), staff have told me that participatory projects work best when a community of participants is engaged in a group process where they can come to consensus and defer to the group. In contrast, processes that engage individual participants as creators might work in a more individualistic culture like Australia or the US.

I'd love to hear more peoples' reflections on this. In every country I've visited, I've heard a version of this question that starts, "Maybe this works for Americans, but here in X..." After seeing so many varied and inspiring participatory projects from around the world, I can firmly state that this is not an American phenomenon, nor is participatory work even necessarily best-suited to U.S. culture. There are long histories of highly-engaged participatory governance and cultural work around the world, and in many ways, America's obsession with the individual may be more of a hindrance than a help to projects here.


5. Where do you see the biggest resistance to incorporating participatory techniques? What's the biggest obstacle to more of these projects happening?

The first thing you have to tackle is fear of change. This isn't unique to audience participation; it's a reality that any new project or course of action stirs up all kinds of anxieties about organizational change.

Once you get past the fear of change to the specifics of audience participation, you have to separate people's expressed resistance from the actual obstacles. Resistance to audience participation is often expressed as fear of losing control. There's a worry, mostly on the part of content experts and brand managers, that their voices won't be as dominant as they once were when visitors are invited to participate. These fears are well-justified, but they're often predicated on the false conflation of control with expertise. You can be an expert and have a strong voice--a voice visitors want to hear--without being the only voice in the room. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it's something we're comfortable with in news, politics, and other venues... why not museums?

And ultimately, loss of control is not the biggest obstacle to implementing participatory projects. I would suggest that the biggest challenge is the fact that they require fundamentally different ways of operating. If a traditional exhibition project is one in which a team "puts on a show," a participatory project is one in which a team "plants a garden" and then must tend and cultivate it over time. Participatory projects require sustained engagement between staff and community members, and that is not baked into our traditional job descriptions, staffing plans, and project budgets.

6. How do you evaluate participatory engagement strategies?

My simple answer is: evaluate these projects as you would evaluate any new technique or program. If your institution cares about numbers, count participants and impacted visitors. If your institution cares about deep engagement, measure dwell time and survey people about their experiences. If your institution cares about delivering on mission, measure indicators that reflect your core values. This sounds flip, but the reality as I've seen it is that every institution has its own criteria for what makes a project a success. If you evaluate your project by something other than those criteria, you won't be able to make a convincing argument about whether to continue with these efforts or not.

Many evaluations of participatory projects focus solely on the experience for participants. I have yet to see a participatory project in which the direct participants who co-designed an exhibition or contributed their own stories to a program did not have an incredible, often transformative, experience. The problem is that these participants are often tiny in number compared to your organization's overall audience. To effectively and completely evaluate the impact of a participatory project, you have to look at how it affects not only participants but also the broader audience... and staff.

This question of evaluation is still very open. I wrote a chapter in The Participatory Museum about it, but I continue to seek out really good examples of participatory project evaluation. I strongly believe it is through shared evaluations and documentation that we will advance as a field overall in these efforts.

7. What kind of changes do you think have to happen for museums to really be able to embrace and support audience participation, not just in one-off experiments, but for the long term?

This comes back to the idea that participation happens fundamentally in operating, not in designing or developing programs. After a phase of experimentation and pilot projects, I think any organization that is serious about audience participation has to examine how it recruits staff and what their tasks and roles are.

We also have to become more flexible about how we engage visitors as partners on an ongoing basis. For example, I recently learned about the Science Gallery's approach to involving community members. They have a pretty explicit engagement ladder in which someone starts as a visitor, becomes a member, then an "ambassador" who is empowered to put on some programs in collaboration with the institution, and finally a member of the "Leonardo Group" -- an advisory group that meets a few times a year to tackle upcoming creative challenges the organization faces. Rather than having standing advisory committees representing various constituencies, the Leonardo Group is a nimble, diverse crowd of engaged participants who contribute significantly to the Science Gallery's programming and resources through one-off events. This kind of engagement ladder provides a structured framework for participation without overly constraining how people get involved.


8. When you are creating programming explicitly to engage new communities, how do you still satisfy your base?

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year, but it's one that still comes up frequently in discussions with colleagues. I've come to feel that the "parallel to pipeline" strategy is a solid approach. You start by offering a custom, distinct program for new audiences and then find ways to integrate what works for them into your core offerings. The important part of making this work is acknowledging that you do have to make some real changes to the pipeline when you ask that new audience to transition into it. The parallel programs are not a "bait and switch" used to hook new audiences into your traditional offerings. They are a starting point, and a testing ground, from which you should be learning new ways of working that can be applied more broadly and fundamentally to how the organization operates.

9. If so much of this work is about creating personal relationships with visitors, how do we sustain it beyond individual staff members?

This question comes up most frequently when talking about social media. There's a fear that if an individual staff member becomes the voice of the organization on the Web, and then that person leaves, the relationships she built will disappear. Interestingly, I never hear colleagues express the same fear when it comes to individuals who run specific key programs for an organization (even though those membership managers, educators, volunteer coordinators, and others have very personal relationships with many important constituencies).

When it comes to online community engagement, I always turn to Shelley Bernstein and Beck Tench as my luminary teachers. Both of them are very clear about the need to be personal AND to distribute the relationships throughout staff as much as possible. Beck in particular has done an amazing job of working as a partner to other staff members at the Museum of Life and Science to help them develop social media projects that they can manage on their own with only light involvement from Beck. The animal keepers run their blog. The Butterfly House manager shares photos on Flickr. And so on. In this way, engaging with visitors through social media becomes something that many staff members are involved with based on their content and programmatic skills. This leads to diverse projects and relationships--and a better safety net for the institution overall.

10. When you build a relationship with a community for a project and then that project ends, how do you keep those people involved?

This is one of the toughest questions I've been grappling with lately, and I'd love to hear your reflections on it. It's a question that tends to come up only for organizations that have committed to audience participation over the long term. You invite a group of people to co-design an exhibit or co-produce a program, it happens, it's fabulous... and then what? In most cases, those partners were solicited for specific skills or attributes related to those specific projects, and it's not easy to naturally translate those same people to another participatory opportunity. In my experience, many of these people become a special class of members or volunteers, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with a standard membership arrangement. These folks have had a taste of higher engagement and many of them want more. I'm not sure what the most sustainable way is to keep them actively involved as the organization shifts over time.

What are your answers to these questions? What are your questions that should be on this list?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quick Hit: Online Dialogue about Business Models for the Arts on Monday, April 25

I'm reaching the end of my consulting days, with just one more day on the road before I dedicate myself to Santa Cruz and The Museum of Art & History.

I wanted to let you know about a bonus opportunity that has popped up. On Monday, April 25, I'll be participating in an online video chat with Andrew Taylor and James Undercofler to explore new business models for arts organizations. Both Andrew and James run programs in Arts Administration (at the Wisconsin School of Business and Drexel University respectively) and have lots of experience working and researching what makes arts organizations successful.

The one-hour conversation will be wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and open to your comments and questions. It will be held at 4pm Eastern Time, Monday April 25. To access it, go to this link.

Also, just as a reminder, tomorrow (Friday), at 9:30am Eastern, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage will be streaming my talk on museums and visitor participation. If you've never heard my "stump" speech about The Participatory Museum, this is probably your last chance!

And now I encourage you to read the comments and join the conversation on Monday's guest post about The Convivial Museum. It is meaty and fascinating.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Guest Post: The Convivial Museum Photo Essay

I asked Wendy Pollock and Kathleen McLean, authors of the new book The Convivial Museum, to share a guest post about the book. They collaborated on this photo essay that demonstrates the simplicity and power of their vision and showcases a few images from the book.

At first glance, our new book, The Convivial Museum, is about the most simple ideas. Museums should make people feel welcomed and comfortable, be gracious and generous, design for a diversity of interests and needs, create situations that increase the likelihood of having a good conversation, and allow the time and space to let people reflect and imagine. "Nothing new here!" readers might say.

But while the ideas are simple, and they aren't new, how often are these basic acts of civility really put into practice? Why do visitors still report discomfort, confusion, elitism, exclusion? As we say in the book, "The phenomenon of 'visitor fatigue' was identified in studies carried out a hundred years ago. Why, then, has it taken so long to offer people a seat?"

We found one of our favorite photos on Flickr, taken by Austrian photographer Thom Trauner, who captures the essence of the issue.

at the museum

What a contrast with this image by Darcie Fohrman.

Or this one by Lacey Criswell, of Bike Night at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Third Thursday's Bike Night at the MIA

The quality of aliveness we see in these images is what we call conviviality. We chose the word "convivial" for several reasons. Its roots—together and being alive—characterize what we think is a major role and responsibility of museums: to be places where people can share their common humanity and to offer opportunities not only for learning and social engagement, but also for reflection and solitude in the presence of others.

While there are contrasts—like the utter fatigue of the first image and the animated delight in the next two—there are also many shades of gray.
Take these beautiful images by California photographer Jeff Voorhees, for example.

There's no "this, not that," no bullet list of rules to follow. But there is a community of thought that goes way back that we can draw on in our own daily practice. And that's where this book comes in.

That's why we've included so many voices and perspectives in this book. To acknowledge those who struggled to shape these ideas about what a museum should be at a time when they were not necessarily popular as well as those working toward conviviality today. And to reflect in this collage of images and quotations the gritty realities of daily practice.

The book is organized around five main ideas:
  • Conviviality is what it means to "be alive together." In a recent post, Nina quoted Neil Postman's description of a museum as "an answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a human being?" While that idea may not be "helpful" in Nina's words, we believe this shared humanity is what has kept museums alive over the centuries.
  • People who work in museums must feel an authentic sense of welcome toward their visitors, and make that welcome evident—from a distance, on the steps and stairs, at the entryways, and throughout the orientation.
  • As Beverly Serrell says, ". . . comfort opens the door to other positive experiences. Lack of comfort prevents them."
  • Being alive together takes many shapes—from participation and social engagement, to being alone and taking time out.
  • Convivial practice is simple, but it is not always easy.
We both know from our own experiences that societal, cultural, and organizational constraints make convivial practice difficult. But while some constraints are all too real, others may seem to loom larger than they really are. We hope that at the very least, The Convivial Museum will encourage people who work in museums to remember what they already know and to challenge their assumptions about what is possible and within their reach. As one of Wendy's t'ai chi teachers says, "You know it. Why don't you do it?"

This image of opening night at the Oakland Museum of California, April 2010, is by photographer Daniel Kokin.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goodbye Consulting, Hello Museum of Art & History!

Dear Museum 2.0 readers,

I have some exciting news. As of May 2, I will be the executive director of the Museum of Art & History at McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, CA (here's the press release). This is a big change for me--professionally and personally--and I'm thrilled and humbled by the opportunity to take on this position in the city I call home. I hope you'll forgive a self-oriented post explaining why I'm doing this.

First, a reassurance--I'm not ending the blog. I am closing down my consulting business at the end of April, but the Museum 2.0 blog will continue, and I intend to write as freely and directly as I have in the past. Because of the increased workload I expect in the months to come, as well as the likely possibility that we will start a Museum of Art & History blog, I'm lowering my Museum 2.0 commitment to one post per week. Since 2006, I've slowly reduced from three posts weekly to two and now to one. But I will not be going to zero. I promise. I will do what I can to ensure the blog continues to present well-written, diverse projects and ideas, both from me and guest authors.

OK, now on to the interesting part.

Why am I doing this?

There are three reasons that I am absolutely ecstatic about this change.
  1. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve the community I love in an institution that has a new strategic plan to become a multi-disciplinary hub for community engagement.
  2. I have been looking for a way to transition to working in Santa Cruz instead of traveling constantly.
  3. I strongly believe that participation is more about operation than development. The best way I can really push my own participatory practice and thinking is to operate an institution and work with a community I care about over time.
I've had these personal goals for a long time, but I wouldn't have guessed a year ago that they would lead me to this job. Throughout 2010, I was deep in planning an experimental cafe/exhibit space to address all three of these desires for a change. By November of 2010, I had a business plan for the cafe and intended to start raising money in 2011. And then I started learning about the situation at the Museum of Art & History (MAH) in downtown Santa Cruz.

The more I learned about the Museum, the more I talked with people about it, the more I saw that it was a better fit for my goals than the cafe. Again and again, I'd have discussions with community leaders--from the city, the library, downtown businesses--that made clear the incredible potential for the MAH to have transformative impact on the cultural life of the city in a way that a small business could not. I wanted to be part of that, and I can't wait to get started.

Here are a few things that make the MAH an exciting museum to me:
  • It's small.
  • The content is multidisciplinary, with a collection that includes both local history and contemporary art. There's even a historic cemetery for good measure.
  • The building is gorgeous and centrally located in a well-trafficked pedestrian area of downtown.
  • The trustees, staff members, volunteers, and supporters are dedicated people who both love the museum and appreciate the seriousness of the challenges it faces. They're eager to make the institution more dynamic and welcoming.
  • The exhibition and educational programs are excellent and staff members are interested in increasing community participation and pursuing experimental methods.
  • While the museum has low visibility in some parts of the community, its overall image is positive. Many people I've talked with who have never visited or heard of the museum are curious and eager to get involved.
This is not to say it's going to be easy. Like museums of all kinds, the MAH has faced serious challenges in the past few years with regard to community relevance and financial sustainability. But in my conversations with staff, trustees, and the larger Santa Cruz community, I have become convinced that we are ready to overcome these challenges with some bold thinking and action. Last year, MAH trustees and staff members wrote a new strategic plan that positions the museum as a "thriving, central gathering place" that serves as the "intersection of art, history, ideas and culture" for the diverse folks in our county. I know as well as anyone that rhetoric about community engagement can get tossed around without follow through, but I see these phrases as mandates for action and I will take them seriously. I wholly intend to push as hard as we can to live up to what I see as a very exciting vision--one that I believe will lead us to both community and financial success.

I also believe that small and mid-sized museums are the leaders when it comes to innovation, particularly around participatory engagement. One of my frustrations working as a consultant is that I spend most of my time working with big organizations that function at a scale that requires a certain amount of automation and anonymity in the visitor experience. That's not to say my colleagues in large museums aren't well-intentioned--they are--but I'm eager to spend my days in a place where we can guarantee a personal interaction with everyone who walks in the door. I suspect that there are some new ways of working we may develop--around membership, communications, and guest service in particular--that might be very different from the industry standard. I believe that small museums are underrepresented in the national conversation, and I suspect they will be the true leaders in a cultural renaissance of the small and nimble.

Finally, on a more personal level, I love Santa Cruz. When we moved here four years ago from Washington D.C., I knew we were moving somewhere nice. But I didn't know how much I would come to love the city, the mountains, the beach, and the people--hippies, surfers, students, anarchists, artists, geeks, farmers, dreamers of all kinds. People here are serious participants--creatively, civically, intellectually, and athletically. When I think of the kind of people who like to participate actively in culture, I think of the people in my community. I believe that the MAH is ripe to become a leading "museum 2.0" in a city that is eager to embrace the change.

This is going to be a time of serious learning for me, and I am going to need your help. I can't list all the people who have already helped me better understand the MAH, the job of a museum director, and some of the challenges I'm likely to face. I hope you'll get involved in some way and help us take this museum to the next level. We'll need interns. We'll need advice. We'll need partners. We'll need donors. Most of all, I hope you will continue being the critical, caring, thoughtful community I can rely on to help me grow as a cultural professional. I promise to return the favor by sharing our story--experiments, successes, and failures--as it unfolds.

With affection,

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quick Hit: Upcoming Workshops and Webcast Talks

I'm reaching the end of another heavy travel jag. I've experienced all kinds of fabulous museums and participatory experiences from Stockholm to Columbus, Ohio, many of which I will be sharing soon on this blog. This travel wave is ending soon, but I wanted to let you know about three upcoming events that are either available online or still have space for new signups:
  • Monday, April 18, I'll be giving a talk and workshop in Hartford, CT with the Connecticut Humanities Council. This is a special two-fer that includes a lunchtime presentation by Jim Leach, the newish Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's affordable ($15 for morning plus lunch, the workshop is sold out) and there are still spots available. Registration ends tomorrow - April 13 - so get on it if you're interested.
  • Friday, April 22, I'll be giving a talk and workshop in Philadelphia, PA with The Pew Center For Arts & Heritage. While this event is full, they are streaming the talk live at 9:30am ET at This link is not yet live but will be on the 22nd.
  • May 22-25, I'll be in Houston for the American Association of Museums annual meeting and chairing two sessions--one on empowering staff to take creative risks, and one on alternative futures for museums. For people who will not be in Houston but would like to partake, the session on creative risks will be part of the AAM virtual conference, which will be streamed on May 23-24.
I hope to see you in person or online at one of these events soon!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Making Participatory Processes Visible to Visitors

Let's say you spend a year working with a group of teens to co-create an exhibition, or you invite members and local artists to help redesign the lobby. How do you acknowledge their participation in a way that helps subsequent visitors connect with the passion and hard work that went into the process?

Community processes are both exciting and time-consuming. In many cases, once the final project is launched, it's hard to detect the participatory touch. The exhibition or program is of high quality, and from the visitor perspective, it may look like museum as usual. There might be a plaque listing names or a group photo of participants, but that's about it.

In some ways, this is a good thing. Not every participatory process has to scream "look at me!" to create a successful product. But it's a shame when visitors can't experience the energy that went into the making of a participatory project--when the product of a living process is a dead thing. The challenge is for designers to find a way to showcase the participatory process in a way that enhances the final product rather than just feeling like a behind-the-scenes geekfest.

Last week I saw a powerful example of this at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg in their exhibition for children under five. The exhibition includes a large display of objects from the Museum's ethnographic collection selected by small children. The artifacts are eclectic and intriguing, but it's not obvious that children selected them, nor are there labels to help you understand why these particular objects are there (see picture at top).

An interactive changes that. In the middle of the gallery, there's a touchscreen in front of a larger projection wall. The touchscreen features a grid with all of the artifacts in the space. Touch an object, and the projection comes alive with video of small children standing behind the object, wearing conservator's gloves, explaining what they like about the object and why they picked it. I couldn't understand the videos--they were in Swedish--but I was charmed by the kids' spontaneous, infectious energy. After each short video, there was a single screen featuring a curator's comments (in text) about the importance of the object from his or her perspective.

This interactive provided context that helped me appreciate the artifacts and understand the process that had put them on display. A gallery that otherwise would have felt dead came alive with the children's voices, laughter, and antics. And even without understanding their words, I looked at the objects around me in a whole new way. I understood that the artifacts meant something to the kids I saw onscreen. It was like "staff picks" at the bookstore, but with (presumably) richer content.

How can you make the product of participation as engaging as the process itself?

Monday, April 04, 2011

One-Pager: A Simple Alternative to Messy Websites

Does your institution's website look like a Frankenstein production--a patchwork of templates, designs, and menus that grows unbidden with the addition of new projects? Do staff battle for space on the homepage, resulting in an online presence in which a bevy of barkers distract and mystify visitors who just want to know when the darn place is open?

Last week, librarian/techy Aaron Schmidt and his cohorts at INFLUX released the first version of "One-Pager," a one-page library website. Aaron is a UX designer and an advocate for making libraries more friendly, well-designed places. He wants to make library websites more functional through rigorous simplicity, by stripping them of the myriad of program announcements, calendars, catalogs, and other detritus that can confuse and frustrate users.

Enter One-Pager. It's a library website that focuses on one core user activity: searching. While it offers modules for library hours, upcoming programs, and other custom content, One-Pager presumes that the majority of library website visitors are coming to the site to search for materials and puts that activity front and center.

One-Pager prioritizes simplicity--both for library patrons who use it and for librarians who manage it. One-Pager isn't meant for institutions with a team of web developers; instead, it's designed for library systems that have little to no capacity to write and design online content. The argument is that instead of offering inadequate, unclear, or poorly-designed online services, it's better to offer users something clear, attractive, and easy to maintain. The site is optimized for speedy use on mobile devices as well as standard web browsers. It forces librarians to pare down their content... like it or not.

Would museum websites benefit from the same rigorous paring down? I'm of two minds on this. A small, flexible, attractive website would be ideal for an institution with no technical staff that focuses on informing visitors about the onsite experience--and there are lots of museums in this boat. Regardless of the size of the institution and the number of programs and collections supported, many museum websites offer a dizzying number of menus that filter program information by content, experience, audience, or all three. It's not unusual to find museum sites in which the education, exhibit, collection, and basic visitor information are presented in entirely different (and incredibly confusing) templates.

On the other hand, museums are more experiential than libraries. There's no base-level service that museums offer the way libraries offer access to informational materials. Some museums (mostly big ones) have made significant investments in online experiences that evoke the onsite experience, and a generic website might not "sell" the museum the way a more immersive one can.

The best path is probably to do both: to be as rigorous as possible at paring down and clarifying online content, and then to wrap that content in a design that uniquely reflects the spirit of the institution. Most museum websites do neither; efforts to distinctively design museum websites are often undermined by the sheer volume of content presented, and departmental turf wars trump visitors' need for clarity. Museums do a good job creating singular designs for individual project websites, but when it comes to a whole institution, it's often impossible to focus.

If you were going to arrange your museum website around one thing, what would it be? Is it possible to do so, or does your institution offer such fractious experiences that a sprawling website is the only option?

I encourage you to play with the One-Pager demo and imagine what the museum version might look like. A warning: at this early stage of its development, One-Pager is not as easy to deploy as it could be. While the source code is free, One-Pager is not yet tied to a content management system, so inserting new content into the various modules is arduous. The team is hoping to work with a client (or several) to rework the code for Drupal or Wordpress so it can be a more plug-and-play installation over time. In the meantime, feel free to download the code and experiment on your own. And let them know what you think--I know they're interested.