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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

21 Websites in 26 Months

Christina DePaolo, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, Devon Foster, The San Diego Museum of Art, and Kristine Page, The Museum of Photographic Arts. USA


For museums of any size, it’s challenging to get a website project launched and produced on time. During these tough financial times, many website redesigns or enhancement projects have been put on hold or prolonged due to the lack of resources. One way to deal with these setbacks is to collaborate with other museums to implement similar web platforms to share knowledge and cut costs. This paper will be presented at the Museums and the Web 2012 conference as a Professional Forum giving museum professionals a chance to brainstorm and troubleshoot issues related the successful project management of museum websites. Two case studies will be presented in this paper: the migration of The San Diego Museum of Art website and The Museum of Photographic Arts website to the Drupal open source platform in collaboration with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. Christina DePaolo, Devon Foster and Kristine Page, project managers from the three organizations, will lead the discussion.

Keywords: collaboration, websites, production, redesign, rethink, change

1.   Introduction

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative was founded in 2008 by the Legler Benbough Foundation to encourage technology collaboration among the Balboa Park Museums and cultural organizations. A 1,200-acre park located in the heart of San Diego, Balboa Park is a cultural and tourist destination and home to 15 major museums and dozens of other cultural and recreational organizations. Currently BPOC supports 27 members representing the diversity of the organizations that define the park.

Balboa Park Online Collaborative Member Organizations              


Balboa Park Celebration Corporation

Balboa Park Central

Balboa Park Conservancy

Balboa Park Cultural Partnership

Centro Cultural de la Raza

Japanese Friendship Garden

Mingei International Museum

Museum of Photographic Arts

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

San Diego Air & Space Museum

San Diego Automotive Museum

San Diego Civic Youth Ballet

San Diego Floral Association

San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum

San Diego History Center

San Diego Junior Theatre

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The San Diego Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Man

San Diego Natural History Museum

San Diego Youth Symphony

Spanish Village Art Center

Starlight Theatre

The Old Globe

Timken Museum of Art

WorldBeat Center

Zoological Society of San Diego

One of BPOC’s core areas of business during its first three years was to migrate member websites to Drupal, an open-source platform. This was done to streamline administration, technical support, design, content creation and management. Deploying a common CMS for the park websites allows:

  • Park organizations with limited resources access to support robust web content creation;
  • BPOC to efficiently provide technical support to a growing membership;
  • BPOC to add additional online tools and deploy them across multiple institutions.

One of the reasons why Drupal was selected as the open-source platform is because of its innovative adoption within the museum community. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s content sharing site, ArtBabble, is based on Drupal ( as well as the Art Institute of Chicago’s online scholarly publications tool ( Since selecting Drupal as the CMS, BPOC has built or re-launched 21web sites on the open source platform.

Websites launched    

Reuben H. Fleet science Center board site (under review)

Friends of Balboa park kiosk site


2.   Case Studies on Collaboration

What makes a website project successful? How many times have you heard of a museum website launch that happened on time without any major glitches? Never. In fact, most experienced digital media project managers know it is impossible to do. Websites are resource-hungry creatures accompanied by many pitfalls and barriers that ambush unsuspecting well-meaning project teams along the way. Depending on the size of the project, a redo or redesign of a website can have a long and complex life cycle. Working from the experience BPOC and its partners have gained launching 21 websites in the last three years, we will explore the themes and project methods that have been deployed to get website projects done.

First and foremost, this site work is done through a collaborative framework. BPOC works with the partner museums to migrate websites to the Drupal platform in an environment that emphasizes improving the museum’s access to technology tools and sharing resources to benefit all of its partners. Looking at two case studies, the migration of the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts to the Drupal platform, we will highlight the issues related to the successful project management of museum websites, with a focus on the benefits of collaboration.

3.   The San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art is the region’s oldest, largest and most visited art museum with 250,000 visitors annually. Centrally located in Balboa Park, the permanent collection includes Spanish and Italian old masters, South Asian paintings, and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture. In 2009, Devon Foster, Manager of Marketing and Communications in the Department of External Affairs, began to work with BPOC on a rebuild of their website. The new website was launched on the Drupal platform in 2010 and feature sets and improvement continue to be made. Highlights of these additions include an intranet for the Board, an ecommerce section for the store, a planned giving section, and robust multi-media content for exhibitions.

Before the redo, the Museum’s website was antiquated; only a person with HTML coding skills could make even the tiniest change. It often took up to three weeks to have updates made. The layout was difficult and clunky, and a lot of information was outdated but impossible to update because it was hidden. Most importantly, the site no longer reflected the way the staff thought about the museum. The redesign followed the goals of the rebranding work the San Diego Museum of Art was taking on at the time. The redesign goals were to be accessible, friendly, flexible, easy to update and technologically sophisticated without being complicated for the user.  

Figure. 1: The San Diego Museum of Art website before the relaunch.


Since the San Diego Museum of art was going through an extensive re-branding, they rewrote most of the copy for the new site. The goal was to make it user-friendly, have as much information as possible accessible from the home page, incorporate social media, and make members feel it was “their site.”  During this process, an outline was created for the new site, and each department was asked to write new copy. This all was then sent to an editor, who edited the copy. As she went, she also compiled a brief website style guide so it would be easy for the museum staff to moderate and edit in the future. Prioritizing the website work within a rebranding effort was a successful approach. The new brand was launched prior to the new website by about a year, which helped the museum staff work the kinks out on applying the brand.

Figure 2: The San Diego Museum of Art website after launch.

Project Management

It is important for one person to be the go-to for the website and be responsible for moderating content. However, unless it is your only job, being ultimately responsible for all things on the website is impossible. Let others own the sections of the website that represent their expertise. For example, the education department owns and manages all video content for the site. They are the experts at presenting interpretive content to the public. The Drupal content management systems allows other staff to own their content and update it; staff from all museum departments are actively updating the website.

Barriers for Launch

The site design included a sophisticated “mega” menu as well as many menu options. There was much internal debate within the museum over the mega menu and the BPOC software developer put a lot of time into making it work. However, because of the complexity of the navigation elements, the site was launched without the breadcrumb navigation elements working and without a site map. Luckily, the museum has not received any complaints or comments. The effort to build the mega menu paid off: it allows visitors to see a lot of website information and narrow down what they’re looking for, or discover new information.

Figure 3: Mega Menu


The San Diego Museum of art did not conduct public testing to test features or content elements, focusing instead on staff testing of the site to make sure it worked the way they wanted. This could have been a huge failure. However, the museum staff also view the site as a work in progress and try to continually adapt to feedback from their online visitors. 


Make time for training. Know that you will have staff turnover, and that you will be adding new sections to the site. Make time to fully train those who are adding content on a regular basis and review the website basics at least annually.

Prioritize for Launch

Have an itemized priority list. Know what is a necessity prior to launching, what can be rolled out shortly following, and what can be a longer-term item. The website is a living thing: the moment it stops evolving it becomes obsolete, so it’s important to recognize that it should never stop evolving.

Budget for Growth

Make sure to plan and budget for continual improvements. Whether it’s for building a new content component, incorporating a new kind of social media, or working towards improvements, the site should continue to evolve and you have to be prepared to be flexible.

Benefits of Collaboration

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative has access to resources and expertise that the museum, and many smaller institutions, would not be able to afford on our own. By collaborating, we were able to make the best use of these resources, and take advantage of their expertise.

4.   The Museum of Photographic Arts

Also located in Balboa Park, The Museum of Photographic Arts is one of the few institutions in the country devoted to the photographic arts, housing more than 7,000 works representing the entire history of photography, its aesthetic movements, and technological advancements. Illustrating the complex and varied history of photography, the museum's collection is particularly strong in modern and contemporary work, specifically social documentary photography and photojournalism.

In 2010, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) had a simple, functional website, but it did not represent the Museum’s aspirations or forward-thinking notions regarding technology integration. It was difficult to update and could not be accessed remotely. Only one person on the staff was able to update the site, including everything from large overhauls to small typos. In 2011, MOPA partnered with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. Kristine Page, MOPA’s marketing an communications manager, worked with MOPA’s staff, BPOC staff, and a designer (also a MOPA trustee) to create a website that better reflected the dynamic nature of the museum and the photographic medium.

Figure 4: The MOPA website before relaunch.

The new site has allowed for increased functionality, remote access and cross-departmental contributions to the site. It has gone from a very basic site, to one that reflects where MOPA is today and where it hopes to be in years to come. It is a more accurate extension of the museum’s gallery space, and warmly welcomes visitors with a dynamic, easy to navigate home page, with several points of entry. All this compared to the previous static homepage and pages that MOPA staff members could not even locate.

Figure 5: The MOPA website before relaunch.


One complication for the website project is that MOPA was in the middle of a rebranding process at the same time the site was being planned and produced. On the plus side, it was great to get a website rebuild completed that greatly enhanced the MOPA brand and its presence. However, this component did create several additional “moving parts” in creating a new website. For one thing, the brand guidelines had not been solidified or applied in many tangible ways yet—the website was the testing ground to see what worked and what did not. The MOPA team adjusted everything from the color palette to the grid—the basic building blocks of the new brand—by applying them to the site and seeing how they fit with the desired look and feel. Some elements seem sound in theory, but in application they were not a fit for MOPA and had to be changed.

Similar to the San Diego Museum of Art, MOPA choose to completely rewrite the website content. This fresh, rebranded language needed to be incorporated into all of the site content. All the current content needed to be updated, as well as applied to the new content being drafting. In hindsight, it would have been much easier to update some of the language after launch, and to move forward with existing content. However, writing site content in advance of launch allowed MOPA to write text that worked seamlessly with the site’s new functionality. 


Internally, the MOPA web team debated on the best choice of words for the navigation bar. Since they had just finished rebranding, they were eager to apply some of the fresh language they determined fit MOPA’s new look and feel. However, not everyone was convinced that the public using the site would easily understand this fresh language. MOPA administered simple surveys to visitors in the gallery to test which headings made the most sense for the content. In all cases, the simplest, most straightforward choice worked best. Although it seems an obvious step, it is important to test for any aspects of the website that may hinder functionality or that divide the project team into different camps. It is a small investment of time that has paid off for MOPA and their users.

Project Management

The MOPA website redesign and transfer to Drupal worked out smoothly because all of the MOPA staff and BPOC roles were very clearly defined before the project started. MOPA assembled an internal team to serve as the web advisory board for the project. This group was made up of directors from each department who brought different ideas and priorities to the project. The web advisory team was involved in the rebranding process and helped to apply concepts from the rebrand, including language, to the new site. This group was also instrumental in approving designs and content before launch so there were no major surprises, or disappointments, for any department. The board and staff were given a first look at the site before launch to walk through functionality and the new design elements. Other essential roles for this project included: 

  • The site designer, who served as the authority on the new brand, as well as how the site should look and function;
  • The primary developer from BPOC, who educated the MOPA marketing and communications manager and the designer on what was and wasn’t possible, as well as best practices and recommendations;
  • A project manager from BPOC, who kept abreast of the timeline, devised criterion for launch, organized check-in meetings and kept the project and all of the people involved moving smoothly in the same direction;
  • The MOPA marketing and communications manager, who assisted with coordinating the project internally, advocating for specific features and functions of the new site, working with the designer to apply branding and design that were beautiful and functional, creating and editing content and generating consensus.

Figure 6: MOPA’s new look is clean and minimal.


Training has been an essential component in launching the new The MOPA marketing and communications manager responsible for the website received extensive training from BPOC before, during and after the launch of the site. Several training sessions were held for key staff members who would be actively involved in updating the website, tailoring each training specifically for the participants and their role in the site. The marketing and communications manager held mini-trainings at all-staff meetings to review certain features and how to use them. This has encouraged more people to participate in the site updating process and to ask questions or suggest improvements. 

Prioritizing for Launch

Two concepts that worked exceedingly well for MOPA were devising a scope of work that included three phases of the website launch and writing down a set of criteria that must be met before each component of the launch. Having clear expectations, breaking the project down into manageable chunks and having a guide as to what would launch first made it much easier to focus on the essential, time-sensitive elements and move forward, rather than trying to have every piece perfect before launch. It also helped to set the right expectations internally and with our board as to the thought process and launching procedures for the site.

Benefits of Collaboration

Since the Museum of Photographic Arts launched their website a complete year after the San Diego Museum of Art launch, they were able to benefit from the Art Museum’s launch experience as well as look at the other sites BPOC has launched as potential models. They were able to see what did and did not work as planned for other institutions. They were visually able to review developed modules with the core project team, and test and play with certain features before deciding to adapt them to their site. Previous project experience helped both MOPA and BPOC staff establish a clear scope of work and set more accurate project timelines.

5.   Issues for Discussion

Several big picture themes and trends can be surmised from these two case studies. We want them to inform the Professional Forum at the 2012 Museums and the Web Conference and also give museum professionals a chance to trouble-shoot issues related to the successful project management of museum website. The themes that underscore these key issues are:

The Work Never Ends

Websites are never finished: like the organizations we belong to, they grow and evolve and our online publications reflect that process. When launching a new website or redesigning a site, most museum staff have high expectations of what must get done, with a very long list of feature sets that must be rolled out for launch. However, it is difficult with limited resources and time constraints to be able to launch a site completely finished without taking a protracted time period to produce. If a website takes too long to launch, momentum is lost and the project can be deprioritized by museum leadership who often move quickly on to other hot topics or get discouraged by the lack of progress. To successfully launch a website on time, you need to define the work in discrete phases. For the launch phase, identify the core components of the site that must be built, and identify the other features that can be phased in after launch. 

For example, the MOPA website project was defined in three phases outlined in a written scope document and agreed upon by all stakeholders. Phase 1 consists of the core feature set for launch, phase 2 consists of integrated ecommerce (online store, membership and donations), and phase 3 is to launch a collection section. The new MOPA site launched in September 2011 and phase 2 is set to launch February 2012. Phase 3 will start shortly after. In a similar light, the San Diego Museum of Art also concentrated on prioritizing the core components for launch and have been budgeting, planning and rolling out features for improvements ever since launch.

It is important to remember that even though the phase 1 feature set may not include all the functionality your stakeholders would like to have, it is sure to be a big improvement from your previous website. Your museum will gain a website that can be improved upon over time, in contrast to the current website which may be a legacy model, difficult to change and beyond its limits for expansion.

Getting Things Done

As information management in a digital age becomes a larger issue for project managers, it starts to get harder to get things done. Add to that the complex systems and approval processes that define museum cultures, and successfully navigating digital projects through to completion in this environment becomes nearly impossible. It is important to change your point of view and have a different approach that focuses on getting what can be done accomplished and lobbying stakeholders and your team to think the same way. For example, when the San Diego Museum of Art launched their site, they made a conscious decision to launch with what they had at that time, knowing that there was more to add but that these features were not critical to the launch. They now had a tool they could use to edit and update their site. They also now see their site as a work in progress that continually evolves. BPOC staff also approach projects in this manner, and working collaboratively with their partners, everyone is able to get a lot done. 

Team Building

Another issue important to this discussion is the formation of the team or teams of people necessary to move a website project forward. This consists of museum decision makers, content providers, IT support, and the core production team. The production team can consist of designers, project managers, and software developers. We recommend that you take the time to think through this process and build your team, identifying the right staff, consultants or third party companies for the job. This can be a very difficult process, and is often a key barrier to successful website implementation. Often you can’t choose your team members, but you can strategize ways to work with their strengths and motivate them to do their best for the project (Berken 2008).  On the content management level, the San Diego Museum of Art creatively started matching website content contributors up in small teams – people with the passion for the content were matched with others that are comfortable with the technology. This was a good strategy for removing barriers to updating the Drupal CMS that drives their website.

As illustrated by Samis (2011), digital publishing platforms are forcing museums to change their organizational structure and can often be an agent of change for how museums relate to their audiences. This institutional change will improve the way we approach, manage and implement digital projects at our museums.

Training and Network

In both case studies, training played an important role in the launch of the websites and it continues to play an important role as both museums actively update and program their sites. BPOC strongly believes in training, and the complexity of web CMS platforms require both an initial training effort and refresher classes. BPOC staff led these trainings, and key museum staff are also trained on to how to show their staff how to use the tool. When set up properly, the Drupal CMS can put control directly in the hands of the museum staff responsible for updating content to the site. BPOC has also led an effort to provide professional training and many park museum staff have attended national museum technology conferences.  The staff from both the San Diego Museum of Art and MOPA were influenced by what they learned at these conferences. They brought it back to their museum and applied it to the process of launching and updating their new sites. They see both the value of networking with their peers nationally, within their own museums, and with colleagues from the other museums in Balboa Park.

6.   Conclusion

There are many ways museums and cultural institutions can apply the BPOC model of collaboration to their digital media projects. Unlike Balboa Park, many museums do not have geography to bring them together. However, even geography is not a binding force to spark collaboration. It takes purposely applying a collaborative approach to digital media projects that can affect positive results. The purpose of the Discussion Forum is to engage conference participants in a healthy dialogue on this topic.

7. Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Diana Folsom, Elizabeth Neely, Dana Mitroff, and Charlotte Sexton for answering an informal survey on thought leaders or inspirational sources that inform museum digital media project management work.

8.   References

Berkun, S. (2008). Making Things Happen, Mastering Project Management. United States: O’Reilly Media , Inc.

Samis, P. (2011). From Closed Silos to Collaborative Networks: Digital Impact on Museums.  Dish 2011, Rotterdam, NL, December 7, 2011: presentation slides. Last consulted January 30, 2012.

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