Skip to main content

Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line. Project. Towards Digital Inclusion of Small Museums

Magdalena Laine-Zamojska, MEMORNET / University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Cezary Zamojski, Studio Zamojski, Poland


In this paper we discuss the issues that were central in the co-design process of the online content management system for small museums. The project is part of some exploratory research and one of its aims is the digital inclusion of small local history museums in Finland. These museums are run by volunteers who are not very familiar with museum applications and nor do they have sufficient resources, and thus developing any digital project is very challenging. The main issues presented here include the following: sustainable design and meeting the needs and skills of the system’s users. The concept of a semiotic unit is also discussed.

Keywords: prototype, GUI, small museums, digital inclusion, virtual museums, design

1.   Introduction

The project is a unique approach to researching and designing online tools for museums. It is designed for institutions that want to increase their accessibility, interact with their audiences and network with other museums. The ViMuseo tool is part of an exploratory research project conducted at the Department of Art and Culture Studies at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) and within the doctoral programme of the Finnish Research Education Network on the Society’s Memory Functions. The goals of the research are the following: (1) to investigate the possibilities of new media in presenting cultural heritage in small museums; (2) to analyse the cooperation between the researcher, graphic designers and programmers; and (3) to construct a tool to create virtual museums – the ViMuseo service (

In this paper we want to discuss the development process of the ViMuseo in relation to research practices in museums and design. The approach used in this project combines ethnography and design. The aim is to provide results that may be successfully implemented in the context of small museums, and to analyse the cooperation between the stakeholders involved in the co-design process of museum tools. We believe that what is proposed in this research perspective may be valuable to both designers and museum professionals who participate in developing new online tools in order to increase museums’ online presence and interactivity with the audiences.

In our demonstration the focus is on visual aspects of the system. We will discuss the development of the graphical user interface (GUI). In the design process, many important elements were considered: (1) sustainable development and technological change — how to design flexible solutions that work on different devices and are supported by different technologies; (2) usability — how to meet the requirements and skills of the users, who are not very familiar with sophisticated museum applications, but are ordinary Internet users; and (3) the interrelation between traditional graphic design and digital design — what traditional design elements and rules can be successfully incorporated into a digital project. Moreover, we want to discuss the concept of a semiotic unit (Speroni, Bolchini & Paolini 2006).

2.   ViMuseo Service

The ViMuseo is a tool to create virtual museums (implemented as a web CMS) designed for small local history museums in Finland. The concept of virtual museum is vague (Huhtamo 2002) and there have been many attempts to define it (e.g. Tsichritzis & Gibbs 1991; MacDonald & Alsford 1994; Witcomb 1997, 2003; Schweibenz 1998, Styliani et al. 2009). For the purposes of this paper, it is defined as a set of tools and techniques for disseminating museum resources on the Web. It is intended for use by institutions that want to increase their digital accessibility, interact with their audiences and network with other museums. Museum representatives can register, describe their own institutions, add objects (objects consist of textual description, images, YouTube films, Google maps, etc.) and use them to create online exhibitions and projects. The exhibitions and objects may be shared, stored, commented on and tagged.

Two development versions of the system were demonstrated at Museums and the Web in 2011 (Version A; Version B). In 2011 the demonstration was accompanied by a paper in which the most important features of the ViMuseo tool and the research context were presented (Laine-Zamojska, 2011). This year the final prototype with ready solutions will be presented, and the basic functionalities demonstrated. In this paper we would like to focus in more detail on the issues that were relevant to the development of the first two versions and the prototype. We will discuss the research and design processes that underpin the project and the elements that constitute the GUI in this particular project.

Figure 1: The development process of the ViMuseo tool

3.   Research and design for digital inclusion of small museums

The advent of easy online services (also social media services) and applications has created new possibilities for small institutions. There is a huge demand for solutions for small museums that do not have enough resources to develop complex projects. Defining the needs of small institutions and developing an appropriate online solution for them are central issues in this research.

The online presence of small Finnish museums was studied in order to identify the current situation. The Finnish Museums Association gathers basic information on Finnish museums and publishes them on the site ( In addition, in the database of Finnish museums there is a searchable event and exhibition calendar. The site also provides basic information on the field of Finnish museums. At this moment, the service offers information about 920 museums but, when the analysis was carried, out there were 1073 institutions in Finland (July 2008). These museums represent different types of museums, but more than half of them represent small local history institutions. These museums are run by volunteers and are open mainly during the summer.

On the site each museum is briefly described and categorized according to the type it represents. There is also more specific information, such as opening hours, ticket prices, address information and available services. Moreover, if a museum has its own website, the link is provided. The list of these museums was used as a starting point for further study.

The museums were analysed while using the categories defined by Werner Schweibenz (Schweibenz 2004). He distinguishes four stages in the development of the online museum: (1) the brochure museum, which provides the basic information on the museum; (2) the content museum, which is a website presenting the online collection in an object-oriented way, where the collection can be explored; (3) the learning museum, which is a website presenting didactically enhanced information in a context-oriented way and offering its visitors different points of access, according to their age, background and knowledge; and finally (4) the virtual museum, which is the implementation of the Malraux’s “museums without walls.” It provides access not only to its own collection, but also to other resources.

As in this paper, the focus is on small local history museums. The results presented here only concern this type of institution. Generally, the results indicate that almost half of the listed museums, that is, around 448 museums, represent the “brochure-type” museum website. Moreover, their web pages are almost always part of their municipalities’ websites. The content does not differ from that presented in the service. Even if they are quite large and descriptive brochure museum sites, they only include images of the museum buildings and textual descriptions. The general picture is that the online presence of these small local history museums is limited to a short textual description and a few images. The websites are administrated by the municipalities of the cities. Without contacting the administrators, the museums’ representatives cannot independently change the content.

However, there are some exceptions, suggesting that these voluntarily run museums have tried to participate more actively in the digital environment. There are a few Web pages that are written by the museums’ representatives themselves. These websites are compiled by using collection management systems, but they are just more descriptive “brochures” of museums. Sometimes, they include quite large galleries and many pages providing informing about the museums’ activities, their associations or other local information.

There is a set of elements and features that these websites and Web pages have in common. We were able to identify certain requirements for content management systems for these museums. Moreover, we researched the larger socio-cultural context within which these museums function. In the Finnish context, there is a need to provide a tool that can serve small local history museums because there is an initiative, the main objectives of which are: (1) to standardize the museums' collection management processes; (2) to propose the overall architecture of museums’ collection management and the management model, and (3) to create the conditions for the acquisition and deployment of the joint collection management system (Museo2015 -hanke).

This research suggests that the small local history museums do not need the same collection management system functionalities as medium and large professionally run memory institutions. These small institutions are run collectively and provide an important social context for the people involved in museum activities. In these institutions the focus is not on collections, but on social aspects, personal experiences and memories. The ViMuseo system may serve as an intermediate step in the direction of deploying the joint collection management system for the museum sector.

Providing these institutions with a more appropriate tool would result in increasing their online activities. Consequently, a more museum-oriented tool could facilitate their digital inclusion. In order to achieve these goals the research and design process were appropriately planned and simultaneously conducted. The requirements of the potential users should be met in relation to the system’s functionalities and the GUI.

4.   Interface and semiotic units

The development of the elements that constitute the GUI may be characterized as a co-design process. The interface elements were proposed by the researcher after analysing the Finnish museums’ websites. These elements refer to a so called web-domain ontology, characterized as the knowledge “generated by” the websites that belong to the same “business sector,” and make use of similar signs with similar meanings (Speroni, Bolchini & Paolini 2006). These categories of museum websites are, for example, “visit”, “about museum”, “exhibitions”, and so on.

In the interface design we decided to use the concept of a semiotic unit, which is an individual sign, or a group of strongly interrelated signs, conveying a complete meaning. According to Speroni, Bolchini and Paolini (2006), who used this concept as a part of the “W-Semiotic Interface Design Evaluation” framework, the semiotic unit has two layers of meaning:

A “content meaning” relating the semiotic unit to pre-existing knowledge of the user about the “real world”. In order to understand the label “exhibitions”, for example, the user must have a previous idea of what the concept “exhibition” means.

A “functional meaning” relating the semiotic unit to the interactive behaviour of the application. In order to make effective use of the application, the user should figure out the effect of “clicking” (or performing a similar action) on a specific semiotic unit. (Speroni, Bolchini & Paolini 2006).

In the development of the ViMuseo service, the semiotic unit was used a starting point. We decided to divide the interface into a number of semiotic units. The first semiotic unit is a museum card. On the main page there is a number of museums, each presented through the museum card. The museum card displays the basic information: name, address, type, date of adding, short description and image. This is a set of categories necessary to identify and understand what the card represents.

Figure 2:  The main page and the activated museum card

In relation to the functional meaning, the card consists of certain activating elements. There are some additional buttons, such as “remember me”, which the user clicks to save information for further reference. The card can also be opened, closed, minimized or expanded by clicking on the appropriate buttons in the right upper corner. The link “more” takes the user to the museum unit, which works as the museum’s own virtual museum. The signs used in the card are very simple and are used, for example, in software applications and other online applications.

In order to make the user’s experience as straightforward as possible, we decided to implement the same solution in relation to objects, events and exhibitions. The object, event and exhibition cards are organized and function in the same way as the museum card, but each type has a different sign and colour. The cards are a very flexible design solution and may be easily re-designed. The interface should include repeatable and simple elements, as the museum representatives are not too familiar with complicated graphical interfaces.

Figure 3:  The Jyväskylä University Museum‘s card and the exhibition card

5.   Design process

5.1. Sustainable development and technological change

In the design process, many important elements were considered in order to support these volunteer-run institutions. The first question that arose during the design process was sustainable development and technological change. As these museums do not have sufficient and regular funding, the design should be sustainable. Moreover, technologies are changing rapidly and these museums are not able to keep up with technological change. Consequently, all the design solutions should be re-usable in order to reduce the costs of the development project and further potential initiatives.

The aim was to design solutions that work on different devices, such as PCs, mobile phones and table computers. In addition to facilitating the use of different devices, technological development was also taken into consideration. The proposed design solutions should be supported by different technologies as well.

A set of certain design principles was identified in order to achieve these goals. The number of visual elements was reduced to a minimum. The same graphical solutions (fonts, colours and shapes) are functional in different environments (on different devices). The visual language is simple and without any decorative elements. All the solutions support the functionality of the system and do not include any visually unnecessary elements. Consequently, the number of colours is reduced. The dominant colour is grey as it does not have as many symbolic implications as other colours do.

The interface is divided into reconfigurable sectors. In different environments they may be used to build new layouts. The card (the museum card, the event card or the exhibition card) works in different environments, in which it may be activated differently according to the devices’ requirements.

Figure 4:  The interface and its reconfigurable sectors

This solution supports the museum’s visual identity and is economical, which is extremely important for volunteer-run institutions. The museum has its own coherent visual style, which can be used in developing other projects or used in, for example, publications.

5.2. Users’ skills

What was extremely challenging in this project was how to meet the requirements and skills of users who are not very familiar with advanced museum applications, but are ordinary Internet users. The researcher interviewed representatives from the museums to ascertain their level of use of the Internet. The representatives generally come from older generations and are not very experienced with the museums’ applications, but they do use the Internet in their everyday lives.

Figure 5:  Raimo Kotsalo presenting the local history museum in Säkylä. Photograph courtesy to Michał Sita

Because the museums are run collectively, usually many people are unofficially assigned to certain tasks so it is impossible to distribute the tasks and responsibilities to the same people consistently. Using the system must be simple and satisfactory. The volunteers do not want to focus on the collection management, which seems to be an unpleasant and never-ending activity. Instead, the task should easily bring visible and usable results. As the social aspect is important, sharing the results is very important.

Moreover, the institutions are open to visitors mainly during the summer (or even a few hours on Sundays). As has been already mentioned, these museums are run cooperatively by a large number of local representatives. Some of them are responsible for administrative tasks, some for museum activities and organizing the events and others for maintaining the museums and presenting them to the visitors. Part of this research focused on these networks of people and identifying the person who would be potentially responsible for using the system.

Figure 6:  The local history museum in Säkylä. Photograph courtesy to Michał Sita

The museums are old wooden cottages, often moved from their original sites, and the conditions differ greatly. Some of them lack electricity, which makes any digital project quite challenging. Co-designing or organizing any usability tests in this situation was not considered to be fruitful or achievable. The more important objective was to understand local structures, create relations with the museums’ representatives and identify the factors necessary for potential implementation.

As the development process of the first two versions showed, the users need to experience a version (or a prototype) that demonstrates the concept and at least the most important features of the system. The prototype was demonstrated during the interviews in order to generate discussions with a museum’s representatives on the possibilities of new technologies in their particular institution and local context.

Moreover, the people interviewed must see that the system has content that seems to be “real.” Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine what the content would be and how it may present the objects or help in creating narratives in order to present the museum. Consequently, in our co-designing of the process, the museums’ representatives were invited to collaborate quite late, when the first versions were ready. We suggest that inviting users too early to the co-design process in situations when they were not very familiar with new technologies would not provide satisfactory results.

5.3. Interrelation between traditional graphic design and digital design

Finally, we want to discuss the relationship between traditional graphic design and digital design. In particular, we will consider what traditional design elements and rules can be successfully incorporated into a digital project. This issue has arisen as the graphic designer involved in this project has a great deal of experience in traditional graphic design. In discussions with other design professionals we found that there are some distinctions between these two forms of design, which affect how co-designing and workflow are organized and how the design propositions are evaluated. In addition to the technological differences (differences between CMYK and RGB — the physical format is limited, while digital work does not have to be, and it is interactive), there is one element that seems to be very obvious, but is often forgotten: a digital project will be displayed differently on different devices depending on the device type and configuration. Moreover, as the design is dependent on the technology used, it is not possible to meet all the expectations of the users in relation to, for example, the colours used in the same way they may be met in a traditional design project.

6.   Conclusions

Designing new museum tools that can facilitate the digital inclusion of small museums has its own challenges. The main issues we faced include sustainable development, the requirements and skills of the users and the relation between different forms of design.

The prototype demonstrates the system and its basic features. The preliminary results of this project indicate that the ViMuseo service and the way it is designed to be implemented would improve the situation for small museums. As the analysis of the research and design processes shows, the concept of semiotic units (Speroni, Bolchini & Paolini, 2006) was very helpful in designing and developing the first propositions. It allows solutions to be designed that are sustainable and flexible.

7.   Acknowledgements

The research is supported by the grants from the Department of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. This project would not be possible without the help of many people and institutions. Special thanks go to the museums’ representatives, especially to Raimo Kotsalo and to Michał Sita for the pictures.

8.   References

Huhtamo, E. (2002). On the origins of the virtual museum. Nobel Symposium (NS120) on Virtual Museums and Public Understanding of Science and Culture. May 26-29, 2002, Stockholm, Sweden. Consulted on March 5, 2012. Also available at

Laine-Zamojska, M., Virtual Museum and Small Museums: Project. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

MacDonald, G., & Alsford, S. (1994). Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millennium 3. Presented at the American Association of State and Local History 54th Annual Meeting, Omaha. Consulted on March 5, 2012. Retrieved from, Suomen museoliitto / Finnish Museums Association. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

Museo2015 -hanke / Museum2015 project. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

Schweibenz, Werner (2004): “Virtual Museums”. ICOM News 3, 2004. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

Schweibenz, W. (1998). The “Virtual Museum”: new perspectives for museums to present objects and information using the Internet as a knowledge base and communication system. Zimmermann, Harald H./Schramm, Volker (eds., 1998) Knowledge Management und Kommunikationssysteme. Workflow Management, Multimedia, Knowledge Transfer. Proceedings des 6. Internationalen Symposiums für Informationswissenschaft (ISI  ’98) (pp. 185–200). Presented at the ISI 1998, Konstanz: UKV. Consulted on March 5, 2012. Retrieved from

Speroni M., Bolchini D., and Paolini P., Interfaces: “Do Users Understand Them?”, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at

Styliani, S., Fotis, L., Kostas, K., & Petros, P. (2009). Virtual museums, a survey and some issues for consideration. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 10, 520–528.

Tsichritzis, D., & Gibbs, S. (1991). Virtual museums and virtual realities. Proceedings of the International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, Pittsburgh (Vol. 14, pp. 17–25).

ViMuseo, Version A. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

ViMuseo, Version B. Consulted on January 28, 2012.

Witcomb, A. (1997). The end of the mausoleum: museums in the age of electronic communication. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web: Selected papers from Museums and the Web 97. Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics. 143–50. Also available at

Witcomb, A. (2003). Re-imagining the museum : beyond the mausoleum. London, New York: Routledge.