Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Susan Glasser
Education and Outreach Division
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts



Web technology brings with it new ideas and these new ideas, in turn, can help museum's generate new audiences. Currently, most museum Web pages have been designed to address a finite audience pool, primarily museum aficionados, tourists and travel agents, journalists, teachers, and students. As we move into the next generation of site development, what other audiences can or should we attempt to reach? And what changes in content need to occur to attract these audiences?

Statistics reveal that the average Web browser in the United States is a 35 year old, married, college graduate with a professional occupation, and a median income of $60,800 ($US). In terms of education, marital status, and income, this profile is a close match to that of our Museum members. The most notable difference falls within the age category; 61.6% of our members are 55 and up-significantly older than the average Web user. This suggests that the Web is a potential vehicle for attracting a new, younger audience that shares other demographic characteristics with our average museum member. In other words, Web technology gives museums a unique opportunity to reach an audience who might potentially enjoy a museum experience if only we could coax them through our doors. The intent of this paper is to describe on a new kind of site content designed to engage people who do not typically visit a museum, but might if they understood us better, and conversely, if we became more familiar with them.

In an attempt to learn something about the interests and needs of this audience, we developed a section of the new Virginia Museum of Fine Art's Web site called, "You're the Expert." When you enter this part of the Web site you arrive at the first page which reads Have you ever wanted to work in a museum? What kinds of decisions would you need to make as a curator, an exhibition designer, a conservator, or other museum expert? "You're the Expert" presents you with real-case scenarios and lets you play the role of the expert. Then compare your solution to those of our staff:. Who knows, you might even learn a little about art along the way.

The first installment dealt with a curatorial issue concerning the authenticity of an object in our Ancient Art collection. We own one of two extant life-size statues of the Roman emperor Caligula and there has been a great deal of speculation as to whether the head on this statue was carved from the same block of marble as the body. The museum has undertaken a variety of studies to determine the answer to this controversy and we used our findings to introduce visitors to this type of curatorial research.

After receiving the "problem" in the form of a memo from the Director, the visitor is given several options for proceeding: learning about the object (which links the visitor to the collections section of the site); reading about historical precedents that explain why it is not uncommon for full-length Roman sculptures to have a break at the neck; discovering the results of a visual examination, and also a laboratory analysis of the work. After the visitor decides they have collected enough data, they are given the option of making their own decision as to whether or not the head and body were carved from the same block of marble. They are also invited to read the curator's decision based on the same information, and to record their opinions and comments. The topic was selected to appeal to visitors with interests beyond art including history and science. The exercise reflects, in a microcosm, the catholic knowledge encompassed by museum work.

The second installment deals with a marketing issue. We have a (moderately) esoteric exhibition coming to the museum this summer on Chinese objects of personal adornment from the Shang Period to the Ming Dynasty. The museum has been struggling to develop a marketing strategy for this exhibition, wondering how to make this material interesting and relevant to our community. We decided to go to our Web visitors and ask them what advertising approach would pique their curiosity enough to visit the exhibition. We provide several of our own ideas and ask them to select the one they find most appealing. We also invite them to suggest their own marketing strategies. Once the museum has developed its own plans, the results will be included on the site. This installment in particular, has been developed in the hopes of capturing suggestions for attracting a broader general audience than would be typical for this type of exhibition.

We are a new site and these are the first two scenarios we have put up to date. Several others are in the planning stages: we're one of the few art museums in the country with a multi-person lighting department with a full-time lighting specialist. The knowledge that the lighting department staff brings to exhibition development is impressive. To highlight this component of exhibition development, our lighting specialist will illuminate a particular object three radically different ways based on a curator's specifications; then visitors will get to select which lighting option they think is most effective and hear what our specialist has to say about each option. As many of us are aware, label writing is a controversial issue in many museums: what type of information to include, what information to exclude, how long it should be, how much 'art speak' to include, etc. We will be posting a very detailed Indian miniature painting that depicts a multi-episode story; the story, as well as biographical information about the artist, information on the cultural context, and data on the materials used by the artist will be included; visitors will then be asked to pick the information they would find most interesting for inclusion in an object label. Another scenario has to do with the reframing of our American painting collection. The curator has been working in recent years to reframe the collection using authentic period frames. Working with a single painting from the collection, the visitors will get to 'try on' several frames to see how radically a frame can effect our perception of a painting. After picking the frame of their choice, the curator's comments for each can then be reviewed. These are just a few of the scenarios that we will be putting up over the next year.

Visitors to the site love this "game." Virtually every note to the Webmaster has sighted this part of our Web page as their favorite section. But our reasons for developing "You're the Expert" go far beyond that of creating an entertaining diversion for our electronic visitors. In choosing to develop this concept, the Museum had three important objectives in mind-exploiting the technology, furthering our educational mission, and increasing the impact of our marketing plans.


Contrary to much of the popular advice currently circulating, it is perfectly logical to start by putting your museum's brochure-type information on a Web site. However, it is a gross under-utilization of the technology if that is the only information the site provides. Interactivity is the single greatest contribution that Web technology has to offer the museum field-and the least exploited. I can think of no other forum available to museums that allows us two-way communication with such a large, eclectic audience at such a nominal expense. This two-way communication has numerous applications for museums two of which-education and marketing-I will be discussing shortly.

The second unique contribution that Web technology brings to museums is ease of production and modification. I doubt that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is different than others in its bureaucratic structure. This structure brings with it long-established work habits, including elaborate production schedules for museum publications. Production timelines at our museum include:

These timelines are essential for accommodating writing, editing, design, production bids, printing, labeling, and distribution. If we were to print in a traditional medium, an educational brochure, pre-visit guide, or teacher resource similar to the information currently appearing in "You're the Expert" segments, each one would take us 4-6 months to produce. Using the Web site on the other hand, we can omit the most time consuming (and expensive) components of this process: bids, printing, labeling, and distribution. Information can be written, edited, and uploaded within weeks. And corrections, if needed, can be done almost instantaneously. This flexibility is particularly helpful with educational materials since it allows us to respond quickly to visitor feedback and amend the information making it as educationally effective as possible. The speed of production and adaptability of Web site content is unparalleled by any traditional platform used by museums.

From a technological standpoint then, "You're the Expert" was developed to include something on our site that would more effectively exploit the interactive nature of the technology as well as its ease of production and modification.


Just because this is a new technology does not mean that we should dismiss what we already do well; rather, we can build on our knowledge when developing our sites. The educational philosophy at the Virginia Museum focuses on a participatory approach to learning that is beautifully complemented by the interactive possibilities of the Internet. I'm sure many of you have heard the educational maxim, "people retain 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 90% of what they do." At the Virginia Museum, we attempt to make our educational programs as experiential as possible. We believe the most effective educational experience allows visitors to apply the information they receive during their visit to interests and experiences they already possess; it is through this self-selecting process that people expand their knowledge in a personally meaning way. "You're the Expert" allows visitors to pursue the types of information they are interested in in an order they determine for themselves (self-selection) and then provides them with an opportunity to apply that information immediately to a specific, concrete problem (experiential learning). While a visitor might find it moderately interesting to read that Caligula was a despised Roman emperor, they are much more likely to appreciate the importance of this knowledge when they see how it is used by a museum curator to learn more about the art on view in the galleries.

In addition to designing educational elements of the Web site to complement our existing pedagogical philosophy, we also tried to build on another of our successful experiences. We have learned over the years that one of the first things new members, interns, volunteers, and museum studies students are interested in doing is discovering what the museum is like behind-the-scenes. "You're the Expert" lets visitors 'sneak a peek' behind the scenes while it exposes them to the myriad skills and expertise that go into operating a museum.

As an instructive tool, "You're the Expert" complements our existing educational philosophy and builds on our past pedagogical experiences. The final factor that helped to shape the "You're the Expert" section has to do with marketing issues.


The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently completed a three-year project funded by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Museum Collections Accessibility Initiative. As part of this grant, we conducted community focus groups to learn ways to expand our audience into new segments of the community. From this enlightening experience, we discovered how effective it was to ask people what they wanted rather than to sit in our conference rooms and guess-a common-sensical but elusive concept for art museums. For example, while trying to select a signature image for the accompanying exhibition, we selected a group of non-museum visitors from the surrounding community, and showed them several potential images. During the course of the discussion, we found that the group responded much more favorably to an image of a real person than to any of the inanimate objects we were proposing. For our signature image we ended up hiring a model which proved to be immensely successful in attracting new audiences.

One of the best ways to get non-museum visitors to visit the museum is to talk to them, and identify their likes and dislikes, what gets their attention, and piques their curiosity. Unfortunately, we don't have money to do the kind of intensive focus groups needed to solicit this type of information on a regular basis. But with the Web site we can do an abbreviated version. This is another idea behind "You're the Expert," particularly, the segment we recently put up on the marketing strategies for our upcoming Chinese ornament exhibition.

As mentioned earlier, the exhibition can be perceived as rather esoteric. It is a show about very small, very old objects from a culture that most people know very little about. Our challenge is to position the exhibition in such a way that these objects have some relevance to people living today. To be successful, our marketing strategy will have to make the public curious enough about the exhibition to want to visit the museum. "You're the Expert" offers us an opportunity to pilot some of our marketing ideas to see which ones garner the strongest, most favorable responses. Visitors may even present ideas that we had not thought of (we're still exploring how we would handle this; if someone were to suggest a marketing strategy that we actually wanted to use, we would want to extend an acknowledgment to them: thank them on the Web site, send them free tickets to the exhibition or perhaps a catalogue to the show; this detail hasn't been decided yet).

In a similar vein, visitor evaluations are a burgeoning area within the museum field and all kinds of research is currently being conducted on visitor perceptions about visiting museums. While it is relatively easy to capture data from regular museum visitors using on-site surveys, this information is necessarily biased toward people with a propensity for visiting museums-after all, they are already there. How do we find out why we are failing to attract others? With Web technology, this whole category of people is literally inviting us into their homes. We need to take advantage of this invitation and use it to discover ways to better meet their needs and interests. As we discovered with our Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest project, sometimes the best approach is just asking. If you can ask in a way that is both engaging and (incidentally) educational, all the better.

We are currently pursuing this idea one step further by using the site as part of a marketing plan. We have an exhibition coming up in September from the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation of American art which the curator is calling, American Dreams. In an attempt to build wide community interest in the exhibition, we are entertaining using the Web site to solicit comments from visitors about their vision of the American dream. We will compile their comments on the site along with information about the exhibition and accompanying programs. We may also use some of the more eloquent comments in advertising and radio spots.


There are numerous advantages to incorporating an interactive component to your Web site. However, there are some cautions that should be considered as well. First, it is more technologically involved because it requires using CGI programming in addition to simple HTML coding. If, like the Virginia Museum, there is no dedicated staff working on your Web site and you are relying on existing staff who are self-taught in this technology, it can be a little taunting and/or expensive. Second, it is more labor intensive. Giving a monologue is always less taxing than engaging in a conversation, and introducing interactivity to your site transforms it from an electronic brochure to a two-way communication system. Updating and responding to those external voices can take significant staff time. Nonetheless, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts thinks it is worth the time and energy. Visitors' responses have been overwhelming; virtually everyone who contacts the Webmaster comments specifically on how engaging the section is. While we are thankful that "You're the Expert" addresses the needs and interests of our visitors, it has been developed to meet the needs and interests of the museum as well. It provides an on-going focus group that helps us 'eavesdrop' on what audiences (both current and future) respond to most strongly.

With a little imagination, museums can use their Web sites to learn how to improve their marketing strategies, and gain valuable insights into audience responses to programs and educational resources. It is an information delivery system for browsers but it can also be a learning tool for museums. If we're smart, new technology = new ideas = new audiences.

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