Conference Papers

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

Bruce Williams
Director, Information Services
Canadian Heritage Information Program

Wendy Thomas
Project Leader
Canadian Heritage Information Program

Parners, Profiles and the Public:
Building a Virtual Museum Community

Community and communication derive from the same Latin root, communis , meaning shared, common, public 1 The objectives of building a common resource and maintaining good communications have been fundamental in the development of partnerships between the heritage community and the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). The heritage community encompasses institutions, professionals, and "cultural consumers" who share an interest in our cultural and natural heritage.

What does it take to build community? A common vision, mutual understanding and recognition of the respective needs of each member are the foundation that determines the shape the community will take. Ideally, each member of a community contributes and in return, receives benefits. Respective responsibilities are determined by the strengths, resources and requirements of each of the members. This relationship is embodied in the Heritage Community that CHIN is fostering, in a system where institutions and individuals provide content and, in return, CHIN develops and maintains the applications, support and delivery mechanisms to bring content to "cultural consumers".

A community will survive and prosper when the responsibilities of each member are defined and when the costs and benefits are understood. With reduced government funding and in a competitive world, institutions and professionals are finding new means to share their expertise and to reuse materials produced for regular museum activities. Museums have extensive experience in building local communities. Museum Associations have long been active in specific functions such as advocacy and training. There is less, but still some experience, in collective action for mandated functions such as collections acquisition, joint educational and promotional activities. The Web offers great opportunities for new types of "virtual communities" of museums and museum professionals.

This paper will explore two examples of new information products that demonstrate emerging museum communities and a "membership" approach that has made them a reality. The methodologies employed to develop and maintain the products, as well as related time lines and resources are provided as appendices. This paper will also review the issues and methods used in developing these products, the challenges that have been met and that remain. We believe that individual institutions will find elements of the CHIN experience useful in building an internal culture that encourages the participation of their own colleagues in the use, maintenance and development of Web products.

CHIN and partners in the museum and heritage community have collaborated recently to create two on-line products: The Guide to Canadian Museums and Galleries, and the Heritage Forum. The Guide profiles Canadian museums and galleries, providing current information on their collections, services and attractions. The audience for the Guide is the public. The Forum is an interactive journal, providing current, relevant, and organized information, such as studies, reports, and reference material. The audience is heritage and cultural workers seeking job related information and professional development. Both products are freely available at the CHIN Web site www.chin.gc.ca.

The Guide and the Forum are searchable centralized resources with links to distributed information. In the current Web environment, both novice and expert Internet users need effective access to information using minimal effort. Data in two forms have been used to meet the need for assembling information about Canadian museums and about resources for heritage professionals: databases, which allow searches within a specialized body of information; and distributed information, which links relevant, external Web sites. The Guide and Forum are designed to respond to a wide variety of heritage community needs: new audiences, new revenue, improved access to the information highway, help with technology for institutions at different levels of technological development and training.

Background:

A strong community has grown over the past 25 years between Canadian museums and CHIN. This community has been based on shared collections management, standards development and service provision from CHIN to its "clients", the museums. Community members include 90 museums that are contributors to the National Inventories and collections management clients. This community also includes professionals, museum associations and regional networks of museums. These are all linked in a closed system that encouraged sharing among members, but had no direct link to external audiences and the broader heritage community.

CHIN, a special operating agency of the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, has a unique national mandate to invest in the development of applications that are designed to support both preservation of and access to museum collections and information. In consultations held across Canada in the spring of 1995, the views of Canadian museum directors and other leaders in the heritage field were sought to help CHIN identify emerging needs. With remarkable consistency, changes were asked for. In summary, these changes were dictated by new developments in network technology, the growth of the Web, the desire of many institutions to assume responsibility for their own collections and information management functions and the fiscal realities facing all institutions today.

In response to these changing needs CHIN's original mandate - to create the National Inventories, to provide collections management services and to provide technology assessment - was reviewed. While CHIN has maintained its work with the National Inventories, it is developing new ways of looking at standards and new programs related to access to heritage information in a distributed environment. The new mandate to "broker effective access to Canadian and international heritage information for public education and enjoyment and for the collective benefit of Canadian museums" reflects initiatives for providing access to the museum community's professional resources and collections of cultural and natural heritage. CHIN thus acts as the "gateway" to the Canadian heritage community, while the community itself maintains the content to which the public and professionals need access.

Membership:

New directions for CHIN are not only about new products and services, but also about new attitudes. Rather than clients of CHIN, the new mandate invites museums to become members or partners with CHIN as joint contributors to a collective resource. The first tangible products that demonstrate the new paradigm of membership and prove the principle that contributions bring benefits, are the Guide and Forum.

The membership concept only works when there is both an underlying trust in the motives and abilities of the contributors and constant communication. These are key components in establishing and nurturing the Guide and Forum . Initial discussions with several museums led to speedy - and positive - reactions to the proposed prototype for the Guide, and later to the Forum . With the rapid changes that characterize the Web environment, communication and testing remain key factors in product development and improvement.

Members of the heritage community are responsible for providing content, for regularly updating to keep information current, and for promoting the products within and outside the community. Thus, for the Guide, museums contribute information about the institution (history and overview), collections, services, events, and exhibitions; and for the Forum, museum professionals contribute documents, reports, studies from working groups, and newsletters, along with information about relevant Web sites, and dialogue on current issues. Overall both are designed to provide heightened profile for institutions and efficient access to information.

Commitment to the products and sustained participation are encouraged by offering tangible benefits to members. CHIN offers Guide members free Internet accounts, Internet training, and free access to its subscription services. Through the Forum, participants receive profile and an opportunity for dialogue and critical reaction. CHIN also provides the technical expertise to develop all the applications, creates the databases, indexing and navigation systems for the Web site and delivers the products. CHIN actively promotes the products through attendance and presentation at conferences, mail-outs and distribution of promotional items. CHIN finds sponsors and is developing business outlets. By creating and maintaining a critical mass of useful, current information the collective resource continues to grow and repeat visits to the site are encouraged.

Audience:

The audience base is more heterogeneous than ever before, expanding beyond museum professionals, such as registrars, conservators, curators, educators, and administrators to include new publics, such as tourists, the tourist industry, students, and those with an interest - not necessarily professional - in heritage. Determining audience needs requires research, analysis of existing resource material, delivery mechanisms and awareness of new products. Monitoring listservs, visiting Web sites, demonstrating the Forum and speaking with colleagues at conferences have yielded considerable information about the current interests and needs of heritage professionals. The Guide profits from the expertise of tourism agencies, museum marketing and public relations personnel and focus group testing.

Given the relative newness of the products, we are in the early stages of proving longer term benefits and demonstrating success. We know that approximately one third of the visits to the CHIN Web site involve the Guide and one quarter involve the Forum. CHIN is continuing to try out various tools that can analyze the number and nature of Web visits, the type of activity that is taking place and the areas that experience the most activity. The current limitations of the technology available for this type of analysis pose a challenge in interpreting the Web statistics and in extracting significant and useful information. We endeavour to place the statistical data within the context of these limitations in discussions with our members and contributors. With CHIN's experience with diverse Web products, we are beginning to build meaningful statistical information that goes beyond the "hit-list" that is often reported. For our own evaluation purposes we need to establish a norm for defining "traffic" at the site and then measure growth, changes in demographics, seasonal flows, etc.

We are continuing to develop strategies to ascertain whether the products are reaching the target audience, whether the products are, indeed, what the audience is seeking, and whether the needs of the heritage community are being met. Among the strategies, coupons redeemable for small gifts at a museum can track museum visits resulting from Web site exposure. Feedback forms with both open-ended and specific questions provide us with important data on the success of the products, and ongoing dialogue with the heritage community keeps us on-track vis-à-vis its needs. An assessment by an independent consultant underlined the strengths of the products and suggested improvements for usability geared to audience needs. We are implementing these improvements on a steady basis.

Success builds on itself - as more museums contribute to the Guide, the product becomes viable as a marketable item, thereby attracting new investment by other museums. As professionals contribute to the Forum and begin using it regularly, interest develops in improving it by providing content for other professionals to share. Members and contributors invest time and resources in the Guide and the Forum; the return on their investment is to be found in reaching the goals of attracting new audiences and revenues, and enhanced proficiency in one's work.

Profile:

Profile means drawing attention to the members and contributors: to the institutions and individuals who provide the content, and to CHIN as the "gateway" to the content. With a heightened profile comes the responsibility for ensuring the reliability and authenticity of the content in order to lend credibility to the products. The information has to be kept current and dynamic and it has to be easily accessible.

Profile is provided by the weekly "Museum of the Week" in the Guide which highlights one of the member museums in a marquee presentation and an image. In fact, all participating museums in the Guide are highlighted by virtue of their becoming part of the collective presence on the Web. In the Forum, each contributed item is accompanied by a cover sheet which identifies the contributor and the name of their institution or organization.

Promotion and marketing are key activities. Given the early stage of development of the Guide and the Forum, initial focus has been on promotion within the museum and heritage community in order to attract participants. In the past, museum registrars have been most likely to have access to the Internet and its resources. One current challenge is to promote the products to the entire institution by making the products meaningful and relevant to museum educators, librarians, curators, conservators administrators, marketing, and other staff. Staff need to be aware of the potential of the products before they can perceive the benefits of contributing. We believe that by creating an awareness of the products, simplifying the means of contributing, and continually improving the products, a valuable resource for the larger community will result.

Issues:
Duplication of Effort

Among the specific challenges that have been encountered has been that of working in partnership with institutions that are at varying stages of technological development. CHIN members range from institutions with mature Web sites, automated collections' management (i.e databases of collections data), well-developed marketing plans, and strong public identities to small, seasonal museums staffed by volunteers, using manual collections' management (and some with no plans for automation), and having strong local identities.

The institution contributes information about itself, its permanent collections, its services, and its exhibitions to the Guide. For the computerized institutions, much of the dynamic information we ask to have included in the Guide is already in place on their Web site and duplication of effort is an issue. To address this issue, a hybrid system of centralized and distributed information has been established. In this interim solution, museums continue to contribute background information that does not change rapidly and is likely to be a one-time contribution, while at the same time, CHIN establishes links to specific museum Web sites. To allow comprehensive searches on more changeable information, museums contribute minimal exhibition information (i.e title, dates) to the Guide . Search results from the CHIN site are then linked to the institution's Web site that contains the expanded exhibition or event information. This interim solution reduces the duplication of effort for museums while permitting access to the full information for the public.

A long-term solution involves CHIN's work with the consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) to address the problem of sequential searching in a distributed rather than a centralized environment such as the Guide. To date, research and development continues in an effort to identify a cost-effective and robust means of achieving such a search using existing tools.

This long term solution presupposes that robots and spiders go out and search relevant information which is then presented in the Guide. We are exploring the tools that are now available for this approach. To make this work, we will have to negotiate agreements with institutions, respecting their copyright and through the means of protocols and reciprocal links ensure we are informed of new items. Again, for this to work, it is crucial that institutions see this as a collaborative not competitive venture.

Museums without automation see the immediate benefit from being part of the collective Canadian museum presence on the Internet. On their own and with minimal investment and in some cases with the assistance of their provincial museum association or regional network of museums, these institutions are able to participate in this on-line resource. They have become members of the virtual community.

Authenticity:

Application work was concentrated on procedures for contributing to the Guide via on-line input forms. Maintaining currency of information and avoiding duplication of effort does not allow for a paper input process. To ensure "authenticity" user IDs and passwords are issued to members upon CHIN's receipt of signed membership forms. This prevents the creation of new "virtual" museums that exist in the mind of the creator only. Access to the on-line form from any community access point (library, school, museum); and the verification of records before loading them to the Guide is limited to "authorized" staff via user ID and password.

Contributions to the Forum are moderated by the CHIN project leader who visits suggested Web sites and reads contributed documents. Initial mechanisms for contribution (FTP, e-mail, diskette) to the Forum have tended to discourage potential contributors who are unfamiliar with FTP or who find the mailing of diskettes time-consuming. CHIN is developing an on-line contribution form that will provide a consistent format for cover sheet information which in turn will facilitate the retrieval of data. In the meantime, contributors are encouraged to send documents in an e-mail message.

Future Directions:

As the heritage community and CHIN grows, we are looking at ways to enhance our capacity to more accurately define and meet audience needs. CHIN will further develop its analysis of audience requirements, in part by focusing on improvements to user satisfaction issues in our products. For the Guide , we will be working with various authorities in the tourist industry in order to produce a list of defined terms for tourist regions that will give the audience access to individual destinations. Our first application provided for searches by city and province, but not by region. Now by mapping cities to tourist regions, audiences will be able to ask questions, for example on the Niagara Wine District, and they will receive a result set of all the towns, cities, and heritage institutions in the area.

The initial target audience, identified above as "cultural consumers," seeks comprehensive information on events and exhibitions in the museum and heritage community. This same audience is likely to seek information on performing arts events. CultureNet, an on-line network for the performing arts (http://www.culturenet.ca), offers an array of resources that complement those provided on the CHIN site. Thus we are proposing a joint project with CultureNet to develop the means for the audience to find all the information in one search. A first step in this direction is to develop linked searches that would search the performing arts at the CultureNet site and then link to the CHIN site for a related search.

Enhancements to the Guide and to the Forum have to reflect other developments at CHIN. For the Guide, CHIN is planning the implementation of links from the institutions to their records in the National Inventories. The National Inventories have recently been made available, without subscription fees, for a one-year trial period (1996-97) to gain the audience feedback needed to improve their interface and functionality. In the future, CHIN and the museum community will be working out the means for contributing records to the National Inventories in the distributed environment.

Images of works in museum collections are important elements in the Web environment to attract audiences. Given priority and resource issues in the heritage community, there has been limited investment in digitization projects for many institutions. CHIN is establishing procedures that will facilitate the contribution of selected images to the Guide. We provide glimpses of the museums' treasures in order to encourage visitors to the actual site while leaving the presentation of the works well within the control of the individual institutions. The images and related content are always accessible through links from the Guide. However, with different audiences for the Forum , we will continue to limit the use of images in order to cater to all levels of technological access and to ensure speedy downloading.

For the Forum, CHIN, in collaboration with the Canadian Museums Association, will be offering an online job-posting service for the heritage community. This partnership extends the reach of the Association, provides limited revenue to both partners and responds to a demand that CHIN has experienced in many e-mail messages over the last few months.

The success of the Guide, the Forum, and initiatives leading to access to the rich holdings of the Canadian heritage community has been and will continue to be the result of the ability of all partners to work together to exploit the possibilities afforded by the new technological environment.

 

Appendix # 1

Methodology: The Guide:

  1. Communications by phone and letter with institutions to determine interest;
  2. Prototype created with five institutions;
  3. Research on information to include involved surveying directors of provincial museums associations, visiting museum Web sites, and analysing existing guides, reports, and questionnaires; 2
  4. Establish success criteria: our goals are to profile Canadian heritage institutions in an international environment, to attract electronic visitors, and to foster new revenues for Canadian museums;
  5. Develop questionnaire - organizing the information by institution type, collection type, events, and services;
  6. Prepare strategy for distributing questionnaire and receiving responses
  7. Provide benefits to participants;
  8. Evaluation and user testing;
  9. Planning for phase II improvements.

Appendix # 2

Methodology: The Forum:

  1. Define the product: interactive journal to meet the needs of heritage professionals, developed by CHIN as a value-added service;
  2. Determine type of content to be provided: documents and links to existing Web sites
  3. Formalize the nature of partnership: initiated by CHIN, built by heritage professionals - individuals, institutions
  4. Design considerations: material organized by topic, type of document, quick access;
  5. Search mechanisms: in the database, by list of topics, keyword;
  6. Establish ways to contribute: electronically by FTP, e-mail, diskette, on-line (in development);
  7. Approval process for contributed items;
  8. Develop feedback forms and means of assessing the feedback;
  9. Evaluation and user testing;
  10. Plan for improvements.

Appendix # 3

Time Line and Resources

The current version of the Guide was developed over a period of eight months. The Forum was developed over a period of six months. Both products were launched in July 1996. Personnel involved in the Guide comprise, for the museum, one-time involvement of one contact person in the museum responsible for contributing the information, and periodically thereafter for updates to events and exhibition schedules. At CHIN, the Guide calls for the skills of the project leader and the Web manager, the translator, inhouse and contracted-out programming for the application and the ongoing support of the Help Desk. For the Forum, the partners are individual professionals in the heritage community and coordinators of museum studies programs, while at CHIN, development by the project leader, the Web manager and systems development staff.

Notes

1
D.P. Simpson, Cassell's New Latin-English English-Latin Dictionary, London, n.d.
2
Official Directory of Canadian Museums and Related Institutions, Ottawa: Canadian Museums Association, 1992; ICOM questionnaire; New Hampshire Collections: A Guide to our Cultural Heritage (Concord, N.H. : New Hampshire Historical Society, 1992. -- XII, 141 p); Guide to Swiss Museums (http://www.museums.ch/); questionnaire from the Ontario Museum Association; Cultural Heritage Information Task Group (CHITG) minutes, reports

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