“Cyberpals!/Les Cybercopains!”

Soren, B. and Lemelin, N. (2004) “Cyberpals!/Les Cybercopains!”: A Look at Online Museum Visitor Experiences
from Curator: The Museum Journal (4) 1

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ABSTRACT This article examines approaches to creating museum Web sites that offer quality experiences to online users. In six case studies, museum Web developers in the U.S. and Canada describe how they have made the most of available human and financial resources. The development history of each site offers insights into the origins of a design and its subsequent versions, and describes the influence of institutional missions, philosophies, success indicators—and financial and human resources, the most crucial factors. The study found considerable variety in the backgrounds, expertise, titles and training of people developing Web sites within institutions. Web teams developed “exchange” experiences through online discussion, and by creating links among users, or between museum staff and users. In three case studies, Web sites encouraged visitors to cycle between online and on-site museum visits. Web developers describe using quantitative and qualitative online audience research strategies. WebTrends™ software has enabled Web teams to report complex log analyses. Creating online experiences in partnership with users is the intention of Web developers.

New technologies have had a mixed success rate in museums. An economic upturn in the early 1990s resulted in a profusion of museum Web sites and an interest in technology and multimedia. But after the recent economic downturn and the decline of the dot-com industry, revenue generation from museum Web sites has not been sufficient to sustain Web development teams. The implication is that Web user testing and the development of quality online experiences will have reduced priority in the future.

Issues related to new technologies were on the agenda of the International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM) 2003: Cultural Institutions and Digital Technology, which took place at l’École du Louvre, Paris, France, on September 8–12, 2003 (www.ichim.org). Sessions highlighted trends in digital technology development for museums, and implications for developing quality online-user exchange experiences. The Web field is growing and changing very rapidly. It was apparent at ICHIM ‘03 that research on quality online experiences is an area needing exploration within the larger
field of digital technology.

Despite hints of a downturn, this is a period of intense creativity for multimedia companies and user-interface technology consultants. Technologies for personalizing and individualizing museum-visitor experiences seem to be the rage. Resources are going into developing new user-friendly devices such as DinoHunter, a mobile game-based edutainment application. Prototypes of these new technologies are being tested with front-end user-design methods.

Museums have begun to focus on integrating human and technological support for museum visitors. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for instance, has created a new education space, the Koret Visitor Education Center, which contains interactive media, a learning lounge for adults and children, and lifelong learning programs. Tate Online, the Web presence of the Tate Museum, is developing its third-generation site as a “fifth gallery” to increase access and understanding of the collections in the Tate’s four museums. Tate Online is concerned with expanding and diversifying audiences, and better
defining who audiences are (geographically, for instance). The site is powered by BT, one of Europe’s leading providers of telecommunications services. The Web site (www.btplc.com/pda/Betterworld/Community/Artsandheritage/TateOnline.htm) is rich in content and interactivity and provides access to over 60,000 works of art in the Tate collection.

The last day of the conference, one woman asked: “What is the right balance between social experience and focused individual experience? Which will stick longer?” How can we evaluate the differences between a human presence (such as a facilitator or docent) and machine personalization (such as a personalized palm pilot)? Audience research has shown that visitors have multiple preferences—so each of the different ways of engaging museum visitors and online users will appeal to some. Multiple interpretation strategies are an occasion not for tension but celebration.

Most of the new technologies seem more likely to appeal to younger users. We may ask: What types of experiences are preferred by individuals from different cultural communities who visit physical museums and their Web sites? Which users choose, and do not choose, to use advanced technologies? How are the precious resources of today’s museums best spent to optimize collections interpretation, both on-site and online? How should we engage diverse users who browse museum Web sites at their homes, schools, colleges, universities, or workplaces?

This report explores the development, documentation and evaluation of online experiences of visitors to six museum Web sites across the U.S. and Canada. We were given permission to use our title by one of the museums that participated in the research: Cyberpals!/Les Cybercopains! is the online service of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Musée des Beaux-arts. The term “cyberpals” implies what we mean by quality online museum experiences. In our research we were exploring different ways that visitors to museum Web sites could be “pals” in cyberspace. (We encourage readers to visit these Web sites
and experience them directly. Web addresses are listed on p. 61 and in the Acknowledgments.) The primary objective of the project was to determine criteria for developing quality experiences that encourage user participation and feedback. Our criteria differ from the technical quality criteria set up by the W3C, which provides specifications and guidelines for HTML/XHTML and goals for online accessibility and other criteria. We focused our research on experiences of users who browse museum Web sites. One educator who strongly influenced our work is Dewey (1938), who argued for experiences that provide a lifelong spiral of growth.

Study participants included museum staff members who were designing Web sites and evolving methods for studying experiences of online visitors in 2001. Research strategies included online and in-print searches and interviews with six Web developers. Many museums are developing Web sites, but little is known about users’ experiences aside from basics such as number of hits and demographics of users. There seem to be two trends. First generation Web sites are typically modeled on a text-based electronic magazine; they tend to rely on traditional exhibition formats, and are institutionally focused. Museums currently redesigning Web sites have learned from visitors that they
need to shift to a more interactive, participatory site that is more engaging and visitor-centered.
There is an increasing focus on helping lifelong learners construct meaningful experiences as they browse museum Web sites.

Online and in-print searches—From conference sessions we attended in the U.S. and Canada during 2001–2002, we discovered how little museum staff and Web developers know about the quality and outcomes of online visitor experiences. Our searches, online and in print media, were aimed at finding museum Web sites that offer opportunities for user participation and monitoring of visitor experiences. These sites offer such options as: feedback, visitor surveys, discussion about topics with experts, chat rooms, guest books, graffiti walls, and simulating a curatorial role by creating exhibitions from an online database of the permanent collection. We were particularly interested in museum
Web sites in which developers and designers were attempting to engage visitors and collect information about online users.

Semi-structured conversational interviews—Working with limited resources, we decided to interview six museum Web developers whose Web sites we felt offered quality audience involvement and feedback. We contacted staff or consultants by telephone and/or email, and requested an in-person, telephone, or online interview.

Conversational interviews (using a qualitative, naturalistic approach as described by Diamond 1999; Mason 1996; and Patton 2002) lasted approximately one hour. When we interviewed a staff member who was able to provide an online demonstration of research methods and strategies, we wrote observational field notes. During interviews, we asked Web developers about:

  • Models or frameworks for developing sites.
  • Strategies for studying online users.
  • Challenges or obstacles in developing quality Web sites.
  • Successes related to learning about the nature and quality of online experiences.
  • Methods of using information about online visitors.
  • Ways of determining outcomes and impacts of online visits.
  • Skills of staff members developing and evaluating online visitor experiences.
  • Documentation, statistics, or reports about users.
  • Criteria that define quality museum Web sites.

We discussed Web group strategies for developing online experiences and methods for determining the nature and quality of visitor learning experiences. The research offered conclusions and insights into:

  • How a sample of Web developers attempt to engage users during visits to the museum’s Web site.
  • How online opportunities are provided to help people construct their own meaning while exploring these Web sites.
  • What people can learn about the museum’s objects and collections through a Web site, compared to visiting the physical museum.
  • How individuals can find out about additional online content and/or activities such as visits to the physical museum after online experiences.

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