This study seeks to provide an understanding of the use of the Internet technology in museums. In the last few decades museum have placed renewed emphasis on education and access, with the goal to make their institution more relevant, inclusive and valuable to society; places for debates and learning resources for communities. In this context the Internet have a vital role to play, it has a great potential to serve the challenges faced by art institutions in relation to access and audience development.
In 2001, Bellido (2001: 231- 232) listed the advantages of museums’ appearing on the Internet, as the ability to offer information at anytime and place in the world, or the capacity for a museum to update its own contents without depending on graphic design companies (brochures, posters, etc.), along with the advantages of including multiple multimedia resources (text, image and sound) which can be offered to users around the world. The Tate website acts as case study, providing an excellent example of museum Web Site. Members of the public and professionals have been questioned about their relationship with museums and the value and use of the online interface.
PROJECT DEFINITION AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
This study presents results from a research designed to explore the relevance of the presence of art institutions in the World Wide Web. The Tate website is considered one of the best site in the field, with over a million views a year. But why people visit the Tate website? How does it excel compare to other museum website and what’s the impact on the audience development plan of the institution?
In this research the aims are to:
Look at the reason why people visit the website.
Look at how often museum goers visit museum website.
Investigate the characteristics of online museum visitors.
Find out what are the online visitors looking for on the website.
Explore the benefit from the use of the website.
Audience development is a planned and targeted management process, which involves almost all areas of a museum, working together to deliver the organisation’s overall aims and objectives to high quality standards. For Hans Christian Anderson audience development means ‘enriching the experience of your visitors by helping them to learn more and deepening their enjoyment of what you have to offer’ (cited by Waltl, 2006). It therefore combines the aims of the curator, educator and marketer, which have to ensure that museums continue to be relevant to all the different community groups.
Thereby the core elements of audience development are ‘the actions taken to involve people, to understand their needs and interests, and to create an environment and experience that appeals to them. Audience development is about breaking down barriers in all its forms and shapes and engaging visitors in activities that they consider worthwhile. It is not only about the numbers of visitors, and there are different approaches depending on the need of the specific target group. The basis of all audience development initiatives should be research, in fact knowing the audience is key to identify different needs but also to develop marketing strategies and convince more visitors to become regular museum goers. The Arts Council England defines audience development as the ‘activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts organisations to develop ongoing relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution’ (Arts Council, 2006).
Kotler (1998:39) argues that successful museums need to ‘provide multiple experiences: aesthetic and emotional delight, celebration and learning, recreation and sociability’.
Undoubtably the changes of the use of information technology in art organizations have transformed the experience of visiting a museum, requiring adaptations for museum professionals and museum goers, and resulting in new information demands and information policies (Knell, 2003: 134). These changes have affected how all users interact with digital museum resources in their everyday lives, either when visiting museums in person, or when using museum resources on the web (Muller, 2002: 21;33).
The Internet gives the opportunity to museums to reach wider and more diverse audiences, getting to people who may visit museum as well as those who do not. As MacDonald and Alsford have remarked, ‘museum must keep pace with technological progress if they want to attract twenty-first century audiences’. As a matter of fact the audiences of tomorrow, and also today’s younger cohorts, are made of individuals for whom computers have already played an important part in their lives (Duhe,2007:322). Information and communication technologies have the power to change and strengthen the relationship between the audiences and the institutions as sustained by Morrissey and Worts in their article ‘A Place for the Muses? Negotiating the Role of Technology in Museums’ (1998).
The two authors explain how the collaborative, multimedia experience invests more meaning in a museum visit than does the traditional, solitary one of reading labels and silently absorbing objects under glass. Morrissey and Worts’ idea is to create a “forum” for visitors, “based on a process of shared dialogue that accepts and integrates the authenticity of the knowledge and experiences of all visitors, museum professionals, and communities…” (p.151). Morrissey and Worts value museums on the Web because they give the opportunity to welcome and include the voices of the visitors and enable to “find and create meaning…and interaction between individuals and objects…sparking insight and feelings of connection” (1998, p.152). Furthermore, Roland Jackson, in his article ‘Using the Web to Change the Relation Between a Museum and its Users’ (1998) envisaged the Internet as a way to put people first, encouraging applications that are user-driven, to create social relationships, and promote participation with the incorporation of users’ knowledge and views. He supports the idea of “collaborative knowledge creation” or “open documentation”, which stresses the value of developing knowledge about collections collaboratively with the public.
There is a significant body of literature on the evaluation of Museum Web sites as a whole, exploring both quantitative and qualitative approaches. For example, Peacock (2002) developed a framework of assessing whether a Web site meets user needs, based on log-based metrics. Soren and Lemelin (2004) added survey methods to Web log analysis, in looking at a range of Museum Web sites. Kravchyna and Hastings (2002) focused on survey methods to examine in detail the information needs and information-seeking behaviours of Museum Web site visitors, considering museum Web sites as a whole, including on-line collections and images.
Usability is defined as the “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use”(Karat 1997, p. 34). Usability was first studied by the Human Computer Interaction researchers in the process of making products more usable (Venkatesh and Agarwal 2006). Recently, Information Systems (IS) researchers have also investigated usability and issues linked to the design of systems. Given that the Internet has gained so much in importance, usability criteria are regularly developed and applied to online interfaces.
Most of prior research on website usability has been conducted on commercial or business websites, the most frequent research outcome has been purchasing behaviour. Researchers, for example, argue that usability can increase on-line sales (Kuan et al. 2003). However, Hoffman and Novak (1996) encourage researchers to study non-commercial activities. Offering a complementary point of view, Pavlou and Fygenson (2006) suggest that purchasing is not the only behaviour that should be taken into account in online environment. Their study highlights an additional behavioral variable: acquiring information. Bélanger et al. (2006) explain that the success of each type of website should be assessed via specific criteria, based on the aims of the business. Museum websites are more related to the “Internet presence websites” in Hoffman et al.’s discussion (1995). Indeed, the primary goal is not sales, even if some museum interfaces support purchasing through online boutiques. By way of contrast to commercial sites, “Internet presence websites,” like museum sites, aim at advertising and providing information to visitors (Hoffman et al. 1995). This advertising is intended to draw more people to the museum, as a mean of audience development.
This idea is supported by Lagrosen (2003), who looked at how the use of Internet by Swedish museums, provided valuable online services to visitors. As a matter of fact Lagrosen explains that “it is the visit and the experiences that the visitors have that are the product of the museum” (p. 134). Consequently, encouraging future visits is an important goal for museum websites. Further goals are, as for physical museums, are life enrichment, knowledge enhancement, learning and entertainment. Indeed, these goals are consistent with museum missions of education and entertainment. The aesthetic dimension can be considered as an essential element for cultural sites. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives this definition of aesthetics: “an artistically beautiful or pleasing appearance’’. According to the research made by Hassenzahl, the aesthetics influences attitudes and behaviors in both offline and online contexts. Given the overlap of entertainment and education in museum missions, the most important usability categories for such websites, highlighted by Zhang et al. (2001), respectively navigation and visual design, will both be relevant for museum websites. In addition, Hassenzahl (2001) points out that ‘pleasantness’ like aesthetics will be more important for non-task oriented products.
Aesthetics should also be included in the design of museum websites because museums are supposed to be beautiful places, so, by transference, visitors will also expect their websites to be beautiful. Forbes (1941) asserts that museums should provide aesthetic experiences to the public in order to enhance learning. He also argues that art museums are the most concerned with aesthetic issues; their chief role is to display beauty to visitors. “To be effective the museum must bring beauty to buildings, their exteriors, their interiors and contents” (Forbes 1941, p. 6).
Supporting this view, Lin and Gregor (2006) interviewed five museum experts who consider appearance (colors, text, images) to be one of the most important criteria to enhance enjoyment of learning on museum websites. Indeed, museum websites tend to be very colorful: hot colors such as orange, yellow or red are commonly used.
The purpose of this research is to analyze the use of museum websites by the visitors and how important is the presence on the Web to offer the audience a satisfying experience. A case study had to be chosen to limit the research, the Tate Modern, with its award-winning website seemed to be an appropriate case. The methods used in this research were in depth interviews with museum professionals and semi-structured interviews with the public. These methodologies enabled me to collect quantitative data as well as qualitative at the same time.
At Tate Modern fifty semi-structured interviews were conducted to members of the audience during the first week of May (Tuesday 8th 2010, Wednesday 9th 2010, Thursday 10th 2010 and Friday 11th 2010) during the afternoon hours, between 14.00pm and 16.00pm).
The respondent were obviously restricted to people who already were interested in arts in general, (being visitors of the gallery) and to those who have decided to answer the questions. At that time the museum hosted, as well as the permanent collection, the exhibit ‘Exposed Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’.
The respondents have been approached in all the different levels of the museum. The interviews were ‘designed’ to gain information about their attitudes towards the museum, their interest and their experiences with the museum Web Site. The interview also questioned their history and background in order to collect quantitative data for the research.
The interviews completed were successful at backing up the literature review on the subject. The final comments on the museum website were extremely informative as the audience was left free to express issues and feelings on the matter.
The information gained by the public interviews was to be supported by two interviews involving the former Tate Web Developer Hugh Williams (05/05/10) and the Tate Kids editor Sharna Jackson (17/05/10)
The interviews have been conducted the first week of May and it was managed to collect fifty questionnaires. Of the fifty respondents fourteen never visited the institution website and consequently couldn’t complete the interview in full.
Here are the quantitative results organized in pie charts:
Have you ever been to the Tate Website?
What’s the main reason for visiting the Tate Website?
How often do you visit the Tate Web Site?
When visiting the Tate Web Site you were looking for…
Did you ever made a contribution to the Web Site?
Do you normally visit the website before a visit to the museum?
Do you normally visit the website after a visit to the gallery?
How old are you?
Of the thirty-six respondents, the 44% stated their primary reason for visiting the Tate website were related to academic/research objectives, and 55% were using it out of personal interest. The high rate of people using the website for academic purposes indicates the educational value of the contents online.
Four ‘ visitors clusters’ have been identified. These clusters, which are grouped according to individual preference for interpretation types and comfort levels with art, are:
Visitors that are only somewhat comfortable looking at art, as they have the most limited backgrounds in art and art history, and are least comfortable talking about art. They tend to prefer a guided experience at the museum, seeking straightforward explanations to help them understand what the work of art means, rather than viewing works independently.
Individuals in this cluster have stronger knowledge of and interest in art. They enjoy learning and the social aspects of their experiences. Participants have the strongest interest in connecting with works of art in a variety of ways, including through music, dance, dramatic performances, and readings. Participants enjoy the social experience of being in the galleries.
Individuals in this group like to view a work of art independently, without explanations or interpretation. These visitors are confident about their knowledge and seek intense interactions with art. Independents are often practicing artists. The group is comfortable with art terminology and with both looking at and talking about art, and is less likely to use interpretative resources during their visit.
This cluster is comprised of individuals who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at all types of art. These visitors actively participate in a wide variety of museum programming, including discussions about art, and enjoy interpretive resources in the galleries. Of the four visitor clusters, members of this group are most emotionally affected by art, and are most interested in the artist materials and techniques, and in explaining the meaning of a work to the people around them. Enthusiasts frequently use the museum and are the most likely to be ‘supporters’.
The results of the interviews with Hugh Williams and Sharna Jackson were very useful to back up the literature review findings.
The former Web Developer of the website, Mr. Williams, highlighted how the collaboration with the marketing, educational and curatorial departments was essential to create the contents. Much attention is devoted to things like interactivity, interpretive context, content selection and composition, and how the user selects what material to examine. Furthermore Mr. Williams emphasized the importance of the aesthetic components of the web pages, as the color scheme.
Ms Sharna Jackson, Tate Kids editor, supported Mr. Williams’ statements. With the establishment of the ‘Tate Kids’ it was hoped to meet Tate’s mission ‘to increase public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of art’ by the creation of a colorful, relevant interactive website with engaging content that would both entertain and educate the intended audience of six to 12 year olds. She outlined the graphic design process, the strategy for user testing, the importance of differentiating content, and the purpose of an adult zone
ANALYSIS OF FINDINGS
The information gathered in the literature review and the data collected through the interviews showed clearly that there are different reason for people to visit a museum’s website. The interviews results showed that the majority of people who do not consider the website as an important tool have not been through higher education programs, in fact one of the main motives for visiting a museum website is for ‘academic purposes’, as stated by Schaller at al. (2002) and as found by Ockuly in his survey conducted in 2003.
The majority of the people interviewed stated that a museum website, even the most sophisticated, will never replace a visit to the physical museum. This outcome contradict the belief of Howard Besser(1997), that said: “In this day and age, when time appears to scarce, people are less likely to make a special trip to a museum to see an original object if they can see a quite reasonable facsimile at their home workstation, especially if they can ‘play with it”. Further results of this research challenge Besser statement. The survey developed by Thomas and Carey and my current result came to very similar conclusion, online museum visitors usually visit museum Web Site before they visit the physical museum, this is because the information and artworks viewed on the screen increased their desire to visit the museum in person.
The analysis of the various clusters shows that although the ’observers’ should be the category that would benefit more of the use of a well-made museums website because it would give them the instruments to understand and interpret the artworks as well as giving them the opportunity to exchange ideas, it is indeed the category that use the websites the least. However the respondents stated that viewing the Tate museums through media familiar to them, as facebook, twitter and youtube could help to break down this still persistent idea that museums are an elitist, uncomfortable and formal spaces and ‘not for me’ feelings. In fact, Mr. Williams stressed the fact that museum use always more often networking and sharing websites to post events, performance and news to have the ‘first contact’ with the ‘observers’ in more ‘casual’ online settings.
According to the analysis of the data given during the interviews, 42% of the respondent said they visit the Tate Web Site once every few months, the 28% at least twice a month, the 25% once a year and the 5% once a week. The people that visit the Web Site more often are the younger cohort, fifteen to 35 years old, and they are students or involved in the arts in some ways. When accessing it, the online users normally have a specific purpose. The majority of the people (33%) answered they visit museum website ‘to look at a particular artist’, followed by the 25% that said they were not looking for something specific but they thought the site might be interesting to explore, the 14% responded they were looking for special events and exhibits and only the 11% responded they were looking for a particular artwork. These data are strongly in contrast with the survey result of the study of Kate Goldman on different American museum, where in the majority of the cases ‘planning a trip’ was the main reason for visiting museum websites.
The interviews’ results showed that users normally find what they are looking for on the Tate Web Site, usability is considered very important and, as explained by Pavlou and Fygenson, it is essential characteristic to enable users to acquire information.
Of the people interviewed only seven have ever made a contribution to the Web Site. When interviewed twenty-eight out of fifty stated that they would not feel comfortable in making a piece or sharing their ideas on the online interface.
Another important finding is that although most of the people would describe a museum website as ‘electronic brochures’, a ‘marketing tool’ or a ‘series of beautiful pictures’, the majority of the respondents said they learned something new when accessing it, an important result if seen alongside the previous accusations.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION
In summary, in this study I tried to explore some factors and behaviour related to the Tate online museum visit. The Web Site is part of the audience Development plan of the museum network and it seems to reflect perfectly the aims of the museum. The respondents of the interviews produced data to achieve the objectives stated, however the lack of relevant previous research on the specific subject did not permit a proper analysis of the findings. The Tate Web Site is well used by a great number of people with different needs, although its unquestioned quality issues around interactivity and communication with the public aroused.
Certainly, this study suffered from limitations such as the low response rate. It would be desirable to replicate this study or do a study under slightly different conditions.
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