Monday 1 December 2008


Last week I was at a cultural sector web conference which left me thinking further about the relationship between galleries online (virtual - yuck, hate that word) and offline (physical) presences.

I'd started thinking about this about a week ago, when I visited the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for the first time. I'm an avid follower of the Powerhouse online - their website, online collection, dhub, work on Flickr, and Seb Chan's Fresh + Newer blog. The Powerhouse is an incredibly sophisticated user of and contributor to the web, very user-focused, very much about tapping into and assisting communities, and always very close to the 'bleeding-edge' of developments.

So it was quite weird when I visited the Museum offline to not have this experience replicated physically. To begin with, I was quite taken aback that there's an entrance fee - not because this fact is at all hidden on their site, but because their online work is so open and generous that charged entry seemed disjunctive.

Secondly, the entry lines are a bit of a mess - and god, didn't the poor kid administering them know it, telling us that he'd lost count of the number of times he'd told Visitor Services that visitors got confused and pissy.

But over all, the physical experience didn't mirror my online experience. It wasn't as elegant, the design wasn't as good, I never saw a floor person (the web services are very "friendly"), the shop was jumbly and unfocused and didn't appeal to my niche interests (which is what the web is all about).

These criticisms could be applied to almost any institution. The thing was, my expectations of my 'visitor experience' were sky-high, because I thought it would match my online experience. In general, it's the other way around (a so-so online experience is exceeded by the real visit - the AGNSW on- and off-line experiences being on about a par). So, if you run a gallery or museum website, here's some questions to ask yourself:

-- Is your online branding and design work as good as your exhibition and print design?

-- Do people answer questions submitted online as quickly as they'd answer them in real/physical life?

-- Do online visitors have access to the same kind of information physical visitors have (esp. wall panels, essays, curatorial insights....)

-- Is it as easy to find out what exhibitions and events are happening online as it is in your foyer?

-- Can you make bookings and buy things online simply and without having to hand over any more info than you would offline?

-- Is a visit to your website the same kind of experience as a visit to your real space?

Here's a quick test. Ask someone (who doesn't work with you) to sit down and explore your site for a minute or two. Then ask them: if this site was a car, what kind of car would it be? And if they call you a people-mover when you think you're really a Ferrari, you have some work to do.*

*PS please do not ever use this focus-group question too seriously. Really, what's the likelihood that anyone will ever identify you as the beautifully restored classic finned 50s Cadillac you think you are? Sometimes it's just good to motivate yourself with a little self-flagellation.


tinks said...

Interesting post. With the exclusion of a number of isolated accessibility through 'collection on line' type projects, I wonder just how many of our public galleries actually have the capability (financial, staff or technical) to provide a website that ticks any more boxes than 'additional marketing tool'?

Courtney Johnston said...

Probably hardly any - esp. if they're in thrall to their council IT department.

However, 'capability' also has to do with caring and determination. And it's time to stop talking about 'websites' and start looking at 'web presence'. Most of the things you could think about doing are no more technically complicated than emailing; they just require you to care and put some of your free time in.

For example: the GBAG. Has a dedicated non-local audience. Puts no images of current exhibitions up on website for them. Simple solution would be to put installation shots up on Flickr. Even better, do it with a Creative Commons licence (even the most conservative one) so people like me could put up image-filled blog posts and not have to sneak cameras into the shows. Ditto Len Lye - his films are already all over YouTube; why not talk to the Foundation about putting some up on Vimeo (classier, design-obsessed audience).

If you're a uni gallery that has a big volunteer staff, let them administer your Bebo or Facebook account and promote events and openings that way.

Or at the very, very least: set up some Twitter, Technorati and Google RSS search feeds and track what people are saying about you - and when it feels appropriate, talk back.

Okay - I'm getting that "I should quit my day job" feeling again. But it was frankly disappointing to see such a paltry turnout from galleries at the NDF conference - how can any of them expect to pull their online socks up if they're not even trying to engage?