More on museum websites: a response to Caterina Pisu of the National Association of Small Museums

Regarding our article on Repubblica's research on museum websites, we give a response to Caterina Pisu of the National Association of Small Museums.

My article about Repubblica ’s research on museum websites aroused the interest of some insiders (which can only make me happy), including Dr. Caterina Pisu, museologist as well as coordinator of the Research and Communication sector of the National Association of Small Museums, who dedicated an elaborate response to me on the Museums Newspaper blog and which you can read by clicking here. I want to respond to the response here by taking the opportunity to clarify some aspects of last Tuesday’s article that may perhaps seem a bit controversial.

Dr. Pisu says that my article on the Repubblica’s research has too technical an approach and a predominantly academic view: let’s say I take her words as a compliment, and I acknowledge that for a good part of the article I spoke only about purely technical aspects... although, moreover, not even in great depth. But I am convinced that certain criteria cannot be left aside. Take the one example cited in the Museums Newspaper article, “the public cares little whether the website meets W3C standards.” On this I disagree, not so much that the public really cares about the validation of the site, but that a W3C-certified site is one that demonstrates that it has had regard, at the design stage, for certain rules aimed at making the site as usable and accessible as possible. Repubblica ’s investigation talked about attention to differently-abled visitors, but this attention must originate right from the website: take, for example, the Hermitage site (but also that of the Munch Museet, or that of the Reína Sofía), where one of the most basic W3C practices is missing, namely the “alt” attribute of images: an occasional lack in the sites of the last two museums I mentioned, but systematic in the Hermitage site. It may seem like a subtlety, but without this W3C good practice, blind people will never know what images are on the page. So we are not talking about trivial aspects, we are talking about attention to be paid to a certain part of the audience.

Having made that necessary premise, I just reject one point made by Dr. Pisu, which was not my intent to trigger, which is that I would belittle the non-technical aspects of the website, which does not reflect the way I see the issue: being a webdesigner and web developer I have dwelt more on the aspects of my strict competence, but if I gave importance only to that, it would not explain why a site like Windows on Art is such a popular project with the public (here I am also responsible for all the content, which is the flagship of our high-quality dissemination activity). Therefore, I also consider the aspects that Catherine mentions in her article to be of extreme importance.

Otherwise, I can only agree with what was expressed in Museums Newspaper. It is obvious that then everyone has his or her own vision of museums: for example, as I wrote on Tuesday, for me the collection is not a main aspect of the museum, but it is the main aspect, with the determinative article, which is why it seems unfair to me to give the same score to the presentation of the collection and the online shop (whose offerings I never called “junk,” if anything I said that I go to the museum to see the works and not to buy objects of dubious taste, and I defy anyone to say that in museum stores there are none!). I, too, have happened to buy books and exhibition catalogs in museum stores. I think it is also appropriate, following more reflection also conducted live with friends and colleagues, to untie the assessment of social presence and any smartphone (or other device) apps from the discourse on websites. This is because websites, social, and apps are three different worlds, each with its own rules, communication styles, and goals, and mixing them together in a single cauldron in my opinion would risk making the analysis of a website (given that we are talking about websites) too confusing and inaccurate.

The richness of information, as Caterina points out, is a non-negligible fact, and in this many of our museums’ websites are lacking especially when compared with the websites of foreign institutions which, moreover, in most cases, demonstrate a communication style that is certainly more welcoming (although I still believe that our home websites are more elegant and more usable). These are all aspects to think about, along with others that I have not mentioned in this response: this is why I believe we all need to work together, each bringing their own contribution (museologists, art historians, web designers, communication experts, bloggers, maybe even with the help of a small panel of art enthusiasts, because the voice of the grassroots is fundamental) to define what standards a good museum website should follow in order to appear complete, useful, professional, and attentive to the needs of all kinds of audiences. We have launched our proposal and are already working on an “alpha” version of a list of standards that we believe should define a good museum website. We will be pleased to submit it for consideration by the community of practitioners with whom we have recently had fruitful exchanges of views that we hope will lead to something very concrete. Best wishes for good work to Catherine and everyone!