Republic's (bad) research on museum websites. And a proposal

The daily newspaper Repubblica brought out a survey of the websites of some major world museums a few days ago. Here's what we think about the research. Plus, a proposal of our own.

A few days ago, November 23 to be exact, a kind of “survey” of museum websites came out in the pages of Repubblica. The title of the article that presented the results is a whole program:"Ugly and inhospitable, here are the Italian museums on the web," which says a lot about the usual foreignophilia that almost always distinguishes those who write about museums in major newspapers (and probably do not visit or visit only the two or three main ones). But the research presented by Repubblica (assuming that it can really be called “research,” as the newspaper’s journalists attempt to do) cannot set itself up as a serious tool since it stands, upon a little bit thorough examination, as an incredible receptacle of errors and rough selection criteria that makes it very little credible for a serious analysis on museum websites(from this link it is possible to download the Excel file with research results and criteria).

For starters, the article tells us that “the home pages of major Italian and foreign museums” were compared. But no one tells us what the choice of the 34 museums was based on (the most visited? Those with the most floor space? Those with the highest revenues?). The lack of transparency about the evaluation criteria then especially concerns the technical aspects of the analyzed websites, namely the last section of the research, which contains four points:

  • Navigability = smoothly navigating through the online sections of the museum (but no one explains on what criteria a site according to the research can be defined as “smoothly navigable”)
  • Layout = website appearance (an item so vague as to appear truly ridiculous: what does “website appearance” mean?)
  • Membership = information about becoming a museum patron (and why should this item be in a purely technical area?)
  • Search = presence of the search button (in addition to its presence, however, it would be a good idea to check whether it is working properly: for example, the search form on the Venice Guggenheim Collection website redirects to a page in which our antivirus reports the presence of malware).

And these are the only technical aspects of the website that were taken into account by this research (not bad, for a research on websites). None that checked adherence to W3C standards (and in this case of the top ten sites not a single one is saved: only the site of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which to date contains only one validation error, is near-standard), or minimum accessibility criteria (such as whether the site functions properly if a user has disabled the execution of JavaScript code from their browser, and in this sense the site of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, by disabling JavaScript, becomes useless as it is no longer navigable, with the exception of the online shop area), or even the speed at which pages load and their weight (only three museums out of the top ten have pages weighing less than 1 Megabyte), continuing then with a more in-depth analysis of layouts to see how many separate graphics from content and, if they do, how they do so. In this regard, by way of example, theHermitage in St. Petersburg not only does not make use of style sheets, but even does not use a tableless layout, thus manifesting the use of practices that were already in disuse a decade ago. And this is only by taking into consideration main aspects, without even delving into considerations of SEO(Search Engine Optimization) of websites or more in-depth but still important criteria for evaluating a website (presence of scaled images, minifying of code, deferring of JavaScript code execution, and so on).

Let us now leave the technical aspect to focus on the content aspect. Let us start with the item"works" (= possibility of viewing the masterpieces present): here, too, the difference between websites is stark. For example, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan offers only a selection of the works in the collection, while the Uffizi website, in the “visit the museum” section, presents descriptions of almost all the works on display (with related images), and each of them contains cross-references to the documentation center website where it is possible to find worksheets with various other technical data (passages, restorations, photographs, in which exhibitions the work has been exhibited, etc.). Yet in this “search,” under the heading “works,” the Taiwan museum and the Florentine gallery score the same. Not to mention then that all these criteria are on the whole insignificant since each item was given the same score: it follows then that the sum of the scores given by the criteria in the “Commercial” area (i.e. presence of online shop and “presence of objects with the museum’s logo”) and those in the “Emotion” area (i.e. catering and organization of private events - you read that right, private!) equals the sum of the criteria of the “Explore” area, that is, the one in which the items that take into account the possibility of seeing the museum’s works on the site or taking a virtual tour, or even having information about the exhibitions were included. Yet it seemed to us that one went to the museum to see the works, not to eat or to buy items of dubious taste and dubious usefulness: it is much more useful if a museum presents more information about its collections than about its restaurants, yet this rating system disfavors the Uffizi (which gets 5 out of 8 points in the search) at the expense of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, which instead gets 6 out of 8, albeit with the limitations in collection presentation mentioned just above. We could then continue with unclear criteria such as “Social networks = Facebook and Twitter to share information and works” (museums that do not share works on Facebook, what score was given?) or “Restaurant = menu information and presence of photos of the museum’s restaurants and cafeterias” (same thing: those who do not present the menu what score? Probably zero, since the Uffizi has some meager information about their cafeteria in the “services” section but no photos or menu).

And finally, not only are the analysis criteria unclear or incomplete, but numerous errors were made in the evaluation process. By way of example: the Uffizi site has a link to the educational section (but the search assigns a score of zero to the item “education” = information dedicated to educational paths, information that is instead present and is even comprehensive), on the Venaria site the collections are not presented (or if they are there, they are hidden very well, and instead according to the research the score is 1, so works from the Reggia’s collections would also be found on the site), while on the other hand on the Louvre’s site the area for job offers is there all right and is even done well (and the research scores the Louvre 0 in this section). Given all these limitations, which for a single search are not a few, how can the Republic investigation be called credible?

However, we want to give credit to this research: that of having highlighted the need for more serious research, with fairer criteria, with more in-depth technical analysis. And so we launch a proposal to all the insiders who are following us: let us do our own research on museum websites. We at Windows on Art are available to guide the project, to identify the criteria of the technical area and to collaborate in drafting the content criteria. What do you say?

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