History and developmentHeritage visualisation technology has been possible since at least the late 1980s. The abstracts of papers in Computers and the History of Art Journal from 1988 to the present day are fascinating and offer an insight into the concerns and priorities of the time, as well as an overview of the technological development in this area.1 Thanks to these early interdisciplinary pioneers, digital art history has been able to flourish as a serious discipline and as Anna Bentkowska-Kafelfor says, they should be recognised as being truly innovative’.2
The application of computer science to architecture, cultural artefacts and art in general, as demonstrated by these early researchers has never been more popular. Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of cultural institutions have been looking at ways to effectively digitise their collections.
The advent of better and constantly evolving technology – cheaper, faster, more user friendly – combined with improved storage capability and the endless possibilities of the internet has been a positive boon for museums. It seems that museum websites are themselves becoming virtual extensions to the physical collections and vital repositories of free and valuable information for all.
As technology continues to develop, with interest and awareness amongst users increasing, this trend will continue. A growing and wide range of people are happy to interact with organisations online via sites and social media. Most importantly young people – the museum’s future audience – are especially comfortable with virtual worlds. However, with new user sophistication comes high expectations and people are liable to judge websites quite harshly. Quite simply people are accustomed to slick smart phone/tablet technologies and are impatient when things do not replicate this experience.
EvaluationIt has been acknowledged that museum web development is ‘often undertaken with limited resources in terms of time, knowledge and money and consequently many museums’ sites lack useful features.’3 This is where evaluation is essential. If an innovative and informative website with full digital visual resources has become a vital part of the entire museum experience, then like the contents of the collection, it requires constant evaluation and evolution.
I found many papers on this subject with some recent ones applying themselves to social media aspects of museum website evaluation.4 This being outside the scope of this report, I focused on two which seemed relevant and useful for directing my thoughts along structured critical lines. One considered the usability of the resource's interface, in which I am particularly interested and reasonably knowledgeable.5 The other study attempts a wider view and reasonably suggested that up until 2008 'there wasn't a comprehensive mechanism for systematically assessing all components of a museum website'.6 They present a table of evaluation criteria considering content, presentation, usability, interactivity, e-services and technical. Under each main heading they have a number of subheadings with more detail.
Given that my case study is a summative evaluation of single object and its pages are relatively distinct from the rest of the museum's website, I don't intend to directly apply John Pallas and Anastasios Economides's evaluation framework, MUSEF, because it is too wide ranging for my purposes. For instance I don't need to consider e-commerce aspects and I don't have access to some of the more technical questions. As they stated in their conclusions, future work would involve people evaluating museum's sites using a simplified or focused version of MUSEF, which is what I am doing here.
1 CHArt Tables of Contents, http://www.chart.ac.uk/chartocs.html, accessed 22/8/13
2 Anna Bentkowska-Kafelfor, ‘“I bought a piece of Roman furniture…”: Digital visualisation of cultural heritage and its scholarly value in art history,’ Visual resources: An international journal of documentation, (2013) 29: 1-2, 38-46, p40
3 John Pallas and Anastasios Economides, ‘Evaluation of art museums’ websites worldwide, Information Services and Use, 28 (2008) 45-57, p46
4 Adrienne Fletcher and Moon J. Lee, 'Current social media uses and evaluations in American museums', Museum Management and Curatorship, (2012) 27:5 505-521
5 A. Karoulis et al., 'Usability evaluation of a virtual museum interface', Informatica, 2006 17:3 363-380
6 John Pallas and Anastasios Economides, p46