Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Commercial Considerations in Putting Museums Online










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George MacDonald


Executive Director
Canadian Museum of Civilization










Abstract



More and more museums are jumping on the Web bandwagon. But will they be able to last the course? A successful, long-term online presence requires collaboration with industry partners, and finding ways to finance the educational services through commercial initiatives.


(Paper presented at the Canadian National Internet Show, Toronto, March 29, 1996)




Introduction



Museums, like many other organizations, are slowly waking up to how the Internet can help them reach larger audiences, create more widespread awareness of their sites as tourist destinations, and distribute their products in ways that few had the resources to attempt in the past. A growing number of museums are jumping on the bandwagon and putting up Web sites. They are coming to appreciate its potential for education, for promotion, and for earning new revenues — revenues on which they are becoming more reliant in the present economic environment, as government cuts back on agency budgets and as sponsorship funding is harder to come by.


At first glance, the Web seems a relatively inexpensive way of achieving these goals. A modest monthly payment can obtain server space from a commercial service provider. Creation of Web pages can be undertaken by some enthusiastic staffer with a little computer literacy, or maybe a volunteer or a student – maybe they’ll even have their own PC and scanner to digitize images. Then, hey presto!, your museum has its own Web site.


But now what? Your modest site, with text extracted from old brochures and a few pretty pictures, is one of hundreds of thousands on the Web. It may attract curious surfers for a couple of minutes each; but then they’ve surfed on to fresher waters, and your site falls behind in the backwash and is forgotten.


The Web sits still for nobody. It is an increasingly competitive environment, and to have a site that can attract frequent return visitors, can build and hold a loyal clientele, it has to have either lots of sizzle or lots of steak. Preferably both. Now we’re talking something more than a modest investment. We’re talking a fast connection to the ‘Net — maybe even your own server; we’re talking planned development; we’re talking multiple personnel working on the Web site — some full-time, some part-time; we’re talking specialized skills such as design, programming, communication, in addition to the content experts; we’re talking the ability — in terms both of training and of hardware/software acquisition — to keep up with latest advances and to find museum applications for them.


What we’re talking is an ongoing commitment of resources to electronic outreach. This either means redirecting funds that museums were previously applying to other operations. Or it means finding ways to generate revenues directly and quickly through the Web project, ideally at least with a payback within the same fiscal year. That is not easy; most museums will have to redirect funds from their present budgets for several years before they hit the break-even point.


The main target of my presentation today will be to consider ways in which museums may be able to make Web projects financially viable, whether it is by spreading out some of the costs through partnerships, or by recouping costs through commercial applications. In doing so, I will talk about what my own institution, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is doing.


I will also spend a little time outlining my vision for the virtual museum. And I want to make some observations about the Web audience. But, to begin, I should just review the extent of museum activity on the Web.

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