THE MAKING OF Civilization.ca
To my knowledge, no Canadian museum Web site is larger or older than that of my own institution, a site now branded as Civilization.ca. It started life in 1994 with just a few hundred screens of information, a single person responsible for it, and no dedicated budget. But, being in that pioneering wave of museums on the Web, it was able to attract an audience and, by continuous expansion of content, maintain and develop the audience. In its early weeks of existence, staff and management were pleased with statistics showing a couple of thousand page downloads each week. Little did they imagine that this visitation would increase dramatically over the rest of the decade. By 2001, the site received over 14 million requests for Web pages annually (a figure that translates to about 84 million “hits”, to use a term more commonly known).
We are still trying to answer the question of precisely what these figures mean. There are many pitfalls in interpreting the basic sets of data collected by a Webserver. Museum managers are used to thinking in terms of numbers of visitors, but for various reasons it is difficult to identify a comparable concept in an online environment. The commonly reported statistic of “hits” 19 is not very meaningful. “Requests for pages”, also known as page accesses or page downloads, is somewhat more meaningful, and provides a better statistic for comparison to other Web sites. A third statistic is known as “user sessions” 20 which, although somewhat subjective, is about as close as we can come to something comparable to visits to the physical museum. We estimate that Civilization.ca hosts about 3 million sessions a year, compared to 1.5 million actual visitors to our physical installations. However, online user sessions are much shorter than physical visits; the average visit to our Web site lasts about 13 or 14 minutes, which is quite long in “Internet time”, but much less than the 4 hours which is typical for visitors to the physical museum.
From the statistics we analyse, complemented by qualitative data from public feedback, we have come to several conclusions about the profile of Civilization.ca‘s online visitors and their use of the site:
- In terms of demographics, our online visitors are very similar to the well-known profile of traditional museum visitors. 21
- A high percentage are those seeking education-related information (such as teachers, students, or parents).
- About 80% are interested in the knowledge resources of the site, while most of the remainder are looking for information to help them plan a visit to the physical site, or obtain access to museum products.
- The United States probably represents the largest source of online visitors (larger even than Canadians simply because of the large U.S. population). The third largest group is visitors from francophone countries, because our site is fully bilingual. 22
Source: Web Trends
To illustrate what people value about the Civilization.ca site, let me cite (anonymously) several brief extracts from just a few of the messages we have received:
“In the past, for my Grade 10 Canadian History class I used your website… because I have not found anything that comes close in matching its detail, insightfulness and the rich primary sources…. It is truly an incredible resource for teachers to use to bring life and excitement to this topic.”
[from the USA]
“It’s a great thing to have such valuable information at my fingertips. I learned many things at your site. I will be back.”
“It is wonderful to be able to access your site on the Internet. My family and I will enjoy expanding our knowledge of Canada and your Museum when we use the virtual tours!”
“Bravo vraiment pour votre site que j’ai déjà consulté plusieurs fois. Il est delicieux…. Votre réalisation est suffisamment attrayante pour que j’envisage d’organiser, avec l’Association que je préside, un voyage au Canada pour visiter votre superbe exposition.”
[from Hong Kong]
“I am so impressed by your web. Much information to be found in this page. I think it is really very good.”
“Cela fait longtemps que je surfe! Mais je n’avais encore jamais visité un site aussi formidable que le vôtre. Je cherchais des renseignements pour l’école car nous étudions l’Egypte et votre site est époustouflant! Facile à naviguer et quelle masse de renseignements! Je vais faire une super bonne note à mon exposé.”
[from the Netherlands]
“I was looking for some information for my daughter’s school project (she is 10 yr.) and what I found simply amazed me. It was so interesting and enjoyable that I spent hours to surf and read these material.”
[from the UK]
“The CMC site is the most exceptional and innovative museum website I have yet to see. Intellectual access to the collections and information was superior – fascinating, visually pleasing, and easy to use. As a museum curator in England, I have been investigating IT opportunities to increase the use of our collections. So far I have been dubious about the quality that can be achieved. Your site has changed my mind. As a matter of fact, I just meant to have a peek at your site and I’ve had to pull myself away after 45 minutes! I will be visiting again, and suggesting the site to teachers teaching Native Americans as part of England’s National Curriculum.”
[from the USA]
“FANTASTIC!!!!! Even with only a 14.4 modem I found the site very easy to access…. I cannot believe how wonderful your Pacific Coast Grand Hall tour is. Thank you so much for educating me in a way I would not have been able to experience without your web site.”
“Your team has done a great job of building this site. I am pleased to see that you used rule #1: ‘Content is king’.”
Of course, not all our feedback is so congratulatory! We receive criticism too, some constructive and some just downright insulting, but these have their uses, particularly in identifying some navigation problems. Consequently we gave special attention to navigation when the site underwent its first major redesign, culminating in a site relaunch in September 2001. 23