Truly a Powerhouse

After listening to so many speakers at our Forum talk about their backlogs, I thought it’s time for me to come clean with mine. Here’s an item from the museum blogosphere which I’ve only now caught up with, and only after Lorcan tugged my sleeve. In this entry of fresh+new from the beginning of August, Sebastian Chan of the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney, Australia) writes about what he calls their “OPAC2.0.” The Powerhouse disclosed 62,000 object records and 30,000 digital images in their new online access system, launched at the beginning of July. Sebastian presents a first cut at the initial impact this “opening of the vault” has had, and the numbers are quite impressive.

In just six weeks, visitation to the Museum’s website increased over 100% (excluding spiders and bots). In the 6 weeks from June 14-July 31 OPAC2.0 on its own received 239,001 visitors (excluding internal museum users) who performed a total of 386,199 successful searches leading to object views (we currently track anonymous data on search terms linked to object views to provide the necessary data for our recommendation engine) and over 1.2 million individual object views.

I’d really like to know how these kinds of figures are viewed by the museum administration – is website traffic just seen as a popularity contest without further implications, or does the fact that this system attracted double the number of online visitors impact the kind of strategic thinking administrations do around their web-presence? As we move from a world where museum websites have and are continuing to morph from mere pointers at the brick-and-mortar to destinations in their own right, how does web traffic play into the “metrics of success” of a given institution? Will keeping and growing webtraffic at some point have a similar importance as the warm-bodies-through-the-door count?

Max Anderson’s article“Metrics of success in art museums” [pdf link], which sets out to significantly go beyond the currently prevalent metrics (the number and marketability of major shows, number of visitors, number of members), make mention of web statistics, yet they don’t seem to play too exalted of a role – under the rubric “Quality of Experience,” he suggests…


20. Number of unique users to museum Web site**
21. Average length of museum-Web-site visit**

…as metrics to be evaluated every 2-3 years, while the rubric “Fulfillment of Educational Mandate” lists…


6. Number of artworks illustrated on museum Web site

…as a metric to be evaluated annually.

Anderson suggested these metrics in 2004. In 2006, the New York Times published an article with the title: “Three out of Four visitors to the Met never make it through the front door” [only with subscription] (March 29, 2006). And that’s because, as you have already guessed, they visited online.

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4 Comments

  1. I’d really like to know how these kinds of figures are viewed by the museum administration – is website traffic just seen as a popularity contest without further implications, or does the fact that this system attracted double the number of online visitors impact the kind of strategic thinking administrations do around their web-presence? As we move from a world where museum websites have and are continuing to morph from mere pointers at the brick-and-mortar to destinations in their own right, how does web traffic play into the “metrics of success” of a given institution? Will keeping and growing webtraffic at some point have a similar importance as the warm-bodies-through-the-door count?

    It is early days for us but the biggest internal effect has been the broad realisation that there is an audience who is interested in more than just what is on display in exhibitions (roughly 4% of total) collection and that this interest is spread very widely across the rest of the collection.

    In some more recent posts on our blog I’ve graphed the interest in the long tail of our collection – and it isn’t until we get to rank 40,000 that interest drops to single figures.

    Also, there have been some surprises about what has been popular.

    The folksonomy tagging has also exceeded expectations with 1600 tags being added in 10 weeks. Again, the spread of tagged objects, the quality of tags, and the language used in tags has been quite unexpected.

    There has been stunned amazement at the quantity of interest but really I think the long term impacts of this will be a revitalisation in interest in supporting the breadth of the collection; and a refocussing of energies on continuing to document the collection.

  2. Seb, your work and the kind of data you quote to show its effect are really inspiring.

    “[...] there is an audience who is interested in more than just what is on display in exhibitions”

    I think this observation really does have a potentially transformative implication – right now, museums (at least in the US) largely see it as their goal to serve a geographically local constituency, make them visitors of the museum, and ideally turn them into members. Serving up the long tail of what’s been stashed in the basement to a theoretically unlimited audience could mark a shift in that stance. Other than the hearty satisfaction that you’ve done the right thing by serving all these aditional people with an abiding interest in your collections, do you see a tangible benefit to the museum (could be financial, could be reputation, could be something else) which could be used to encourage those who are still holding back on online access?

  3. Other than the hearty satisfaction that you’ve done the right thing by serving all these aditional people with an abiding interest in your collections, do you see a tangible benefit to the museum (could be financial, could be reputation, could be something else) which could be used to encourage those who are still holding back on online access?

    Certainly there are reputation (or what I’d call ‘brand’) benefits which play out in tangible ways in terms of awareness in the cultural tourism market (which is valued more in some economies than others), and of course in terms of international reputation between museums. The other really important brand effect is the reinforcing of the ‘role’ of museums in the mind of more of the general public – who in Australia, Canada and part of Europe – fund museums like ours through their taxes. Much in the same way libraries have worked hard to reinforce themselves in the minds of their communities, museums, I see, as needing to do the same – otherwise the voter demand to keep funding them drops away. Next year there is a state election (we are state funded) . . .

    Another way in which tangible benefits may flow to the museum is through bequests and donations which come from donors (both past and future) seeing that what they donate is actually being used and being able to be viewed by their families (even if not on exhibition display), and is visibily valued by the recieving organisation.

    We haven’t yet explored new ways of income generation directly from the site but I expect that with all this ‘content’ on our site there may be other ways, now, of generating income for the organisation from it.

    At a simple level, once in a few months we update the images of about 40% of the collection to proper colour hi-res images, we should be able to increase our demand for image sales into areas previously underexplored (long tail of demand, say, for medal and coin images).

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