Understanding Information-Seeking Needs of Online Museum Visitors

Understanding Information-Seeking Needs of Online Museum Visitors

There are many different types of visitors and users of museum digital media.  Visitors seek different types and levels of information for a variety of needs and purposes.  The way people access and search for information has drastically changed since the advent of the Internet.  In today’s modern society, if an institution does not have an online digital presence it does not exist to the world.  Statistically, visitors to museum websites outnumber physical visitors three to one (Marty, Burton Jones, 187).  Museum professionals need to think about how the digital museum can address the ever changing and increasing needs of online visitors.  This is a considerable task but one that must be continually updated and increased in order to remain current with the expanding digital-access expectations of visitors.  Knowing and predicting the digital expectations and needs of visitors can help museum professionals guide the development and role of the museum in relation to the public (Marty, Burton Jones, 183).

The digital information setting in which digitized content is generated and provided has changed.  These changes allow the sharing of digital data and encourage innovative developments in research although concerns of licensing persist in the reuse of the data and images.  Future research in this area, of visitor needs and expectations, could encourage museums to: (1) examine use and users of readily available cultural and heritage materials, (2) disseminate and foster the comprehension of cultural data, (3) influence other institutions to share their data in a public method, (4) construct aggregation and research resources to connect information sources to encourage collaboration,(5) and develop best-practices to utilize computing facilities to evaluate and process the considerable aggregates of data available. (Terras,733).

Technological innovations are changing how visitors and museum professionals approach and develop cultural institutions (Bertacchini and Morando, 60).  Visitors expect increased and instant access to information about collections, educational resources, general information, and special exhibitions.  Grade school teachers, college students, museum professionals and many other types of visitors require different kinds of digital data, such as object information, lesson plans or guides, images, institutional information, etc.  While every need cannot be met, institutions must endeavor to attempt to meet as many as possible.  The increased visitation online can lead to more physical visitors and publicity.  In many ways a digital presence provides legitimacy to the institution as a whole.  Providing accessible and clear institutional information, publications, resources, etc. implies that the institution is open and transparent to the public.

Despite wanting to create more access for visitors, institutions are recognizing this access may require the museum to relinquish control over their digital media.  Creating digital access may “potentially enhance economic and social value through serendipitous dissemination and reuse” (Bertacchini and Morando, 60).  Bertacchini and Morando also state that when museums tightly control their digital media, this can “enable museums to generate new revenues in information markets and to retain their position as gatekeepers of authoritative and trusted cultural content” (60).  I personally see the potential increase of economic and social value as more important for the development of the institution and for long term revenue production.  Providing more access creates more interest in the minds of the digitally savvy generation.  I believe that if access is not provided, these visitors will just move on to another institution that will provide the digital media and will not look back.

Hannah Johnson, Graduate Student, Museum Science & Management, Education Track

University of Tulsa, 2017


Bertacchini, E., and Morando, F. “The Future of Museums in the Digital Age: New Models for Access to and Use of Digital Collections”. International Journal of Arts Management, Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Issue: Digital Revolution in Arts and Cultural Organizations (WINTER 2013), pp. 60-72. HEC – Montréal – Chair of Arts Management. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24587113 Accessed: 08-03-2017 14:21 UTC

Marty, P. F., & Jones, K. B. (2009). Museum informatics: People, information, and technology in museums. New York: Routledge.

Terras, M. (2015). Opening Access to collections: the making and using of open digitised cultural content. Online Information Review, 39(5), 733-752. doi:10.1108/oir-06-2015-0193


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Amanda Vestal says:

    I think that your idea that museums who do not provide digital access to their collections get looked over is all too true in our digital age. There have been many times where I have gone to a specific museum’s website to see their collections and when they are not available have simply gone to another website and kind of made a mental note that the first museum would not be worth visiting because I do not have a good enough idea of what is in their collections. Though allowing the public to access all of that information is scary for museums, they just have to bite in the bullet and allow it or else they risk being left behind.


  2. Zachary Taylor says:

    Noting that the way people access and process and information since the advent of the internet is an important factor to recognize. Expectations of traditional museum visitors, like those of non-visitors equally use digital technologies in their everyday life. I appreciate that you acknowledge this dichotomy and that if museums who wish to remain current with all visitors, both online and in person, need to address the issues surrounding digital platforms.
    My interest was particularly peaked in your fourth point about visitors needs and expectations about digitally sharing collections is that it can “influence other institutions to share their data in a public method.” Why is it that for so long museums seem to hoard and covet their own collections as if they are the sole proprietor of its context and meaning? I appreciate your note on the social value “as more important for the development of the institution and for long term revenue production. Providing more access creates more interest in the minds of the digitally savvy generation.”


  3. Amy Bradshaw says:

    Meeting the digital needs of a wide demographic does require the institution to make data accessible to the public and yes, to become almost transparent. Indeed, when the desired data is not provided, many people, including myself attempt to find another site with the valuable information. It takes center stage on the idea of “immediate gratification.” From a student’s perspective, when visiting a museum’s online collection, I want to quickly review the publications, resources and field tags related to the work, as well as a high resolution image (s).
    In your classroom activity, I received the role of a high school student needing to perform research an American icon. Since I chose to research Thomas Jefferson, I visited the American History Museum and another historical site. I found several images that I would like to use from the American History Museum; however, I did not find enough resources or publications to do thorough research.
    While reading this blog, I also take particular notice to the statistical information of museum website visitors outnumbering the physical visitations 3:1. This is not surprising but I was shocked to hear Deb Howes relate that she is not so interested in the particular number of people visiting the museum but she emphasized the importance of the number of online visitors. I believe the accessibility of data and the increase in website traffic will lead to a rise in web search results and physical attendance. Most importantly, when the data is shared on social media sites, attendance will increase.


  4. Alex London says:

    I really like this blog post Hannah. I think you tackle an interesting issue in regards to museums “relinquishing” control of their digital media. Perhaps its wishful thinking, but I do believe museum professionals in charge of digital media can adhere to similar philosophies that other museum professionals have for decades. A culture of digitalization is already taking part in quite a few museums, evidenced by the adherence to high-quality photography, use of the AAT, and other unifying aspects between each museums digital collection. I believe a lot of the hard work taken on by curators and other museum staff can translate well into a digital collection, and as Hannah mentions, if users do not feel satisfied with the product then they will just move on.
    One of the most exciting aspects about the future of museums collections is digitalization, and it will be at its strongest via collaboration within the museum structure.


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