History museum websites set the tone for the institution and convey to the viewer what they will encounter should they visit the museum. Unless a viewer has a prior experience with the museum, most people will judge the book by its cover, so to speak. For this assignment, I examined about a dozen different history museums’ websites to try to determine what makes a good website. I tried to focus on private institutions, as they have more freedom of design, rather than federal or state-run museums that may have to work within an existing website structure.
For the purpose of this analysis, I focused my attention mostly on the institution’s home page. For the most part, the subsequent pages within the website followed the same general pattern as the home page anyway, and I believe that the home page is the most important part of the institution’s website.
It is imperative to have a well-designed home page. If people aren’t drawn in by or cannot navigate the home page, they are not going to explore further. In addition, if the home page looks like it was designed in 1995, people can (perhaps safely) assume that your museum exhibits also have not been updated since 1995.
After perusing numerous history museum websites, I determined that the best home pages are designed like promotional postcards. They are clean and well-organized, with eye-catching designs and images, and provide only basic information. The New-York Historical Society, New York State Museum, and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio are good examples of this design strategy.
The key elements that these designs share include:
- Home page is centered on the screen and viewable on a single page. You should not have so much information that viewers need to scroll down five pages to take everything in. That much information also makes the page look cluttered.
- Light colored or faintly-patterned background. Lots of solid bold colors look like you’ve just discovered that you can change the background color on your website.
- Coordinated and restrained color scheme. Colors should compliment each other and be used strategically. Too many colors is distracting
- Text spaced slightly greater than single space. This makes it easier to view and read.
- Navigation bar along top or left side with the expected links (about, exhibits, programs / events, collection, research, support us, etc.)
- High-quality photos or images, both historic and current. This enables you to show off the museum’s collection, as well as to show that the institution is active today. Most websites choose a single photo or a series of scrolling photos as the focus of the page, with smaller images to illustrate other links.
Much of the quality of the website depends on its design, not the architecture or extra technology involved in creating it. This should inspire small museums to revisit their websites. Some smaller museums like the Saratoga Springs History Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, and Naper Settlement are on the right track with their websites, making them more modern, better looking, and easier to navigate.