The Shared Meanings Design Framework for Developing Museum Websites

Position Paper for WWW9 Culture Track / EC MEDICI Framework

Paul Wernick and Simon Polovina

Most, if not all, communication between people is by the use of signs. Historically, signs that conveyed meanings without the use of words were employed to reach a largely illiterate audience. This practice is illustrated by the use of particular attributes in the artistic depiction of figures, to communicate their identity to viewers. Examples include Hercules with a lion skin and club from the Classical world, and St. Peter holding the keys of Heaven and Hell. Equivalent to this is the requirement for museums to display meaningfully artefacts embodying signs from previous times and/or other cultures for visitors from a range of present-day cultures.

Designing a website represents an extension of the task of a museum. The challenge facing the website designer in interpreting the signs presented on a web page to its viewers however is greater than that facing the museum exhibit designer because the environment in which the page is viewed is much less predictable. Potentially unfamiliar signs can be learned by visitors as they explore a museum building, starting from the entrance where the exhibition designers can lay out an initial set of signs for visitors. A web page can be viewed from anywhere in the world, and its designer cannot control or even predict the location of the viewers. It is also impossible to determine in advance from which site the viewers have arrived by following links. Immediate prior experiences can shape the mind-set and expectations they will bring to ‘our site’, as can where they arrive in ‘our site’, as links to specific web pages within it may be created by other website developers to pages within our site. The immediate context of the viewers, be it home, work, on the train/bus, etc., is also beyond our control, further contributing to the uncertainty. All of these necessitate the design for a museum’s website of a sign system more general in nature and content than that adopted within the controlled environment of the museum itself. Existing methods of explaining exhibits to visitors from other cultures will still be applicable and useful, but more is required and familiar signs may need careful re-evaluation before being employed in a website for unlimited access.

The cultural norms of the major cultures within which the website will be seen must also be considered. This raises similar but more wide-ranging issues to those of gender-neutral exhibit labelling at the museum itself, since again the environment is much less controllable by the website developers. It is important, for example, to consider choices of colours and words, and the use of symbols for conveying information, e.g. envelopes (are they familiar in all cultures?), including the identification of potential ambiguities in interpretation. Sensitivities for cultures other than that of the museum may also demand thought concerning the balance between freedom and censorship, which may be interpreted in each visitor’s local context.

There is no single ‘right answer’ to any of these issues and it is necessary to understand the balance of needs and wants of website owners and their expected users – which will not necessarily accord with those of the website designers! It is essential to take the issues raised above into account, whilst avoiding a lowest-common-denominator result which either uncritically reproduces United States culture or is too bland to provide any flavour of the museum, its aims or objectives. Accordingly we believe the Shared Meanings Design Framework (SMDF) offers a mechanism for capturing and responding to this important aspect of website design. SMDF uses principles from semiotics to assist in determining the issues related to the identification and use of signs in conveying information to website users. SMDF can be used as a front end to an existing development mechanism, or as its own methodology for website development. It offers mechanisms for the identification of meanings shared between website developers, owners and users, and provides checklists for website design and evolution. These checklists can be used as guidelines for website design as the website is modified or even completely rebuilt. SMDF is still in its early stages and we encourage you to share in its development for the benefit of the museum community, visitors and other stakeholders.