Imagining a WordPress museum site

Easy access

One of the most likeable things about WordPress is its approachability. With only a little web knowledge and the ability to follow simple instructions it is a doddle to get a WordPress site up and running (aka the “famous 5 minute install“).

Once at that stage and with only a few clicks you can change the theme, add new plugins and start publishing your memoirs or selling widgets. There are already a lot of very impressive projects out there developing powerful open source plugins that help to customise WordPress for specialised purposes.

Minimal museum use

So it interests me that there is a dearth of museum or gallery sites that use it (other than as a blogging platform). My guess as to why that may be is that we have yet to see many useful plugins that give WordPress the necessary tools to display and search collections online.

I have found one or two isolated examples of museum sites built on WordPress but these use proprietary plugins or technology to add that functionality (or the search isn’t integrated at all). As good as these sites are I don’t see any wider take up.

I think the reason for this is that closed products don’t necessarily foster a wider user and developer base.

Tapping into the community

In the WordPress ecosystem popular plugins and themes attract large user bases and therefore have the momentum and enthusiasm required to maintain a development cycle. Someone builds just the right kind of product, it catches peoples imagination, they run with it and a community builds up around it.

Not all WordPress products are free but there are some good examples of powerful plugins that are. For instance, with a little in-depth knowledge anyone can play with BuddyPress (a Facebook style social network plugin) and see how it works and of course modify it to their needs. I recently came across Placester which is a real estate (estate agent) plugin. I can’t comment on it’s quality, but it certainly looks very slick with some very attractive and well-designed free templates. Essentially I could install it now if I wanted to and play around with it.

BuddyPress and Placester came under my radar because it seems to me these products have functionality that is not a million miles away from a typical online collections search. If you look at BuddyPress and replace the concept of a member profile page and re-imagine it as a collections object page there is an awful lot there that is transferrable conceptually (I doubt it would be viable to simply convert it though). The same goes if you swap property for object in Placester.

So, knowing what I know so far about WordPress this is what how I imagine my fantasy collections based plugin might work.

MuseumPress

For the want of a better title let’s call it MuseumPress. BTW the use of “Museum” is a peg to hang this on; ideally it should work just as well for art galleries, archives or record discographies if that is your need.

It must me free!

The core philosophy should be to develop the product and its extensions for free.

Well, the core framework at least and with a GPL license. Also a number of starter themes to get people up and running (including dummy content perhaps). That is not to say that nobody should develop paid plugins but monetisation can only happen if there is a large enough user base to make it viable.

Many museums use public money to develop web presences. This is OK but would it not be better if they were paying developers to create products with community input that can then be released for free?

In my opinion this would be a much more sustainable model and a better use of public funding. I have a bee in my bonnet about this – opportunities for sharing knowledge are lost by constantly insisting on building closed systems.

Multiuser activation

I envisage a plugin that needs WordPress Multiuser activation. OK this requires some messing about with wp-config.php (and server configuration), so there is a little newbie hummock to negotiate right there. This should be the most challenging (i.e. non UI enabled) aspect of the set up.

Collections data import

Once you are past this point you need to get your collections into the database. My guess is that this should be done via a CSV file. If I push my fantasy a little harder I imagine a scenario where you might want to configure your set up to add or remove fields to display information at the front end – perhaps based on the type of objects you want to display (and indeed cater for multiple object types). Customisation is key but there will be a core set of fields that will always be required (e.g. what is it, description and so on)

In this case perhaps you would set your object types first then WordPress will show you what table headings you need and then import your data. There needs to be some way to handle linking data too (categories, tags and so on).

Events and exhibitions

A robust “what’s on” element would be useful. If you could import a year’s worth of events via CSV that would save a lot of faffing around. Obviously you would be able to publish individual events by hand any way). At the front end it should be easy to intelligently display the information – old events expire, old exhibitions available as an archive and so on. Making the events element a part of the framework should allow easy linking of exhibitions and events with object data and vice a versa.

Media upload

Should not strip EXIF data from images. Object images need an explicit link to their object record to allow intelligent reuse (e.g. if you use an image in a blog post then a link to this might appear on the object page )

Plugability

The core framework would need to be able to allow plugins so it can be easily extended and additional features added only if required.

Plugins could:

  • Display live data from collections management databases (as an alternative to importing static bulk data)
  • Allow installation of Thesauri
  • Add maps
  • Add slideshows

Social element

Maybe not built in but if the plugin were compatible with BuddyPress then a social layer could easily be bolted on.

Metadata

It should be possible to incorporate any metadata schema that you require and have them appear in the <head> and so on. Microformats should be built in as standard.

API

To make it straightforward for app developers to work with your data

Widgetisation

It should be trivial to use widgets to display collections data anywhere on the site or sub sites. In some respects this is the biggest attraction for me. If you could reuse collections content anywhere on your site using action hooks and a bit of logic then this would be very powerful indeed. To be able to widgetise collections data so less savvy site admins can plonk it where they want would be even better.

Multi language support

WordPress standards for multi-language support should be built in for a global reach.

I could go on but that would be endorsing feature creep!

The point is that a pared down, well designed generic plugin that addresses core needs is an attractive idea to me and it surprises me that one doesn’t exist already.

11 thoughts on “Imagining a WordPress museum site

  1. This is a very interesting post Perry, and we’d certainly endorse using WordPress for museums in a network configuration as we’ve got a couple of dozen set up just like that. We are also running (very much a beta) BuddyPress Achievements / actions / QR / mobile in much the same vein on http://www.mymuseum.org.uk

    However, the devil is very much in the detail of: “Display live data from collections management databases”
    This is where c. 90% of the work is as there’s still an uphill struggle getting consistent APIs across the vast spectrum of different CollMS. The heavy lifting is in the harmonisation to common interchanges, else you’d be writing a plugin per CollMS and there are dozens of them. This is where the work of CollectionsTrust and CultureGrid leads the way with their API.

    Surely it cannot be long before someone open sources a WordPress plugin onto wordpress.org that performs search and retrieve over the CultureGrid API. Maybe a group effort through MCG?

    1. Thanks for the reply James and it is encouraging that people are starting to use WP more for their projects.

      To a certain extent (and this is where I reveal my self centered agenda!) direct connection to a live collections management system is of less interest to me right now.

      Without going into specific details where I work the museum CollMS is behind a firewall – even getting a data export from behind it is problematic due to the fact that the server is managed by a separate IT team.

      To date any online collections I have dealt with have been uploaded via CSV. I understand that this is not ideal but I wonder how many other organisations have the same issue.

      I also take the point about individual CollMS suppliers. On my fantasy planet the take up would be so strong that suppliers would develop their own plugins anyway (a cop out, I know 🙂 ).

      A centrally hosted solution via the Culture Grid would or some similar museum cloud service could be very appealing though.

      I also think the http://gov.uk project has been very inspiring – it would be great to see that sort of energy put into solving the cultural sectors multifaceted issues (IPR and so on).

  2. To be honest, I’ve yet to meet a museum, archive or HER who want a live connection to their offline / firewalled etc CollMS. Tends to be only online SaaS CollMS like Vernon’s eHive where this happens out of the box.
    Always, always it involves data cleaning, vocabulary merging, field harmonising then indexing onto a proxy. In the main CB is just a way of getting a common API across different schemas, and a pass through to CultureGrid, and onto Europeana. IMHO the focus should be to get all heritage data to CG and onwards to Europeana, and devs concentrate on WP / Joomla / Drupal / CMS X plugins to CG / Europeana.

    1. I’ve been mulling over this a little further. While I don’t confess to being fully clued up about how CollectionsBase works I wonder how it fits with what I was saying about paid plugins or services benefiting from wider adoption.

      Would a “MuseumPress” type plugin be of any help to you and if so what would need to be in place to make it compatible?

      1. As metadata on CollectionsBase is harvested into CultureGrid, there would be more traction in creating a MuseumPress plugin to http://www.culturegrid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Culture-Grid-search-service-v3.pdf

        and then ultimately, once it is fully open, to: http://pro.europeana.eu/linked-open-data

        widest adoption = simplest APIs. Local, regional aggregators then have a common interchange into the nationals; WP devs only have one / few APIs to go against.

        See also http://digitalnz.org

    1. I’ve already asked some questions via collectionstrust.org.uk surrounding this subject so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say.

    1. Hi James – sorry for the delay in responding to this, I’ve only just got round to following the link and having a play with the plugin (I’ve posted a page with a search box here).

      For starters the fact that you can bung it into a page with a bit of short code is pretty sweet. The search performance itself is lightening quick too, which is a huge plus from a usability POV.

      One issue with collections searches in general is they can lack a “way in” – how do I know what to search for if I don’t know what is available? Obviously you can place additional info in a page or post like this by way of introduction.

      What might be good would be to add some sort of option to automatically embed a pre-prepared collections intro (highlights, themes etc). This might encourage more casual use of the plugin – or even a widget option (have I not seen something like this by you before?).

      Can the search queries pages (/?cbq=) and object pages (/?cblid=) be crawled by search engines? If so, and if it were also possible to add the object title to the URL, that would be pretty cool.

      This is exciting stuff, cheers for sharing!

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