Organising A Museum Website – Sitemap Best Practice

A museum website contains a vast amount of detailed information, from previews of collections and exhibits, to visitor guides, research, and donor lists. Content must be structured in a logical fashion so that users can find what they need without a clunky or overwhelming site design. Important information has to be accessible and not hidden in the recesses of the site.

What Is Information Architecture?

Related to content strategy and interaction design, Information Architecture is the organisation of the structure of a website that helps users navigate the information effectively. It exists to categorise online content in a way that creates a natural flow.

[…] information architecture is the creation of a structure for a website, application, or other project, that allows us to understand where we are as users, and where the information we want is in relation to our position. Information architecture results in the creation of site maps, hierarchies, categorizations, navigation, and metadata.

Information Architects must consider the target demographic of the visitors to the website, the type of technology used, and the data that the website will display in order to create a seamless arrangement of information. Though it is easily overlooked, Information Architecture is a vital part of website design that will ensure users find everything they are looking for.

Information Architecture For Museum Website Content

A museum's website serves as an extension of the museum itself, and should be streamlined and organised with the museum’s specific users in mind. A visit to a museum's website is an experience similar to visiting the museum in person; it's an opportunity for a museum to showcase its collections, its creativity and technological proficiency and how well it understands its publics.

Museum websites would be difficult to browse without the implementation of behind-the-scenes sitemaps and hierarchies. The extensive amount of data contained in a museum's website makes IA central to providing a consistent structure for optimal functionality and ease of navigation.

Over the last 8 years, we’ve built sites for Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, SFMOMA, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. We’ve also worked with, collaborated with, and consulted to a few other museums. We like to think we’ve built up a certain amount of specialised knowledge about museums and their information architectures.

Museums are incredibly diverse – the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences contains trains and aeroplanes, SFMOMA is full of modern artworks, ACMI has a whole collection of video games. Globally, there are museums of cats, of fast cars, of firefighter paraphenalia and of Freemasonry.

The Natural Structure of a Museum Website

But here’s what has come to surprise us: the sitemaps of museum websites are not that diverse. Mostly, a museum website needs to

  • Tell you what’s on and how to plan a visit,
  • Show you (or at least talk about) the collection,
  • Tell visitors what museum staff know about it,
  • Provide resources for educators,
  • Tell you more about the museum, and get you involved as a member or volunteer, and
  • Take you to the shop.

… and that’s pretty much it. All the differences are in the specific content, not the sitemap.

In fact, the closer a museum website sticks to this simple sitemap pattern, the more you’re obeying the Principle of Least Surprise – which may make your branding agency sad, but it will make your public very, very happy.

So, to make it easier to for museums everywhere to provide a delightful user experience for their visitors, we’ve decided to share this precious piece of hard-won knowledge.

[drum roll]...

The Museum Sitemap Kit!

Front cover of Museum Sitemap Template Manual

This battle-tested layout for a museum website is based on our global research, it’s been tried on several museum builds and we’ve tested it with audiences.

It comes with an explanatory booklet, several versions of the sitemaps in different formats and as bonus, if you’re a GLAMkit user: you can just upload it into your CMS to automatically create a page tree ready for your content.

And it’s all yours for free.

Checkout our museum sitemap