Client Interview: John McKinnon, Executive Director, Elmhurst Art Museum

By Nicholas Gracilla  ·   May 26, 2020  ·  9 minute read

Topics: Interviews

How one cultural institution navigated the COVID-19 crisis with a Museum From Home initiative.

Neoteric Design launched a redesigned website with the team at Elmhurst Art Museum in the fall of 2019, using a modern architecture for web site and web app development. In May 2020, John and Nick had an email interview exchange, which has been lightly edited and condensed below.

[Nick]: Everything has been upended in such a short time. How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your organization?

[John]: In nearly every aspect. We closed our doors in mid-March, which canceled quite a few programs, a fundraiser, and more. Like almost every organization, we suffered from a loss of expected earned revenue and adjusted our budgets.

We had to reinvent what we could be to people without people coming to the museum’s physical site. One of the biggest challenges our staff discussed was the abnormal distance that was formed between us and our audience. For instance, families could no longer do hands-on activities at the museum, our exhibitions were closed off to them, and we could not hold one of our popular weekend programs.

What initiatives have you launched in response?

We did a lot of brainstorming as a staff, to assess what we could do in this new reality. We considered what our audience could do from home, created our own original content, and developed a format that we could add to.

The result is our weekly Museum from Home materials, ranging from broad themes about everyday objects to deeper dives into an exhibition. Each edition has a downloadable online guide with curatorial background, a hands-on activity that families can do from home, and a variety of other resources.

We see this continuing to evolve as we gradually reopen since some of our audience won’t be able to come in right away, or won’t be able to complete a hands-on project at the museum for some time.

I’ve shared your Museum from Home project with other cultural organizations as a leading example of providing value to members during this crisis. What inspired you and your team?

Some online content we saw from many cultural institutions was overwhelming. We had to find the right fit for us. So we strove to use content that reflects our current programming and the ways our audience engages with the museum. I have to compliment our team on many things, including being so organized and creating a consistent format that people could easily navigate.

The first few weeks of Museum From Home consisted of a deeper examination of our current shows for people that didn’t get a chance to see them, including an amazing virtual tour. We had no idea we’d accomplish that technological feat—It was very generously donated. From there, we had to think about our house-bound audiences, and how certain topics might be relevant today. For instance, we focused on art from household materials, and ways we could talk about the residents of the McCormick House.

How has your website helped with these initiatives?

Our new site built by Neoteric is generations ahead of our old one. You were able to anticipate and build things we didn’t even know we needed! Today, as we find new ways to expand the site, we have found it extremely flexible for new projects, all sorts of new media, and campaigns we want to provide to our audiences.

Once we built the system for the site, the Neoteric team isn’t involved in the day-to-day affairs of handling content. Your team manages it all. What’s that freedom like?

The various museum departments have really taken ownership of how their projects work and function on the site—from the museum store to exhibitions. We often discuss how these projects work online, as part of our goals. During these planning meetings, we collaborate to ensure we’re working in a consistent format for all our website users.

What’s it like to onboard new staff to the content management system?

This is a huge change for us! Previously only a few people knew how to upload new content, which limited us in several ways, including the amount of content we put online. A few new staff members, including occasional interns, have been able to manage the site with ease by following the existing work — much of it is very intuitive, via Forestry [a headless CMS].

We continue to expand the site, with things like archival images from past exhibitions, PDFs of our brochures, recorded oral histories of the McCormick House, and more. The site and the museum are much richer as a result.

I remember when you brought my team in to work on this project, you had some real challenges with the old site. It was hacked in some way, wasn’t it?

I’m vague about some of the details because, honestly, I couldn’t even access the backend of the site without getting turned around. I was afraid I’d break something. The site was custom-built in Drupal, and after their initial work, it became a patch job of updates by a few people on staff. But updates were near to impossible, so we limited the amount of content we added. It was very confusing for our users.

We knew we wanted to change the website, and it was in our plans to do, but this was sped up after some of our staff and museum members reported receiving spam notices on the old site — it redirected people to a fake lottery page. We had to move quickly to eliminate this bad experience.

I remember it was hard to manage images, too, in the old Drupal CMS.

All images had to be resized before being added to the page. If an image was the wrong size, it bumped the page layout around in surprisingly awkward ways. At times a simple update caused the entire site to become unusable, and we had to go back to previously saved versions… it was very frustrating.

How is image management now?

Image management through Cloudinary [a cloud-based asset management system] is great! We love how we can add a high-res image and the site has an almost intuitive crop for use in our top hero areas. The other parts, such as galleries, have been great for us in not only past exhibition pages but also education and others.

We had a tight timeline to launch the site, and you took our advice—and a bit of a risk!—handling the website redesign from a content-first approach. Rather than getting stuck in graphic design details at the start, we built your CMS and sorted out your content and its connections and relationships—events, exhibitions, news—using a plain wireframe. Then we worked with your brand agency to apply the rebranded look and feel. What was that experience like?

We really enjoyed the way the wireframe was put together, and the strategic thinking behind it. Credit goes to you and your team for this. We felt guided along the way and it was helpful to our thinking as we literally rethought who we were as a museum, through our graphic identity.

We have a small team and we need to be flexible. This was pushed pretty far with the new site as we realized the best time for a launch would be our new September exhibition. This coupled with the fact that our previous site was hacked got us motivated to work on things quicker than normal.

Because of this timing, we had not yet finalized our new branding process, which relied on strategic thinking from our board and marketing consultants. I think we passed a few general ideas your way but had to be loose with some of the specifics because of the time frame. Your creative thinking helped us with the graphic identity, which we had not yet fully explored. We were amazed to see how you were able to adapt, and how the new graphics came to life so quickly.

In some ways, I see a kernel of this philosophy still today — you are prototyping new ways of handling content for your COVID-19 initiatives and testing them out, on the fly.

The ability to forecast during the COVID Stay at Home orders was very tough. We’ve needed to be flexible, resourceful, and quick to mobilize. Credit to my staff for conceptualizing and instituting a framework for our efforts, which has helped us develop content and market it. We have a small team and limited resources, so we all wear different hats and switch them quickly to meet a deadline or to react to new information.

We put a lot of focus on site speed — even though your site has lots of big images, you score 95%+ on Google Site Speed.

The site speed is outrageous! From what I remember, the old site was more like 55%. The previous version made everyone feel they were working with an old generation of the internet — and that website wasn’t even mobile-friendly. We love how the site is responsive to mobile and other formats, and how people understand its navigation, and move through it with ease – I bet they don’t even think twice as they are using it, and that’s a definite win.

Nothing is perfect, and as we’ve been growing the site over the past six months, occasionally there’s been bugs — but the site stays up, doesn’t it?

Correct. No huge bugs. A few growing pains as we find a few things that pop-up, especially as we are still learning ourselves. But, as you mentioned, the site has stayed stable, and there has been little to no disruption for users. This is another big improvement. The former site really froze and crashed during some odd updates, which was never a fun experience for our audience.

COVID-19 has changed everything; everyone is working to understand the extent and the timeline. What’s on your mind for the future? How do you imagine the website plays a role in that?

We’ve been talking a lot about the future, how people are really utilizing the potential of the internet, and what it means for the museum. We are already rethinking a few things that will help us expand the Museum From Home initiatives to also entice an in-person visit.

For instance, families cannot interact with the same hands-on projects. Because of this, we created art kits, and we might combine them with online guides, virtual family day instructions, or even resources for school groups. We are watching how groups of people use formats such as Zoom, and whether it is a good fit for our programs, class workshops, etc. This could encourage us to do things like document our programs more often, whether in person or virtual, or have recordings available on the site. We love how the website offers us opportunities in this way.