Art Reading this month's Aesthetica Magazine, which we'll talk some more about tomorrow hopefully, I decided to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago's website to see if they had some more examples from one of their new exhibition (since I'm unlikely to visit myself soon). Immediately I noticed something strange:
No, not the random, if censored nudity, but to the left of that the opening hours at the top of the page in full view. A light bulb went off in my head. Having spent so long clicking around venue websites looking for this simple piece of information, it hasn't occurred to me before that this should be the model for all museum and visitor attraction websites. It's not perfect. You still have to click the big block subheadings for the admission prices and the like to open out, but it's still clearer and more accessible than most.
Now, I'm really not sure why this isn't available up front. Although these websites will have both newbies and regulars, this still seems like important and relevant information and to some extent more important than what's on, though as the MCA Chicago example demonstrates, it's quite possible to do both.
With the bee firmly in my bonnet, I decide to visit some of the local Liverpool venues to see who did have this information in what I now see as the correct position. It's important to note, I suppose, that when I googled some of these, a deep link did pop up to the relevant page (example), but nevertheless here's a survey:
The Walker Art Gallery
There we are, top right, opening hours with a link to "more visitor information" which goes into greater detail about closures and that sort of thing, though there are also some more clicks required to get to an address and transport links through a menu of links. All of the NML websites use the same style sheet so all of them have a very similar navigation system.
Though it isn't obvious. It's true that there are opening hours on the front page beneath the information box, but they're for the whole building. The exhibition space has different opening hours and they're only sometimes available because they're embedded in the flash animation and so disappear depending on what's being displayed. It took me a moment to notice it in this screenshot. The "visitor information" page linked from the top has all the information needed but you have to scroll to find it after clicking; the first chunk is a biographical two paragraphs, followed by a map, contact details and then opening hours, which do finally differentiate between the building and gallery spaces.
Tate Liverpool's is a subsection of a larger website and you have to click for the venue from the top of that page. On Tate's website, on the top left there is a menu of links in a large empty white column, clicking each of which fills the middle column with different information. Click "admissions and opening times" and we are greeted first with a large photo of the revolving doors in the entrance hall of the Tate and then underneath info about free entry and scrolling further opening hours with two or three further clicks required to reach the opening hours of the cafe and shop. Loads of clicking and scrolling required here, though less so on a portrait shaped screen, like a tablet, probably.
FACT's an interesting case. On the top right there's a "what's on" box which lists the current exhibition which doesn't have opening hours and today's films which do. Clicking the title of the exhibition takes us to a page which says that it has Free Entry, but not when it is open. Clicking "visit" takes us through to a page which has contact information. To the left of this is a menu and at the top of that is "opening hours". Click again and finally we find the opening hours of the centre, galleries, cafe and box office.
Open Eye Gallery
At the bottom of the page beneath the coloured blocks is the address of the gallery, telephone number and email address. There are two accesses to the information page, the "visiting us" link at the top and the olive "we are hear" block at the bottom. That page is brilliant and tells you everything you need to know including a Google map and the address twice (probably because of the style sheet). One click, no scrolling.
The Victoria Gallery & Museum
The large red button says "Free Entry". There's nothing which specifically says "opening hours" but clicking "plan your visit" at the top or "visit somewhere different" at the bottom takes you to a page which has everything you need to know, all of which seems like it could just as easily be on the front page with the (admittedly lovely) big flash animation.
St George's Hall
To be fair to St George's Hall, it is a multi-use venue and so has to reflect its many hats as a concert and conference venue as well as the permanent exhibition. But click "visit us" at the top and the exhibition's opening hours don't appear. They're at the bottom of a page about this "heritage centre" clickable from a menu on the left for a giant photo of the front door on the right.
The Beatles Story
The "Prices and times" link on the top right sends us through to another page with all the information on it and links for booking tickets.
Having written all of that, I'm not sure how important it is, how much effort there really is on the side of the visitor. But arguably there shouldn't be any effort at all for us, because fundamentally before know what's on there, what we really want to know when it's open.
Updated 6/4/2012 Since posting this, Martin Belam has offered some commentary and Backwards Lion has done a similar survey in Leeds and found much the same kind of result.