Should you have an Archive on your website?

28 July 2022

Working with cultural, heritage and museum organisations, we get a lot of requests for archives on websites.

These include an archive of past productions, past exhibitions and past engagement projects. While there are often great intentions behind having an archive on a website, the outcomes usually fail to achieve the goals set out at the beginning.

Why do people want an archive?

When I get these requests, my first question is why? Why do you need an archive on your website? Here are some of the most common responses:

  • It’s useful for us to see what we did in the past
  • Stakeholders need to see what productions and projects we’ve done
  • It’s a useful resource for our peers
  • It shows our history to our audiences

These are all valuable reasons. But often an archive isn’t the best answer to these requirements.

What’s the damage?

Before we discuss how we can achieve the goals above in other ways, it’s worth considering the impact of having an archive on your website.

Content specialist Lauren Pope discusses keeping vs. deleting content on her blog: Whether or not to delete content (worth a read.)

Some of the downsides of keeping archive content include:

  • The environmental impact. You’re using energy to store this content, giving it a carbon footprint.
  • The more content you have on your website, the more you have to manage in the CMS and the more it gets in the way of general day-to-day work on your website.
  • It can be confusing for users and search engines – what’s a future event? When did this activity happen? Can I book it now?

Alternative options

So, if a general archive of past activities isn’t the right way to go, what are the alternatives? Let’s take the goals above and outline some solutions to these:

“It’s useful for us to see what we did in the past.“

To be blunt, the website isn’t for you and your internal teams. If you’re using an archive on your website to see what productions or projects your organisation has done in the past, your internal admin systems are failing you.

It’s likely that all of the information on the website is duplicated elsewhere. This could be in spreadsheets, emails, notes or folders on a shared drive. If information isn’t searchable in these systems, then you should review these internal systems to find better alternatives. (Notion is a great tool.)

By storing this important information in one place, rather than duplicating it on internal systems and your website you can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your business. And the information you store internally can be much more useful and detailed. You can store information that you wouldn’t display on a public website. This includes budgets and financial information, impact, retrospectives, and customer / participant feedback.

"Stakeholders need to see what productions and projects we’ve done"

Often the stakeholders here are potential or existing funders, peers, production companies, venues, community leaders and local businesses. Whilst these people might be a small number of visitors to the site, they are very important user groups. It’s important you have space on the website to demonstrate the amazing work you do and the impact you have. But, is a list of past activities the best way to do this? Probably not.

It’s likely you’re already writing great content and doing research that demonstrates your impact and highlights key projects and achievements. It’ll be a funding requirement and in your annual review. So rather than have an archive, make this content easily accessible, talk about your impact across the site, in your about section, the support section and when discussing future projects and events.

One of the best ways to demonstrate impact is through the stories and voices of the people and communities who have benefitted from your work. Shifting the narrative from ‘we (the organisation) did this thing’ to ‘my (the recipient/participant/audience member) life has changed because of this thing’ can be hugely powerful.

The benefit here is that anyone coming to your website will see your impact with little effort. You’re not asking stakeholders to navigate to an archive and sift through long lists, you’re giving them reasons to support and work with you on a plate!

"It’s a useful resource for our peers"

The cultural and heritage sector is hugely collaborative. People share ideas, learnings and are always open to having a chat. If this is a goal for an archive, think about what information might be useful for your peers? The name, date and marketing copy probably aren't that useful. Instead the impact, resources, and learnings will be much more useful.

Of course, if this information can’t be added to a public facing website, consider torah ways you can share your learnings. This might be through industry specific conferences or publications. Platforms like LinkedIn and Facegroup are a great place to create closed groups where you can share learning with peers.

"It shows our history to our audiences"

There will always be a few audience members who want to know the date of a past show or event, who was performing and where it happened. The only way to answer these questions online is to have a basic database style archive.

But I think the disadvantages to this far outweigh the advantages for this small group of users. Yes, these users will need to get in touch with you to get the info they need, but if you have a solid internal archive, then finding the info is easy, and is something many people across the organisation can do, this shouldn’t be a problem.

For those people wanting to know more about the general history of the organisation, instead of using an archive to share your history, try a timeline where you highlight key events in the history of the organisation.

Some great examples:

If you’re considering scrapping an archive, or taking a new approach, here are some great examples:

Communicating your impact and story

B:Music have a series of story pages on their site that do a great job of communicating their impact whilst talking about past projects and events, for example – Reuben James.

Sharing learnings, ideas, and the best bits

Look outside the sector – to agencies, architects, and other service businesses. Most will have a section of case studies or ‘our work’. These are good examples of how you can take the most interesting past projects and turn them into useful information for peers, stakeholders, and customers. (Thanks to Janine at Birmingham Museums Trust for this insight.)

Keeping just the best bits

A timeline is a great way to share the key parts of your organisation’s history. Buxton Opera House tells their story through text, images and videos in a timeline format. This picks the best bits and gives engaged audiences a peek into the history of the building and organisation.

Still think an archive is right for you?

Whilst I’ve outlined a few reasons why archives aren’t great, that isn’t to say that you should never have one. Like any web content, it’s important to think about the end user, the goals they might want to achieve, and the best way you can meet those goals. So, once you’ve weighed up all the pros and cons, you might decide an archive is the answer.

Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have thought about the goals, the impact, the alternatives and you can make an informed decision on which options work best for your audiences, customers, peers and stakeholders.

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