Vesica Blog - Taking museum and art collections to the cloud

May 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on Museum Websites and Open Source CMS

Let me preface this article by saying that I have been working in the web space since 1997. It has been in a variety of different sectors and domains, from universities and education to a variety of businesses, and now, museums, culture and art.

We have recently started work on some museum websites along with Vesica integration. As always, the question of whether or not to use an Open Source CMS was an important one, and whilst the goal of this article is not take you through the process we took our client through – it is to help share some thoughts and perhaps give museums an evaluation framework, if you will, of the pros and cons of going open source, especially given the variety out there.

Over the years, I have worked with a variety of open source Content Management Systems. Today, the popular ones that we would look to work with are WordPress, Joomla or Drupal. There are others in the mix, like Expression Engine, DotNetNuke, etc. – here’s a good place to confuse yourself - http://www.opensourcecms.com/scripts/show.php?catid=1&category=CMS%20/%20Portals - but we’ll keep it simple. There are also licensed CMS options available (like SiteCore) from established companies. Then there is the option to build a bespoke system.

First things first, launching a website on an open source system is not always cheaper than a bespoke one. This can be the case because some companies (like us, for instance), have been building custom portals for years. We have code we can reuse – code that our programmers are very comfortable with, code that our teams can customize and extend much faster than they could Drupal or Joomla, so going that route would probably be cheaper upfront for many.

But this option will tie you down to the company that builds your website and CMS for you. Even if they are willing to give you the source code when and if you decide to take your website to another vendor or bring it in-house, there is very little chance that one developer will ever have good things to say about proprietary code written by another developer – so they will probably advise you to scrap it and start from scratch. Bad advice, in many cases, but common practice.

So, before we go on to evaluate our open source CMS’, let’s rule out bespoke and commercial CMS because that will tie you in to one vendor, unless you are willing to scrap everything, and it may not be cost effective for you, or the dependency on one vendor just does not make you comfortable.

Now to our discussion about Open Source CMS. I tend to think of museums as communities and institutions – so the website should reflect as such. There are a great many technical comparisons out there between the 3 CMS systems mentioned above. From arguments ranging to WordPress is not a CMS to how complex Drupal is getting – they are all subjectively justified. But looking at the out of the box functionality and extend-ability of all of the above – for me – Drupal is the clear winner. It’s extensive eCommerce integration with Ubercart, it’s extremely powerful user / membership management functionality, the templating system, views and blocks, along with the ability to extend it with abundantly available modules (and the ability to build your own) makes it a clear winner to build community and member driven sites.

So, should you choose Drupal as the open source CMS for your website? Here is how to decide:

  • Will you ever bring your website in-house? Is that an option you would like to have? If so, Drupal will make a good fit. WordPress and Joomla will too, actually.
  • Do you want your website to be extendable at a reasonable price? Drupal is your answer. With all the modules available, you or your vendor can get away without writing much php or database level code, deploying new functionality faster. Whilst Drupal development rates may be higher than other CMS systems, it’s generally faster to build and deploy more maintainable code.
  • A website is a relatively open development project – meaning that you might want to do a variety of things with it. Whilst visitor or collections management software focuses on one thing, your website needs to always evolve and engage a wide audience. It needs to be flexible and easily amendable and manageable. There are only so many ways you can do things in Drupal- it is flexible, but it gives the developer a framework to work with, which can make a website less dependent on any 1 developer. WordPress or Joomla, in my view, don’t have the framework elements of Drupal.
  • User / Member management. For me, this, along with Drupal’s permissions management makes it a system very well suited to the museum industry.
  • Ubercart. This is a beast of an eCommerce project – extremely flexible and powerful, it is the best way to approach ecommerce in an online community environment.
  • There is already some momentum behind Drupal for museums. There are some modules available for software products that are specific to the museum industry. Vesica will be on that list soon.
  • Without making this any longer than necessary – rich featureset, powerful functionality, extendibility, and a framework that allows for consistent developers across multiple development teams.

However. Not all is good in the world of Drupal. It’s a mature product, with thousands of lines of abstract code to accommodate the wishes and desires of a wide array of developers, which makes it very flexible, but tedious at the same time. It also needs to be optimised to run as fast as WordPress would, for instance, but then that’s the cost of picking a more powerful engine to drive your site on – it does consume more resources.

Of course, Drupal isn’t right for all websites. It may be too complex where the requirements are as simple as a standalone blog, an online shop or a photo gallery. But when you want the right mix with scalability and flexibility- I believe – Drupal is one the most viable, free, open-source options available.

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