Museum Manager for the Morrison County Historical Society, which owns and operates The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in Little Falls, MN.
David Grabitske asked me to post about our new website (http://www.morrisoncountyhistory.org) and the reasoning behind how I chose to assemble it the way I did.
First, a bit of history. The Morrison County Historical Society first went online with a website in 2002. I had learned enough html to build the text portion of each page, plus I decided how the site would be structured. At the time, I didn’t know much about coding web pages, so I couldn’t figure out how to insert tables or images, which meant I didn’t know how to make the page attractive. We had help on this from Eric Swanson, our Web Guru, who formerly did work on the early Minnesota Historical Society website.
In 2006, we released the second version of our website. By this time I had learned enough to create the entire thing in html, including all the pretty stuff. While the first site had quite a bit of historical content, the second site had even more – at least 100 history-related articles. Since the beginning of our web presence, when someone reviewed our earliest version of the site and asked, “Where’s the history?”, we’ve been conscious of the fact that people want more than just information about our organization. Our website had to contain history, too.
On August 9, 2007, we started a blog called “Skimming the Cream.” The original intent of the blog was to have a space where we could easily notify our members and friends about MCHS news and upcoming events. Ideally, I wanted to have our current blog posts appear on our Home Page, but I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish that, so instead, we linked to the blog from our Home Page.
As staff got used to the routine of blogging, we evolved away from strictly news and upcoming events and started posting about collections items. We also developed a series called Morrison County Influentials, examining 150 influential people related to the history of the county.
We used WordPress as our blogging platform, having installed it onto our server so that our domain name would be attached to the blog. The fact that our blog did not appear as part of our Home Page still niggled at me. Would people link over to the blog to get the current posts, or would they skip it because it was too much bother?
Around about late 2008, early 2009, I began thinking that our website needed freshening up. I also wanted to overcome the problem of having to recode every single html page in order to change the website’s look. With around 200 pages, that was more work than I really wanted.
There were several potential solutions to this problem, one of them being to create an external Cascading Style Sheet (CSS). An external CSS is basically a page of web coding that sits outside (hence, “external”) the rest of your web pages and tells them how they are going to look. Your regular web pages, the ones with the content, contain a piece of code that references the external CSS and grabs the instructions for dressing the page. The beauty of external CSS is that if you want to change the appearance of your website, you merely change the code in this one CSS document and all of the other pages will grab the new code and change automatically.
While I know a little bit about external CSS, I don’t know enough to be comfortable creating an entire site based on it. Plus, there was still the problem of the blog not appearing on the front page of the website. In addition, I wanted other staff to be able to create web pages without having to wait for me to do it.
I sought another solution. It was suggested that I find a Content Management System (CMS), which is basically a program that helps to create a structure for the content of your website. There are various CMS programs available – Drupal, Joomla!, Mambo, etc. – and each one has its own learning curve. I wasn’t keen on having to learn another program (some of them are quite complicated) in order to rebuild the website.
In discussing the problem with Eric Swanson, he suggested I look into using WordPress as a CMS. While WordPress is first and foremost a blogging platform, because it allows users to build static pages, it can easily be repurposed as a CMS. I have extensive experience with WordPress through my personal blog and the museum blog, so this didn’t seem too much a stretch. WordPress allows for quickly and easily changing the look of a website through a variety of templates that can be uploaded to a server with little trouble. No need to fuss with external CSS or coding individual web pages. And, best of all, our staff had experience with WordPress through posting to our blog, so it wouldn’t take much to show them how to add new static pages to the website. Woohoo!
Before tackling a website redesign, I solicited feedback from users as to how the site should be changed. One of our members kindly took the time to give me specific advice. What I learned from her was a shock. She followed our blog exclusively and didn’t realize we had an entire static website packed with info available online (even though the blog had a link to the Home Page of the main site). That cemented it. We HAD to get our blog onto the front page of our website. WordPress would solve that.
There are gazillions of potential ways to structure a website. With the 200 pages we had on our website, I had to decide how I wanted to rearrange them. They roughly fell into two broad categories: organizational information and history. Within the history section, we had a number of articles related to museum life and preservation methods, plus some genealogical forms. These appeared to be getting lost in the history section, so I decided I would move them into the organizational info section of the new website.
After sorting out the pages for each section and looking at the number of History pages I needed, I decided to upload 2 installations of WordPress onto our server. I did this for two reasons. I didn’t want to load the organizational info section with history articles and thus risk confusing or overwhelming users. I also knew that I was going to be building the site while it was live. If I built the History portion first, I could do this quietly, without disturbing the old Home Page.
The History section was installed in its own directory: morrisoncountyhistory.org/history/. Before getting down to the business of building pages, I had to pick a WordPress template. I chose Atahualpa, which is highly customizable, and arranged it to suit our needs. I then spent a couple of weeks creating pages of history articles, merely copying and pasting from our existing html site.
After the History section was finished, I held my breath and ripped down the Home Page of our old site. I quickly installed WordPress in the main directory of our server and madly built the new site. Remember, I was doing this while the site was live and available online. That meant that anyone who came looking for morrisoncountyhistory.org was going to be seeing the work in progress, finished or not. I wanted to make sure I completed the majority of the site in a very short time, which I did within 2-3 days. Part of the process was to export all of the content from our Skimming the Cream blog and import it into our new Home Page. WordPress makes this process simple. A few button clicks later and the blog was now part of our new Home Page.
The Main section of our new website contains our organizational information, plus what I hope is an obvious link to the History section of our website. The History section also links back to our Main section. I used the same theme to build both portions, but created subtle differences between the two. Our Main section is green; our History section is blue. The banner pictures on the Main section feature various views of the museum and grounds; whereas the banner pictures on the History section are historic pictures from our collections.
Those are the basics behind our website redesign. There’s more to it than that, of course, such as fixing broken links elsewhere on the internet (i.e. Wikipedia), creating a customized error message page to redirect people, waiting for the search engines to pick up on our changes, and playing with various WordPress plugins (note the Twitter feed on our Home Page).
You can see our new site at http://www.morrisoncountyhistory.org. If you have technical questions, drop me a line at contactstaff (at) morrisoncountyhistory (dot) org.
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