For Museum Webmasters, the Work is Never Done
At the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, George Juergens wears many hats. He manages the museum building, transports Noguchi's heavy sculptures with a fork lift, and, when he has time, works on the museum's website. He doesn't have much time.
"It's hard for me to get to it, Juergens says, almost apologetically. "Even updating it is a struggle. I'm working on an update right now-but I'm always one step behind."
Juergens isn't alone. Like many small museums, the Noguchi must weigh the needs of its website with those of the physical museum. And at institutions of all sizes, museum staffs are trying to figure out the relationship between the two. Should the website act as an extension of the galleries, and if so, how much? If you put your entire collection online, will people stop coming to the museum, and if that happens, will revenues fall? As museum are visual places, how visual should their websites be and what does that mean for visitors accessing the site with dialup connections? And for that matter, who should control the website-the education department? Publications? IT? Do you work with an outside designer, and if so, which one?
In conversations with American museums across the country about their websites, the one certainty to emerge is that almost nobody is ever quite satisfied. There is at least one more revision that somebody would like to make, one more expansion, experiment or technology to adopt. In some cases, dissatisfaction runs deep. The Chicago Art Institute's website looks like the state-of-the art: well organized, simple to navigate, with an online collection that's easy to browse. The website has lesson plans for teachers, an online museum shop, and a detailed calendar of events. But in response to a reporter's query, the museum's executive director of graphics design and communications said that the site doesn't "take advantage of recent technology that would make it more dynamic to use and maintain" and that her group is planning a re-design. "So check back with us in a year when we really have something we can boast about."
Paul Marty, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at Florida State University who studies how museums use information technology, says that "there's no end to any of these projects, no matter what the museum's resources." Small museums often run their websites with the help of a multi-tasker like the Noguchi's George Juergens, while larger institutions must balance the competing demands of curators, publication staff, and directors-all of whom may have different ideas of what the website should look like. "Even at large museums, the goal for website staffs "is to write themselves out of a job-to automate what they're doing in order to do bigger, better projects. Sometimes, they even succeed."
What is the primary function?
Marty cautions that museums sometimes forget the primary function of their website-to get people to make a visit. According to surveys, that's why most people click on a museum's website. "That's not what springs to the mind to a lot of museum webmasters, who are primarily interested in the online visits," he said. Website designers will talk about their website's early days, when the website gave directions, admission prices, hours of operation-and not much else. "But, those basics are still very important," Mary says. "They're crucial."
At the same time, museum directors worry that putting too much of the collection online will dissuade people from making the trip-which means paying the admission, buying a gift or two, and thereby contributing to the institution's revenues. Marty doesn't believe it. "Pictures of Florida beaches don't stop tourists from coming to Florida," he says.
Reflecing the "brand"
The best museum Web designs reflect the look and feel of the museum itself. Indeed many museums borrow a corporate marketing term and refer to the "brand." That's appropriately the case at The Andy Warhol Museum, the artist best known for mixing art and popular culture. Located in Pittsburg, the Wahol's hometown, the museum designed a home page that combines shocking pink on black, with Warhol's in sunglasses staring out from the screen. Other pages use other saturated colors, just as Warhol himself did on his famous silkscreens.
"We felt that if Warhol was alive and kicking he would certainly be exploring and experimenting with the Web and new technologies," said Jessica Gogan, assistant director for education and interpretation, and the website's part-time webmaster. For a time, the museum got funding from an Intel initiative called ArtMuseum.
With Intel's funding now gone, the museum's Website is more modest in approach, but still distinctive in its design. "Our website is pretty straightforward," Gogan says. "It's successful because of its simplicity, and it's evocative of Warhol. The colors give a sense of difference in terms of ideas and structures." Gogan is rare among museum Web masters in that she's reasonably satisfied with the current version. "Other than some navigability issues, I don't think we need to do that much more."
SF Museum of Modern Art
For the SF Museum of Modern Art, the design firm Perimetre tried to evoke SFMOMA's distinctive building-a common practice now, but radical when the museum's downtown building opened in 1995. "How do you represent a museum online? We were dealing with practical issues of navigation and ease-of-use-but also thinking about what the website communicates about the institution," said Perimetre's creative director, Stephen Jaycox. "That's why these projects are as much about branding, as anything else. They are about the architecture, the way the messages are delivered in the gallery space, the way the museum interfaces with community. All of that has to be communicated."
The website splits the "SFMOMA" logo into three segments-SF, providing information for visiting the actual museum in San Francisco; MO covering education and membership; and MA describing exhibitions and collections. Black and gray stripes across the home page evoke those on building's entrance floor and exterior. Similarly, the Guggenheim in New York based its typeface on the lettering Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the facade of the museum, with a spiraled logo on the home page that reflects the building's distinctive architecture. The New York Metropolitan's website features in brown and aqua, the two colors found throughout the building.
Walker Art Center
A website can even represent a museum when it's closed for renovation. At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a stylized red map entitled "Walker without Walls" is superimposed over the usual menu, directing visitors to nearby lectures, film, theater, dance and other museum-sponsored cultural activity while the museum itself gets expanded.
"We were trying to communicate that even though we're closed, we're alive on the Web, and you can still see some Walker programming throughout the Twin Cities [of Minneapolis and St. Paul]," said Robin Dowden, the museum's director of new media initiatives. The temporary website contains the seeds of a complete redesign, including a new, interactive calendar page, in which visitors can click on a date for a proposed visit and see everything happening. "The print calendar has always driven the online calendar and we're trying to reverse that, so it originates in the system that we use to publish the website, and then get exported for calendar production," she says. Dowden's group is using XML and a SQL database to tie other museum resources together, so that information created for one medium-a newsletter, an email update, the website itself-can be used in another.
The Walker is one of the first American museums to use RSS (Real Simple Syndication), which has grown popular with bloggers and online publications, enabling visitors to get automatic updates on the re-opening. Dowden's group has also experimented with the Wiki format-a series of highly linked web pages that can be edited by the participants-to organize a presentation on where the new website is headed. The team is a good example of how a technology-savvy, mid-size museum manages its website. As department director, Dowden oversees most of the projects. Under her are a webmaster who does systems administration as well as all of the backend programming, including the creation of the SQL databases and producing the XML pages that are then used by the designers. Two other designers specialize in flash programming and scripting tools.
Keeping it simple: The Metropolitan and the Guggenheim
While many museums have gone with Flash and other technologies to enliven their websites, two of the best known New York museums have intentionally not. The New York Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim maintain websites that are models of easy navigation and rich, clear content, using almost 100 percent pure HTML. Neither represents the state of the art in terms of technology, but both are prime examples of good website design that is accessible to a worldwide visitorship who may be coming in via a dialup connection.
The Met's website is especially notable because of the museum's size-with more than two million objects in its collection, it is the largest museum in the western hemisphere. The gateway to the museum's permanent collection is divided into 22 sections showing about 6,500 objects. A "Features" page includes a daily artwork archive, selections from the museum's director, sections on conservation, research and recent observations. Visitor information, from hours to admission fees to parking, is all on a single indexed page. There is a comprehensive FAQ, an online store, and a customizable calendar and email update section. The one obvious concession to post-HTML technology is a 360 degree online tour of early-American room replicas, powered by Java.
Web site is part of museum
"Design is important, and a lot of time good design is invisible," says Terri Constant, the website's general manager, who estimates that 30 percent of its visitors are from outside the U.
Constant has been with the Met since 1995, the year the museum first brought up a rudimentary website that grew on an ad hoc basis. A few years later, the Met formed a task force that still meets monthly, brought in a design firm, and worked on a redesign for 18 months. "We had at least a hundred individuals throughout the building involved in the project-in terms of what the museum wanted to do in the collections area, with education, with merchanding, membership, with the whole scope of where we wanted to be as an institution on the Web." The museum rolled out its new website in 2000, and the current site, though much changed, stems from the same framework. "That has allowed us to incorporate all of the new things that have come along without having to do a complete re-design." Instead, the museum is involved with what Constant calls a "rolling redesign" in which updates are made section by section, while still keeping to the original look and feel of the site. Most people, she says, won't notice.
Guggenheim : 5 museums
The Guggenheim rolled out its website around the same time, designed in-house with technical help from an outside firm. "We had the advantage of a previous version of that didn't work at all," said Anthony Calnek, the museum's deputy director for communications and publishing. His group faced a special challenge in that the Guggenheim is actually five museums; Two in America where a single language is standards, and three in Europe, where two or more languages are often used. "Each museum has very different local requirements but must somehow fit into an umbrella. Also, the funding is different for each, and some of our decisions reflected those behind-the-scenes realities."
Like the Metropolitan's website, the Guggenheim stays mostly with HTML pages, especially at the top layers. The home page is as spare as a Japanese tea house, with a band of just six main selections on the top, 12 more items just below. Guggenheim's spiral swirl logo takes up the bottom half of the page, tinted so subtly it looks like a watermark. The spare use of Flash is found only deeper in. "From the getgo the site was designed so that a person with little computer savvy, an outdated computer and a dial-up connection could figure it out," Calnek said. "We are an international destination, more so than any other museum in New York, so when people log on from a dial-up connection in Italy, for example, I didn't want to turn them away." Staying away from Flash and other more advanced technologies is also easier on the website's budget. "Many museums spend a million dollars or more on their website. We spent $75,000 in launching our site."
The Guggenheim's clean look is the result of Calnek's background and vigilance-he came to the museum in 1990 to set up its publishing program, taking on the website project in 2000. He now oversees all museum communications. "One of the frustrations for me is when Web publishing is held to a lower standard than print publishing. As people rely less on print and more on the Web, those standards have to be maintained." Calnek insists that nothing goes online until it passes strict editorial and design requirements-until it has "been thoroughly worked over." Calnek's staff of about eight people includes not a single person dedicated solely to the Web. But the staff has gotten more Web-savvy over time. "Particularly from the production end, people have learned to use PhotoShop to prepare the images." Over the years, the museum has worked with the same outside designer, who is also a choreographer and theater director.
Extending the walls
If the first task of museum websites it to show visitors what's showing in the galleries, the next is to reveal what is stored in the warehouse: disk space is much cheaper than wall space. One of the most extensive online collections is found at San Francisco's Legion of Honor . The museum saw an opportunity to begin digitizing its images when its building closed for renovation. Museum staff managed to photograph some 50,000 works, including most of its paper collection. Its database now boasts some 82,000 online images-one of the largest of any museum. Enter "Picasso," for example, and you can view 138 images-mostly of the artist's lithographs and sculptures.
The website also employs a technology called GridPix, developed at the University of California, which works without plug-ins or applets. Once you specify the size of your monitor, you can zoom in so close on an image that it appears you are examining it with a magnifying glass, revealing the texture of the paper and an etching's delicate cross-hatching.
Associate Director Bob Futernick said the original idea behind the archive was just to make a photographic record of the collection using 4 x 5-inch transparencies. "We have the largest collection of prints and drawings west of Chicago, and they lent themselves to photography because of their size." Putting the collection on the Web came later, after there was a Web. The Legion, one of two museums that comprise the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, was early to that too-establishing its Thinker.
Some museums have taken a more frugal approach to their online collections. At the Guggenheim, every image from the collection must have accompanying text that gives the work some context. So while the museum has 150 Kandinskis, only 17 are online. Only those that appeared in a catalog or guidebook are, so far, candidates for inclusion, because only they already have text written about them. Anthony Calnek is adamant. "Every artist represented has a biography. Every art historical term is defined. Every cross reference with another artist or movement or term is cross-referenced within the site. Every work is true to color and can be seen in three different sizes so it can be studied." Visitors can sort images by decade, movement, or medium, and within a sort, can go from one large image to the next in the sort without going back to the original list.
In some cases, the website may become an extension of the exhibition-because disk space on a server is far more easy to expand than wall space in a museum gallery. The design firm Perimetre worked on one exhibit, called Skin Deep, for New York's International Center for Photography. "The gallery exhibition had about 300 pieces while the online version extended the viewable collection to about a thousand," Stephen Jaycox recalls.
Occasionally, a museum will extend a temporary exhibit with works that appear only online. That was the case at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with a show called 010101: Art in Technological Times. "A gallery changes the relationship between an artwork and the viewer," Stephen Jaycox says. Some of the artists felt their work could be better experienced on their own computer-though each artist, he recalls, had a different reason why. And so a portion of 010101 appeared just on the Web, available to the worldwide community, but not in the exhibition itself. An experiment associated with the exhibit appeared in both places: commentary pulled at random from a database of quotes collected by the curators.
For every museum website with a staff devoted to its upkeep, there are smaller museums whose care and feeding is the work of one part-timer. At the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, graphic designer Tom Dawson redesigned the site after getting tired of looking at the old one. "It was up for about three years, but was so ugly that I couldn't stand it," he says. He describes the new one as "very simple, very clean, reminiscent of the building itself, architect Louis Kahn's last one. The site has been up since 1999."
Not that Dawson is satisfied. He admires the websites of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.
Back at the Noguchi Museum, George Juergens also has plans, as well as complaints to address. When staff members were listed by their email addresses, "they complained they were actually being contacted." Now that the addresses are no longer listed, some staffers are finding they are too hard to reach. Juergens is concerned that basic information on finding the museum is itself too difficult to locate on the website. And overall, he thinks the site needs an update that still maintains the museum's mandate of serving as a research tool on Noguchi's life. And so, as of early December, Dawson is planning a major organizational overhaul of the site. The work will take place over the next three months. So while on a daily basis, the site mostly runs itself, Juergens work-like those of his counterparts-is never really done.