Art Museum Web Redesign
December 31, 2005 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Redesigning an art museum website (content / design / strategy / the whole shebang). What would you expect to see? What would you like to see that they're not doing? What would totally blow your mind? What do you know they'll include that you just don't care about? And, on a slight tangent, best web examples for art museums? Not the content that resonates for you, but rather kind of information and how it was executed. Thanks!
posted by warhol to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Big beautiful images, not just small, compressed jpgs, but the ability to zoom in and inspect the artwork close up. Multiple ways to navigate, by artist, period, medium, etc. Contact info/bio for modern artists. Expounded analysis not just a small blurb on the piece. That's about it for now.
posted by lychee at 12:21 AM on January 1, 2006

As long as there's not one piece of "snazzy flash to lighten up the page a little", you're golden.

bitter, me?
posted by slater at 12:32 AM on January 1, 2006

ditto lychee -- it really would be exactly what i'd want from an art museum (otherwise, for an art museum, why bother?)
posted by anadem at 12:55 AM on January 1, 2006

Don't make it ridiculously complex (3, 4, 7 links to click) to get to basic info for those who might not have the time/money/ability to always get to museums, like student/youth concessions for admission, how to get there on public transit, or online access to detailed info about the artwork in a non-graphic, dial-up-friendly manner - no pages with 50 huge jpgs of paintings, etc.

Also, only via a guidebook did I find out that the Louvre in Paris was free one Friday night a month(?) to people under 26 - on further research, it was listed, but only in the bowels of the French version, not the English one. Make sure you've got parity, then, between different versions.
posted by mdonley at 1:18 AM on January 1, 2006

Er, the French version of the website, not the guidebook. Clear as mud.
posted by mdonley at 1:20 AM on January 1, 2006

You know what blows my mind? When a website has a large array of things presented one image at a time and I don't have to move the mouse to the new location of the "next" button and then click to see the next image. Make the actual image itself clickable (to go to the next one, or to zoom), and/or just make sure that your "next" button stays in the same place on every single page. A frighteningly simple thing that few people get right.
posted by user92371 at 2:19 AM on January 1, 2006

oh yeah, what user92371. The back & next button need to stay in the same position!
posted by slater at 3:44 AM on January 1, 2006

what user92371 *said*.
posted by slater at 3:45 AM on January 1, 2006

opening times, including up-to-date info about current holidays, on the front page. if i want to look at the pictures, i'll visit. if i want to visit i need the opening times....
posted by andrew cooke at 4:22 AM on January 1, 2006

also, many museums are in really nice buildings. more info on the building would be nice, especially since this is something that typically isn't clear via the web and isn't well-doumented at the museum itself.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:23 AM on January 1, 2006

the tate and the getty both have good on-line searchable coatalogues. if you have the time/money....
posted by andrew cooke at 4:25 AM on January 1, 2006

The flash widget (zoom in on painting) that Bonhams auction house have on their website to view artworks would blow my mind. This would require some good photography of the works.

I can't think of an official museum website I like. Insecula does a lot right. It groups both by position in the museum and by movement, artist etc. Each room has an overview (with panorama) and a page with individual worksfrom that room, and the quality of reproduction is decent. It has a ton of info for each work, like related works and alternate reproductions, plus it has all the superfluous fun crap like QT panoramas and stuff. Gives you all the serious stuff plus a feel for the museum and shows the art in context. Can't think of much more that I'd want.
posted by fire&wings at 4:37 AM on January 1, 2006

warhol, I designed the Web site for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I would agree with many of the recommendations listed above. I would also say that designing a site like this is a work-in-progress. Planning the organization and functionality of your site from the beginning is key. It's a good foundation (use usability testing liberally!). But you will also find that the site and the content will grow over time.

The wonderful thing about working at a museum is the large number of artworks you get to work with. It's as far from earning a living designing e-commerce sites as I could get. ;-)

lychee, we use four different image size standards on our site. The smallest is used as thumbnails. Up until recently we have not mentioned to our users that they can view very large images, even though they are up there for viewing. But in doing studies we saw, over time, that teachers really wanted large images. Instead of doing slide shows (using real slides) teachers are now grabbing images from the net and putting them in powerpoint presentations for their students. So we are in the process of making it clearer that we have these large images available (and this is important to remember as well --given the fast changes in how one views your site (monitor resolution for example) and advances in the backend, designing and redesigning your site will never end --it's a continual process).

This past year we started a new section of the Web site called Interact. We are using this section to produce simple but "extendable" pages about particular art pieces. And we employ a few different ways to go about it. We use Zoomify to allow viewers to get close to our works. We also use Todd Dominey's Slideshow Pro to create automatic slide shows like this one which shows how one of our works was restored. And I created a special feature called "Speaking of Pictures" which allows the viewer to rollover an artwork to reveal interesting facts and art historial relationships.

Now, the most important part of putting together a Web site this encompassing is creating a good working collaborative team within the museum of curators, techies, educators, and your public affairs department to make sure that all the various types of users (art lovers, researchers, the media, students and teachers, for example) are taken into consideration.

I hope that helps. Feel free to drop me a line if you want to talk further.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:44 AM on January 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

- Large images. Extra points from both hi-res jpegs and a Flash zoomer/viewer.
- From anywhere on the site, one click away from: museum hours, ticket prices, and directions
- Multiple ways to browse collection (timeline, themes, artists)
posted by gwint at 5:54 AM on January 1, 2006

depending on where you are located.... having the site translated.
I really like that the in Houston has the entire site in Spanish.
posted by nimsey lou at 7:19 AM on January 1, 2006

First of all, it's a museum, design must be strong - not mindblowing, just strong and reflective of either the building or the art contained within. It is, afterall, the virtual front door of the place. The Smithsonian American Art Museum site has a lot of info and is gathering tons of metrics no doubt (key to building their business model and important for you to consider as you build yours) but visually, it's just not reflective (IMHO) of what the Smithsonian is about; It's stale. Of course I realize that T.O. may not have had much control over many design aspects - which is typical and unfortunate. It is smart that the SAAM site keeps it simple. Nav is very easy and I had no problem finding things I wanted to find. To me, on these larger sites, navigation is critical. Like others have said, keep the clicks down and the links obvious. Personally, I rarely use site maps but still find them useful for a large population of surfers.

Don't be afraid of Flash. Sure it's used poorly more often than not but a good designer, using it sparingly within a template or layout, can achieve wonderful effects. Avoid having your nav in your flash - it's not wrong per say, it's just rarely done well and some people (probably the cave people still on dialup) don't have their flash player active so they won't see it.

Obviously, you need all the collateral material the museum has put out for reference (flyers, brochures, ads, etc..). Unless they are going for a 'whole new look', you'll want that frame of reference to build your site from because the people you are working for are the same ones that most likely approved all that collateral material. Get funky with design but just remember the stuffed shirts you'll be showing it to.

I'm assuming this website is geared toward the regional population so I'm personally against the flash thingy where you zoom in on a painting. Unless this is a commerce site designed to generate capital and you're using this bell/whistle type design to cross sell something, they should be encouraged to actually go to the museum to view the works. That is the whole point right? If you could view all the stuff in the museum on your site, why go? Websites like these are teasers. Your showing just enough to make your viewer say, "man, I've got to go there".

Use style sheets, templates and follow web standards. Check your work on Explorer, Safari, Firefox and others BEFORE you show it to others.

T.O. is right, it's a team effort and no matter how good a designer you are, there will be other people (who aren't designers) that will have input. Listen, consider and work with your team to resolve conflicts/issues. It sounds like an exciting project, I wish you the best on it!!!
posted by j.p. Hung at 7:42 AM on January 1, 2006

More than just a big photo of a piece, I want some context. What's it about, who was it painted for, where was it meant to be seen, what restoration work has been done (bonus for before/after pictures), what pieces influenced this piece?

Personally, I'm more into the care and feeding of the art than the art itself, so pages on the backroom stuff that goes on (preservation, restoration, etc) would be gratefully received.

Directions, up to date opening times, prices, concessions, are of course vital.
posted by Leon at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2006

I'm a museum administrator. We are presently in the goal-setting stage for a major redesign of our site.

Two of my favorite museum web sites:
PEM: it's loaded with Flash, but very well done.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum: Notice how the online content extends the museum's theme and invites a visit without giving away the farm. I especially love their feature Merchant of the Month: this is a real visitor service, but it also supports the museum's mission by telling stories about the neighborhood's evolution and conveying the nature of the Lower East Side community.

In my opinion, these are the imperatives:

On the front page, or easily located from there -
--Strong visual presence
--Mission statement and/or short descriptive text about the museum's collection
--Hours, directions, prices, next upcoming event
--Event calendar
--Education programs and other extensions for kids and teachers

--means of exploring collection or theme (gallery, interactive)
--online exhibit exploring a single, well-articulated topic in depth.
--research resources (digitized primary documents, topic papers)
--Pre- and post-visit information for school groups (including lesson plans, themed itineraries, etc)

I think many museums work a bit too hard at their web sites. A museum web site is not itself a museum. I shudder when I think of the federal grant dollars that have been poured into elaborate, layered websites which are fully explored by only a tiny minority of web users.

I believe the function of the web site should be to present some excellent resources that support the museum's collection; but they should not present the museum's collection itself. The site should drive visitation. Attendance is down across the board at most of the nation's museums. It may be that people who use the web explore a web site and then, in some way, feel that they have already visited the museum, that they somehow 'get' what it is about without taking in the experience. This cheats the museum and does not build the visitor's desire to see the collection in person.

The ideal site should hint at the marvelousness of the actual museum experience, provide all the facts you need to get there, and perhaps support your visit preparations with information. Online exhibits are a plus, but by all means, they should not be repetitions of the museum's physical exhibits. They should be on a related theme, but offer content unique to the web, so that the user still has to visit in order to take in the museum experience itself.

In short, think: complement, not duplicate.
posted by Miko at 9:40 AM on January 1, 2006

Hours, directions, prices, next upcoming event

* Parking information and costs; transit information (with links to actual schedules); interactive map.

*Nearby places to eat (with links), including hours for restaurants within the museum.

* Floor diagrams.

* Downloadable brochures (whatever is handed out free at the museum).

* Volunteer opportunities.

* Full information on membership alternatives (benefits and cost of each level, tax-deductible portion, etc.)

* Option to put oneself on a mailing list to be notified of upcoming exhibits (and nothing else; no marketing spam).
posted by WestCoaster at 5:13 PM on January 1, 2006

I believe the function of the web site should be to present some excellent resources that support the museum's collection; but they should not present the museum's collection itself. The site should drive visitation. Attendance is down across the board at most of the nation's museums. It may be that people who use the web explore a web site and then, in some way, feel that they have already visited the museum...

Miko, it's overly simplistic to equate lower museum attendance with Web site visitation. Attendance may be down for many reasons. There is a lot of competition for our cultural activity time these days. And the admission cost of walking into many museums can be prohibitive, especially for families.

It is clear from my experience that people use our Web site for a multitude of reasons. One of the most important is for education (as I mentioned above). While we want to encourage people to see the real thing that may be difficult if you live far away. If, for example, you are doing research on a painter, but the paintings reside in a museum 1000 miles away, being able to see reproductions on the Web can be helpful. And the next time you're in our area, you'll remember those paintings and come visit.

Also, a museum Web site allows us to show more of our collection than would ever be possible in our physical galleries. Museum collections are much larger than our wall space. Collections are rotated. So, even if you come in the door, you will never see all the art we have. Our Web site allows us to show you more.

It's possible that seeing something on our site might actually increase attendance. There are many compelling reasons for providing as much content on the Web as you can (and that includes your collection).

The discussion here on museum attendance is part of a greater one: how can we connect our art with the experiences of our visitors? If art is seen as just something on the wall --a relic of the past or an unexplainable, seemingly chaotic "over the line" contemporary expression, rather than a reflection of one's history, thought, and creativity, then art museums will be empty.

I don't see a museum Web site as a substitution for the museum, but I do think it can add important elements to one's experience.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:56 AM on January 2, 2006

I wasn't stating that the drop in attendance was due to web content; merely that web content should not aim to contribute to the drop. To suggest that the attendance decline was a result of increased web content would be folly, and would deny the vast piles of research that daily accumulate upon my desk. Believe me, the factors causing the decline are on my mind almost constantly. But some marketing data shows that the more familiar people feel with an institution via its site, the less priority they place on actually visiting.

I'm certainly familiar with the possibilities you delineate, but I'm also suggesting that a website should be enticing, and should enhance, rather than replicate, a visit. Too often, institutions see web content as a savior and imbue it with magical powers. But a great web site will never save a failing museum. Instead, a great web site simply reflects a functioning and healthy museum, while a poor one reflects bad priorities, a lack of interdepartmental communication, and perhaps too much naive belief that throwing a lot of stuff up on the web is the key to success.

I'm Dir. of Ed. at a large museum. I agree with much of what you say about web design for museums, but want to present a critical perspective as well. Three times now, I have seen museums sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into web sites which were poorly designed because of lack of critical and strategic thought. In one prominent case (which shall remain nameless), the museum actually commissioned a total redesign less than one year after launching its first effort.

Within the field, there has often been an infatuation with available technology, fueled by people excited by new possibilities. When this energy is coupled with neglect for strategic thinking and lack of team planning, museums get the sprawling, barely navigable, confusing, "let's-put-the-entire-collection-online!" type of site that has been very common over the last ten years.

Thankfully, today more museums are opting for streamlined and narrower but better-thought-out content. They are also recognizing that it isn't always cost-effective to try to serve many masters. In a world in which abundant information on many topics is available for free on other web outlets, most museums should concentrate on doing only what they do best -- interpreting their collection -- not on being the go-to resource for everything related to their topics. In addition, in this climate of instant online learning, museums are finding that they capture more visitors by offering real-world immersive experiences. Program growth is taking place in sectors that are multisensory, skills-based, and highly interactive. The web can help pull the visitors in, but can never deliver an experience that is anything but two-dimensional.

It's also worth recognizing that the Smithsonians are quite a bit different from other museums. Program fees and admission fees account for 22% of our annual operating budget. We can't give the farm away online by devoting our limited resources to providing free content. Smithsonian's mission and unique funding situation allow different choices in this area.

Museums should undertake a careful planning process with clear goals for what the web site is to do; to thrust it all -- goals, content, strategy -- into the hands of a web designer is to demonstrate poor stewardship of resources and lack of a coherent philosophy. But I think if you re-read my answer, you'll see that I endorse the types of uses you suggest when they are well-funded, enhance interpretation, encourage visitation, and fall within the mission.
posted by Miko at 6:46 AM on January 2, 2006

Miko, I agree with many of the points you make. Newer is not always better and strategic planning is key (and connecting IT planning to the museum's overall plan is crucial).

I too have seen megabucks sunk into other museums' Web sites. $$ doesn't equal quality. This is where good user testing is very important (and should be an ongoing process). For example, we have just completed a project to allow for better printing of our Web pages (a new print stylesheet) and to fix some CSS problems that prevented people from selecting text on our pages. This was not a simple process --code on all pages had to point to our revised stylesheets. And, to the casual user these upgrades will be transparent (as it should be). Creating a good user experience is an ongoing process for us.

warhol said he/she was redesigning their museum's Web site. In my experience that is a lot harder than creating one from scratch.

As to your point about the unique nature of the Smithsonian's funding (we get a portion of our budget from Congress), that amount has been dwindling for quite some time. Congress' contribution to the Smithsonian barely covers the payroll these days. We, too, must look for outside resources to maintain and create new programs. And we must be judicious with the monies we do have in hand.

SAAM is in an interesting position vis a vis this discussion: our main building has been closed for six years for renovation (we will be reopening this July --come visit!). Our Web site during this time has served an additional purpose. Keeping the doors open can have a number of meanings -g.

It also means we have a chance to rethink the nature of our collection as we start to reinstall pieces into the renovated galleries. And it has given us a chance to think how IT fits into the notion of the 21st century museum.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:05 AM on January 2, 2006

I think what warhol could draw from this discussion is the importance of getting a broadly representative team from his museum to clarify, and then prioritize, the goals of the redesign. Hearing from a range of voices about what the website most needs to do will be immeasurably helpful. Without forethought, the result may not be satisfying.

Warhol, you might also be interested in attending this conference (or reading its proceedings): Museums and the Web. It draws some of the best thinkers in the field.

Takenouttacontext -- I do hope to visit!
posted by Miko at 9:44 AM on January 2, 2006

Warhol, you might also be interested in attending this conference (or reading its proceedings): Museums and the Web. It draws some of the best thinkers in the field.

I have to laugh. I'm part of the program committee. ;)

I concur that it's a good conference with some really bright people trying to think through stuff. I sometimes complain that it seems overly focused on theory rather than implementation, but there are nuggets of good stuff.

Actually, this whole discussion very much parallels my thinking about how museums should be evolving their attitudes about visitors and how the web should be a part of that rather than an afterthought.

I don't think anyone has mentioned anything that surprises me -- there's been some fairly strong validation of what I've been thinking about, which is encouraging. Not just for me personally, but that other places are also heading in the same direction.

Thanks for the input, everyone. I really do appreciate it and if anyone wants to chat more in email, please do so.
posted by warhol at 10:14 PM on January 3, 2006

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