"Websites were a wonderful way around the famous museum swamp."
March 4, 2008 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Visual Arts: No Revolution in Hyperspace "A former insider laments the dumbing down of art museum websites." Nice, short overview of art museums and the web with good links.
posted by Miko (13 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I really understand the author's take on the topic. His lamentation that museum sites are now "[b]uilt around a standard set of features -- hours, travel directions, virtual tours, exhibition descriptions, press releases, and an illustrated online collections catalogue" seems really odd. Those features are the pretty much the exact reasons I now visit a museum's site; they enable me to get information with which to plan a visit to the actual museum.

I mean, I really like being able to see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, especially the "large version". But there is simply no way for a website to capture the wonder of seeing the immensity and beauty of it in person, of being able to get inches away from the enormous canvas and see the individual flecks and points of color Seurat used.

And as far as being "useful for some quick information, reference, even the occasional school assignment, but, in this age of media overload, they are no better than anyone else at holding the public's attention", take another look at this page. See that section marked "Interpretive Resources" and all the links beneath it? I would have killed for a resource like that as an undergrad (not an art major, just really like that painting). Maybe the Art Institute of Chicago is an anomaly, but I doubt it.

I just don't think the guy mounts a good case for his argument.
posted by cog_nate at 1:36 PM on March 4, 2008

He mounts no case. Half the article is him telling us how he was there first. Then says he doesn't like what's happening now, in the most general of terms. Other than a jab at the Louvre he appears to be referring to American websites, but doesn't bother saying so.

Last but not least he is talking rubbish. "Tossed aside by the public with only a brief glance?" Has he seen the Louvre website recently? "No better than anyone else at holding the public's attention." Tosh.
posted by fire&wings at 2:02 PM on March 4, 2008

Argh! I have a ton to say about this, but it was posted right as I'm walking out the door to fly to a conference that will largely be about museums and the web. D'oh.
posted by COBRA! at 2:03 PM on March 4, 2008

Great points. I can give a little background and explain that there's some derision in the slightly more tech-savvy regions of the museum world for the lack of imagination inherent in just "putting the brochure online" and offering images of collection items to arrange and make into lists. Visiting the museum is definitely a hoped-for result of creating a website - you can't not have that information out there -, but almost all museums will have hundreds of thousands if not millions more online visitors than IRL visitors, even over a lifetime. So the web presence is important, and underexploited.

He's definitely right that museums are risk-averse when it comes to the web, and the creativity involved in developing great real-life programs rarely seems to be mirrored in the web presence. I love the anecdote about how the Louvre's first website was actually created by an unaffiliated fan until the insitution wrested it away.

I'd never advocate for taking the visit information and informational resouces off museum websites. But the sites could be doing a lot more to link communities to their museums. Some recent models that I think deserve much admiration: the Brooklyn Museum's Community section, with Flickr and podcasting and such; the LoC's recent sharing of photos on Flickr, resulting in an excellent archive of reminiscences and even some place and person identifications; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Dashboard.

Think also of the many potential audiences for museum sites: museumgoers, sure, but also donors, scholars, journalists, grantmaking organizations, job seekers, kids trying to do homework, people who are homesick for the place they used to live, people assembling a scrapbook, people who'd like to find others who share their arcane interest, etc. Lots of untapped potential across the field.
posted by Miko at 2:09 PM on March 4, 2008

Oh, man, COBRA! I'm kind of gonna hope you can squeeze something in between sessions....
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2008

I'd never advocate for taking the visit information and informational resouces off museum websites. But the sites could be doing a lot more to link communities to their museums.


At least most art museums have useful websites, however unimaginative. Galleries tend to be satisfied with a list of represented artists, plus short biographies and, sometimes, a handful of images. (This pisses me off no end, and I always sound like a gushing loon when I meet gallerists who've put in the effort.)
posted by jack_mo at 3:45 PM on March 4, 2008

Just today I had reason to talk on the phone to this company which specializes in interactive exhibits for museums. They're in Portland OR. They seem to do really interesting stuff. For example, the deer scroll for the Seattle Art Museum.

Sometimes it seems like the universe is sending me signals. I talk to this company today, then this gets posted. Similarly, the universe has been showing me images Drew Barrymore everywhere I look in the last two days. In the supermarket checkout line, in magazines, on TV. I don't know what it means. I feel like Richard Dreyfuss with his mashed potatoes.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 4:44 PM on March 4, 2008

I wish it was the default for museums to put up large, high-resolutions digitalizations of their works, to study and admire.

We're not there yet.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:49 PM on March 4, 2008

I wish it was the default for museums to put up large, high-resolutions digitalizations of their works, to study and admire.

It's funding more than anything.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on March 4, 2008

Brad Johnson is awesome. I've done work for similar clients, but he's van Gogh and I'm Bob Ross.
posted by maxwelton at 9:37 PM on March 4, 2008

Museum web sites suck. All of 'em.

The first one that puts up high resolution photographs of its entire collection, for free, in directly downloadable form (no flash / java image viewers) wins a prize.

Oh, might I apply the same critique to photographers web sites as well? I think I shall.
posted by Sukiari at 12:06 AM on March 5, 2008

"It's funding marketing more than anything."

They're afraid that nobody will come to the stuffy, rule bound museum to see their stuff if you could see a high quality digitized print at home. And, to a large extent they are indeed correct.
posted by Sukiari at 12:09 AM on March 5, 2008

Heh ... I'm with COBRA and Miko on this one ...

Like Peter Walsh I, too, was in at the beginning of the land rush (University of Michigan Art Museum, Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village), but I don't take the same attitude as he does in his article. The politics in the museum environment are absolutely amazing. At the time, several of us joked that archivists could never be curators, they weren't arrogant enough (My apologies to the non-arrogant curators amongst The Mefites, but you know I'm right!)!

While I have since moved away from the museum-only environment, my day-job professional focus remains upon cultural heritage institutions. Websites serve the same multiple purposes for these institutions, but the institutional "cultural" attitudes towards these purposes of museums, archives, and libraries are often radically different.

Libraries and archives have been much quicker to appreciate the viability of using websites in support of their missions, and as Miko suggests, it's often a matter of funding. This funding issue itself is mission-related. Museums are not intended to be "context-providing" for the objects they hold; libraries and archives (ESPECIALLY archives) are very much about providing context for the objects that are held in their collections. And funding for those initiatives to support that mission is done accordingly.

Compare the website of something like The California Digital Library with the Louvre and you can begin to get a sense of what I mean by this.

I'd try to go further with this, but I need to get out the door for a regional meeting to talk about some of these issues ... good post, though!
posted by aldus_manutius at 6:51 AM on March 5, 2008

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