Loading ...

Across the board, designers of Web sites and interactive kiosks are providing richer, more elaborate, more educational, more entertaining and more in-depth encounters with a museum's collection. Visitors to the virtual museum have the opportunity to go behind the scenes with a museum curator, hear directly from a primary source, view collections normally locked away in storerooms, conduct detailed research, watch videos and animations, make purchases and plan visits. Whether museum directors realize it or not, visitors to museums on the Web are now beginning to outnumber attendance at real, physical museums. For a number of savvy curators and designers, new media offers provocative new ways to extend and enhance the museum experience.

Judy Gradwohl is on a mission. Gradwohl is the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Web program. As leader of a Web content initiative for the Smithsonian, she's spent the last six months attempting to understand the state of the Smithsonian's presence on the Web, with an eye toward presenting a rationalized, unified museum experience online.

Here's what she's discovered. The Smithsonian has 450 Web sites that face the public, ranging from museum and departmental pages to virtual exhibits. Last year alone, 24.2 million people visited Smithsonian museums. The Web sites received over 62 million visits. Each of Smithsonian Institution's sixteen museums, from the African Art Museum to the National Zoo, has a unique Web site. The homepage at smithsonian.org contains links to 90 of the major sites. No two major Smithsonian sites look the same.

That might not be as big a problem as it seems. "I think it's marvelous that all our sites have different looks," Gradwohl says. If the Smithsonian is to adopt a design strategy as a whole, she would like to see "Aim for consistency, not conformity," embraced as a design mantra.

Gradwohl was educated as a botanist, and her training in the jungles of Central America seventeen years ago still informs her work as one of the most groundbreaking designers of Web experiences working today. The best museum Web sites are like ecological preserves, Gradwohl believes. "They provide resources for people to explore. Designers have to understand the resources, define the boundaries, and then let visitors find the path that's right for them," she explains.

Browse Projects

Click on an image to view more from each project

Choose your own path; create your own experience. That's exactly what visitors can do on two groundbreaking sites Gradwohl helped develop at the Smithsonian. Revealing Things, designed in conjunction with Razorfish and Plumb Design, was the first Smithsonian exhibition created specifically for the Web. History Wired, designed by Martin Wattenberg, let visitors take a virtual tour of objects normally stored in the vast warehouses of the Smithsonian. In the process, these sites broke the mold of online exhibits that simply reproduced a museum exhibit. "I try to make sure we are providing experiences that could not be duplicated in our physical facility," Gradwohl says.

The Smithsonian has been famously called "America's attic." Much of its work preserves history in the form of artifacts like Eli Whitney's cotton gin or George Washington's battle sword. Then, there's Julia Child's Kitchen. Perhaps not the Eli Whitney of her day, but a cultural force worth remembering, to the tune of all 1,700 kitchen objects Child donated when she retired from Cambridge and moved to California.

Designed by New Tilt, the site opens with an immediately recognizable voice-over by Child, welcoming visitors. Viewers can explore a 360° panorama of the kitchen as installed in the Smithsonian. Clicking a hotspot on the panorama enlarges a portion of the image, for example, an oven, and brings up information such as, "Two 25-pound turkeys fit inside this oven."

A timeline illustrates Child's career as author and television host, highlighting stories and weaving objects into the timeline in a graphical way. Viewers can read about Child's life, hear some of her stories via audio clips, and for the gadget freaks among us, take an up-close look at some of the objects Child used. Of the nearly 2,000 objects in the collection, "We picked objects that have good stories to tell," Gradwohl says.

Documenting the historic events of today is part of the museum's mission as well. To commemorate the first anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks, the Smithsonian opened September 11: Bearing Witness to History. The exhibit featured fire-fighting equipment, fragments of the World Trade Center, as well as photographs and personal stories told by survivors of the attacks. For the first time in the museum's history, the Smithsonian included the Web site—designed by Portland, Oregon-based Second Story—on the museum floor.

Gradwohl remembers, "We had a physical commemorative exhibition with relatively few objects. For the Web site, we decided the story would be about the entire September 11 collection. We wanted to explain how and why we collect objects and how the museum used them to document this piece of history."

As an example, Gradwohl points to a missing person poster donated by one of the victim's parents. Emblematic of the first frantic days of the search for survivors, the poster is a mute testament to loss. On the Web site, that object begins to speak, supported by oral histories, a handwritten list of hospitals contacted, a family photo and a map that locates where the remains were found.

During its ten-month run, the September 11 exhibit attracted over a million visitors to the museum. The Web site received over 300,000 visits. Tragic as the event was, Gradwohl says it was gratifying to see how an event like September 11 could be integrated into the operation of the museum.

Hit the Web site of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and you'll encounter 15,000 works from portraits of George Washington to Pop pieces by Andy Warhol. Jeff Gates, head of new media initiatives at the museum, helps determine how viewers experience that collection in the form of special online exhibits.

Gates describes his job this way: "The curator's work is to contextualize the content. My work is to contextualize the interface." With information contributed from different sources, and teams of developers working in Flash or Cold Fusion, Gates must"maintain the big picture as the interface develops. How does content affect the continuity of the user experience? As the content develops and changes, it is important to keep an updated schematic of the site.This ensures that each content type is conveyed appropriately and doesn't get lost. It is a constant process," he says.

The curator's work is to contextualize the content. My work is to contextualize the interface." —Jeff Gates

In addition to keeping the interface as simple as possible to allow for easy, consistent access, Gates is dedicated to enabling what he calls good maker's experiences. With content coming in from museum directors,curators, content offices, editors and user interface designers, Gatesensures the production team "doesn't relive the parable of the twelve blind men and the elephant."

Campfire Stories, a recent online exhibit of the work of George Catlin, a painter of the American Plains Indians of the 1830s, exemplifies Gates's work and the educational mission of the museum. The exhibit presents hundreds of Catlin's paintings, his notebooks and letters, while placing them in a historical frame of reference, and supplementing them with modern-day commentary.

To help frame Catlin's story, Gates and his production team created an interface that uses the campfire as a central metaphor.Five narrators circle a virtual campfire. Clicking on a storyteller brings on a QuickTime movie that introduces viewers to themes such as ancestral lands, chiefs and leaders, and the Western landscape. It is an incredibly rich multimedia experience that includes voice-over, chants and music, and a PBS-style montage of Catlin's paintings à là Ken Burns. To Gates, it was "a provocative way to bring people into the subject matter and make the information exciting. It's an accessible, interesting entry to the world of George Catlin."

Producing Campfire Stories entailed a huge task, according to Gates, beginning with input from the directors, content offices, editors,curators and user interface designers. In addition to the on screen videos of five campfire speakers, the production team digitized more than 500 images from 4× 5 transparencies and placed them in thematic galleries. To provide historical context, the team created a scrollable timeline. Catlin's original sketchbook was scanned and put online, and a virtual community that brought together students, teachers, and museum curators was launched.

Early in the production process, Gates conducted a focus group with educators and learned images were crucial."Teachers wanted larger images; they wanted sketchbooks, and a contact with primary sources of information. It was a good fit with the assets we had." Gates is justifiably proud that most of the site was produced in-house by Smithsonian education, curatorial and new media initiatives staff. The site won a MUSE award gold medal from the American Association of Museums and Best Educational Web site at the Museums and the Web 2003 conference.

The bandwidth of a single, dedicated robust computer that can deliver sound, animation, graphics and interaction makes it possible to provide a great museum-going experience." —Robert Freeland

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the International Spy Museum at F and 8th Streets, NW, kids are lined up three-deep at the "Threat Identification" station. Faster than you can say, "Your papers, please!" these kids are slamming their hands on big red buzzers, identifying onscreen threats to their "covers."

"People don't come to a museum to read. They come to see, learn and do," says Quatrefoil Associates exhibit developer Robert Freeland. Freeland should know. He helped create eight of the interactive kiosks at the Spy Museum, along with graphic designer Jane Levine, programmer Jon Farris and the production team at Quatrefoil. Based in suburban Maryland, Quatrefoil employs interaction, graphic and exhibit designers, along with computer programmers, electrical engineers and fabricators.

The interactive exhibits designed by Quatrefoil function at the intersection where the act of doing becomes the act of learning.

If you want to teach satellite reconnaissance and how our government can determine if terrorists are massing in the caves of Torra Borra, show real satellite photos. Provide a quick onscreen training session so visitors know what to look for. Then turn them loose, letting them zoom, pan and identify roads, trails, cave entrances. Provide feedback, isolate on-screen hot spots, and soon a visitor can identify a column of soldiers marching up a path in Afghanistan.

Learning by doing is what makes interactive effective, and that's one reason the International Spy Museum—one of Washington DC's newest museums—is one of its most successful. The emphasis here is on entertainment, education and history. In a town full of free museums, the International Spy Museum is finding an audience willing to pay for an education in espionage.

To be successful, the museum had to be cool for kids while keeping the interests of a sophisticated adult audience. Attendees range from 5-year-olds to what look like 65-year-old retired CIA operatives just stopping by to check out their handiwork. Of course, in Washington, DC, home to more spies than any other city in the world, a certain professional interest is to be expected. For that reason, Freeland was told by his clients not to dumb it down.

Quatrefoil's exhibits were a year in the making. Freeland, as lead interactive designer, plunged into the work. To ensure the content was accurate, the Spy Museum hired an outstanding roster of highly-qualified consultants, including CIA disguise experts, Tony and Jonna Mendez; codes and ciphers historian, David Kahn; and former KGB Major General and chief of counter intelligence Oleg Kalugin. Their collective experience assured an authentic experience for the visitor.

Working with a content expert requires a strong editorial instinct. "Designing for museums is as much a matter of what you don't say as what you do say," explains Freeland. A content expert may know the subject inside and out; that encyclopedic understanding can be a problem if not reined in. "To them, everything is important," says Freeland. The designer must cut through the material to find what he calls, "the 'take away' moment."

"You look for epiphanies," he says. "The golden moments, the 'Wow!' Something that enables the audience to say, 'That's a concept I can get my mind around.'"

Good interactive museum design helps people get their minds around a subject by encouraging active, hands-on participation. Freeland's underlying strategy is to pique an audience's curiosity. "You have to find the hook that will catch a visitor's interest. If I'm interested in what I'm doing, the content leaps into my head." To ensure they are on the right track, Quatrefoil double-checks their interactive exhibit design with extensive prototyping and visitor testing.

For Freeland, the best interactive experiences give people an experience they can't get at home. "The bandwidth of a single, dedicated robust computer that can deliver sound, animation, graphics and interaction makes it possible to provide a great museum-going experience."

With only a few thousand square feet of exhibition space, the Babe Ruth Museum had a problem. Located in the row house where Babe Ruth was born and grew up, the museum is a confining, nooks and crannies kind of place. "We wanted the Web site to represent the size of the reputation of Babe Ruth, not the size of our physical location," says Laurie Ward, public relations director.

Designed by Planit, an integrated brand communications agency based in Baltimore, the Web site addresses the problem by ignoring it. "We don't need to show it to promote it," Planit president, Matthew Doud says. "We had to take a tiny museum in a few row houses in downtown Baltimore and give it national credibility."

So the Web site at www.baberuthmuseum.com showcases the exploits of baseball's most famous player without regard to physical plant. Ruth is a national icon and the Web site for the museum makes that clear. Grainy, sepia-toned graphics placed in a Flash-based timeline make a strong emotional connection with baseball fans. Accompanying text details Ruth's accomplishments.

Joel Fisher, director of interactive services at Planit, and lead designer on the Babe Ruth Museum project, says, "The timeline is the cornerstone of the site. Our design task was to figure out how to arrange all this great information. We wanted to make the information easy to access and fun to use. We broke it down by year, and by theme. Using pull quotes and imagery, we make the information come alive." Fisher, who gets weekly traffic statistics, reports the timeline is the most popular feature of the site.

The online museum is designed to extend the presence of the physical museum, especially for the fan that lives in California and can't travel to Baltimore. The creative brief to Planit, according to Ward, was to "make the Web site more fun, friendly, and serve as an educational resource for the fans. And we need an online gift shop."

Planit responded with a sophisticated, yet easy-to-use back-end system that makes e-commerce over the Web simple enough for the part-time volunteers, who staff the museum, to administer. Once a production person at the museum shoots digital photos, the automated system kicks in. Planit designed action keys to import the photos in Photoshop, then automatically resize the image, crop it, optimize it for the Web and put a border around it. Product images are automatically saved in three versions—a thumbnail for the home-page, a thumbnail for the catalog and an enlargement that shows the product detail. Products can be assigned to various categories in the catalog submenu. A toggle box makes it easy to push featured products from the catalog to the homepage. This enables the museum to focus its sales efforts on timely events; for example, if the '83 Baltimore World Series team is returning to meet the '83 Phillies, that memorabilia can be promoted.

Fisher reports the system has performed flawlessly, and the Museum uses it as their inventory tracking system. In addition to real-time credit card transaction processing-a big step up from a fax-in order form previously used-Planit built in online membership sign-up functionality and contribution mechanisms. Six months after the redesigned site went live, Ward says sales are up a whopping 1,300 percent compared to the first six months of sales on the original site.

Since forming in 1996, Swim Design—working out of Silver Spring, Maryland, a soon-to-be-hip suburb of Washington, DC—has created Web sites and interactive kiosks for over a dozen museums. With clients like the National Museum of the American Indian, the Folger Shakespeare Library, The Phillips Collection and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, you might say interactive museum design is their specialty. As Laurie Swindull, principal and co-founder says, "Museums are the coolest clients to work for. But we'll take on anything that pays."
What makes museums cool, according to Andrew Iskowitz, Swim Design's creative director and co-founder, is the diversity of experiences. "We spent six months learning about Egypt for the Brooklyn Museum. Then we moved on to the paintings of Jacob Lawrence for The Phillips."

As a designer of online museum experiences, Iskowitz says his goal is to "get people to walk away with a greater understanding of the work. You want to give them the 'aha' moment. If they've book-marked the site, then you've made a difference."

Swindull says, "A museum's mission must shine through on the Web." Case in point is the work they've done for the recent Egypt Reborn exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. To reflect the look of the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Swim Design incorporated the rays of the sun as a design element on the Web. The blue and gold color scheme seen on Egyptian sarcophagi is picked up and used for buttons and backgrounds.

Egypt Reborn showcases more than 600 objects from the Brooklyn Museum's collection. Swim Design was tasked with making the experience of those objects come alive via museum-floor interactive kiosks that they repurposed for the Web. The four thematic Web experiences provide an in-depth resource for students, teachers and anyone interested in the art of ancient Egypt. Elements of Style, Striking Poses, Signs of Afterlife and Resources enable viewers to interact with masterpieces from the collection, scroll through a timeline representing 5,000 years of Egyptian art, locate objects on interactive maps, explore tombs and decipher hieroglyphics.

Each Web experience lets viewers engage in hands-on activity, in the process learning much more than they would from simply viewing an object in a glass case. In Elements of Style, viewers can learn why figures in Egyptian reliefs have two left feet and only one nipple. Load the Flash file for Elements of Style and a 3-D Egyptian, designed by Carlson Bull, drops into the screen and comes to life. Viewers can click an eye, a foot or chest to compare the ancient relief figure of Akhtyhotep to a realistic depiction.

The experience Swim Design created to accompany the 2001 exhibit of the work of painter Jacob Lawrence at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is a beautiful contrast to the Egyptian art experience. Where Egypt Reborn is a quiet, curatorial, almost academic experience, Jacob Lawrence Over the Line is lively, colorful and dynamic. Swim Design took a linear, time-based approach to Lawrence's life and work. A montage of documentary photographs dissolves one into another while accompanying text tells the story of Lawrence's life and career, supplemented by audio clips of Lawrence talking about his work.

Swim Design worked hard to place the paintings in their historical context. Interactive maps enable viewers to follow the great black migration during World War I from the South to Northern urban centers, and see the paintings from Lawrence's The Migration Series. An interactive Harlem street scene from Lawrence's youth embeds his paintings into the photograph. Roll your mouse over these colorful hot spots and the paintings enlarge to fill the frame.

Perhaps one of Swim Design's most important achievements is they've designed these experiences on incredibly tight budgets. Iskowitz notes there are significant challenges when working with museums, including limited budgets and a seriously competitive bidding process. "Museums want to maximize their dollars," he says, "so you have to be extremely conscious of where the money is coming from."

Swindull puts it more succinctly. "Museum budgets for the Web are piddly. The directors haven't realized that more people are visiting their Web sites than the actual museum."

Slowly, museums are recognizing the importance their Web sites can have. According to Swindull, the National Museum for the American Indian Web site gets ten times the traffic than they do at any of their three physical museum locations. "They call their Web site their fourth museum."

Are Web sites and interactive kiosks the new gold standard for the museum-going experience? Quatrefoil's Robert Freeland is quick to point out that all the bells and whistles interactive multimedia can offer the museum visitor can actually get in the way of a museum-going experience. "In museums, content rules," Freeland says. "Technological solutions and multimedia should be employed only if it enhances content delivery." ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In