Better Know a Digital Museum – National Gallery of Art

In the vein of Stephen Colbert’s Better Know a District, I’d like to analyze the existing digital imprint of various museums, both domestic and foreign.  This is not a rating scale or a sales pitch, but rather a look at how museums currently offer their product to patrons outside the museum walls, noticing unique opportunities for learning.  My initial sections will be: user interface, artifact content, historical and cultural content, interactivity, and community.  I am sure I will add more, and I would welcome suggestions for additional sections and museums to add…and as my knowledge of this topic increases, thoughts could expand.

1)  National Gallery of Art – Washington, DC

As part of my doctoral studies I will be visiting DC in the Spring for various policy meetings regarding education and technology.  The connection to museum spaces is not an obvious one, but there is an intersection of digital images and copyright, especially with SOPA and PROTECT IP as potential technological policy.  There is also a hierarchical reluctance for museums to put their artifacts into digital form for consumption outside the museum auspices.  How does the National Gallery handle these conflicting issues?

User Interface – There are a number of ways to access the collection.  The link to collection provides a number of keyword search opportunities (title, artist, school of art, and even a search by previous ownership), and then a number of categories provided by the curators (American, British, Architecture, Photography, etc.).  The link for exhibitions lists the gallery’s standard exhibitions, as well as current unique exhibitions and a history of exhibitions from the 1940s to present, though there is no access to an online version of the exhibits.  However, the crown jewel of the user interface is the online tours section, which organizes works by artist, specific works, themes, architecture, or medium.  These tours are remarkably similar to a special exhibit in a real museum, with a greater amount of written material to accompany the artifacts, and the added bonus of being able to view a work in any order the user sees fit, as the interface puts the collection at the top of the page in a series of thumbnails that can be scrolled linearly or chosen at will.

There is no tablet app for the National Gallery of Art at this time.

Artifact Content – When viewing an artifact, the site provides traditional information found in most museums, as well as a number of unique access points:  artist information, location in the museum, conservation notes, provenance (the ownership lineage), and its history in various gallery exhibitions.

Historical & Cultural Content – The information on the artifact’s intangible importance depends somewhat on the artifact.  In the challis example on the left, this content is limited to ownership and the exhibition history as chosen by curators.  For something more famous, such as Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, the gallery includes narrative developed by the museum to discuss the painting.  While the content offerings are more elaborate than most digital museums, the narratives reinforce the dominant reading of the work, and are presented as canonical information without leaving room for negotiated or oppositional readings.

Interactivity – The various exhibits and online tours available introduce their own aesthetic, designed to match the mood or style of the artist or period examined.  However, the interaction between these objects and the patron stops at viewing; the opportunity exists for a patron to view a collection in the order they choose, but there is no visual way to reorganize the collection, dig past the initial offerings of the gallery, or utilize any of the information in a knowledge-creating manner.  The human interaction is to look, read, and move on.

Community – The museum offers links to various groups and organizations, as well as classes and events held at the museum, but there is no community built through the digital museum.  Social media is non-existant, for either the Internet or the Intranet.

Overall – The National Gallery of Art’s online collection seems as expansive as the real collection, with the added bonus of presenting artifacts that are not consistently on display due to museum size or preservation concerns.  The content avenues are greater than the average museum, either real or virtual.  The online museum works as a rigorous mirror of the real museum.  The opportunity exists for the online version to expand and offer items and interaction that the real museum could not, or to supplement the real museum in authentic interaction.

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