Some thoughts on what an art museum experience might feel like online

ReadWriteWeb wrote a recent article called 'I Don't Know Much About Art But I Know What's Online', in which they reviewed the different online offerings of a few different art museums, and concluded that there weren't yet any 'stand outs', and that they hadn't yet come across a museum who had managed to successfully combine having their complete collection online with a 'trifecta of navigational ease, resolution and information that would make it the most useful'.

A few people in the museum-web community have taken umbrage at this conclusion (including the usually-genial Claire Ross, who wrote a bit of a rant), but I read the article as more of a conversation-opener, and it got me thinking about what the 'trifecta' might look like.

A quick disclaimer: I haven't even attempted to review every, or even many, existing art museum websites, and so some of these ideas might have already been implemented, or have been proven to not work. They're also a bit off-the-cuff, and aren't fully thought out. But I thought I'd share them as another conversation-opener.

My first thought about art museums is that they're very different from other museums (like history or science ones), in that they're far more about a collection of potentially stand-alone artworks, rather than a narrative experience illustrated by historical objects. (There's more to both sorts than that, but I'm talking broad characterisations here).

When I visit an art museum, my primary experience is of wandering. I never know that much the art works, or what to expect, so I rarely have a specific destination in mind - merely just a desire to see some interesting/provoking stuff.

I think it's this experience which is so hard to replicate online. We're good at building web experiences which are optimised at getting users to the thing they're after (usually information) as quickly as possible, via carefully considered navigation and relevance-optimised search. What we're less good at is building web experiences where the user sits back and is simply entertained/amazed/enthralled by things they wouldn't have otherwise come across.

This isn't a problem that's exclusive to art museums. I think news has it too, for instance. Which is why Phil Gyford's Today's Paper project is so significant (read his explanation) - it manages to bring the ease and effortlessness of newspaper-reading together with the benefits of the web.

Reading is different to viewing though, and the visual arts need a different experience.

One thing the Read Write Web article rightly highlights is the need for digital copies of artworks to be available in high resolution. There are some reasons why this hasn't always been available (legal reasons, and copyright fears), but with computer resolutions getting bigger and bigger (both in terms of actual screen size and pixels density), even 800 pixel-wide images are starting to look like thumbnails. Many art museum websites already realise this, and let you zoom in to get more details, but a true full-screen experience is hard to come by (partly for technical reasons, I suspect, although these are now solvable). On top of image resolution, it's important that the photos download fast, and are pre-cached where possible. Nothing kills an experience more than having to wait more than a couple of seconds for blank or fuzzy images to fill in.

The best image-viewing experience I've had recently is the Guardian's Eyewitness app on the iPad (sadly not my own, I borrowed someone else's). It combines absolutely stunning photography (the photos are the ones that the Guardian uses as it's centre-page spread every day), with just enough interpretation and an almost invisible user interface. The photos load full-screen, and a simple swipe instantly loads the next photo. There's no navigation other than forwards or backwards (the photos are arrange in chronological order, I think, although this doesn't really mean much). You can either simply view the photos and interpret them for yourself, or with a single tap you can bring up a small caption overlay which explains the who/what/where/when/why of the photo. A second option lets you read a short technical interpretation of why the photograph works in terms of composition, aperture and so on. It's a wonderful experience, could probably be replicated on the web almost as easily as within the app, and could be a good model for art museums.

(Incidentally, I haven't had the chance to experience the Art Authority app, which Read Write Web has also reviewed, but that looks pretty good too).

So, how might I build upon these things if I wanted to create a better art museum online experience? I have a few ideas. For brevity's sake, I'll outline them in a list format:

  1. Slower zoom. Common javascript libraries and the iPhone/iPad multi-touch interface all put the user in ultimate control of the zoom level. You double click, pinch, scroll or drag and the image instantly zooms in as far as you want to go. For things like maps, this is probably appropriate. For art images, perhaps this is too fast? I wonder whether it'd feel more relaxed, and more contemplative, if the zoom behaved more like the Ken Burns effect on a rostrum camera. Perhaps you could tap/click on an area that interested you, and then the picture would slowly zoom in (with 'easing') on that area. Or tap/click a number of different areas, and the image would zoom in slowly to the first one, and then pan to the second, and so on, before zooming back out.
  2. Audio commentaries. Audio is a great companion to visual images, as you can experience both at once without any conflict (unlike text). But I wouldn't want the audio commentary to be like the ones you get on those rentable audio tour handsets - those often feel too long, and impersonal. I'd want it to feel more like a tour guide standing in front of the painting telling you what they love about it.
  3. 'Completable' collections. If you go to an art museum, you can 'do' a room (or a floor, or even the whole building), where 'doing' means seeing everything there is to see, and spending as much time looking at each thing as you want to. Once it's 'done', then you can almost unconsciously check it off in your mind (until the room is re-arranged, or a new exhibition arrives). Online, this is often impossible, and the choice and scale can be overwhelming (a feeling exacerbated when the museum proudly advertises how many thousands of images they have online). To make the images more completable (and sharable), they should be curated into meaningful collections. Ideally, these would be less random than simply "pre-Raphaelite masterpieces", and would actually be comprehensive collections alongs the lines of "every Warhol celebrity pop-art portrait" (this would be something only the web could provide) or "every art work from the original Sensation exhibition". 'Completing' the collection would mean seeing them all, and you'd be able to keep track of "viewed" collections.
  4. Time-lapse video/slideshow of the artwork being created. This might be a bit of a gimmick, but it'd be a fun one. What if, as well as seeing the finished artwork, you could scrub-back in time to see how it was painted (or otherwise made). Think Rolf Harris, but in reverse (and then forwards again).
  5. Pictures of the 'subject'.  This wouldn't always apply, but if an artwork has a specific subject, or inspiration, be that a 'sitter', a landscape view, or a object/thing, it'd be nice to see a photo of that. Would this detract from the artwork? Maybe. It'd be an interesting option to have though.

Update: Mike Ellis has also written a blog post in response to the Read Write Web article, titled Quantity or Quality?