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What Makes for Compelling Museum Websites? When to Break the Rules

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Museums mainly focus on engaging visitors on site. Engagement with past or future visitors can happen on a website but it is relatively uncommon. While most museums have a website that has information on their exhibitions, a more difficult question is how the website can enhance engagement with the museum experience. One reason that this is particularly challenging for museums is that the on-site experience is built around authenticity.

Traditionally, museums have followed the principles of design to create websites characterized by a high degree of uniformity. Uniformity, often termed as unity, is considered one of the classic principles of good design. It refers to how various design elements fit together. Take for example Neue Galerie, a museum in the Upper East Side, "devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design."

The past, current, and upcoming exhibitions at this museum's website follow a remarkably consistent pattern, making it easy for the website viewer to obtain information. In my opinion, this approach works very well in the case of a thematic museum, such as the Neue Galerie.

Now consider MoMA's collection that "reflects the vitality, complexity and unfolding patterns of modern and contemporary art."

Translating these objectives into a uniform principle would mean compromising some of the unique aspects of the exhibitions. As noted by Chiara Bernasconi, Digital Media Project Manager and Dan Phiffer, Media Tech Developer, both at MoMA, all website design decisions are determined based on the unique needs of each exhibition. This insight suggests that principles of design should not be followed blindly but can even be broken for exceptional results. Applying a uniform principle would not allow the unique aspects of the exhibitions to be highlighted. MoMA has created unique websites for special exhibitions, called subsites. Observing these subsites allows one to extract some general principles for website design in the museum context.

Viewer Focused Design
James Rosenquist: F-111
The website asks the viewer to react to quotes by the artist. Anyone can join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter and viewers' comments appear on a sidebar.

De Kooning: A Retrospective
Website viewers can decide how to experience De Kooning's art. They have the option to explore the artist's works by themes, periods, timeline or by methods and materials.

Mirror Design
Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects
This subsite includes descriptions and images for all the 194 works in the exhibition.

German Expressionism
This subsite documents the Museum's entire collection of expressionist prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, illustrated books, and periodicals.

Augmented Design
Cindy Sherman
In addition to displaying the artist's works, this subsite features a series of videos with art historians, curators, artists, and gallerists talking about their favorite work.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
This subsite includes a series of interviews with the artist and behind the scenes footage to provide an in-depth look at performance art and the artistic process.

Websites can be a powerful tool to build engagement off site. While there are well developed rules of design, the biggest benefits may come from breaking them.