Saturday, November 10, 2007

Visiting a Museum Website: The Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park

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One issue included in any heuristic evaluation of a museum’s website design is assessing whether there was an intention for it to serve as an extension of the museum’s collections with links to educational resources, information about programs, upcoming exhibitions, activities, and the like or whether it serves as a separate and independent entity altogether. As a separate entity the museum website might offer a virtual museum experience that accentuates or supplements a parent actual museum. For my own purposes I often seek museum websites that provide further text and photos to and of those art works or artifacts that I have experienced in an actual museum, and the rare occasion seems to be websites that provide me with a comprehensive collections database. This satisfies my curiosity about works that I may have failed to learn the title of, or the artists responsible for them, after a visit to the real museum.

The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park was one such website that satisfied my personal need for a collections database, a digital catalog of its works on display and some further insights into the mediums and the creative processes responsible for them, especially those works displayed outdoors. I saw much at my recent visit to the real museum, but there was lots of stuff I missed. A visit to its website provided a comprehensive catalog, replete with digital photos, of the DeCordova’s outdoor sculpture exhibits.

It was this that taunted me into committing to a future visit, both actual and virtual, to rectify the deficits of my recent visit to the actual. Here, online, I was able to savor more details about the real experience of the late Nam June Paik’s Requiem to the 20th Century, 1997, among others. I learned that the spray painted Chrysler Air Stream car, central to this work, was from 1936 and not 1938 as I had thought, given the ever elusive, onsite, ground level information plaques and my distracting three-year-old’s unannounced flights to nearby sculptures like Paul Matisse’s The Musical Fence, an interactive hit with kids.

Yes, these trivial details are important to me, the visitor. I was also able to learn that the Paik piece includes an audio of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor and that the television screens that Paik replaced the interior view of the Chrysler with include videos of imagery indicative of the consumption, technology, and mass-culture born of the last century, if they had been functioning. It is at this time that I thought how appropriate it would have been to include a clip from those videos or even an audio that included a few bars from Mozart’s Requiem via streaming video or a podcast, since I was denied that on the actual visit.

The website is devoid of both sound and video; something that I increasingly anticipate, since the technology is not brand new. Here, too, in a photo on the website, was one of my favorite compositions, Ronald Gonzalez’s Cones, 2006, a construction of steel armature and organic matter depicting a fantastical grouping of pine cone beings. Knowledge of this artist and the title of this work only became known to me through the website, a most important design consideration, for it is integral that you know what your audience requires of your site. Truly, Cones’ assembly in a grove of century old pine trees that enveloped it and cast it in daytime darkness put to rest for me why a museum website can never replace the three-dimensional experience of the actual; there is just so much more to be had in an actual museum experience. Beyond its offering of sculptures, DeCordova’s Park provided additional aesthetic experiences, and one of the most memorable experiences was entering a dark enclosure provided naturally by the canopy of some centuries old tree by my son and I. For this alone I would return to this Sculpture Park.

As the site of New England’s only permanent public sculpture park with a majority of works on loan, the actual DeCordova temporarily satiated my love of outdoor sculpture display. Visiting DeCordova’s website afterwards served the purpose of further enriching that experience, through its designers’ thorough attention to not only its collections database, but archival materials of the museum’s past events, exhibitions, and insights into their education programs. The website immediately draws a visitor’s attention with its use of a moving and changing banner head that flashes the latest and upcoming attractions as well as the museum’s newest arrivals and recent "Gifts" of art by donors. Through this splash screen, there is not only a linear movement from the left to the right of text and imagery but a fading effect of that information once it reaches the right side of the page when another offering, in this sequence of four, replaces the former through gradual superimposition. This kinesthetic display makes use of a color palette of carmine red, cobalt blue, and photo gray, and these, superimposed on a home page of shades of gray, succeed at enlivening a website whose appearance would be otherwise commonplace.

The menu of the homepage is located vertically at the right, and the offerings begin with "Exhibitions." An important aspect of Decordova’s current manifestation, for the museum has evolved considerably since its opening in 1950, is its emphasis, not only "on modern and contemporary art, " but on art work created in New England. Since almost all the works in the Sculpture Park originate geographically from this region, it seems logical that such a focus to the collection would not only be documented early in the website but emphasized; for example, their mission statement might be provided stating this fact. It doesn’t. In fact, its dedication to exhibiting "regional contemporary art" is only stated in one of the last menu clicks labeled "About DeCordova."

This website exemplifies a user-centered design; navigation throughout the website is effortless and immediate in its usability. With a menu click to "Tours and Education," the museum reiterates its commitment to and clear focus on providing art education through not only "school visits, outreach," and "family programs." It is first indicated through an invocation at the right side of the homepage to "Registrar Now" through a link to course offerings in the DeCordova’s onsite Museum School.

The website provides the museum’s education offerings in art media under the guidance of artists and art education professionals through a menu click. There are programs for both teachers and the interested that provide hands-on experience in everything from jewelry design, book arts, ceramics, painting, and print making, among other mediums. Well constructed web pages essentially provide the syllabus to these courses with attention to policies and other pertinent information, as well as easy registration through an Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in. A calender of events, with easy clicks to further details of events and complimentary merchandising, is also included.

One of the more valuable resources provided for educators is access to both enrichment and curriculum development in conjunction with its educational outreach. As mentioned in the paper "Expanding Art Museums into Humanities Classrooms: Research on Online Curricula for Cross-Disciplinary Study" teachers are drawn to sites that provide "tools for the classroom," and succeeding at this will ensure regular use instead of "one-time inspiration" by this target audience. A large proportion of today’s teachers seek out websites to assist them with their lesson development, and among the most popular sites with teachers are those that provide complete lesson plans that make connections between state standards in a subject area and a museum’s collections, and this website provides links to lesson plans for grades 6-8 (DiSalvo, 2007).

These resources could be improved upon and added to, for there are a limited number that have not been added to in some time. The DeCordova has taken its cue from such demands to increase its "impact" on an Internet community it serves in other ways though, including an attention to cross-curricular concerns in outreach exhibits like "Portable Gallery on the Go," which can be accessed by clicking "Tours and Education." Its choice of themes for this tool includes titles like "Puzzles and Daydreams: Art Works for Thinking" and "Harold "Doc" Edgerton: The Inventor as Artist," among others.

Another element of a museum’s website that I often anticipate is its attention to archiving past files; often these are ignored in web design. This undoubtedly has much to do with the fact that web design is evolving and that frequent redesigns necessitate cutting costs that include reconfiguring files from a past site as one of our course readings suggests. But a lot of stuff has been lost as a result— a whole new era of communications (Hamma, 2004).

One of my recent experiences with seeking such archival information online from a museum website pertained to an outdoor re-enactment of a P.T. Barnum "humbug," the nineteenth century discovery of the Cardiff Giant in Upstate New York" which had been featured outdoors in situ at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY some ten years ago. The giant-size stone in human-form had laid in a hand dug hole canopied by a reproduction period circus tent as it had once been discovered and publically displayed some one-hundred and fifty years ago. I had made mention of the situation in a paper I was writing, but I needed more information.

The museum had not archived the information I sought online, that had formerly been accessible through their website, and, for that matter, all records of this transient exhibit seemingly ceased to exist. A phone call to the museum proved just as disappointing. Archiving such information seems of great importance to a museum website that seeks to educate its audience as well as cajole scholarly research. The Decordova seems to understand this as evidenced by a link, at the top right of the homepage adjacent to the museum’s name, to archival materials about past exhibitions dating back, sometimes, ten years.

In summary, as a medium size art museum DeCordova offers much to their website visitors. Its attention to educational materials as well as information about works loaned to them and in their permanent collection is exceptional. The museum website in many ways distinguishes itself among other museums of similar size with its attention to archival materials and an offering to educators of lesson plans and learning materials related to their collection.

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