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The Whitney’s Re-Design: Web Done (Nearly) Right

I don’t envy those who have to redesign the website for a museum – balancing institutional structure and needs with the requirement that it reflect the appropriate aesthetic. Moreover, the process of transitioning a sensibility to the web in itself requires decisions about what the organization represents – a staid, classical collection would justifiably be nervous about embracing an open engagement of the general public.

The Metropolitan Museum, for example, probably won’t be holding a contest on YouTube any time soon. Its website, which looks like it was created by a medium sized corporation in 2002, is staid, muted, and tucked behind a splash screen. The Museum of Modern Art’s website, by contrast, is, well, modern, with a palette and structure that would bore Mies van der Rohe. It’s the Obama of websites – so cool, it’s dull.

Late last night, the Whitney Museum of American Art, known for its modern and contemporary exhibitions and its Biennial, unveiled the latest example from this world. It’s a great improvement over what was there yesterday, though that’s a low hurdle to conquer. Yesterday, the site was a card catalog. Today, it’s a website.

What establishes the Whitney’s new site as a success is not the aesthetic revamping with which, frankly, I’m not impressed. Various elements are laid in a casual grid, anchored by the logo, nice and big, at the top. The navigation is awkward, with elements jumping to the head of the line to show additional options once clicked. The background is either black or white, in order to accommodate a conceptually interesting feature in which it changes when the sun in New York rises or sets. (That would be at 4:41 this afternoon or 6:40 tomorrow morning for those wanting to witness it.) As I said – conceptually interesting. In practice, though, it tends to make the site feel a bit flat, and perusing the collection is negatively impacted by the black background. (White borders would do wonders.)

That’s particularly a shame, because said perusal and its accompanying tools are the real hook to the site. The collection itself is easy to navigate and well indexed. Every page, one notices, has at the bottom a small dot which, when clicked, adds an item to your “custom collection” (assuming you take advantage of the free registration, which you ought to do). This is not unique – the afore-mentioned MoMA site has a similar function – but the Whitney takes it further. When, above, I said every page, I meant every page. In addition to works of art, you can add artists, site elements, upcoming exhibits, even the contact page. Collections are an opportunity to interact with more than the art – you can in essence create your own museum website.

The site takes this sensibility of casual curatorship further – collections, here, are meant to be shared. Which, of course, they should be. In a time when creating and updating our Facebook pages is de rigeur, we ought to expect a museum to allow us to do the same. (You’re welcome to enjoy my nascent collection – the Levitt photo in particular is fantastic.) This feature also exists on the MoMA site, but passively. The Whitney envisions teachers assembling relevant study aides, families preparing for visits to the museums – the various ways in which people seek to assemble and distribute information, and learn about what an institution has to offer.

“Membership is one of the many ways you can connect with the institution,” notes Jeffrey Levine, the Whitney’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer. “The site is really designed so that if you’re not familiar with the Whitney and you want to start understanding what we are, maybe you start with Facebook or Twitter or Flickr, and its one of the ways you can deepen this connection with this institution.” This is exactly right. Employing Facebook, Twitter and other similar tools as inlets for engagement is employing them correctly. Facilitating sharing of the art facilitates engagement with the Whitney which, the Whitney certainly hopes, leads to visits and memberships.

While the museum encourages sharing collections, even displaying a large how-to that sits aside them, it hasn’t taken this idea as far as it should. Collections should be a Facebook application that I can display on my page, or a widget for my blog. They ought to have an RSS feed or API so I can re-purpose their contents. And they really, really ought to be used to inform the museum about my tastes and awareness – but, according to Levine, the Museum isn’t currently planning on doing so, citing privacy concerns. The Whitney’s collection isn’t as large as others, of course, but imagine how much could be learned by seeing what pieces people group together, which site utilities they find the most interesting, which exhibits are most resonant. There could be a virtually curated exhibition culled from and arranged according to trends in collections. The possibilities that could stem from becoming the Netflix (or the Twitter lists) of the art world are enticing – and ones that an institution seeking to build its membership should consider.

To the museum’s credit, the sensibility of openness that leads to the collection concept works on both sides of the site database – content is added and edited using a distributed, wiki-style content management system (CMS) unique to Linked by Air, the design firm responsible for the new Whitney site. Given that part of the goal of the new site was to remove the “silos” that Levine indicates marred the previous iteration, allowing a broad range of museum employees to contribute directly to it assures currency, accuracy – and staff ownership.

“The technology [behind the wiki CMS] really wasn’t what interested us. I think it was really the approach, and the ability to decentralize content entry and put a process together that worked for the museum,” notes Levine. “Where there were content experts, they could work directly on the site. Where there were staff members who wanted to speak directly to a specific audience segment, they could have a much more direct connection with the public.” Again: correct. While not right for every solution, for an institution with a widely distributed base of knowledge and a constantly evolving product line (so to speak), building a database on a wiki framework shows a great deal of awareness about proper web practices.

The new site seems unfinished; for example, the page for the famed Biennial returns a “NOT FOUND” error. What is there, however, is a great step forward in engaging the public with the institution (while protecting the Museum’s brand), and reflects well the nature of the Whitney – innovative, technologically savvy, at times perplexing. It’s an elegant, if incomplete, implementation of some of the Web’s most proven and essential strategies – sharing, crowd-sourcing, customization – which should serve as an example for those institutions, artistic or not, seeking to build a Web site that is more than a painting hung on an IP address. By allowing users and staff to contribute their visions, Whitney.org takes two steps forward.

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