Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Digital Museums Reconsidered: Exploring the Walker Art Center Website Redesign

I have a confession to make: I've never cared much about museums on the Web. I'm focused on the onsite, in-person experience. When smart people talk about digital museums and virtual experiences, I nod and compartmentalize it as someone else's bailiwick. I understand the value of having a web presence that is reflective of institutional brand, makes content available for people to use in a variety of ways, and enables new connections with community members. But I've never really understood what it could mean for a museum to create a website that has a complementary function to the physical institution--an entity in its own right that expands beyond the scope of the physical institution, programs, and collection.

Now, I think I'm starting to get it. Last week, the Walker Art Center launched a major website redesign, which museum geeks are hailing as "a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites," (Seb Chan) and an "earth-shaking game changer" (Museumnerd). Here's what I see: a website as a unique core offering--alongside, but not subservient to, the physical institution. Walkerart.org is not about the Walker Art Center. It is the Walker Art Center, in digital form.

The new site resembles an online newspaper, featuring articles written by Walker staff alongside stories from the greater world of art reporting on the web. While there is a tight menu of Walker Art Center offerings at the top (Visit, Exhibitions & Events, Media, Collections, Join), the rest of the website is a digitally-based panoply of content broadly related to the Walker's mission. It is an online experience about contemporary art that goes beyond the Walker's walls.

And it breaks a lot of conventional rules about museum homepages. Such as:
  • It organizes the content primarily by "stories"--a news lexicon that I've never seen used in a museum context.
  • There's lots of content everywhere, including little things you wouldn't usually see on a museum website--like the current weather in Minneapolis, where the Walker resides. 
  • It features many stories ("Art from Elsewhere") that were not produced by the museum and are not about the museum. 
  • The "Art from Elsewhere" stories all link to sites that are not associated with the Walker. No more lock 'em in and keep 'em here--the theory is that the value of the site is in the curation of links across the web.
  • The name "Walker Art Center" is abbreviated to "WALKER" at the top of the homepage. It's not 100% clear that this thing called walkerart.org represents a museum or facility, though there are ample opportunities to discover that.
Is this the future of all museum websites? Probably not. The care and feeding required for a site like this is tremendous. The Walker employs a four-person editorial team (one of whom is completely dedicated to the website), along with a five-person new media initiative group. That's more people than work in my museum total--and a lot more who are dedicated to digital experiences and content than at even the largest museums around the world.

But the biggest reason that the Walker site is so unusual is its clarity of purpose. Not only did the Walker have the resources to create a major online project, they had the institutional coherence and focus to make it their primary website. Many, many museums have created superlative online experiences--from the IMA's ArtBabble to the Exploratorium's educational resources to the V&A's collections site any number of exhibition microsites--but these are all offshoots in the museum website universe. 

What the Walker has done is commit to a unique online approach--not just for one program or microsite, but for their homepage. They took their vision of the institution as an idea hub, looked at comparable sites online that achieve that vision, and adopted and adapted the journalistic approach to their goals. 

An institution of any size with enough mission-coherence and courage could create a website that is comparably unique. It comes down to articulating your mission in a digital space. Not every museum would choose a journalistic approach. Maybe the metaphor for your institution is a restaurant with a simple set of consistent offerings or a music venue with a constantly rotating program of events. Maybe some museum websites would look like online schools, or community bulletin boards, or shopping sites. But I suspect that most of them would continue being a little of this, a little of that, with a brochure for visiting slapped on top. And I think that's ok too if your goal is to have a physical museum with a website that supports it.

But if you want to create a digital museum as a partner to the physical, take note. Thank you, Walker Art Center, for showing me one version of what this can look like.
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