Museum buildings have long been a redoubt of architectural innovation and a dependable method for institutions to refresh their images and programming — just look at the Guggenheim Bilbao, whose name has become synonymous with museum-led urban renewal. Given that new buildings and renovations are a rare occasion, what’s another way for 21st-century museums to get a brand boost? They might choose to redesign that other gallery space — their Web site.
Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn museum just unwrapped their Bruce Mau site redesign, adopting a Web 2.0-style grid of colored boxes. To celebrate the occasion, ARTINFO has collected the top 10 museum Web sites, exploring what might make online design the next starchitecture. Just because a museum is famous doesn't mean its Web site is great — the Museum of Modern Art is one such negative example. The museums on this ranked list succeed online by embracing the open nature of the Internet, presenting information in a clear context, and emphasizing powerful images.
10. International Center of Photography, http://www.icp.org/
The ICP’s site is nothing if not dramatic. The splash page is covered with a selection of rotating photos in high resolution, featuring images from current exhibitions and gallery shots. Large text links cover the central image, with each category (classes, visit us, events) lit up in a different bright color. The individual exhibition pages are similarly striking.
9. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, http://www.mfa.org/
The Boston MFA’s Web site boasts some of the strongest video features of any museum site, with slow pans of artworks and installations that are also featured on screens in the physical gallery space. As cheesy as that sounds, the videos are irresistible. Unfortunately the site becomes more muddled further in, with distracting pull-down menus and simplistic exhibition listings.
8. Museum of the Moving Image, http://www.movingimage.us/
The Museum of the Moving Image boasts a logo that… moves. With a minimal, clean layout, the site puts emphasis on images and video. Illusionistic gray boxes separate links to the museum’s ongoing exhibitions, hinting at the gallery spaces that they inhabit. The ‘80s aesthetic of the psychedelic logo and the geometric layout meshes well with the physical museum’s playful identity, though there are no frills here.
7. Aspen Art Museum, http://www.aspenartmuseum.org/
The Aspen Art Museum wins the award for most dramatic introduction with an explosive splash page of abstract teal, white, and black patterns, the same colors that dominate the site. The museum’s Web site is about as simple as can be, offering large pictures of current and upcoming exhibitions that click through to text descriptions and slide shows. An offshoot site documents the museum’s fundraising campaign for their new Shigeru Ban-designed building.
6. Metropolitan Museum, http://www.metmuseum.org/
Part of the reason the Metropolitan’s relatively new Internet home looks so good is that the old version was among the worst offenders of post-2000s Web design. It was cramped, dark, and difficult to understand, much like the museum’s worst gallery spaces. Fortunately, the site is now crystal clear, efficient if not exactly surprising, and effortlessly easy to use. The media page even highlights the museum’s increasingly deep original video offerings. The My Met collection function, which the museum has been advertising by getting celebrities to show off their personal Met highlights, is a cool Web 2.0 feature.
5. New Museum, http://newmuseum.org/
The New Museum’s site seems to share the style of its SANAA-designed building: structurally simple, relatively blank, and easy to navigate. The site can’t be called subtle, but it features large, high-resolution photographs and immediately apparent lists of the museum’s current exhibitions, a sadly rare find in museum sites. The choice of pastel colors for links and banners, so appropriate when the new building opened with its “Hell, Yes!” decoration, are a lively touch.
4. Hirshhorn Museum, http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/home/
As the most recent of the high-profile museum Web site overhauls, the Hirshhorn’s feels the most of-the-moment. The site is a horizontally scrolling series of squares, all different sizes and different colors. Information is arranged not through different landing pages but intuitively as different section of the horizontal band. Scroll through, and you’ll find what you’re looking for. The design has more in common with image-heavy social media networks like Tumblr and Pinterest than traditional institutional Web sites, and that’s a refreshing change. Quotes from artists, laid out in bright white text on black grounds, are a particularly nice surprise.
3. Whitney Kids, http://whitney.org/ForKids
The Whitney museum’s site has a children’s section that’s so cool it gets its own listing. The For Kids site is hands down the most fun of any museum’s online presence, with open prompts to comment on current exhibitions, lists of tags to sort the collection, and the opportunity to upload your own art (adult artists should be jealous). There’s even an interactive graphic pattern (a “graffiti wall”) on the side of the site that users can change at will, showing off their creativity to any and all visitors.
2. Whitney Museum, http://whitney.org/
The Whitney’s singularly lo-fi Web site was created by emerging New York design studio Linked By Air. Though it can be abrasive at first glance, the simplicity of the Web site makes it functional in a way that slicker sites aren’t. Web 2.0 functionality mixed with Web 1.0 aesthetics, the site reflects the museum’s subversive contemporary curatorial programming much more than, say, their Breuer building. But then they are moving downtown. Be sure to watch for the black-and-white background, which changes come sunset.
1. Walker Art Center, http://www.walkerart.org/
By styling their Web site as a dynamic blog and news resource rather than a stale well of information about ongoing exhibits, the Walker Art Center quickly rocketed to the top of the Internet charts. The site places emphasis on blog articles that highlight art and artists related to the museum’s programming in a narrative rather than didactic format. Lower down, the site's functions include a collection of links to international and local art news, thereby embracing the online art community. The Walker’s Web home also pushes the envelope in online art, featuring online “installations” like the photorealistic bees that cover their “Lifelike” exhibition page.