Archive for January, 2012

The Trouble with Context

This week’s readings on the functional aspect of graphic design led me to revisit some museum websites that I frequent and evaluate how each takes advantage of design strategies to contextualize objects. In particular, Madeleine Clare Elish and Whitney Trettien’s conference paper, “Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface” (PDF), emphasizes the necessity of employing design to frame objects as part of a collection and a historical moment. According to the authors, where the CHNM’s Object of History archive project failed to achieve this visually, SFMOMA ArtScope failed to do so textually.

I thought the Museum of Modern Art in New York might offer another useful example, in part because of the museum’s notoriously linear presentation of art history. I wondered if this vision of distinct aesthetic movements might be evident in the museum’s digitized collection. In fact, MoMA takes an approach not unlike that of ArtScope, and predictably, it runs into similar problems.

MoMA screenshot
The main collection interface allows the user either to browse hundreds of pages of images or filter and sort them by medium, decade and a couple other useful attributes, like whether a work is on view. In this respect, it offers a bit more control than the SFMOMA site did, since more than one metadata tag can be used to sort objects at a time. But MoMA still fails to contextualize the objects socio-historically or regionally. In fact, the most prevalent design strategy I noticed on the site, the emphasis on white/negative space, says more about the museum’s history of exhibition practices (i.e. its privileging of the “white cube” model) than it does about the collection that visitors are presumably trying to explore.

I doubt there is a perfect solution to the problem of visual contextualization of a collection. However, I think an awareness of the failures of these projects will motivate me to look for better ways to guide visitors through my final project.

Addendum: I also commented on Rosendo’s post.

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