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.

1 Comment »

  1. You make some really good comments about website design and how it reflects the overall ethos of the institution. That’s something I’ve seen discussed lately in the context of museum websites–too often, they are simply a reflection, somewhat even a replication, of the physical institution in cyberspace, rather than a different creature of their own. Your perceptive commentary on MoMA’s website is a case in point. I’ve seen praise of the Walker Art Center’s recently-redesigned site (–where it is a more general site relating to the organization’s mission. Its design is like that of a modern newspaper. It will be interesting to see what happens as the Web matures, if institutions continue to see the website as just reflections of their physical selves, or step into a different mindset (exactly what that would be, I’m not sure).

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