The User-Centric Museum, Archival Flame Wars, and a Boarded Up Website

Yesterday Annelisa Stephan, the Getty Museum’s assistant director for digital content strategy and user experience design, joined me on Instagram Live to talk about the institution’s online-first approach to connecting with audiences and how it led her department to start the #gettychallenge and share images from the collection in “Animal Crossing.” When Stephan began working at the Getty in 2004, museums were asking how they could put what they do online. Now they’re prioritizing the user’s experience, asking who they’re reaching through their website and social channels and what these people care about. This requires being flexible with tone and voice. Some users are interested in the Getty Center’s research tools. Others—what Stephan calls “destination visitors”—use the website as a brochure, getting information about location and hours for a potential visit. Others still are just having fun with memes. Often, the same person can be all three. Stephan thinks about the museum and its audiences alike as three-dimensional beings with varied interests that shift depending on context, which is how the Getty “can talk about ‘Animal Crossing’ one minute and [about] preserving international cultural heritage the next.” You can watch the full talk here. This was part of a weekly series of IG Live chats about art and tech. Next week, writer and cultural producer Willa Koerner will discuss Software for Artists Book: Building Better Futures, a new volume she edited, with contributions from Stephanie Dinkins, Ryan Kuo, Tsige Tafesse, and others, about technology’s role in building strong and sustainable communities.

On Twitter the flame of debate can blaze and die out in a matter of hours, but early internet users would spar through lengthy messages over the course of weeks. As part of its digital conservation initiatives, Rhizome has developed an online archive for reading The Thing, a BBS (bulletin board system) used for discussing art, ideas, and digital media in New York in the early 1990s. The archive has an innovative interface that charts the relationships among messages, so you can follow the conversation over time. In an online presentation, Rhizome’s software curator Lyndsey Moulds said they chose to treat the thread, not the message, as the archive’s fundamental unit. That choice reinforces the importance of the community that created this artifact, while presenting it as a lively forum.

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artport, the Whitney Museum’s net art portal, launch a commission by American Artist for its “Sunset” series, which presents works as brief interventions into the website at dawn and dusk each day. Artist’s Looted replaces all images on the site with pictures of plywood. The Whitney, like most major museums in New York, boarded up its ground-floor glass during the Black Lives Matter protests in June—even as many theaters and other cultural organizations opened their lobbies for cooling and care. The promotional text describes the work as “symbolically and literally boarding up the Museum in an act of redaction and refusal.” The redaction is indisputable. But what is being refused? The museum acquiesces to publicize its choice to close itself off. The artist obliges them with a way to do it. If plywood is a measure of defense, what is being looted? Maybe provoking these questions is the point. But Looted reminded me of “An Incomplete History of Protest,” a 2017–18 exhibition of works from the Whitney’s collection that presented archival materials about artists demanding changes to labor practices and curatorial exclusion without reflection on how the museum has or hasn’t developed in response. Appearing in intervals of thirty seconds, Looted is a slight intervention that comes off as another acknowledgment of criticism rather than an investment in using it to grow.

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