Notes from The Museum Interface

Art In America October 2014 cover

The October 2014 issue of Art In America was filled with pleasant surprises (Harsh Patel, Fluxus, Richard Tuttle), but the core was a series of articles on museums’ relationship to graphic design and the web. I was impressed by how these pieces were able to capture some of the issues and discussions currently being engaged with on the ground. My notes:

Hybrid Landscape

The experience of looking at art has become mediated by technology. This has been on the rise for a generation, but has intensified with the smartphone. Museums are continuing to apply new technologies toward the fulfillment of their mandates (collections, scholarship, access), finding both successes and pitfalls.

“It is no longer a question of whether art institutions should have a virtual presence.” Art institutions now exist virtually, as well as physically. Meaningful art experiences take place in both spaces, and in hybrids of the two. Designers facilitate these interactions, often via some combination of “publishing” and “database” models.

Museum as Publisher

Museums have long been publishers (catalogues, magazines, etc.). Older print practices continue to attract collectors and artists. Digital media represents a compliment, rather than a threat. Together they constitute the “expanded field” of publishing, encompassing digital works of art and literature, books, public conversations, exhibitions and performance.

This new publishing investigates connections between writing code and reading prose, between digital interfaces and printed pages, and between social media and public space.

Museum websites are well understood as a place where you go to plan a visit, but they’ve become much more. Often overseen by an editorial team, a museum’s website can be viewed as an online magazine with global reach. These sites are platforms for publishing art and history resources (scholarship, criticism, interviews) designed to be generate conversation across social media.

Museum as Database

The “database” model refers to presenting the museum’s collection online. This allows the visitor, via a limited set of interactions (sort by artwork creation date, click through an illustrated timeline, save to a list), to “curate” the museum’s collection to their own liking.

The designers of these interfaces strive for academic accuracy and a presentation (“performance”) of art history, but the collection doesn’t stay confined to these systems for long. As images are pulled out into social media and the wider web they enter other, uncontrolled narratives. By granting digital access to its collection, the museum open itself to new forms of public interpretation and challenges to its authority.

Encountering Artwork via Social Media

Social media has “enabling new phenomenologies around the way art is encountered, experienced and considered.” Some people willfully refrained from seeing a recent sculpture installation (Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx), because they felt they had already sufficiently experienced the piece through images seen in other’s social media feeds. But what is the effect of encountering an artwork for the first time via social media, rather than a museum?

Smartphone photography documents the installation, but when you experience an artwork via social media documentation, your experience is mediated by that of the original photographer. Each image is coming from an individual’s point of view, which may (literally and figuratively) be different than your own.

Familiarity born of repeated encounters with these second-hand images does not include the sensorial experience (such as, with Walker’s sphinx, the smell). There is also the danger that these encounters leach from the visitor the sense that an artwork could offer an experience that is unique, personal and transformative. When this happens a potentially powerful work of art is transformed into a commodified image.

New Art and Responses

While some museums have experimented with their own community platforms, hegemons have market and engagement share so dominant as to make these efforts irrelevant. Instead, museums are learning to harness the social and technical potential of these platforms through integration and interface design.

For their part, artists are using the Internet’s means of circulation (and “modes of concentration”) to extend into new dimensions, rather than replace, the physical object. For instance, when a choreographer considers not only the body on a stage but also its circulation online, “live” is simply one characteristic among many.

The most urgent art being created now goes further, to critically addressing this condition. Potentially referred to as “circulationism”, this art’s subject is the network, its circulation of information and the emergent modes of communication and perception this enables.


Art In America, Vol. 102, No. 9 (October 2014):

  • Identity Crisis by William S. Smith (p. 108)
  • Publish to Flourish by Gwen Allen, Triple Canopy, Paul Chan, Kay Rosen, Paul Legault, Miriam Katzeff (p. 124)
  • The Museum Interface by Sarah Hromack, Rob Giampietro (p. 134)

Posted December 2014

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