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Museum websites are completely missing a trick. That's what I concluded after an afternoon of museum website browsing. I am writing this article during the Corona lock-down and wanting to experience the art collections of museums worldwide. But whether we are in lock-down or not; I will not be visiting the MET any time soon, or the Louvre. So should a museum website offer more than just ticket info and opening hours?

I think it should. In this day and age I want the world at my finger tips. And why not. Call me spoiled, but I got used being able to seeing my favourite Rembrandt in high resolution on the Rijksmuseum website. And in today's lock-down, businesses everywhere jump online and try to make the best of it.

Some museums do this too; they have immediately changed their home page to reflect that their collection can be enjoyed from your own home as well. Great. That is exactly what we want. But why not offer this all the time? The internet has moved beyond looking up few facts about opening hours and parking facilities. The internet offers experiences, knowledge, learning and entertainment. Have museums kept up?

I spent the afternoon browsing museum websites. As many as I could possibly think of. I must have visited dozens of them today (got rather cross-eyed in the end). I started off with the big obvious ones, like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Frans Hals museum, The National Gallery in London, the one in Washington, The Met, Moma, The National Portrait Gallery in London, the Louvre, Prado, etc. Disappointed I started moving onto smaller museums, the Wallace Collection, Teylers Museum, Queen's Gallery.... on and on I went.

What was I after? Well, simple: I cannot visit for obvious reasons (but after the lockdown ends I cannot visit most of these still, so the argument stands) so I want to experience the museum from my own home. Is that a crazy want? Is it too much to expect?

Perhaps. I was going to offer you the "Top 10 of Museum Websites" so that you could spend your lockdown hours browsing amazing art too. It was a nice thought, right? Well,

I've got two

Two out of dozens and hours of searching. Please tell me I've missed some.

A close up of a Rembrandt on the Rijksmuseum website

What Does a Good Museum Website Need?

So let's list what a good museum website needs to be, besides the obvious stuff of telling me where it is, when it's open, how much a ticket cost and how to get there. Oh, and what the upcoming exhibitions are of course. But besides that obvious stuff I want:

  • Clear navigation. Where's the art? Is there more than just the database (useful but boring)? Where's the practical info? Is there a virtual tour? Can I see and study the art close up?
  • Super attractive visuals (what we find attractive today we will find old fashioned in 5 years, some websites were clearly designed 10 years ago). I want to be seduced by Venus, swept off my feet by Caravaggio, stopped in my tracks by Van Gogh or Hals. Give me large yummy high res goodies and I will click through!
  • Deep dives into objects: with zoom function, easy to read articles, videos etc. Not academic articles in tiny fonts with foot notes, but public-friendly and accessible. We are art loving (so fairly informed) visitors, most of us are not academics (well, erm), and most of us are not kids. 
  • An exploration of the museum that is an experience, not like looking something up in a reference book. Many museum website have a database online. It's useful for looking something up. I use it regularly. But really, it has nothing to do with experiencing the collection in a museum. It's a reference database. No more. Showing off the art in a collection does not mean putting a database online. Nor does it mean putting a simple slider image gallery online with a caption. It means easy to follow pages and links, text that is interesting for the general, well informed but not expert, art lover, details and juicy facts, interactive timelines and clear step by step paths. 
  • Virtual tours are hard to get right. Don't bother if we can't even see the objects without having to click away. Many museums offer virtual tours. Many are absolutely useless (meaning: you cannot see the art, nor get any info about it). The Courtauld does it nicely, and some museums use Google Streetview well (such as the National Gallery). If you can't offer virtual tours well, then create video tours in at least 2K with plenty of close ups, and an engaging tour guide. 
  • We come for the art/objects. Not for the restaurant, learning experiences, kids activities, architecture etc. Give us what we came for. It is amazing how many museums (historic houses suffer from this affliction too) put their restaurant, easter egg hunt, and learning experiences front page and centre. Some home pages would leave you guessing as to what sort of website it actually is that you are visiting. There is no art to be seen. Let alone a collection highlight. Often the menu does not help out either. 
  • My pet peeve: exhibition pages that don't show any art. I want to see what will be in the exhibition. How will I know whether I want to go? 
  • Many museums seem to consider their website as a reference source of information, to exist aside the actual museum. They are completely missing the mark, I think. For so many who cannot visit, for various reasons, a museum website is so much more. A virtual visit to a museum can be a truly enriching experience (one that might lead to a future visit if you insist on thinking commercially). I so wish they would stop offering a dull database of facts and start seeing their digital presence for what it potentially could be.

The Ones That Get it Right

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum website is fantastic. Not only was the Rijksmuseum one of the first museums to make all their images available to view and download in high resolution, you are even allowed to use these images and put them on a mug, tshirt or tote bag (might you be so inclined). Yep, copyright heaven. This is so fab, I can't tell you. I don't mean the mugs and tote bags, but I have many images downloaded on my computer. I open them regularly to look at them. Offering high-resolution images on the website should reduce the number of people walking around a museum with their phones or cameras constantly in front of their eyes (I am one of them as I like to drool over paintings again once I get back home), but you can also study the works when you're nowhere near the museum.

With the lock-down in place pretty much everywhere in the world, the Rijksmuseum has created a page, "Rijksmuseum at Home", where there are links to everything you can do from your own computer. This includes a link to their fabulous Youtube channel, which now includes short videos from curators talking about their favourite paintings. There is, of course, the Rijksstudio; the online image gallery of all the works in the museum, where you can zoom in, study details, download, look up facts etc. And there is the really very well made virtual tour, with audio bits for some highlight works. I was pointed to this virtual tour by a podcast (Waldemar Januszczak and Bendor Grosvernor's podcaston the Times website) and it was great. Worth a visit for sure.

The design of the Rijksmuseum website is easy to navigate, modern and super attractive. But how hard can it be to look amazing when you can throw in Rembrandts at super high-res? It is a beautiful and easy to use website, with fantastic 'lock-down services'.

The Met

The Met starts great: "Experience The Met Anywhere. Start here". Somebody is clearly on the ball at The Met digital team. Great. Let's click that button. "Art at home. 5,000 years of art online. How do you want to experience it today?" There are sections saying "I want to Explore", "I want to Learn" and "I want to Feel Inspired" with links to kids' sections, painting tutorials, Blogs, exhibitions and the collection of course. Lots to choose from!

The Time Line section is great - you get to choose from essays, chronologies or art works, and browse through art works in the collection. The Met-360 is a great series of 4K videos taking you on a virtual tour of some parts of the museum. Amazingly done but I would have liked to have seen more art. The Primers are really well done. I particularly enjoyed the Dutch old masters and the piece on Richter. Great design, interactivity (audio as well as visual)  and visual appeal!

The Met ‘Primer’ on Dutch masterpieces

The Met website is a rabbit hole...the deeper you dive, the more you find. There's the blog, there are books you can read online, there are audio tours, art history talks, painting lessons, it goes on and on. Here is a lovely page on pastel, for example. Wonderful. Finally there is the excellent online collection, with (for most of the works) zoom and download functionality, extra info, further reading and so much more.

The Met website is attractive, modern, interactive and stuffed-full of material. It is easy to use and doesn't feel like you're browsing a library, but a proper online museum. You can hop from area to area finding something new on every page. Nothing stuffy about this, love it.

Well that was it. My top 2.

I could describe some of the other websites that I have seen and tell you all the things I don't like about it, but decided agains it. No point being negative in these desperate times! I'll just throw in a couple of things: I visited the Tate in the hope of drooling over some Turners. Unfortunately, I could not find any. The Frans Hals Museum doesn't seem to have any Hals or any Dutch old master going by it's home page, and generally many museum websites feature tiny fonts with long texts, tiny images, database style lists of art works and a focus on everything else they do beside collect art.

So I'd say, take a dive into the Rijksmuseum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (does anyone still write that one out) and you'll find yourself in a wonderland of beauty, surprise and exploration. Ready? Go!

https://www.metmuseum.org

https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

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About the author

Sophie is an artist, art historian, tutor, author and blogger. She writes on oil and pastel painting, art history and the life of an artist. She paints portraits and still life and specialises in painting drapery and lace.

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  1. A bit off topic, but Flanders tourism has posted a Stay At Home Museum series of curator-led YouTube videos that includes the amazing Jan Van Eyck exhibition with work from the recently restored Ghent altarpiece. Google Arts and Culture is another incredible repository of high-res images from many museums and cultural sites.

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