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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

From the Ground Up (or the Inside Out): New Approaches in Digital Publishing

Sarah Hromack, Whitney Museum of American Art; Rachel Craft, Indianapolis Museum of Art

http://www.imamuseum.org/

http://whitney.org

Abstract

Museums cannot ignore the importance of digital publishing and the impact it has on the organization’s content strategy. In this paper, Rachel Craft, Director of Publishing and Media at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN and Sarah Hromack, Digital Content Manager at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY will consider the practical and theoretical implications of developing online publishing projects through disparate approaches while making an argument for institutionally-generated publications as a valuable means of engaging wider audiences.

Introduction: Why Digital Publishing?

Much has been made of the advancement of digital publishing and what this means for publishers, authors and distributors alike. A January 23, 2012 report by Pew Internet and American Life reveals that tablet and e-reader ownership nearly doubled between mid December and early January (Rainie, 2012). More readers are buying e-books than print books on Amazon (Miller & Bosman, 2011).

Graph illustrating a surge in tablet and e-reader ownership over the holiday season. (Pew Internet and American Life Project)

“Digital isn’t a way of killing print books, but supporting them. It’s the content that matters most” (Wilkinson, 2011). Digital platforms are providing readers with the opportunity to engage with content in new ways, potentially deepening the reading experience for the user. London-based publisher, computer programmer, and so-called book futurist James Bridle, maker of social reading websites Open Bookmarks (http://www.openbookmarks.org/) and bkkpr (http://bkkeepr.com/), has considered the reading experience extensively in his work: “E-books should make sharing easier: the bookmarks that you make, your notes, your progress through a book. All these things and more can and should be done with e-books. And in addition, you should be able to save, share, email and store your whole reading experience, and read along with friends, as in a reading group” (Bridle, 2011). On the web, the microblogger’s Tweet or Facebook status update has supplanted the longer form blog post as the most effective means of gleaning time-sensitive news updates, and the image of the slovenly, sleep-deprived blogger obsessively scanning an endless stream of RSS feeds for hairtrigger post fodder has given way to a more considered approach to writing and reading online. Brooklyn-based online magazine and collective, Triple Canopy, proves a clear example of this perceptual shift around websites and their readers: “What animates [our] activities is the effort to engender a new culture of reading and viewing on the Web: ‘Slowing down the Internet,’ as our mantra goes, working with and against the constraints of the medium. . . . Many of us have also logged months or years at arts institutions and feel similarly about them—they haven’t really dealt with the fact that most people now experience artwork via secondary representations online” (Frere-Jones, 2012).

Digital publishing provides access to museum content previously prohibited by barriers of distribution and cost that exist within traditional publication models. The projects presented here are as markedly different as their institutions. When considered together, however, they suggest that forays into digital publishing may occupy many forms—and be initiated at any scale, large or small. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is revamping its publications and content strategy to develop innovative digital catalogues with an approach that builds on existing projects related to technology, publication and media production at the museum. The Whitney Museum of American Art is just beginning to delve into digital publishing as part of a larger institutional strategy around technology currently under development. As an online magazine whose origin story is decidedly ‘D.I.Y.’ in nature, Whitney Stories suggests that sheer force of will goes a long way in designing, launching, and maintaining web-based publishing programs. Both projects demonstrate that the field is wide open, allowing for a multitude of possibilities in project size, scope, format and implementation to achieve your museum’s publishing goals.

 

Building on Existing Structures: Digital Publishing at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

The evolution of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s digital publishing strategy began with IMA Lab’s work with the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) on the Online Scholarly Initiative (OSCI), a grant provided by the Getty Foundation that focuses on the dissemination of scholarly collection catalogues through digital means. (http://www.getty.edu/foundation/funding/access/current/osci_fact_sheet.html) Together, the AIC and IMA developed an interactive browser-based reading experience that incorporates tools that would be useful to a scholarly audience such as annotations, an interface for citation formatting, and overlays images of technical examinations conducted by conservation staff on the works of art. Based on this prototype with the AIC, IMA Lab is working with the consortium of OSCI partners on creating a flexible toolkit to publish digital scholarly catalogues that will allow museums to create a variety of digital reading experiences. (http://www.artic.edu/aic/aboutus/press/OSCI_Grant.pdf)

Concurrent to this work, the IMA went through an internal restructuring. The departments of Publications, New Media, and Photography merged to create Publishing and Media, with the development of digital publications becoming a departmental priority. The various focuses of this department uniquely position the staff to consider the creation of interactive and multimedia-rich digital publications, factoring these projects into existing workflows for digital content creation and print publication management. This consideration of existing structures is the foundation for the IMA’s digital publications strategy and does so in three major ways: the incorporation of the toolkit developed by IMA Lab into platform decisions, the production of a corresponding print catalogue, and the re-purposing of related multimedia content.

Can’t We Have it All?

Which platform to use is a critical (and difficult) decision to make when developing a digital publication strategy. With the excitement of working in an emerging field comes a plethora of disparate options to choose from, creating unavoidable questions about the most successful delivery of your content. Should you prioritize the development of an e-book or an application? Is access for non-tablet owners important for this publication? And will you be sacrificing quality of experience if you attempt to do all of the above? Just as there is no one-size-fits-all mobile tour solution, the digital publishing field faces similar questions. Content delivery methods, staff skill sets, budget, and available technology all need to be factored into the decision-making process. Museums are currently exploring a myriad of approaches that best suit the goals of their institution and the scholarship being produced, ranging from stand-alone online publications, the incorporation of content throughout platforms, and e-book distribution via tablets and e-readers.

Because the field is quickly changing, the IMA is developing a strategy of platform flexibility that will not water down the experience for the user. To facilitate this, IMA Lab’s prototype for the OSCI grant will be utilized as a “baseline” for each publication. All content will be incorporated into this toolkit, allowing the publication to be accessible via online browsers. Our focus will be on creating sustainable content through the content management system that can plug into as many front-end solutions as possible, allowing projects to evolve with the field and not lock the content into a limited or proprietary platform that may become outdated. This gives the content team the freedom to explore which format, design, and interaction best suits the specific publication, focusing our efforts on creating an optimal reading environment within the selected channel, while still maintaining the browser-based publication that offers access to (nearly) all.

Currently, platform selection is the result of conversations with the publication’s curator, artists, design, development, and publications team. Involvement with marketing and library staff is also integral, as establishing a distribution plan is as important as the development of the actual publication. These decisions are based on the nature of the catalogue and assumptions about the preferences of our perceived audiences. For the first two publications, both contemporary art exhibitions, we are prioritizing tablet readership, as it uniquely caters to the experience of reading individual publications and the multimedia-rich nature of the artwork can be maximized in this format. Over the next year, we hope to test these choices by conducting evaluations that will better inform our decisions around user access and interaction.

In Harmony: Print and Digital

Print-based catalogues will not be disappearing from our publications schedules anytime soon, with digital counterparts for the most part being added to—not replacing—the traditional version. Within the IMA’s publications strategy, this digital addition is being viewed as an opportunity to expand beyond what we could include within the printed page in a way that adds value to the reading experience.

The experience of the new media needs to be additive, not reductive. Whereas a consumer might replace a VHS collection with DVD or Blu-ray discs, you aren’t going to see the same level of mass repurchases with digital-only content, in large part because the digital downloads offer convenience, but rarely any other additive features....Thus, it isn’t outlandish to predict that the most successful publishers will be those that create better and more enhanced experiences with the new digital product, rather than just exporting an InDesign file out as an ePub or a PDF. The experience needs to be better. Warren, 2010

The New Yorker’s iPad app was highlighted in the New York Times for their clean and simple approach to content enhancements, recognizing that readers are looking for material that adds substance, not empty bells and whistles. The magazine evaluates each addition for the value it adds and removes any features that do not achieve this (Peters, 2011). At the IMA, we take a similar approach, though in perhaps not as stripped down of a form as visual references are such an integral part of art publications. The print catalogue content provides a starting place for us to consider which elements could be further developed to contextualize the information, providing a more fleshed out understanding of the subject matter for the reader. “The involvement of digital media specialists is essential to developing an enhanced publication, as their expertise...can help optimally shape and support the author’s vision for digital mediums by critically examining the use of the media...to sharpen the narrative for the best possible outcome” (Neely & Quigley, 2012). This necessitates close collaboration between digital media and publications staff, which is further facilitated by their proximity within the same department at the IMA.

The New Yorker adds a subtle enhancement to Leonard Cohen’s poem “Going Home” by including audio of the artist singing. (The New Yorker iPad app, January 23, 2012)

Added value is also an important consideration within the design process, with interaction and graphic design creating an environment that enhances the overall experience of the publication. Some magazines, such as Esquire, have excelled at retaining the feel of the printed version, providing enhancements that activate the magazine, infusing its personality into the interaction experience (Indvik, 2010).

A layout within Esquire’s iPad app that invites interaction (Esquire iPad app, February 2012)

Retaining a link between the design of the print and digital catalogue is something we are determining on a case-by-case basis, as we typically work with co-publishers on our printed catalogues, many of whom are currently unable to develop an interactive catalogue to the level we would like to pursue. For our initial projects we are exploring two models for digital publication design to work in tandem with the IMA Lab development team, one of which is the establishment of a fellowship with a graduate design program and the other working with an interactive design agency. The first project includes a corresponding printed catalogue for the exhibition Aziz + Cucher: Some People. A key factor in this project was to convince the co-publisher, who is equally interested in exploring the realm of digital publishing, of the benefits of collaborating with a top tier interactive design program, while still allowing the student the flexibility to conceive a unique design for the project. Under the guidance of faculty advisors, the fellowship provides opportunities for the student to collaborate closely with artists and curator, IMA digital media staff, and the development team of IMA Lab. The negotiation of competing priorities has presented a series of challenges, but the goal is for the IMA to be connected to conversations that are happening around digital publication design through projects with institutions that are currently innovating in these areas. The second project is intended as a digital only publication for the group exhibition, Graphite, with front-end development and design provided by an agency. As this project is “freed” from a connection to print, it allows the curator and Publishing and Media staff the freedom to develop core publication content in a multimedia-centric format, breaking from the traditional parameters of exhibition catalogue content.

Modular Media

The IMA has a considerable track record of prioritizing digital media content, which culminated with the 2009 launch of the collaborative video platform ArtBabble and has continued with a robust program of video documentation at the museum. In addition, IMA photographers digitally capture collection objects, the grounds and outlying historic properties, and the museum’s many events and programs on a continuous basis. Digital media was being produced for a multitude of needs with very little coordination or overlap. With the merging of video and photography staff into one department, opportunities arose to consider collaborative possibilities between two previously siloed areas of content creation. One such project was a restructuring of the collection pages to allow for the integration of a greater range of interpretive information. Pre-existing collection-based video, audio, photography, and supporting texts were culled together and contextual gaps were filled by the creation of new content. This work re-focused our efforts towards producing what we termed “evergreen” content, which focuses on non-temporal information that can be re-used in multiple channels, including the digital publication.

While the IMA’s catalogues will exist as stand alone entities, the sustainability and re-use of this information is an important part of the overall digital content strategy. Content uses are outlined at the onset of a project so that media staff can be sure to factor each need into the documentation process. For example, during an interview with an artist, material will be gathered that can provide general exhibition information for the microsite and promotional channels, incorporate primary source information to the collection web pages if the museum is acquiring a work, add to the experience of a visit with the mobile tour, and provide useful auxiliary context to flesh out the story being told within an essay in a digital publication. Any previously existing material that could be re-appropriated in relation to the project will also be vetted for potential use. Re-framing our existing documentation workflows to make the most out of the content that’s being produced will help us to maximize the efforts of a small staff while still crafting a variety of unique storytelling environments.

Bootstrapping Digital Publications at the Whitney Museum of American Art: Whitney Stories

Whitney Stories is an online magazine designed to tie various components of the museum’s website, whitney.org, together into one interactive user experience while supporting an editorial strategy that reflects the shifting nature of the museum itself. As the museum’s first web-based publishing platform and editorial program, Whitney Stories reflects the institution’s increasing focus on the digital space as a place for audience engagement. The project was initiated by and is managed from within the Marketing Department, which has lead all digital initiatives at the museum in recent years as part of a larger, cross-departmental collaboration. Whitney Stories was designed by Linked By Air, who designed the museum’s website re-launch in 2009 using Economy, its proprietary content management system.

The Whitney is currently undergoing several operational shifts as it develops longer-range strategic initiatives to support its new building project in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district, an approximately 200,000 square foot building designed by architect Renzo Piano that is slated to open to the public in 2015. A newly-created Digital Media department is taking primary responsibility for all institutional digital initiatives, as advised by a strategic working group comprised of colleagues from Education, Curatorial, Membership, Development, Graphic Design, and Publications departments. The museum is currently searching for a new Publisher, and plans to increase its efforts around digital publications in the near future. Though the Publications department did assist in the establishment of initial editorial guidelines for the website based on those employed in the museum’s print publications, it does not provide primary editorial guidance for the website or Whitney Stories. The narrative below outlines the project’s development, which emerged gradually over the course of several iterations.

Whitney Stories: The First Pass

During the 2008-9 re-design and development process of the Whitney’s website, whitney.org, it became clear that while the website’s main navigation clearly accounted for all practical content categories it lacked a ‘heart,’ as it were—a place where the institution’s sanctioned historical narrative could interface more readily with frequent informational updates written in a more conversational tone. A working group comprised of staff representing the Marketing, Education, Publications, Design, Graphic Design, and Information Technology departments convened to develop concepts and designs for the project, whose initial format resembled that of a standard-issue blog.

Example of an initial sketch for Whitney Stories (2009), which assumed a more blog-like format. Image courtesy Linked by Air.

The re-launch of whitney.org was the result of a ground-up development process whereby stakeholders from various departments collaborated on all aspects of the project, including content development and production (Helal and Henslee, 2010). While this approach enabled the museum to launch a new website at a significant hard cost savings, internal staff resources were heavily taxed in doing so. Initial concepts and sketches for Whitney Stories were strong, yet the project lacked a clear editorial strategy for its future—and moreover, staff dedicated to the ongoing development and maintenance of a longer-term initiative. Whitney Stories was effectively tabled just prior to the website re-launch in November 2009 in hopes that we would revisit the project post-launch.

During 2010­–2011, the Whitney continued to employ the same collaborative approach to project development while launching a series of online initiatives designed to bring various content sections into closer dialogue. In the course of that first year, the website saw many improvements as nearly every major area was reconsidered in order to support the institution’s initiatives. From the online collection, which was re-designed and expanded to feature a varied of related didactic content (http://whitney.org/Collection); to a redesigned audio visual database, Watch & Listen (http://whitney.org/WatchandListen); to Internet art commissions (http://whitney.org/Sunset and http://whitney.org/CLICKISTAN) and a kid-friendly educational website (http://whitney.org/ForKids) these and other, smaller department-specific projects deepened and broadened the website’s content base while strengthening the technical ties between various sections of the website. However, none of these initiatives provided the space to relay a more anecdotal, behind-the-scenes narrative to the museum’s public.

A set of stronger, clearer inter-departmental workflows around the overall management of the website were well established by the early months of 2011; the museum had increased its web-dedicated staff and resources by that time, too. With groundbreaking for the Whitney’s new building at Washington and Gansevoort Streets, in New York City’s Meatpacking District, looming in the near future, the opportunity presented itself to re-envision the Whitney Stories project.

Whitney Stories 2.0: Another Approach

Launched in July 2011, Whitney Stories takes its inspiration from a long, rich history of online publishing initiatives. Blogs, and moreover, the editorial practices behind their daily maintenance, were and continue to be of interest in the development of the magazine as a pertinent and timely means of sharing institutional histories with a web-based audience. In its current iteration, the project is managed and edited by Sarah Hromack, the author of this paper. As a former web editor and blogger who began writing about contemporary art for the web over a decade ago while working as a curatorial assistant at another museum, she saw an opportunity to treat Whitney Stories as a small-scale, in-house online publishing operation. Given the museum’s stringent standards and procedures around written texts, however—and having developed and managed web-based editorial processes in the past—she wasn’t fully convinced of the museum’s ability to sustain a traditional blog with the degree of frequency required to retain its relevance beyond the institution itself.

Another version of Whitney Stories (March, 2011) which experimented with a colored gradient approach.

Whitney Stories responds to more recent trends in the development of web-based reading environments, many of which suggest a user desire for more quiet, contemplative experiences focused on long-form texts while fostering online communities of like-minded readers. Even major, traffic and advertisement-driven blogs—the seminal news/gossip website Gawker proves a prime example—have undergone recent redesigns in order to reflect this shift in user desire. Several websites, online magazines and journals, and apps informed the directive given to designers Linked By Air in terms of their general user experience and ability to generate a given social ethos around online reading, rather than specific technical functionality.

Of particular interest was the website Longreads (http://longreads.com), founded in 2009 by Mark Armstrong as an archive of links to longer texts (1500+ words) tagged with the hashtag #longreads and culled from readers’ Twitter feeds; a truly social community, Longreads is also accessible as an endless, streaming RSS feed of Tweets tagged by users. The simple online bookmarking tool and app Instapaper (http://www.instapaper.com/u) saves web-based texts for easy reading on a variety of devices, while Readability (http://www.readability.com/) is a browser add-on that renders cluttered web pages into cleaner reading environments for computers, smartphones, and tablets; readers may also save and send reading lists to Kindle e-readers. Apps devoted to rendering disparate forms of content into a streamlined reading experience—the so-called social magazine Flipboard (http://flipboard.com/) was released during the Whitney Stories development process—were of great interest in terms of both aesthetics and potential functionality for future iterations of the project.

Whitney Stories: Methodology and Editorial Strategy

The core editorial tenet of Whitney Stories is a simple one: every article should seek to grant readers new or otherwise-unseen insight into the museum’s inner workings. Issue-based editorial outlines, along with individual article ‘pitches’ are compiled and circulated to the Whitney Stories editorial committee for feedback before writing and production begins. A contracted copy editor—a longtime former Whitney print editor who is deeply familiar with the institution’s history and publications processes—works with the project’s editor to ensure that each article is copy edited for institutional style while retaining a web-friendly tone.

The final design for Whitney Stories, which launched in July, 2011.

Written by its editor, the first issue focused on the museum’s physical relationship to New York City: A video feature gave the public a glimpse of the museum’s otherwise private May 2011 groundbreaking ceremony, which featured an impressive performance by dancer Elisabeth Streb and her company, STREB Extreme Action. Several articles celebrated the Education department’s public programming around a concurrent Community Day celebration in the Meatpacking District. A piece on the Whitney’s geographic relationship to New York City was accompanied by a simple but effective Google Map detailing the various locations the museum has occupied over the course of its history. Cory Arcangel’s solo exhibition, Protools, on view as the issue launched, provided occasion for a piece that expanded the exhibition beyond the gallery and onto the Internet, where his practice is deeply rooted in content and in form. (http://whitney.org/WhitneyStories/Issue1)

The launch of the first issue built up good will among administration and staff members who were pleased to see a long-planned project finally come to visible, tangible fruition. Capitalizing on that enthusiasm, the editorial purview of the second issue sought to expand the pool of contributors to include the voices, experiences, and expertise of other staff members. Two very successful examples included an article that revealed the intricacies of a very complex installation process surrounding David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy exhibition, written by the Marketing department’s Digital Content Coordinator, Sarah Meller, in collaboration with staff members in the Curatorial department and at the exhibition’s venue of origin, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Head of Graphic Design, Rebecca Gimenez, interviewed Tom Black, the New York City-based screenprinter who has hand-screened exhibition signage in the city’s major museums and cultural institutions since the 1970s. Both pieces served to diversify the voice of the publication while exposing the actual, tangible processes—and the people involved in implementing them—behind the museum’s exhibitions and programming. (http://whitney.org/WhitneyStories/Issue2)

Whitney Stories: Challenges and Future Plans

As anticipated, it has proven difficult to maintain the internal momentum around publishing Whitney Stories in a timely fashion—even as an issue-based endeavor with an intended quarterly publication rate. While Whitney staff have been enthusiastic and forthcoming in the development of ideas, the writing and production of the content itself is only a part of any stakeholder’s given professional workload. For the 2012 Whitney Biennial exhibition, several staff members and Biennial artists will ‘take over’ the Whitney Stories platform, utilizing the flexibility of its design in order to support faster, more timely updates on a lively, performance-heavy program.

Integrating Whitney Stories into the Whitney’s larger social media efforts has proven to be a challenge given the issue-driven nature of its form. While initial response to newly published issues has been strong across the museum’s social networks, it has been difficult to build and sustain a regular, dedicated readership given the current publication schedule. The museum plans to apply additional resources to the content creation for future issues, and to shift the editorial strategy around the project in hopes of publishing new stories with greater frequency and increasing its online audiences therein. By maintaining a given degree of flexibility in the design and editorial strategy for the project, we hope to ensure its longer-term success as a communications platform for the Whitney.

Conclusion

Publishing practices shift continuously in response to new technical developments in the field, engendering specific cultural and behavioral changes in the reading public. These case studies suggest that there is no single method of entry for institutions to embrace digital publishing technologies; they demonstrate many possibilities for implementation through multiple channels and at vastly different scales. The true message here, however, is that all such forays are valuable—and moreover, valid—means of developing a tenable digital publishing strategy for any institution. It is crucial, we feel, for institutions to assess their needs and capabilities to support them before developing a digital publishing strategy that realizes those goals—even if the approach is an incremental one that ultimately relies on pre-existing internal structures and workflows. By adopting a broad view of the publishing industry and remaining open to new developments and the shift in approach they often necessitate, we believe that institutions will achieve a successful dialogue with the publishing industry, thereby increasing their institution’s public reach while developing new audiences—all possible sources of support for larger institutional goals.

References:

Bridle, James (2011). “Social Reading.” Open Bookmarks. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.openbookmarks.org/social-reading/

Frere-Jones, Sasha (January 17, 2012) “Triple Canopy: ‘Slowing Down the Internet.” The New Yorker. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/01/triple-canopy-slowing-down-the-internet.html

Helal, D., and Henslee, B., Barn Raising: Building a Museum Web Site Using Custom Wiki Tools. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published 2010. Consulted January 30, 2012.

Indvik, Lauren (2010). "Esquire for the iPad: Not Just Another Magazine Under Glass." Mashable. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://mashable.com/2010/10/07/esquire-ipad/

Miller, Claire Cain and Bowman, Julie (2011). “E-Books Outsell Print Books at Amazon.” The New York Times. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/technology/20amazon.html

Neely, E. and S. Quigley, Online Scholarly Catalogues at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Planning to Implementation. In Nancy Proctor and Rich Cherry (eds). Museums and the Web 2012: Proceedings. Consulted January 30, 2012.

Peters, Jeremy W. (2011). “For New Yorker on iPad, Words Are the Thing.” The New York Times. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/business/media/new-yorker-on-ipad-shows-viewers-want-to-read.html?pagewanted=all

Quigley, S., and E. Neely, Integration of Print and Digital Publishing Workflows at the Art Institute of Chicago. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted January 30, 2012.

Rainie, Lee (2012).Tablet and E-book Reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/E-readers-and-tablets/Findings.aspx 

Wilkinson, Carl (2011). “Light Reading.” Financial Times. Consulted January 30, 2012. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/c173d5ee-c293-11e0-9ede-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1l0MckCW7