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Published: March 1999.

Papers

Revising the Finnish National Gallery’s Web Pages

Riikka Haapalainen, The Finnish National Gallery, Finland

Introduction

Three years on the Internet is a long time, even for a museum. When the Web site of the Finnish National Gallery was unveiled in 1995, the medium was rather new and its development difficult to predict. As use of the Internet has increased, the situation has become clearer. Electronic communications has evolved into an important and permanent component of the museum's work. However, after only about two years it became clear that, in order for the Web site to cater feasibly to its users, it had to be revised. A comprehensive redesign of the visual appearance and structure of the extensive Web site of the Finnish National Gallery was begun in the Educational Department in late spring 1997, and the project was largely implemented during 1998.

This paper describes the Finnish National Gallery Web site redesign process, focusing on the motivation for and background to the redesign and illustrating its stages. The point of view is deliberately subjective: the paper is practically oriented and discusses problems arising in the course of the process. The main theme, however, running parallel to the redesign project, is managing change as a process in organizing an increasing amount of information and in considering the function of the Internet in the work of a museum.

Background to the Web site

The Finnish National Gallery, situated in Helsinki, is the central museum for the Finnish visual arts. It consists of three specialized museums: the Museum of Foreign Art, Sinebrychoff, the Museum of Finnish Art, Ateneum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma. It further houses the Central Art Archives, the administration, a Conservation Unit and an Educational Department. The Finnish National Gallery Web site is an abundant collection of information in pictures and text on the art collections of the museums, spanning seven centuries, and on the museums' activities and events. The Web site provides a quick reference for opening times, exhibition and programme calendars, guided tours and so on. Furthermore, although the Museum of Foreign Art, Sinebrychoff is closed to the public for renovation during the winter of 1998-99, its collections remain on display on the Internet.

The Web site project of the Finnish National Gallery was launched in the Educational Department in early 1995. The ready Web site was published in September 1995 at http://www.fng.fi. At the time, this was a pioneering move in the museum world: few museums had a Web site at all, and many of those that did exist only contained information in brief. Being exceptionally broad and ambitious, the Web site of the Finnish National Gallery attracted much attention when it was published, and it was discussed in the media (press, radio, TV). Today, as Web sites have become commonplace, this kind of publicity is rarely granted to any new Web site.

The first (1995) version of the Web site focused on presenting the collections and history of the Finnish National Gallery. The objective was to provide a comprehensive overview of the artworks and artists featured in the collections, i.e. to create an 'electronic national gallery'. The primary function defined for the Web site was to act as an educational tool in distance learning . The objective was to create new opportunities for the public and artworks to meet, even when geographical distances would normally prevent this. The Web site was created in three languages: Finnish, Swedish and English. (For further information on the first version of the site, see Liukkonen & Väyrynen, 1997.)

First steps in the redesign

Throughout its short history, the Internet has been characterized by rapid change and development while at the same time becoming accessible to an increasing number of people. Material published on the Web seems to grow obsolete more quickly than any other information. This happened to the Finnish National Gallery Web site, too. The objectives set for the Web site in 1995 were attained: the site was published and the pages updated on time. The everyday work of the Internet information provider began.

While outside interest in the Web site and its services increased, the museum personnel began to use the site more and more. The site expanded, increasing the volume of work. The commitment of the Finnish National Gallery to network communications implied commitment to change: the existence of a Web site required an increasing degree of updating, maintenance and continuous development.

Because real time and constant change are essential features of the Internet, the material provided there must also be seen as a process - a movement that has no beginning or end, unlike an issue of the printed media. Understanding the continuous state of flux of the medium - and thus the constant conflict between old and new - means that the maintenance work must be more flexible and process-oriented. The development cycle in Figure 1 outlines Internet administration through change, showing the changing of the Web site as a cyclical, continuous reassessment and development of the work and the Web pages.

 
Cyclic change in the Finnish National Gallery Web site

Figure 1. Cyclic change in the Finnish National Gallery Web site

The first stage of the cycle (I) is the initial situation in which the Web site of the Finnish National Gallery was first published in 1995. The launch required the innovative development and learning of completely new work routines and thus an expansion in the job description of museum staff. As time went on, the initially well-functioning Web site structure began to seem insufficient and contradictory, but problem-solving remained firmly rooted in the existing structure (stage II in the cycle).

The actual redesign work on the Web site began at stage III. Cosmetic retouching was no longer sufficient to remedy the original Web site. A wholly new operative and structural model had to be conceived for the site (a sort of paradigm shift). The following section discusses the changes and needs leading to the redesign.

Factors leading to the redesign

The redesign was prompted by operative changes both in the organization of the Finnish National Gallery and in the content frameworks offered by the Internet: extensive development of the Web site was seen as relevant and necessary as it no longer sufficiently catered to needs and expectations both inside and outside the Finnish National Gallery. The pressures for change generated from these sources can be outlined in a four-part grid (Figure 2):

Organizational changes at the Finnish National Gallery Changes in WWW communications
Internal redesign needs 1. Internal need to present the museum's work more broadly 2. Redesign needs caused by reorganization
External redesign needs 3. Needs observed by monitoring Web site use and feedback 4. Redesign needs caused by developments in Internet technology

Figure 2. Motivation for the Web site redesign

1. Internal need to present the museum's work more broadly

After the first version of the Web site was published, an in-house need to introduce more extensive descriptions of each museum alongside the collection presentations arose. The Central Art Archives were provided with pages of their own in 1996 at the initiative of staff, without any actual graphic design (cf. Figure 1: Stage II of the development cycle).

The desire to present the museums and their work more extensively derives from a more general aim to make museum visitors aware of the 'invisible work' done by museums. For example, the work of the Conservation Unit, which often remains distant to exhibition visitors, is presented on the new Web site with text, pictures and animations.

2. Redesign needs caused by reorganization

The greatest reorganization in the recent history of the Finnish National Gallery occurred in spring 1998 with the move of the Museum of Contemporary Art to its new building, Kiasma, from the Ateneum, where it had rubbed shoulders with the Museum of Finnish Art, Ateneum for seven years. Completion of the Kiasma building prompted a change in the presentation of the Finnish National Gallery on the Web site, too. Now that the Gallery was operating in three separate buildings with distinct identities, it was felt that this division should be reflected on the Web site. User feedback from the site also supported the idea of linking the art collections presented on the Internet more closely with their actual locations - the physical museum buildings.

Structural reshaping of the Web site had already become an issue in spring 1997 when the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its own independent Web site at http://www.kiasma.fng.fi/. Although this site offers an extensive presentation of the work and objectives of Kiasma in Finnish and English, the essential elements of the design were derived from the Finnish National Gallery Web site. The Gallery still carried the responsibility for presenting and maintaining the Kiasma collections on the Internet (artist home pages, copyright fees, guide texts). As a result, one of the challenges in the Web site redesign was to integrate two structurally and visually independent yet overlapping Web sites without making navigation difficult for the user or obscuring the relationship between the sites.

3. Needs observed by monitoring Web site use and feedback

In order to organize the diverse and voluminous material on the Finnish National Gallery Web site in the most feasible way, we had to learn to know the users and potential uses of the site as well as possible. The Educational Department has studied use of the Web site monthly and annually from the very beginning.

The studies show that the utilization rate of the Web site has grown constantly - indeed, the growth rate has exceeded the 'natural growth' that can be calculated from the increase in the number of Internet connections. The number of visitors to the Finnish National Gallery Web site is expected to exceed the number of visitors to the 'real' museums this year. The number of foreign site visitors has also increased constantly: today, about half of the visitors have an originating address that does not have the .fi suffix denoting a Finnish server. Therefore, we can claim in good faith that the Web site of the Finnish National Gallery is a significant international forum for Finnish visual arts and Finnish museums. However, user studies have also revealed shortcomings: users have not been able to find all the information they want on the site, and some information is considered inadequate. User studies thus also confirm the need for redesign.

How the Web site is used was considered from two opposite viewpoints in the user studies. On the one hand, the number of visitors, their login times and the routes they follow on the site are recorded in logs, and on the other hand, users are able to give direct feedback. The log files give a rough estimate of the utilization rate for the different sections of the Web site, providing information on how many times each file has been accessed. The log files show that the sections have had more or less an equal numbers of visitors, and that the Finnish and English pages are equally popular . However, Finnish art in the Museum of Finnish Art, Ateneum is clearly the most interesting section for users. For instance, use of the Children's Ateneum guide nearly tripled from 1996 to 1997, demonstrating that the educational function of the site has been achieved. The Current Events feature also receives a steadily increasing number of hits. The Finnish National Gallery Web site has thus expanded from its original role as a distance learning resource into an information channel on the museum's activities using the distribution potential of the Internet.

In 1996, a feedback form was added to the Web site to complement the log files and to enable users to make comments on the site. The feedback form includes a number of standard background questions, and it requests user comments and experiences regarding the structure, content and appearance of the pages. The qualitative and quantitative data received show, for instance, what kind of people use the site and how, and what their motives are. These valuable data and experiences were drawn on throughout the redesign process. User feedback confirmed that it was difficult to find 'primary information' (i.e. opening times, addresses, entrance fees, etc.) on the site in its first version. In fact, the structure and appearance of that version focused on presentation of the collections, at the expense of 'here and now' information. This is why the new site was made simpler to navigate by giving careful consideration to the hierarchical structure of the content: the material was graded by level and target group so as to better organize the extensive bodies of material on the site. The same feedback form can be found on the redesigned site - albeit on a reduced scale - enabling long-term comparability and qualitative assessment of feedback and user profiling.

4. Redesign needs caused by developments in Internet technology

From the very first, the aim was to make the Web site a light structure that could be accessed even with less advanced browsers. However, the medium has evolved considerably since the site was set up. In the redesign process, we had to decide what level of technology the site would be committed to. The plurality of advanced Internet technology and user equipment created conflicting needs and expectations. Should we demonstrate cutting-edge Internet expertise, or should we ensure that all users can use the site effortlessly regardless of the kind of browser they are using?

The casual surfer will not be attracted by an old-fashioned Web site, even if it is a museum site. Besides, no matter how simple and light we try to keep the pages, it is ultimately impossible to control all the circumstances under which they are viewed or to know all the browsers used to view them. To maintain interest and to reach potential new viewers of the arts, the Web site should be technologically competitive, at least to some extent. This is why we ultimately decided to adopt the latest Internet recommendations. The site has been constructed using cascading style sheets, frames, animated GIFs, video clips and HTML 4.0.

This solution is not without risks. Although the newest versions of Internet browsers are available for free downloading on the net, people do not necessarily use them (we should note, though, that the front page of the museum's Web site points out that the site has been optimized for browser versions 4.0 or better, with links to the browser download pages). The oldest browsers do not support style sheets, or do so only in part: thus, the actual appearance of the pages may differ greatly from browser to browser. For users whose browsers do not support frames, there is a collection of traditional text links to ensure satisfactory navigation.

Implementing the redesign

The approaches adopted for the first version of the Web site largely governed the structure of the new version. The core content of the site is a comprehensive presentation of the collections of the three specialist museums under the Finnish National Gallery. The service is still provided in three languages. Stage IV in the development cycle in the figure 1. shows the practical implementation of the redesigned Web pages of the Finnish National Gallery: the adaptation of new and old material and database applications to meet the objectives of the redesign.

Objectives

The main objective of the redesign was to make the site more user-friendly, i.e. to reorganize and reclassify the information content to make navigation simpler and to aim the material more directly at various target groups. A services facility was added for each museum unit, providing current information for arts scholars, the media and school groups.

At the same time, the visual appearance of the site was brightened and unified. The structure of the user interface was made more flexible, so that we could react to different and changing needs and contents. Also, the overall organization of the Finnish National Gallery is presented in more detail alongside the presentation of the collections: each unit was given a 'starting page' under which it is presented as an independent entity - after all, the 'real' museums and units have distinct services and target groups and exhibition and collection policies. The material for the various units is also mutually complementary and supportive.

Basic concept of the user interface

Since the Finnish National Gallery Web site is exceptionally broad, and because it tries to give a balanced picture, the challenge in creating its user interface was to organize and manage the considerable body of information so that visitors will not be overwhelmed by the wealth of data as they navigate between units. The first Web site was constructed very hermetically, and it would have been difficult to add any new information without disturbing the structure. For this reason, the new structure was conceived as flexible and adaptable. Navigation is supported with a new user interface concept based on frames. Internal links are provided through text buttons that can be added and removed as necessary; thus, current material can be highlighted, and outdated (or temporarily unnecessary) material can be removed.

The multi-stage entrance is also a new feature. On the actual home page (www.fng.fi), the user chooses only the language. This page also features an animation showing works of art from all the collections of the Finnish National Gallery, heralding the visual world awaiting on the following pages. Having chosen a language, the user proceeds to choose content: the next page has an image of three museum buildings, gateways to the museums' own home pages. This equates the hierarchy of the virtual museum with that of the real one: the Internet museum is thus brought closer to the actual museum buildings or 'real' museums.

The objective was to make the Finnish National Gallery Web site into a system where the user interface would teach users as they navigate between units: navigation in one unit would support and help navigating elsewhere. For this reason, all the home pages share certain elements that remain constant. Having learned how the information for one museum or unit is organized, the user can easily view other units. At the bottom left of the screen there is a navigation bar, providing users with user interface data all the time. Another fixture is the Finnish National Gallery icon at the top right, a link providing access to the home page. The icon also informs users accessing any page by chance through search engines or link lists which Web site they have arrived at. After all, not all visitors are the 'ideal users' for whom the Web site has been created, i.e. people who begin surfing the site from the home page, logically, observing the script outlined by the user interface designer.

The pages of the museums and units also resemble each other in structure. The units can be distinguished by colour in the largely text-based navigation system: each museum and almost every museum unit has its own colour, repeated in headlines and illustrations. This brings a non-linguistic dimension to these quite heavily language-oriented and cognitively focused pages.

Graphic design

The graphic design facelift involved two of the three graphic artists who had contributed to the original Web site of the Finnish National Gallery a few years earlier. The main problem in the redesign work according to them was the large amount of text and images. They wanted to change the design towards a more visual approach, without compromising the artworks or user-friendliness. The discreet graphics on the pages support the artworks but are also used to illustrate the work of the museum units. Various target groups were also taken into account in the graphic design; for instance, images are the main feature on the pages aimed at children.

Content: Presenting the collections

The most extensive text database on the Web site consists of texts exploring the art collections of the museum. These were originally published in book form. Each guide has its own approach to the collections. The guide to the Museum of Foreign Art, Sinebrychoff is historical, focusing on the acquisition of the collection and the history of the works. In the guide to the Museum of Finnish Art, Ateneum, the artworks are presented through the context of their stylistic periods. Classics of Finnish art in the Ateneum collections can also be viewed along various routes in the Children's Ateneum. The sign-language QuickTime videos intended for deaf children are also based on these routes. The guide to the Museum of Contemporary Art, by contrast, offers a variety of tools and viewpoints for appreciating contemporary art.

However, by far the most extensive single feature on the site is the home page series for artists featured in the collections of the Finnish National Gallery, highlighting the 20,000 artworks in the collections. Some artists have additional material on their pages such as photos from the Central Art Archives. When the pages were first published in 1995, the aim was to present works in the collections as extensively as possible, with pictures included. The number of pictures has in fact been increased, as far as the copyright legislation governing publication on the Internet allows. At the moment, there are over 1200 images of artworks on the site. Artworks and artists included in the collections can also be searched for.

In the first version, the Current Events section was one single page. As it became necessary to emphasize the special character of each museum and unit, however, the News and Exhibitions section was split up, with each unit getting its own page. In the new version, the joint presentation of current exhibitions and events was moved to the electronic version of Concordia, the newsletter of the Finnish National Gallery (in Finnish and Swedish only).

Introducing the redesign

The Web site redesign was a slow and laborious process, because current information and events had to be constantly updated and maintained at the first, still current Web site while the new version was being designed and put together.

Introducing the redesign meant checking and revising a great many things. The content was reviewed in collaboration with each museum unit on the basis of proposals made by the Educational Department. All the material for the site (images, video clips, text) also had to be transferred to a new directory tree better suited for information organization and administration. The redesign also had to take into account the links between the network application and database applications created previously; for example, artist home pages are generated on the basis of the Vati database (artwork register of the Finnish National Gallery), and the master-based text material of the guides also had to be transferred to a new structure and a new visual environment. The old pages under the html2 sub-directory will be removed after a transition period, and visitors to old addresses will be automatically redirected to the redesigned site.

And after the redesign?

The Web site redesign of the Finnish National Gallery has now proceeded to a point where some perspective on the work has been gained. It is time to look back and assess the redesign: where was it successful and where not? Work on the Web site will continue; after the development cycle goes full circle, it starts again (cf. Stage V of the development cycle in the figure 1.). Thus, understanding and managing the rapid progress of change and Internet communications will become a major factor in Web site maintenance, even when that progress is so fast that it appears to collapse the temporal perspective: it sometimes seems as if we constantly have to respond to new challenges in the medium, while any ideas we come up with are outdated before we ever get around to implementing them.

The role of the Web site

A functional Web site is a worldwide showcase for the Finnish National Gallery: the Internet will reach even those members of the general public who are not necessarily interested in visiting a museum or who live too far away to be able to do so. Also, the Internet museum may make it easier to visit a real museum, thus lowering the threshold for entering the world of art. It also inevitably expands the traditional concept of the museum: an Internet museum always has its own particular clientele irrespective of the people visiting the 'real' museum. How should we define the work and objectives of an abstract virtual museum?

A Web site is expected to operate in real time: nothing is worse PR for a museum on the Internet than old-fashioned and outdated Web pages. This applies to the Finnish National Gallery Web site too. Users will only return to the site if its content is interesting and of high quality, and if it gives the impression of being a living, dynamic place. It would therefore be worthwhile to consider the content objectives we have for the pages. For example, it is scarcely feasible to spend our meagre resources in a futile battle against time, maintaining volatile current information that in some cases may have a life span of only a few weeks. The fact that the Web site is in three languages triples the input needed. Perhaps it would be more productive to channel our resources into arts education Internet materials whose content is more timeless and which might thus have a longer 'shelf life'.

An Internet application must always be considered as a whole, not just with regard to its content or its users, but also the organization providing the service. How well is the Finnish National Gallery able to provide sustainable and high-quality service? Since not a single page is completed without cooperation between different employees and employee groups, new forms of cooperation must be developed alongside traditional working procedures at the museum. To create a more flexible and reliable practice for maintaining material on the Web site, the Educational Department is planning to appoint a WWW editorial board with representatives from every unit of the museum. This would also require in-house Internet training, which would in itself be an excellent way of removing any prejudice and mystique that may surround the medium. Because the Internet is a relatively new medium, in-house expectations regarding it may be vague and unrealistic.

Assessing the redesign

The first version of the Finnish National Gallery Web site offered a more efficient, worldwide distribution channel for information organized in the traditional way (guide texts already published in book form). In the redesign, too, the focus was on the cosmetic reorganization of existing information, enabling new items to be placed alongside old material. The navigation system is still quite linear, based on a list of things akin to the table of contents in a book. In this sense, the redesign did not take into account the essential properties of the medium: no Web scripting was done, and many content features such as the Finnish National Gallery newsletter Concordia were introduced in electronic form in exactly the same guise as their traditional printed versions.

In order to make full use of the potential of the Internet, more attention should be given to how things are said on the Internet, not just what is said. The possibility of choice and interaction built into the Internet would require a different, non-linear approach to scripting, making pictures and text act together in a three-dimensional Web space.

The story continues

The Finnish National Gallery Web site is dynamic and changes with the museums themselves, being constantly updated with current information and having new services or modules added. The next feature planned is an opportunity to buy concert tickets or order publications of the Finnish National Gallery, and the possibility of opening an even broader net shop has been discussed, with a pilot project already implemented.

The Web site is a service with at least two functions. On the one hand, the site should serve that museum units' own communication needs and functions as well as possible; on the other hand, they should meet the needs of users surfing the site all over the world. Visitors can be served once we get to know what groups of people use the site in general and then focus on the user groups at which the museum would like to target its services. We should also consider how various target groups and audiences can be reached through the Web site. The site cannot simply exist passively on the Internet, waiting for users to find it and know how to use it 'correctly'. We should therefore be even more aware - throughout the design process - of the kind of information and experiences the medium requires, how they should be presented and what their target group should be.

Internet technology is constantly evolving, offering increasingly advanced and challenging innovations. Web sites are the core of a new information society, a world village whose limitless opportunities and utopias are easy to succumb to. However, we must remember that a Web site is only a technological tool for achieving objectives set by the museum, not an end in itself. The role of the Finnish National Gallery web site in the work of the museum could be illustrated with a triangular model (cf. Engeström, 1987):

Three-level model of action

Figure 3. Three-level model of action: The role of Internet publishing in museum work

The triangular model is a rough simplification of the actual process, but it is an outline of how the Web site can function in its context. Although it is already an established part of the museum's infrastructure, a simple presence on the Internet is not a sufficient objective. The Internet is a medium and an operating environment at the same time, and the museum can pursue its operative strategy worldwide on the Internet. The real object and result of the work always lies elsewhere: among the public, not on the Internet.

Sources

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

Engeström, Y. (1994). Training for change: New approach to instruction and learning in working life. Geneva: ILO.

Haapalainen, R., Liukkonen, E. & Väyrynen, M. (1997). User studies of the Finnish National Gallery Web site, 1996. Helsinki: The Finnish National Gallery, Educational Department (in Finnish).

Haapalainen, R., Liukkonen, E. & Väyrynen, M. (1998). User studies of the Finnish National Gallery Web site, 1997. Helsinki: The Finnish National Gallery, Educational Department (in Finnish).

Liukkonen, E. & Väyrynen, M. (1997). The Finnish National Gallery’s Internet Home Page is into its third year. Nordisk museologi 2/1997, s. 29-42.