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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Making Web Sites for Young Audiences

Deborah Schwartz, and Allegra Burnette, The Museum of Modern Art, USA


With a newly energized commitment to young audiences, The Museum of Modern Art has recently developed two Web sites, one for young children ages 5 to 8, and the other for teenagers. In the process, the Museum's Educators and the Digital Media team who collaborated on these projects brought in the voices and ideas of children and teens, to introduce the curatorial staff to some new playful approaches to the collections and to explore ways to interface these resources with other agendas within the Museum. This paper will focus primarily on the development of the teen site, called Red Studio after Matisse's famous painting, while using both sites to demonstrate modes of audience input, the development of software for multiple purposes, and strategies for marketing sites to young audiences. Red Studio melds the Museum's deepening commitment to teen audiences, their need for participatory activities, and their strong sense of connection to the unexpected and challenging aspects of contemporary art. The question of how to create a Web site with and for teens, one that also speaks to the needs and responsibilities of this international museum, is a central theme.

Keywords: education, young audiences, participatory design, design methodologies


With a newly energized commitment to young audiences, The Museum of Modern Art has recently developed two Web sites: Destination Modern Art, for children ages 5 to 8, and Red Studio, for teenagers ages 13 to 18. In the process, the Museum's Educators and the Digital Media team who collaborated on these projects used the opportunity to incorporate the voices and ideas of children and teens, introduce the curatorial staff to some new, playful approaches to the collection, and explore how the resources developed for these sites might interface with other agendas within the Museum. This paper describes the development of the sites and explores various modes of audience input, the development of software for multiple purposes, and strategies for marketing sites to young audiences.

Goals and Aspirations

The Museum of Modern Art's Department of Education is dedicated to teaching and learning about the complexity and diversity of modern and contemporary art. Through courses, museum visits, workshops, publications, and collaborations with schools, cultural institutions, and universities, MoMA's Education Department engages audiences of all ages in the process of looking carefully, exploring, questioning, and analyzing works of art. Central to this process are the voice of the artist who makes the work and the viewer, whose curiosity is essential to the museum experience.

The need to expand MoMA's efforts to reach audiences through the Web has been equally championed by the Departments of Education and Digital Media. Our common goal has been to provide greater access to the Museum's collection and resources that do not exist in other contexts or formats, carefully considering the correct mix of audience and content for the Web tools environment.

Further, the goals for these sites include creating projects that can withstand the vagaries of technology and that can expand and evolve organically based upon what we learn from working directly with the intended audience - all without breaking the bank!


The Museum of Modern Art has an excellent history in developing Web-based materials for children and teachers. Art Safari, for young children, was the Museum's first effort to create a children's site. On the site, children could explore works of art from the Museum's collection and create their own related pictures, which initially could be submitted to the Museum for posting on its Web site. However, after years of technological advancement, several of the site's initial functions -which relied on ongoing staff attention and maintenance - no longer worked as intended, and some features were removed. As a result, the need for a new children's site became more urgent, and the commitment to create Destination: Modern Art was made by both the Education Department and the Digital Media team.

The Museum had also developed a series of Guides for Looking, which are based on teaching strategies and were originally developed for use in the Museum galleries. The guides employ questioning strategies and visual comparisons that teachers and students may find very useful, relying more heavily upon 'looking' skills than on contextual information. These guides will be expanded in the coming years to take advantage of the opportunities that the Web provides for cross-referencing and linking to other sites.

Perhaps MoMA's most successful use of the Web has been with its exhibition-related sites, from the highly regarded What Is a Print resource (on-line since 2001) to the more recent Russian Books and Kiki Smith sites. These sites are designed to feature the work of a current exhibition but are extremely effective in extending the life of an exhibition well beyond its closing date.

Building on Prior Experience

In focusing two new Web ventures on young people, the Museum was in an excellent position to utilize a great deal of expertise. The Museum's school programs for grades K through 12 are extensive, taking place in both the galleries and the classrooms. Attendance at our family programs for younger children and their parents is always at capacity. Our programs for teens have included a highly successful after-school program, high school internships, a series of after-school discussions, and, most significantly, an innovative Museum Studies Program in which high school students have the opportunity to curate an exhibition of work by their peers. From this extensive experience in family and children's programming, staff members were confident that they could create winning children's and teen sites that would have meaning beyond the local level.

One of the first tasks in creating the teen site was to assemble a teenaged advisory group (TAG) that would embrace the excitement and challenge of working on a project with enormous public exposure and in collaboration with MoMA staff. Several questions loomed over the teen project. Did the sensibilities and values of New York City public school students have significance for a larger national audience? Would the likes, dislikes, and interests of this group 'play' in a larger arena? Ultimately, we agreed that if this site was constructed thoughtfully and seriously by participating artists and teens, the authenticity of the participants' experience would be meaningful to others.

We also wondered if all the excitement and energy of a face-to-face meeting between a student and an artist would translate over the Web. Would the lessons be less powerful if taken out of time and context? Therefore, the question remained. What were the chances that the artist and students would connect and communicate well, and how would the results of their experience be conveyed to a larger audience?

These are profound questions exploring the relationship between teaching and learning, and the extension of these experiences on the Web. Therefore, this project was in all respects an experiment, one that involved risk and exposure for the Museum, the teenage advisory group, and participating artists.

A Web Site for Teens

Red Studio marks the Museum's deepening commitment to teen audiences, their need for participatory activities, and their strong sense of connection to the unexpected and challenging qualities of contemporary art. For years MoMA staff has worked with adolescent audiences in a variety of programs, some formal and classroom-based, others voluntary, drop-in programs. From these programs, we discovered that students are most interested in the producers of the work. Who makes a work? Why? What makes it art? These are the fundamental questions raised by teens. Moreover, this is an audience that questions authority, embraces risk, and, in many respects, is quickest to empathize with the experimental nature of contemporary art.

In that spirit, MoMA introduced Red Studio (http://www.moma.org/redstudio), a subsite of MoMA.org, featuring numerous projects about artists and art making - all of them driven by teen advisors. The first of these projects is an extensive interview and exploration of the work of artist and architect Vito Acconci. The site also features varied interactive components, the first being a design competition to which students may submit their own designs inspired by Acconci's work.

Red Studio

Figure1: Red Studio screen: Interview with Vito Acconci

The Education Department spent several years developing the idea of a Web site for teenagers. Focus groups with teens revealed their interests and concerns. The prevailing question that arose from this research concerned the precise nature of art and why some of the work produced by artists was considered art. In fact, You Call that Art? was a working title for the site. Consequently, our team worked towards a site model that would enable teens to find the answers to these questions. Amy Horschak, one of the lead Educators on the project, was the first to point out that MoMA's greatest asset in this venture was our immediate and relatively easy access to working artists. From that point on, the site developed as a series of features that gave teens the opportunity to observe, research, and ultimately engage in conversation with an established artist; the results of these investigations would comprise the core component of the site.

In the early stages of Red Studio, the project team spent hours looking at other teen Web sites, some built by museums, others created in the commercial sphere. We wanted to understand what our colleagues had done to date, and we wanted to know what was selling well in the teen market. We noted the exceptional teen Web sites that already exist at the Walker Museum and at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We also acquainted ourselves with blogs and with the hundreds of commercial sites that poll teens about everything from fashion to television shows. The breadth of activity was impressive, but we felt it was important to create something that was unique to MoMA. Interestingly, our teenage partners reiterated this conviction.

While we felt sure that the site needed to reflect our teenage constituents, the advisory group was equally sure that MoMA's site should not pretend to be inelegant to cater to its younger audience. In fact, the TAG liked the idea that their work was part of a sophisticated Museum effort, and they preferred to have their work embraced by the look and feel of the larger institution. This was important and unexpected information for the staff.

The first TAG originally came together in a six-week after-school program, for which members received a modest stipend. They had opportunities to see and read about Acconci's work, discuss issues raised by it, and eventually meet the artist. In the first of two meetings with Acconci, we asked him to talk about himself and to present a brief history of his work. After this meeting, an entire session was devoted to the development of interview techniques. The students developed questions for Acconci and talked about how to handle sharing the stage with him and with each other. This preparation culminated in a videotaped session in which the students conducted a two-hour Acconci interview that would eventually became a core component of the Web site.

As the program progressed, students and staff devoted extra time to the development of the site. At the same time, Chopping Block, the company developing the site with MoMA, became eager to hear from the ultimate clients. The teens were invited to Chopping Block's offices to see how the site was being developed and to meet the team. The exchange was an important episode in the development of the site.

In addition, the ongoing goal to make this site relevant to teens beyond the initial six participants created an interesting question: What would make this site meaningful to teens all over the country? Three primary components became clear as we tried to ensure broad interest in the site:

1) The Interview

Whatever came out of the interview between Acconci and the kids had to be edited and organized so that even a novice teen (e.g. a teen who knew very little about art) could find relevance and meaning in the site. As a result, great effort was put into finding universal themes in the content of the interview: What did Acconci have to say about politics, working as part of a team, or growing up?

2) The Competition: youDESIGN

A competition seemed like an excellent way to call meaningful attention to the launch of the site. Team lead Victoria Lichtendorf explains,

We realized a building activity alone might go unused and unnoticed without some interesting way of hooking teens' interest. MoMA historically held contests, and it seemed fitting to bring them back. Having a professional jury with esteemed judges and prizes underscored the value of good design and underscored the fact that people can be rewarded and paid for creativity.

The idea of design contests also seemed pertinent given the very public dialogue about Ground Zero and the Pentagon. The relevance of architectural designs and competitions today, along with classroom projects, also broadens the appeal of the site to teachers.

In addition, the contest and activity organically grew out of the Acconci interview. In the activity, youDESIGN, students are encouraged to be very creative. Some of the elements - such as spheres, ramps, organic and inorganic textures, different environments, et cetera - are Acconci-influenced. Students have to decide whether their designs relate to their environments, a major focus of Acconci's work.


Figure 2: Red Studio screen: youDESIGN Activity

The teen interviewers were very interested in how Acconci performed under the pressure of competition. One of our 'Know More' fun facts highlights the fact that only 15% of Acconci Studio Designs are actually built. This statistic holds true for many architectural firms and design studios. The fact that the majority of work coming out of such firms is creative and theoretical was of great interest to the teen interviewers.

Needless to say, the competition revealed layers of questions that none of us had anticipated: laws about competitions, rules and regulations about the age of participants and crossing state lines, disclaimers, et cetera. (Indeed, the lawyers might deliver another talk on these issues alone!)

3) Teens and Polling

Finally, although the assembled adults were not entirely sure about the phenomenon, it became clear from talking with our TAG and in looking at other Web sites that polling was a hugely appealing characteristic of teen-oriented Web sites. Could we use this structure to any good or appropriate effect? The development team began to examine questions about art, its relationship to music, society, and creativity all questions we thought might appeal to the targeted audience. At the time of writing, the site has not yet launched, but we will know this spring if polling translates well in the museum realm.

The Kids' Site

Destination Modern Art

Figure 3: Destination: Modern Art title screen

Destination: Modern Art (http://www.moma.org/destination/index.html) was originally conceived as a small, internally produced project exploring ways in which The Museum of Modern Art could provide resources specifically for younger children via the Web. While Red Studio had a dedicated funder, the resources allocated to this site were very modest, with the bulk of the budget going to the illustrator who was brought onboard. The rest of the site was designed and programmed in-house at minimal cost. As the project developed, our goals became clearer; the primary one was to provide younger children with the tools they needed to begin looking critically at art. We would do so through a series of activities focused on particular artworks. A secondary goal was to inspire children and their parents to do that 'looking' at MoMA and its affiliate, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. Consequently, the project team decided to introduce the two at particular locations, providing a setting for the site. Due to the current expansion and renovation project at MoMA's original midtown Manhattan location, the site presently situates visitors at MoMA QNS, the Museum's temporary home in Queens. However, the site was structured so that images of MoMA QNS could later be replaced with images of MoMA in Manhattan, without having to deconstruct the site.

This structure of the MoMA QNS gallery space can be enlarged indefinitely and serves as an expandable testing ground for discovering how some of the Education programs in the Museum translate to on-line experiences. What can be done on-line that can't be done in a museum, and vice versa? How do you introduce both on-line and offline activities via the Web?

Gallery Image

Figure 4: Destination: Modern Art gallery screen

One of our first steps was to enlist the help of an illustrator. We selected an illustrator whose work showed a clear sense of place, who created illustrations of children who were not easily categorized, and whose visual sensibilities were in keeping with our goals for the project. Once we had narrowed the selection, we showed the final candidates' work to the Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books before finalizing our selection. The illustrator, Brian Biggs, brought a great deal to the table, not only in terms of his illustrations, but by listening to what we were trying to accomplish and then taking that beyond our original concept.

We also looked at other sites directed towards this audience, including several wonderful sites produced by our colleagues at other museums and those created in the for-profit arena. We particularly noted the frequent use of animals to make an idea or activity more accessible. While this approach was successful in many of its uses, we decided that since the goal of our site was to get kids looking at art, we would prefer children to populate our virtual museum space. To incorporate an added element of discovery and curiosity, we introduced another character to accompany the young visitors though our virtual Museum: a friendly and inquisitive alien, whose lack of familiarity with the art environment allows questions that range from the simple to the complex. In this way, the alien could serve as the impetus for discovery and allow the children to interact directly with the art.

The site initially launched with a set of activities designed for five works in MoMA's collection. Two types of activities are consistent for each work of art: an interactive artist biography and the At Home activity, which provides ideas for offline activities. Other activities were created specifically for each work, with an emphasis on looking more closely, listening, and using words to respond to works. The works were selected to convey the breadth of the collection - from painting to sculpture to collage - and from the Museum's earliest works to its contemporary acquisitions. One of the artists represented, Polly Apfelbaum, is a living artist, and we were able to show her the site and get her response. She was very supportive and helpful in providing information and other resources.

Help me figure ot what Blossom is made of

Figure 5: Destination: Modern Art activity screen

While initially only five works are represented, we intend to add works to the site over time and to include works from other collecting areas of the Museum - film and illustrated books being two examples.

We knew from the beginning of the project that we wanted to include MoMA's affiliate, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, in the site. Because P.S.1 has very few works in its permanent collection and is focused on an ongoing series of temporary exhibitions, it was challenging to determine how to properly represent the Center on-line. Lacking the resources to swap works on the site with the same frequency as the constantly revolving P.S.1 exhibition schedule, we decided to focus more on P.S.1 as a treasure hunt destination where the goal was to find the permanent artworks scattered throughout the building. While this approach may not represent P.S.1's primary program of changing exhibitions, we felt it did introduce P.S.1 as a great place for families to visit.

Going to PS 1

Figure 6: Destination: Modern Art screen: P.S.1

The Project Teams

For the teen site, the team consisted of members of the Education and Digital Media departments (including a Web editor), the first group of teens, and Chopping Block, the design firm we hired for the first installation of Red Studio. The kids' site team consisted again of Education and Digital Media, with the addition of the illustrator and a writer from the Marketing Department. The Graphic Design department made key contributions along the way, particularly in regards to the naming and visual identify of the teen site. Marketing and Communications were involved in promoting both sites.

The teen site team evolved and was adjusted over the course of the project. There were initially five people involved from Education, but once the parameters were set and the project was underway, that number dropped to three: the Deputy Director of Education and the two project leads, one of whom was designated as a primary contact. This streamlined communications with Digital Media. Digital Media, in turn, was the primary contact for Chopping Block, so that company received one coordinated set of responses instead of seven.

The project was a good learning experience for all, helping us recognize the importance of clear and structured communication and strong writing. We found that we had initially underestimated the time commitment that was involved in completing a project of this scale. Unlike our exhibition subsites, which usually draw from existing content, all of the content for the two sites had to be created specifically for each project. The interview with Vito Acconci also became much more in-depth than initially projected. Furthermore, the lack of a driving deadline (such as an exhibition opening date that might expedite the creation of a subsite) allowed production to continue much longer than anticipated. Since we have been through the development of the umbrella Red Studio site and one feature, we are planning to take what we have learned from that process and streamline the development of the next feature.

Marketing and Branding

Both the kids' and teen sites went through a lengthy naming process; in fact both had other names during parts of their development. The teen site went from 'inFlux' to 'Red Studio' after the logo was in its final design phase, and the kid's site was renamed once the entire site was completed. This indicates the importance we placed on name and identity, as well as the difficulty we had in coming up with something that really met our requirements. The name for the teen site had to be broad enough to cover all we wanted to do with future features while appealing to this age group. We settled on Red Studio, because not only did it reference a key work in MoMA's collection, but it also indicated a space where people might come together to create or talk about art, and this was the main message we wanted the name to convey. The kid's site name needed to be catchy and make reference to the 'intergalactic' element of the site.

In terms of visual identity, the question for the teen site in particular was how to relate the name and visual identity to the overall MoMA.org site. Red Studio is an umbrella site for this particular audience, so we felt it should have its own identity. How do we create a fun and fresh identity that neither condescends to our young audience nor seems inappropriate in relation to the Museum's identity? In addition, 'Red Studio' has the potential to apply to offline initiatives, but its initial application is only for this on-line project. Therefore, we asked ourselves, What kind of name and identity meets our current needs but can potentially be expanded to fit future needs?

Vito Acconci and the teens are featured on teh home page of Red Studio

Figure 7: Red Studio screen: Home page

Chopping Block spent a lot of time with us talking about the teen site and its visual intent. They also showed the TAG a number of teen-oriented sites to get a sense of what their age group responded to visually. The naming and identity-creation processes were nonetheless incredibly challenging and involved key input from Graphic Design, Marketing, Education, and Digital Media.

As the sites neared completion, Marketing developed a promotional plan which targeted both Web and print publicity in newspapers and on postcards. We recognize the importance of word of mouth and viral marketing through e-mail, so e-cards are built into the activity areas of both the teen site and the umbrella site.

To promote the Web sites, Marketing decided on two complementary goals:

  1. driving traffic to both sites;
  2. raising awareness that MoMA.org is a resource that makes modern art accessible, understandable, and enjoyable for young people.

In conjunction with the Museum's Communications Department (Press Office), Marketing recommended the launch of both sites together, to reinforce MoMA's commitment to education and outreach.

MoMA Communications compiled an extensive list of publications read by parents, teachers, and teens to which publicity could be given. In addition to mailing them press releases, a press representative personally met with key editors and writers to pitch stories.

We segmented our target audience for the marketing campaign as follows:

  • The MoMA community, which includes visitors, members, staff, and Trustees
  • Teachers
  • Parents who participate in cultural activities with their children, especially in the NYC area
  • Teenagers who read Web sites and publications with nonprofit, mission-driven, or do-it-yourself orientation.

We further broke down our segments to help identify their interests and resources. As parents are usually the familial decision-makers, our kid site audience was defined as parents looking on the Web for creative activities for their kids, rather than kids themselves. Conversely, teens were our target for Red Studio. We realized that the most efficient way to reach teens is through teen publications.

Once we established our target audiences, we approached a variety of Web and print publications, many with a national readership. We were also able to stretch our budget by looking at free or low-cost marketing options such as free listings and internal publications to members.

Feedback and Evaluation

Both Web sites have received a notable amount of feedback from constituents, both internal and external. In the case of the children's site, there was a desire to ensure that the curatorial staff were aware of our work and were comfortable with the playful art history approach that was being proposed. Curators joined the team in choosing an illustrator and reviewed early drafts of the activities. Curatorial questions about the goals of the site strengthened the process, and curators often had great ideas about comparisons, images, and connections that could be made between featured works of art.

Undoubtedly, the most important evaluative moment for Destination: Modern Art was a formative study conducted after the interactivity of the site was up and running. Generously, the Children's Museum of Manhattan agreed to allow MoMA staff to spend a weekend in its galleries interviewing children and observing their responses to the site. The lessons learned were invaluable; the future of the site changed dramatically. It was determined that the site had too much text: children often did not read even the simplest text. Their interest was far more intuitive, and, we realized, appropriate to the age group (5 to 8) that we had identified as the core constituency for the site. The text was rewritten, and a voice-over session was immediately scheduled so that all text was reinforced by audio.

Interestingly, many of this young group of users already understood certain Web conventions, but others did not. Their use of the mouse was notably different from adult users, and careful notes were made about when and what children wanted to click on the site. Where certain objects had not been clickable, they were made so, and new tools were developed to create multiple options for navigating the site.

Our formative research with the teens was quite different. Because six teens were part of the development team, we had a constant feedback loop throughout the planning process. The advantage is obvious; the disadvantage is worth noting. The teens were close to the project, invested in it, and partial to the ideas that were developing out of their work. So, while their thoughts about the name of the site or the design were highly valued, the TAG could not be a reliable source of feedback on the usability of the site. This portion of testing will have to come from teens who have not been involved in the planning and with whom we will be staging substantive summative research. The results of this research will be ready this spring, and lessons learned will be applied to the second feature of Red Studio.

Once both sites are up and running, we will employ two important forms of summative research. In the quantitative realm, we will track use of the sites, the number of hits, the amount of time spent on the site, and the paths taken by users. Quantitative research will be conducted by observing pairs who will be asked to explore the site while they talk to one another about what they are doing and their response to what they find. This observation technique provides the researcher with slightly more authentic reactions than straight interviews, because children tend to be more natural and honest in their reactions when conversing with one another. The results of these observational studies will also be factored into the planning of phase two of both sites. Participants in these studies will be solicited both in the Museum and in schools where MoMA has ongoing access to appropriately aged students

The Future

When both Web sites are launched, they will be tested extensively, as described above. In both cases, a second set of modules is being prepared and may well introduce new elements of design and content, depending upon feedback from users.

As of this writing, the design competition is underway, and the judging of the contest will take place this summer. The quality of the entries will tell us a great deal about our marketing efforts and about the interest teens have in responding to a Web-based competition put forth by the Museum.

While the primary target audience for these sites is individual users, we are interested in learning about the potential use of these sites in a school setting. We know that computer teachers are always eager for new resources and that humanities and art teachers may be able to create research projects via the sites. How might these sites find their way into preexisting curricula? Are the sites dynamic enough to spur varied assignments? What tools might enhance their use in a school setting?

As Red Studio evolves, it will become an umbrella site for all of MoMA's teen programs - a location within MoMA.org where teens can go to learn about programs and events, create their own submissions to new Web activities, or see interviews with participating artists.

Discussions are now underway with colleagues in Marketing and Retail about whether the Museum should extend the life of this site through collateral materials for teens, be it through Museum brochures or items for the MoMA Design Store. This site did not have the initial goal of creating a visual identity for this age group, but that may end up being a byproduct of it.

Because both sites have been developed in episodic formats, the staff will be able to apply the lessons learned from feedback and to build resources that can be part of a continuum, rather than starting new sites from scratch. With the sensibilities of young audiences in constant flux, these sites will allow for new tools and aesthetics. If these two sites succeed in capturing the attention of their intended audiences, these first iterations will provide a gateway to more communication and knowledge about how to exploit these new technologies to reach young audiences.

In closing, it is worth noting that the relationship of these Web sites to the actual Museum experience is synergistic. Indeed, museums are only beginning to understand the possible ways in which the Web can create unique tools that are challenging, creative, and engaging for youth, and that are authentic experiences in themselves while simultaneously signaling the irreplaceable experience of original works of art.


The authors would like to thank Maggie Lederer D'Errico, Amy Horschak, Victoria Lichtendorf, Elizabeth Margulies, Jason Persse, Mark Swartz, Page Pepper, and all of our colleagues who contributed so thoughtfully to the development of these two Web projects.