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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.

Rhizomatic Art Stories – balancing between innovation and usability


In 2008 SMK National Gallery of Denmark initiated a 5 year digital strategy. A core initiative is Art Stories: an innovative online resource that offers exciting stories and background material about artworks, artists and how they connect. The ambition is to retell the story of art and make it come alive on the web, exploiting the possibilities offered by digital media.

The Gordian knot we have tried to cut is: How do we develop an innovative digital art experience based on a chaotic, ‘rhizomatic’ structural principle, and at the same time keep it intuitively navigable and user-friendly?

Art Stories is a research-based resource founded on the principle of serendipity. Layers of information are hidden in the images, and content can be entered from many different angles. Art Stories is intentionally in the plural and its stories are told by many – often opposing – voices within the art world. Lesser known artists and artworks are shown side by side with more familiar material in order to challenge the traditional notion of a canonized body of ‘highlights’. The idea is to present art history as a ‘rhizome’ – a non-hierarchical network of connections crossing traditional art historical categories – echoing the structure of www. We deliberately eschew a linear structure, hoping users will get lost in the content (in a positive, ‘serendipitic’ sense). 

Users create their own tracks through the web of interrelated artists and artworks, and these tracks can inspire other users to find their way through Art Stories. Instead of perceiving SMK’s collections as a ‘walled garden’, the resource is based on syndication and links from SMK to related artworks and content in museums and institutions all over the world.

Art Stories targets adult users with an initial interest in art. User surveys show that they demand more online content that deepens visits to SMK, as well as offering digital art experiences in their own right. During the development of Art Stories we have conducted 5 different user-tests of concept and prototype. Taking into account recent development within the field of art history, it was key for us to create a rhizomatic interface. But several times we faced the dilemma: Users explicitly advised us to adjust the interface to their common expectations and habits. At the same time, we felt strongly about carrying out our original vision. Consequently, we needed to explore how we could make ‘navigating the rhizome’ user-friendly. 

Did we achieve this? Only time can tell. Art Stories version 1.0 launches in November 2010, containing more than 700 individual artworks and 500 written pages. Post-launch more content will be added to the ever-expanding stories. Our paper will draw on results from pre-launch tests and focus on the process of developing the concept and design in dialogue with users – but also sometimes against their immediate wishes and expectations. At the time of MW2011, we have been online for 5 months and will present results from new user-tests and surveys that reflect the actual reception and use of Art Stories.


Paper - in formal session


tintin's picture
Annette Rosenvold Hvidt (Born 1963) Art historian with specialty: French and Danish 19th century art. Annette Rosenvold Hvidt has in scholarly publications focused on the relations between visuality in film and painting with suggestions to read French Salon Painting and its suspenseful classicism...
Merete Sanderhoff's picture
Art historian and project manager of the online project Art Stories at SMK National Gallery of Denmark. I'm passionate about the potentials of web and digital media in making art more accesible and exciting for users. Recently I've been in charge of a pilot project dealing with free image sharing...

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