Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Lin Hsin Hsin

Building An Ultimate Art Museum on the Web

Keywords: art museum on the Web, 2D Web site, 3D Web site, Web site design concepts, design elements, navigation and implementation

1 Introduction

In real life, an art museum landscapes around a building design concept with a defined exterior and adjustable interior spaces with a permanent collection and curated exhibitions. Implementing an art museum on the Web can either simulate or represent its real world environment or it can be completely built upon a virtual space.1 Whatever the case, the emptiness of the "not-being-there" is totally replaced by the all too familiar screen-based fatigue and "clicks" on the palm-tired mouse-pad on its Web representation. Thus, a good Web design concept must be considered in order to attract and attain, retain and maintain visitors with maximum Web Appeal.2 Currently, with exceptions, many real world art museums are represented by a 2D design concept filled with icons and its associated links together with snippets of its collections. The prime objective of such a digital brochure is simply offering a vehicle to inform visitors of its physical presence.

Using current available technological tools, this paper examines and presents an art museum design philosophy and concepts. Based on the author's extensive Web site visualization, design and implementation experiences, it details design elements in appropriating and apportioning multimedia contents like exhibits and essays versus the extent of text annotation, image size, quality and quantity as well as the inclusion of audio sound bites, music and video clips. As such, it suggests and offers the determinants for the basis and demand of incorporating fun elements such as animation for both 2D and 3D Web sites.

2 Design Concept and Philosophy

Invariably, there are many approaches in designing an art museum on the Web. However, depending on the type of real world art museum, its representation on the Web should reflect its mood as in its type of collection. Once the museum authorities decide on the kind of viewerships they want to reach out to or attract, the Museum on the Web can be implemented accordingly.

Before embarking on the design, one must conceptualize the Museum in terms of the extent of the size of the Web site and its estimated number of Web Pages to be built. Depending on the resource availability, the Webster then decides on the deployment of the fast changing Internet technology to create the Web site with maintenance and changing exhibits in mind. In the case where the Museum has multiple real world locations, one also needs to decide on the number of sites at this stage. 4 Whatever the added facilities, the objective is to increase visiting pleasure and not loading pressure.

Whether one is building a Web replica of its real world counterpart or a Web museum, the museum authorities need to establish and apply for a domain name and appoint a site Architect or Webster, upon which, he or she must set directory and file naming conventions. 5

Be it 2D or 3D site, the site architect needs to know the size of the site measured by the number of Web pages, that is, the number of htmls or wrls based on a conceived and suitable page length or room size.

3.2 Background

Whether it is designing Web pages in a 2D or 3D environment, the Webster begins with a choice of color scheme for the entire Website. While one can choose different backgrounds for different Web pages, one must maintain the same look and feel throughout the site, keeping in mind that the objective of an art museum is to display art and as background of a Web page being analogous to the museum interior wall, it is best to keep it as subdued.

3.3 Image Scanning

Though design is an art, scanning artworks is a science, attention must be given to the scanner's color calibration thus ensuring the correct level of RGB is set before scanning. Depending on the quality of the input: photos, slides or transparencies, scanned result vary in quality invariably. However, even if the quality of the original transparency or slide is excellent, it too can result in poor scanned quality, for pixel formation depends largely on the sensitivity and medium of that artwork. Thus, one needs to examine the quality of the image and digitally touch up the respective image.

However, there may be occasions that the final scanned image is still not ideal for display. As such, the Webster should advise the museum curator to exclude the image though it is an important artwork from the curatorial perspective for reason that the Webspace is the first and direct contact with the viewer.

4 2D Sites

4.1 Design Elements

Conventional relationships have long been established between the artworks and the viewers in a real world museum environment. Such relationships involve the participation of the audience's spatial movements between or surround the artworks in the real world space.

However, when such viewing is reduced to a flat defined space as in a 2D environment, viewers must be stimulated to "click on" since the artistic merits of these artworks have been diluted to such a scaled-down "intangible" surface. Hence, viewing in such "Webspace" can be paralleled to that of a "hypertext luminated art catalog". This shift in the confined viewing distance are now substituted by digital images juxtaposed with text, whereby suggesting the importance and integration of the different design elements. By shedding out the inhibitions of the text-image based Webspace, the following are the design elements for a Web Page design:

4.2 Text

Like selecting a color scheme, text forms an integral part of a Web page, hence the need to adopt a font type that reflects the art collections and exhibits within the museum. Though the font size may vary within a page and from page to page, font color must be chosen to match and mix with the background and images. While text should be coded as an ISO 8859-1 (Latin-1) character, it can be also be created as a graphic file to reflect the meaning of the word, enhancing and complimenting the typesetted text, nevertheless, this will only be effective when used sparingly. The Webster should note that captions and labels of the artworks should be coded in its original European languages. Unlike reading a coffee-table art book or an art exhibition catalog, text annotation should be kept only as an accompaniment to images on a Web page with the option of opening up press releases, bibliography, artists' biodata and essays that are stored and linked in separate files.

4.3 Images

When creating graphic files in jpegs and gifs, it is utmost important that the Webster considers the optimal size and quality of the image versus its quantity and system performance. Current HTML 3.2 commands can be used to create a beveled frame with different colors and thickness for painting if so desired. Viewing files as artworks causes boredom and fatigue, hence where appropriate, shadowing an image file can create a different viewing effect and break monotony.

4.4 Multimedia Elements

The inclusion of an audio sound bites or music could liven up the viewing process only when used as an exception rather than the norm as such function is to accompany or surprise an artwork. Video clips on interviews or vernissage can be shown whenever necessary. To make it more exciting, Webster can consider piping in live Real Audio sound files and/or See-You-See-Me webcasting for special events.

Multimedia elements are best used with current technology to add fun to the Webspace. This added dimension can be achieved quite simply by creating animated Gifs as in Gif89a or using Shockwaves or Fireworks. One can even make a Web page more sensuous by adding a simple "MouseOver" command to display text. For more exotic Web pages, one can use JavaScript to add moving text or write Java Applets. Whatever the choice, the Webster needs to exercise filesize control over fun. He or she must also inform viewers of the chosen technology or plugins for optimal viewing pleasure.

4.5 Web Page Layout

Every Web page should be titled to reflect the museum name and annotates the contents of the page. As such, it not only serves as a good documentation for the Web site, it directly informs the viewer on the present Web location in the wilderness of World Wide Web.

Just like laying out an art catalog, a Web page layout much depends of the nature of the artwork. Whether one selects a multi-column display, a frame-based Web page, or a text-surrouding-images or a conservative centralized text-image display style, one begins with adopting a layout concept for the site. Since a visitor on the Web is usually directly looking at only one Web page at a time and assuming that he or she would normally prefer to view an artwork at a time, the Webster can select different layout format for different Web pages. Whatever the chosen layout format, one must avoid Web-page-congestion and overloaded number of font size at all times. Current available tools allow absolute positioning and layering.

4.6 2D Site Navigation

Navigation is the most obvious or most complex part of building a Web site. Though it is as obvious as attaching a link on a word like "address" followed by a click leading you to a desired URL, one needs to adhere to certain navigational linkage guidelines:

However, there's no rule governing the optimal number of links on art collections. Links are based on viewing criteria either set by the curator and/or the Webster. Commonly set criteria include: viewing by artist, exhibition theme, medium, period, collection, year, room, depending on one's set priorities, exhibits can even be viewed by size or by its collectors.

There are just as many ways to establish links within a Web page and a Web site. Basically, links can be attached to an imagemap, an icon or simply on a text. Links can be accompanied by narratives stored in an audio or video file. Though one is free to define hotspots on any image type, it would be more consistent to create a set of icons or imagemaps for every place of visit within the museum, hence easing off the forward and backward page traffic. Whatever the case, museum links usually lie within the museum perimeter, seldom it is connected to any external entities.

When developing a large Web site, the Webster must validate links to avoid returning embarrassing 404 Not Found error message. Links can be validated using different methods either by writing a Perl Script or using WebCopy (6) or any of the commercially available WebMap (7) software. In the case when the update frequency is high, the Webster must make sure to remove outdated links. Beyond which, providing a search engine within the site and creating index pages for every directory is almost mandatory.

5 3D Sites

With the burgeoning VRML world builder (9) , there is an array of 3D browsers (10) to choose from. However, it is necessary to recognize the chemistry between the 3D world builder and the 3D browser for the visual quality on screen can differ drastically. In the extreme case, files may not load and system may even crash.

Browser selection criteria include: background color setting, navigational and mouse control, headlight on/off and dimmer control, animated path between cameras, motion speed, sensitivity and blur control. Other factors such as point cloud, wireframe, shading, transparency, texture mapping suppression and the support for GZIP files are just as important.

6 Museum Security

As the World Wide Web is a place where saints and crooks cohabit, besides alerting visitors with copyright statements, it is almost mandatory that artworks must be digitally watermarked and authenticated, museum being digitally fenced with digital guard and alarm systems. The Webster must be able to trap and track visitors for statistical purposes and combating petty thefts and digital break-ins. Whether one implements a password-control system for museum access or uses commercially available software to design and implement the Web site, it is the protection of the Museum and the detection of the digital clones and uplifts that matter.

7 Museum Intranet

As digital archiving is the best form of building an artwork database besides its valued controlled humidity. It is of considerable interests that the Webster considers building a museum intranet while building a Web site for Internet. Ultimately, a well-cited museum is also one that provides and analyzes visitor's psychology on the Web, accounts for art inventory besides managing exhibits on the Web or negotiating for more essays by art critics to be included. The museum authorities can also consider more intensive business interests like transacting gift items or even conducting paid demos, workshops and talks over the Net. However, such implementation will much depend on the visitors' behavior, site popularity and technological readiness.

8 Web Museum

Unlike building a real world replica on the Web, building a virtual museum is not limited to the real world constraints such as the number of rooms within the museum, choice of exhibits, the sequence of display and the number of selected artworks. In this case, the Webster can exercise his or her interests according to his likes and dislikes.

9 Conclusions

Defining a Webspace for an art museum is the most supreme form of combining aesthetics and technology. The decision of building a 2D or 3D Web site will much depend on the availability of the museum's technological resources and the Webster's sense of aesthetics. Though not binding, besides providing rich contents, these two factors play key role on color scheme, material properties, lighting conditions, ambience and display management that subsequently translates into visiting experiences. Just like an architect in the real world, a successful Webster must be able to distinguish the desire to boost the designer's ego versus the importance of design considerations as well as exploiting the up-to-the-minute Internet technology.

It does not matter whether how the museum is being metaphored, it is utmost important that the Webster conceives and creates a uniquely designed museum. It absolutely does not make sense if one is creating yet another museum on the Web. Though virtual, the Web is a living thing, and it must be able to attract and maintain a steady stream of visitors while implementing the bullet-proof security measure to protect the museum's assets. Though it is often enough that an art museum only communicates within its own perimeter, it would be ideal if the museum is willing to generate online discussions in the form of hypermail. As this would benefit artists and visitors in creating an even wider art awareness. Beyond which, it is most important that practising artists in this global digital village must be able to reach out to the museum authorities via e-mail, regardless of his or her operating system platforms and transmission protocols. As such, the need to respond to e-mail are even more crucial, otherwise any Museum on the Web will become just an unilateral Web experience and loses the meaning of its Web presence.


1. A museum built upon a virtual space denotes a Web Museum, one that does not exist in real life.

2. Web Appeal is the attractiveness of the site in relation to sites of the same category and Web sites in general.

3. Webster represents a Webmaster or a Webmistress. Webster and site architect is used interchangeably in this paper.

4. An example of the inclusion of these facilities can be seen in the Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum on the Web.

5. An art museum is eligible to use a top level domain name with .arts soon as announced by the Internet Society on February 4, 1997.

6. WebCopy is a Perl program that retrieves the URL specified in a Unix-like command. It is written by Victor Parada, Chile

7. WebMap is a Web site management tool that provides a tree view, a report view or a roadmap view of a Web site. Currently available WebMap program includes: Interactiva WebMap , NetCarta WebMap.

8. Currently available 3D Web Builder: Caligari Pioneer Pro, Cosmo World VRML, Ez3d VRML Author Pro, Internet 3D Space builder VRML, 3-D Website Builder, Virtual Home Space Builder, Virtus 3D Website Builder, VRCreator , V-Realm Builder.

9. Netscape Navigator Gold 3.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0. They are also capable of browsing 3D sites.

10. Currently available 3D Web Browsers: Community Place 1.0, GLView 2.09, Internet Explorer 3.0, Live 3D 1.0, Pioneer 1.2, 3Space Explorer, Topper 1.2b, Virtual Explorer 2.0, Virtus Voyager 1.4B, V-Realm 1.1 Build 1, VR Scout 1.4, VRWeb 1.04b, Webspace Navigator 1.4, WIRL 1.1, WorldView 1.4b

The writer is an artist, information technologist and poet based in Singapore. She can be reached via: INFOTECH Research & Consultancy, Robinson Road P O Box 3216, Singapore vox: (65)344-1269, fax: (65)344-8093, e-mail: URL:

Copyright Archives & Museum Informatics, 1997

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