Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Rings of Passion: How the Web can trump reality

Steve Mencher, Mensch Media, USA

An Olympic Idea

Rings: Five Passions in World Art started life as an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic movement, Rings was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. Tens of thousands of visitors explored the exhibition, including the President and First Lady, and it was the crown jewel of the cultural activities surrounding the Atlanta Games. The ideas behind Rings were revisited in a television documentary that premiered on the Public Broadcasting System and OVATION - The Arts Network on October 1, 1998.

The concept behind J. Carter Brown's organization of the exhibition was simple: throughout history, all over the world, works of art have had the power to make us feel various emotions, including love, anguish, awe, triumph and joy. Instead of organizing a retrospective of one artist's work, or even a geographical or historical show, Brown wanted to stretch himself as a curator, and see whether another organizing principle could be brought into play. What if works could be chosen simply on the basis of the primary emotion they evoke, and grouped with paintings, sculptures, or decorative objects that evoke similar feelings in the viewer? For a detailed discussion of Brown's organizing principles for the exhibition, see his introduction to the exhibition catalogue.

Critics Kvetch

That Brown was widely criticized, and even ridiculed for this idea is not surprising, since it flies in the face of much art historical and modern critical thinking. Work your way through the reviews we gather on the site to get a feeling for the vituperation of some of the mainstream critics. A short excerpt from Roberta Smith's review in the New York Times will suffice here: "Blockbuster art exhibitions often excel at superficiality, but "Rings: Five Passions in World Art" which opens on July 4 at the High Museum of Art, deserves a special award. The centerpiece of the cultural events surrounding the summer Olympic Games, the exhibition may set records for the most international art treasures traveling the greatest distances for the least curatorial purpose." (Smith, New York Times, July 4th, 1996)

The Best Ideas are Borrowed

With the taunts of Smith and others ringing in my ears, I attended Museums and the Web 98 in Toronto, looking for inspiration about how we could transform Carter Brown's concept into a first class Web site.

At the conference, I came away with one overwhelming impression: What was already distinguishing the Web from any other medium was the potential for communication and participation. These were some of high points for me, which I wrote about in the daily arts news for OVATION:

  • Steve Dietz's online exploration "Beyond Interface" provided the groundwork for discussions at the conference on how the Web was coming into its own as a forum for ideas;
  • Larry Friedlander and Peter Samis, in workshops and papers, discussed their work in California using the Internet to bring together collaborators in ongoing creative activities;
  • Plumb Design's Mark Tinkler demonstrated a Web site he'd built for the Smithsonian Institution called "Revealing Things"-- a site that seemed to think;
  • and Mark Harden showed with his "Artchive" that many problems over legal rights to display art on the Web could simply go away, if one had the right attitude, and a clear conscience.

These principles and directions gave us a starting point for Rings of Passion, a Web project which had just been given the green light by PBS Online and OVATION - The Arts Network, to be designed and constructed by Mensch Media and Lucid Design, scheduled to go live on October 1, 1998, the day the documentary film about the exhibition premiered.

Blind Alleys

But I also saw some great examples at MW98 of sites that seemed to be blind alleys. Many of the virtual visits to museum and gallery spaces insisted on a slavish connection to real space in ways that seemed to waste time, or be beside the point. On your way to experience a work of art, why get into a virtual elevator, press a virtual button, and see the virtual door close behind you, depriving you of anything interesting to look at? Why worry about the simulated lighting or the imaginary offerings of the cafeteria or gift shop, when your object was to come face to face with art, and ideas about art? It seemed evident that the Rings of Passion project should dispense with physical space, and immediately throw visitors into a world of art and ideas.

Roll Your Own

In the weeks following MW98, Carter Brown and I began work on laying out the text areas of the Web site, and I engaged Nina Tovish of Lucid Design as site architect and designer. For promotional purposes, we felt we needed one, big, novel idea which could be tied into the central themes of the site. We concentrated on engaging and validating the visitors' experiences of the artworks on the site. In our preliminary discussions Carter had bristled at one criticism in particular. Over and over, critics insisted that the five emotions he had chosen -- love, anguish, awe, triumph, and joy -- were arbitrary. Why those and not others? That missed the point, he pleaded. Of course they were arbitrary. Any viewer could supply his or her own list of emotions and connections.

With that in mind, one idea established itself as the most appropriate for our attention grabbing feature. We would let every visitor to the site curate his or her own exhibition. They could pick out four works of art, choose a title, explain the selection of each work, and let the rest of the viewers at the site decide if they had made a case for the connections they established. We would encourage them to send their original exhibition as an e-mail to friends, and offer a prize for the exhibit that most creatively used the ideas on the site and took them to a new level.

Technical Challenges

In order to accomplish this "Curate Your Own Exhibition" feature, we had to confront and overcome a number of challenges.
  • PBS required that visitors couldn't post anything to PBS Online without specific approval
  • On the other hand, we wanted the visitor-curated sites to be instantly available for friends who were e-mailed about them
  • We wanted to maintain a minimum standard of clarity and completeness for the visitor-curated sites
  • We wanted to make sure that only the art already on the site, which we had rights to display, would be used in the exhibits


As with most challenges in Web programming, this one was solved with a lot of code and elbow grease. Try to curate your own exhibition and follow along. As an exhibit is created, the user has an extra shot at editing it to his or her satisfaction. Then, it can be sent to any number of friends, who get a unique URL to view the newly created show. That URL, however is not linked FROM the site, but it is linked TO the site, so that the mailed exhibition becomes an effective promotional tool.

A database was created to hold all the exhibitions. There are three stages of approval.

  • If the "guest curator" chooses, the shows are made public on the "Public Gallery" page
  • Another choice is for exhibits to remain in the database for the contest, but unavailable to the public
  • Or we can delete the exhibition altogether, if it is inappropriate for the site, or incomplete.
We have the ability to go in and edit the text of these entries, but mostly we let them stand as they were submitted. The contest deadline is February 14th, 1999 (Valentine's Day) and the winner will be announced at MW99 on March 14th, 1999.

Emotions and Art

Before closing, I want to call your attention to various features of the site design that amplify and explicate the original exhibition's bold ideas. We realized from the start there would be nothing "cutting edge" about this site, since PBS demands that sites work in version 2 (!) browsers, and they discourage the use of plug-ins and the latest web technologies. Still, we decided that our cutting edge idea would be the transparent tracking of the site's content in its design.


If you return to the site's entry page, you'll see Nina Tovish's elegant animation. In just a few seconds, she has managed to lay out the entire scope of what we hope to accomplish with the site in visual terms. It's fun; it displays immediately as it loads (in Netscape, at least); and it's thought provoking.

We don't tell you that we expect you to click in the center of the page, on the last image of the animation. We're hoping that it's more or less obvious, and you'll see that the image is a live link if you move your cursor to it. Statistics show that this is most people's move. Is lack of a clear direction a design flaw? You decide. Anyone who has ever tried to avoid the dreaded instruction "click here" on a Web page has grappled with this issue.

Once you get to the "Emotions" page, the forty works of art that make up this site are all available for you to explore, divided up into five emotion sections. Nina's crisp and elegant template for displaying the works of art, along with image details, identifying information, literature readings by Meryl Streep, and full-screen versions of the images carry you through the works in a seamless journey. It's not the only path, but I think she's made it seem inevitable and comfortable. To me that's the mark of good design.


So how does the Web trump reality? Many of the quibbles with the High Museum show, from critics and 'civilians,' were about the display of the art. Some said the lights were too dim, others complained about incomplete information about the artists, or the media, or the art historical background of the works. By combining the best elements of the exhibition catalogue with our earnest attempt to present the best possible Internet version of the images, we've eliminated much of this concern.

Of course, the art on the Web is coming to you via a television monitor. You're not experiencing it first hand. Isn't that a shortcoming for any online exhibition? This brings up the biggest, and thorniest problem for us to consider. So many of the writers who quarreled with Brown about the show were outraged that the art had come to Atlanta for no apparent reason. They felt strongly that no great work of art should travel without a compelling purpose, given the possibility that masterpieces could be damaged or lost. We'd never posit that copies of art on the Internet supercede originals, but online display provides, at the very least, an alternative to risky travel. If the curatorial exercise is about putting works together to see them spark off each other and make us experience the connections of feeling elicited by each work, then the Web can be a starting point.

Further, the engagement of the viewer, who can respond to an exhibition's art and ideas by making an individual statement and sharing it with the community, is a novel and unique contribution made by the Web. At long last J. Carter Brown had an answer to those critics who accused him of elitism, in his choices or presentation. The democratic nature of the Web, as we presented it in this site, allowed every visitor to be a curator, and present his or her curatorial work to every other visitor. With that aspect of our site, we feel we've added our two cents to the dialogue about how the Internet can change and deepen our experience of art.