By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006
The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is about to take its Web site where no museum has gone before.
Where that is isn't absolutely clear, but it merits getting excited about. The so-called "online national design museum" promises to open the museum and its vast collection to visitors anywhere in the world. What's more, if development can keep up with vision, the site will turn museumgoers into participants in a bold cultural experiment.
Interactivity is the key.
Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Thompson describes "an open theater for ideas." And John Maeda, a digital guru at MIT and a trustee, talks of a "new paradigm" for museums.
They're right. But here's the catch: The traditional museum autocracy will have to accommodate democracy.
Existing museum sites, including the Cooper-Hewitt's, are mostly glossy brochures. They offer a tidy mix of information and images intended for visitors to the bricks-and-mortar museum. But technology can let Web users -- and museum visitors -- create their own exhibitions, add content and engage in communication among themselves, reducing the institution to the role of go-between.
It's not wrong to wonder how a Smithsonian museum can survive as the Wikipedia of design culture. Or whether a museum site modeled after the populist photo-sharing http://flickr.com/ -- with favorite artifacts and amateur points of view -- would diminish an institution's reputation. The bigger question for all museums is how to flourish if they don't.
"We're hoping to be very much ahead of the curve and avant-garde," Thompson says.
The Cooper-Hewitt's existing site offers a glimpse of what's on view at 91st and Fifth Avenue. Exhibitions can be sampled, but only 500 items from the 250,000-piece collection of decorative arts, industrial and graphic design and fine art are viewable.
The revamped site will allow curators to play catch-up. The museum also wants to enable Web visitors to curate shows and build virtual collections, to circulate favorite digital photos. Web visitors also might be able to fill in the blanks on works that have yet to be researched fully. Shifting the curatorial responsibility might seem risky, but in 2002, a visiting researcher helped the museum by discovering an unsigned Michelangelo in a box of drawings.
"There are experts in the field who have spent whole careers studying a single period," says Matilda McQuaid, who, as deputy curatorial director, will have a leading role in online content. "Put it out there. See what comes."
She wasn't worried about an onslaught of bad taste from amateur curators and would-be designers.
"If enough people think they're awful, they get voted out and deleted from the site," she says. "Majority rules."
The impetus for the project came from a $2 million gift from two unnamed board members. That was enough to kick off Phase I, which involved the hiring of Method, a San Francisco-based digital design firm. Thompson declined to name a launch date, but others say interactive educational programming will go up first, probably in October, during a proposed "national design week" built around the National Design Awards.
More funding will be needed, but Maeda points out that interactive technology has already been invented and can be acquired at reasonable cost.
Over recent weeks, Kevin Farnham, Method's chief executive, lead the museum's staff through brainstorming sessions. While curators distilled aspirations into key words on Post-it notes, Maeda kept the group from straying into costly bells and whistles.
The right path is to "leverage the power of the people," he says. "We're living with the people's choice 24/7. That's the challenge."
Among the models that Farnham and Maeda point to are Yahoo's My Web 2.0 and the site http://del.icio.us/ . Users on those sites already are creating communities through "tagging" -- Web-speak for linking personal reactions to items on a site. Tags allow spontaneous communities of strangers to share interests in seemingly random ways.
Maeda calls tagging the creation of "an alternative body of thought." To explain how it would work for a design museum, he uses the example of a 1940s plywood Eames chair. A visitor might tag the image with "plywood" or "grandfather." From that point on, as others search under those words, the Eames design reappears, expanding public awareness. The Media Lab at MIT has an experimental online art exchange ( http://openstudio.media.mit.edu/tags ) where tagging can be activated by clicking on such words as cool, cosmic and smiley.
As bastions of scholarship, museums are not normally at the cutting edge of technological trends. Six years ago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum got out front with a truly avant-garde Web venture. New York architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote were commissioned to design a Guggenheim Virtual Museum. They responded with a mesmerizing three-dimensional structure in cyberspace that was loosely based on the New York museum's spiraling Frank Lloyd Wright building. The project was intended for cyber art, but it was not pursued beyond a prototype. The museum launched a standard site in 2001.
"It was an enormous research project, but practically speaking, there was never a conclusion about how it could become a vigorous online museum," says Anthony Calnek, a Guggenheim spokesman.
By comparison, the site of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is prosaic, but it has a radio channel, does podcasts and runs a blog, which puts it at the cutting edge of online museums. But reaction to the year-old blog suggests that inviting interactivity doesn't guarantee robust participation. Robin Dowden, the center's director of new-media initiatives, says too many comments fail to get beyond "I like that."
The Smithsonian's only museum blog, EyeLevel, was launched by the American Art Museum in September. It drew 50,000 visitors over the first three months. But entry after entry is followed by a tally of "0 comments." There is little of the rat-a-tat-tat of cultural engagement that interactivity promises.
Whatever features a museum chooses to install, visitors can only hope they are easy to use. Method's just-completed redesign of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art site includes an inviting e-space. An attempt to interact with a character named Agent Ruby failed to make the feature come alive. A sexy voice said, "Ask me anything, I can teach you to dream." No such luck.