Thursday, June 6, 2013

Open Road: The Mazda Museum

Cars, especially classic cars or ones with really out-there designs, are pretty cool.  I like seeing these vehicles up close and being able to learn more about them, but I always imagined that this was best done in person.  Apparently Mazda thinks this isn't necessarily the case.  Though the company has a physical museum in Hiroshima, Japan, they have also elected to display some of their history online for the rest of the world to see.  The result is a pretty impressive collection of images and information.

Mazda's online presence includes a few different components:  a timeline-style history, several special exhibits and a huge gallery of images and information on past and present cars.  The history section contains a fair amount of information, which is not too overwhelming but can also be a bit dry.  A photograph of some aspect of that time period accompanies each entry.  The special exhibitions are pretty unique - you can learn about the fortieth anniversary of a signature Mazda engine, the company's innovative designs shows of 2006 and 2007, and the design challenge they sponsored six years ago - and by including a number of images and video to explore, they provide a lot of supporting material for these topics.  I especially like that you can sign up to get email alerts about new special exhibits, rather than having to check back frequently to see whether anything has changed.

The best part of this museum, though, is the vast collection of pictures and stats on Mazda's cars.  This
gallery is broken down into four sections - one each devoted to classic cars, concept cars, innovations that the company pioneered and photographic highlights from the company's history.  Images accompany all the entries in each category, along with each car's vital stats and a few paragraphs of information.  I was most interested in looking at the cars, but I can appreciate that the other information provided would really delight a car fanatic.

Putting together everything that is provided online, I think Mazda has done a pretty good job of placing interesting and relevant content in a format that appeals to the virtual visitor.  Sure, the experience of being close to these cars and seeing how they relate to the space around them is not something you can replicate in the virtual world, but realistically very few of us will every make it to Hiroshima.  This really is the next best thing - and believe it or not, the Mazda museum does provide an experience that's almost as good as seeing the cars in person.

The Mazda Museum

Friday, May 17, 2013

More Than Tires and Blimps: The Akron Art Museum's Online Collections

When you think of art museums, you probably don't think of Akron, Ohio.  And when you think of Akron (if you do at all), you might only remember that it's where Goodyear is headquartered.  But I discovered recently that Akron does in fact have an art museum - one with some fairly significant works (like Andy Warhol's silkscreened Elvis) and a rather impressive online presence.

The Online Collections of the Akron Art Musuem contain selected works from fifteen different genres the museum displays, most of which are within the realm of modern art.  There are also currently three sections devoted to new works within the museum, each focusing on a different artist.  Each exhibit contains several dozen pieces, with the museum providing the title and composition for each one along with a brief description that provides information on the artist and locates the work within the context of its movement.  The amount of information provided is really great - the descriptions are engaging, informative, and neither too long nor too jargon-y.  Visitors to the online collections can also view additional, cross-referenced information on each artist as well as share artworks via Facebook or email.

What I like most about these online collections, however, is their sense of both ambition and realism.
According to the online collection's opening page, their goal is to eventually have all the museum's artworks up for display on the internet.  They acknowledge that the physical museum's gallery space constraints allow for "only a fraction"of the objects they hold to be displayed at any one time.  I really admire their willingness to be open with the public about where the majority of their collections spend most of their time while in the museum's ownership, as well as their desire to make the most of the limitlessness an online collection could provide to the public.

In all, I think the Akron Art Museum could be a model for how art museums can make themselves more accessible to a wider audience while also making the entirety of their holdings viewable.  Sure, this museum probably has many fewer objects than many well-known art institutions, but it has a staff of less than thirty.  If they can produce such an impressive online collection, with plans to digitize everything in the hazy future, then surely this level of presentation and information is duplicable for other, more well-resourced organizations.

I look forward to the Akron Art Museum becoming a leader in this field.

The Akron Art Museum's Online Collection

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Papal States: The Vatican Museums Collections Online

With the Pope's resignation looming, now is an interesting time to look at what the Vatican's museums are doing online.  But first - did you know that the Vatican had an extensive museum system?  That was certainly news to me, although I guess that all the wealth and objects they've accumulated (taken?) over the centuries had to go somewhere.  And, considering that this Pope decided to get on Twitter, it makes sense for the Vatican's collections to have an online presence.  Surprisingly, for an institution that is very old and sometimes seems to be stuck in the past, the Vatican's virtual museum is quite impressive.

Unlike the Louvre, whose online museum I've written about previously, the Vatican seems to have given many of its physical collections a home on the web.  There are ten different collections that can be accessed online, and each of these collections is housed among a number of rooms.  Most rooms, in turn, have several different artifacts that can be viewed, which means that in total there are hundreds of objects to look at.  Some of the Vatican's most prominent holdings, like the frescos in the Sistine Chapel, are gathered in a "Not to Be Missed" section.

In addition, each collection, each room and each object is accompanied by text that is informative but not too long-winded (the individual objects also have their curatorial information presented).  This all adds up to a lot of beautiful images and a digestible and interesting amount of information about what and why the Vatican has all these things.

My only quibble with this virtual museum is that it's not so easy to navigate.  I suppose this has to do with how many layers it contains, and how many objects there are to work your way through.  Sometimes, though, it gets a little illogical trying to find your way around - for example, if you click on the "Virtual Visit of This Room" feature that some rooms have, all you get is a tiny, useless floor plan.

All in all, though, this online museum is pretty impressive, especially considering how old-fashioned and hidebound the Vatican often seems.  Although it makes me a little squeamish to think about how these objects were acquired, the fact remains that they are impressive artifacts and highly accessible to web audiences.  I never thought I would say this, but the Vatican seems to be one of the leaders in online museum collections.

The Vatican Museums Online Collections

Sunday, February 10, 2013

French Style: The Louvre Online Tours

The Louvre is lucky.  It's one of the most well-known and recognized museums in the world, and it's probably never hurting for visitors (or funds).  It holds the world's most famous artwork (the Mona Lisa) and it now has two satellite locations:  one in the north of France and one in Abu Dhabi.  Given all these resources and prestige, you would hope that the museum would have a phenomenal online presence, including some sort of virtual experience.  Once again, the Louvre does not disappoint - at least in quality.

The online tours here represent two galleries:  the Rotunda, which displays the museum building's history, and the Egyptian Antiquities wing.  Launching either of these tours brings you to a digital rendering of each section of the building, which you can move around in by mousing over the floor until black arrows appear or by dragging left or right over the screen.  Descriptions of each room appear in a text box below at the bottom of the screen, and although you get only a short paragraph of details, it's just the right length to inform without overwhelming.

If you browse through the items in the galleries, you'll find that some of them show an "i" when you hover over them.  This indicates that you can click on these items to display a more detailed image and some information.  The images quality is excellent, and I'm glad the museum includes curatorial information (like age, composition and dimensions) for these artifacts, although some descriptive text would be appealing to casual visitors.

These two tours are excellent and make good use of technology and the Louvre's resources, so it's puzzling that more isn't on offer.  There are ten other sections of the museum that could also be made into virtual tours.  I'm also not sure why a third tour, of the Galerie d'Apollon, was displayed on the Louvre's website but was not working (the link took me to Google's French website).

These, I suppose, are goals to reach towards - perhaps more tours are being planned for the future.  Given the Louvre's status in the museum world, they have shown an admirable effort to make at least some of their collections available to the wider world.  I hope they can fix some of the flaws in these tours, and I hope someday to be able to experience more of the museum from the comfort of my computer screen.

The Louvre Online Tours

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Faith, Hope and Love: The Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Museum

When we think about the saints of the Catholic Church, we usually imagine mystical figures - like St. George and his dragons - or sadistically tortured adherents such as St. Catherine, who died on a spiked wheel.  Most of these figures lived a long time ago, and it's easy to think that sainthood is a dying tradition.  But in fact, more modern figures are being canonized even up to this day.  One of these newer saints, Elizabeth Ann Seton, is the subject of a small online museum.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has the distinction of being the first native-born American citizen to be granted sainthood.  During her short lifetime she made religious pilgrimages, founded of the first Catholic school in the United States, set up missions to help the poor, and created America's earliest Catholic women's religious order.  She was made a saint in 1975, and her legacy includes three American colleges:  Seton Hall University, Seton Hill University, and the College of St. Elizabeth.

How did I learn all this?  From the museum, which is highly informative without being boring.  Most of the pages contain no more than a few short paragraphs of text with images interspersed.  Rather than present tons of material all at once, the different periods of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's life are broken down into sections and subsections that are well-labeled and easy to navigate.  The result is that you can learn a lot without being overwhelmed.

The only downside to this museum is its size - it's doesn't have very much content, and you can probably view everything in fifteen minutes or less.  There are educational resources offered - specifically, a CD with more information and activities - so you could potentially get more out of the museum.  But I think I'd rather the museum keep its size and its manageable content than expand and lose some of its charm along the way.  This museum just goes to show that it doesn't take mountains of information or flashy graphics to make an interesting virtual museum - just a well-crafted site and interesting material.

The Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Museum

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Science, Science Everywhere: The Museum of Science, Boston's Online Museum

I love science museums.  I work in one, I first got interested in museums while interning in one, and I try to visit as many as I can across the country (and the world).  So when science museums start putting content online and creating digital exhibits, I get pretty excited.  I think informal science education is fantastic, and the more that can be widely shared, the better.  So I'm happy with some of the Museum of Science, Boston's online offerings, but some of it just isn't that interesting.

First, the good.  Prominently featured are videos and audio clips about subjects as varied as NASA, magnetism and nanotechnology, which are good tools to draw curious amateur scientists in.  There are a couple of really interesting exhibits - on Ancient Egypt, nanomedicine and oceans - that do a pretty good job of recreating a museum-going experience online.  Particularly well done are an exhibit about Leaonardo da Vinci, which lays out a lot of information and images in a very approachable form, and a section on scanning electron microscopes, which is pretty bare-bones but absolutely lovely in its presentation.

But these sections are buried deep within the online museum.  The audio and video clips I mentioned above, while enlightening, aren't really what online museums should be focusing on - after all, sitting and watching or listening are pretty passive and minimally engaging activities.  The other featured content includes a pretty boring exhibit on alternative energy (a few pictures of solar cells spread among paragraphs of text isn't all that exciting) and some links that take you to pages about living lab projects going on in the physical museum.  I found these pages very frustrating because they're not at all like exhibits - instead, they read like the websites that universities put up about their various research labs.  There's not much educational content or contextualizing of the project, just profiles of the researchers and progress timelines.

These project websites seem like newer content, and if that's the case I would recommend that the Museum of Science, Boston stick to formats like its older online exhibits.  Pictures from powerful microscopes are incredibly cool, and so are da Vinci's sketches and games that let you act as a cancer doctor.  Interspersed that with some media clips and you've got a pretty good online science museum.

Museum of Science, Boston's Online Museum

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Walk in the Park: California State Parks' Online Museum Collections

As I've mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of federal and state land programs.  I grew up going to many national parks for vacations, and I'm now lucky to live in an area with many beautiful state parks and forests nearby.  In recent years, many of these administered lands have begun to create exhibits and programs to accompany their natural splendor, and some are even creating online museums.  That's exactly what the California State Parks system has done, and while it's a noble endeavor, it's execution leaves much to be desired.

These online collections consist of images arranged by category, and the array of topics is pretty impressive.  You can view nature photographs, images of historic structures, immigration documents, paintings, advertising materials, and landscapes, among many other objects.  The most fascinating are the certificates that Chinese workers presented upon their arrival to California - you can view twelve of these papers in detailed images.  Also interesting - assuming you're into the lives of the American elite - are artifacts from Hearst Castle.

Unfortunately, there's not much to these collections beyond images.  Few of the images contain meaningful descriptions to provide context for the objects or artwork - most simply communicate what the objects look like and what their dimensions are - and a good number have no explanation at all.  The only collection categories that had interesting texts accompanying their objects were Architect Julia Morgan:  A Blueprint for Success and Treasurers from a Pioneer Family.  I suppose that the information provided is sufficient for a researcher, but for a general audience most of the collections fall flat.

It's too bad, because as the land administration system for the most populous state, the California State Parks department could surely provide a lot of fascinating content.  There are some interesting subjects on display here and I believe a greater depth of information could really draw online visitors in.  As it stands now, though, I can't see these virtual collections really adding anything to the park experience.

California State Parks' Online Museum Collections