ArtScope at SFMOMA

John Norman john at
Tue May 12 11:28:01 UTC 2009

I don't normally appreciate people sending things to lists without  
checking them out, but I really don't have time right now and if I  
don't capture it I might lose it. So feel free to ignore if it is not  

SFMOMA's ArtScope Offers New Way To Browse Museum Collections
   by Doug McLean <doug_mclean at>
At a functional level, visiting an art museum is not so different from  
going to a Blockbuster video store (considering the rise of Netflix  
and Internet video, the two probably have similar attendance levels  
these days). For the most part, the objects in both are collected and  
categorized. In a movie store you have aisles for Action, Horror,  
Comedy, and so on. Art museums use similar schemes - wings for Flemish  
Paintings from the 1600s, Etruscan Sculpture, and Japanese Works on  
Paper. Even in sections that appear jumbled, there's usually some  
rhyme or reason - New Releases or Staff Recommendations in the movie  
store, and Recent Acquisitions or Works from the Rubell Collection in  
the art museum. The goal of the organizational clarity is similar in  
both cases - it makes it easy to find what you're looking for, and  
once you've found whatever that is, to find more of the same.

Most art museums have taken a traditional approach to the development  
of their online presence, transplanting their real-world organization  
to the Web. Take, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New  
York, whose Web site, while offering a searchable database, focuses on  
giving each curatorial department its own page. The Web site for the  
Louvre in Paris has a feature that furthers the effort to preserve the  
real-world feeling of the museum by enabling users to navigate 3D  
virtual spaces that replicate its rooms and exhibitions. While there's  
nothing wrong with maintaining these sorts of groupings, the  
digitizing of a collection opens the door to many other possibilities.  
(For some now-historical musings on museums in the digital world, see  
Brad DeLong's "Ontological Breakdown, or, Pretending to be a Help  
System," 1995-08-21.)

Peering into the ArtScope -- The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's  
ArtScope is a great example of an innovative approach to bringing a  
museum's collection to the Web. ArtScope is a visual browsing tool  
comprised of a thumbnail grid displaying 3,500 works from the SFMOMA's  
permanent collection. The grid is zoomable, displaying a lens which  
can be moved over it to magnify certain areas, enabling users to view  
hundreds of artworks simultaneously, or just one at a time in close  

[View image]

When you launch ArtScope, a set of controls and a search box are  
visible to the right hand side of the window. The controls help you  
zoom in and out, or zoom all the way out, though it's easier to double- 
click inside the lens to zoom in, and to double-click outside the lens  
to zoom out. You can also grab the grid and drag to move it around,  
exactly as you can with a map in Google Maps. Unfortunately, ArtScope  
doesn't support trackpad gestures or the scroll wheel for zooming, and  
the incremental zooming via double-clicking is tedious.

[View image]

More interestingly, ArtScope also provides a search tool, and below it  
a pane displaying information about the artwork at the center of the  
lens (the artwork information is displayed even if you are fully  
zoomed out). You can type anything into the search field: artist name,  
title, date, medium, keywords, etc. If any results match your search  
phrase, ArtScope moves the lens (maintaining the same level of zoom)  
to the first match. If more than one result exists for your term, a  
navigation bar displays the number of the result you are currently  
viewing, the total number of results, and arrow buttons that enable  
you to jump to the other matches within the grid. It's fun typing in a  
term like "1970" or "Acrylic on canvas", and then flying around the  
grid via the arrow keys to view all the results in their scattered  

Browsing the Hard Rock Memorabilia Collection -- ArtScope finds a  
kindred spirit in the Hard Rock Cafe's Memorabilia site, which has a  
similar visual interface, and, in some ways, a better one for browsing  
through the company's collection of popular music artifacts. The  
controls and navigation are more along the lines of what I'd like to  
see brought to ArtScope. The Hard Rock Memorabilia tool has grab-and- 
drag navigation like SFMOMA's, but with an Apple-like design touch.  
The drag has a little inertia to it, which gives the navigation a  
natural and physical feel. That sense of inertia also carries over to  
the zoom, which supports trackpad and scroll wheel zooming - a much  
faster and more efficient way to zoom in and out. Zooming in ArtScope  
magnifies the circumscribed area of the lens, but also magnifies the  
background to a slightly lesser degree. Visually it's a bit cluttered,  
and upon using the unified-page-zoom on the Hard Rock site, the lens  
feels unnecessary.

[View image]

However, ArtScope is resizable and can take advantage of larger  
screens, while the Hard Rock Memorabilia tool maintains a fixed window  
size on all monitors. This becomes an issue with the latter's  
information pane, which, while slick in how it pops up at a certain  
degree of magnification, takes up prime real estate in the limited  
window area, occasionally blocking the object you're trying to view.  
Another strike against Hard Rock's more attractive information pane is  
that there are instances when you'd want to be able to view the item's  
information while zoomed out, as you can with ArtScope. Yet the  
largest problem with the Hard Rock Memorabilia tool is its slow load  
times. Zooming in almost always results in a blurry pixelated image  
that takes far too long to resolve into crisp detail. While you can  
zoom in quite close, the delay ensures you won't bother. In  
comparison, ArtScope zooms crisply and quickly.

Lastly, unlike ArtScope, the Hard Rock Memorabilia tool lacks any  
search tool and instead provides categories for breaking the  
collection into chunks. ArtScope's approach here is far more effective  
and engaging, since it eliminates the traditional top-down  
establishment of categories, instead enabling users to create their  
own collections via the search tool.

Rethinking the Online Museum -- Despite my gripes about ArtScope's  
zooming, I still think it's a brilliant step toward answering the  
question of how museums can offer an online experience that goes  
beyond what's possible in the physical world. Nothing can replace the  
experience of seeing art in person, but since many people will never  
have the opportunity to stand face to face with even the most  
significant works of art, it's essential that we explore different  
ways of viewing these things on a computer screen. ArtScope encourages  
wandering, free associations, odd connections, and a playful  
engagement with a group of objects often perceived to be weighty and  
untouchable. The virtual Prado Museum in Google Earth offers another  
approach, though one that lends itself more to deep exploration of a  
very few works rather than any sort of synthesis of an entire museum's  
collection (see "Google Earth's Virtual Prado Museum," 2009-01-28).

In sum, ArtScope produces an experience you simply cannot achieve in a  
physical setting, and proposes a new model for looking at art. It  
seizes upon the scalability of digital reproduction to enable new  
juxtapositions - a large sarcophagus and a tiny drawing can be viewed  
as identically sized images side by side, and we can sift through a  
collection almost as though we're thumbing through a deck of cards. I  
applaud the SFMOMA for approaching their Web site with a sense of  
inventiveness, and hope to see more museums consider their  
relationship to the Internet with an appreciation for what the digital  
dimension can offer, and for what possibilities remain unexplored.

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