Finally: A new website for SMK

SMK.DK: On 15 August 2018 SMK gets a new website. Here are some of our modest thoughts behind it.

The websites of museums — and most other institutions — are strange beasts. On the one hand, our audience simply expect them to exist and to work and to serve their needs. Apart from those (crucial) concerns, they obviously care very little about organizational strategy, editing privileges, design trade-offs or indeed the affordances of your particular CMS.

On the other hand an institutional website of any size is the inevitable source of deep internal discussion, painful compromise and quite a bit of organizational soul-searching. Who are we? What is most important for us? Who is the audience we mostly want to speak to?

In other words: Websites are really hard, and demand for them is very indirect.

Which is not at all to say that they don’t matter. SMK has around 1000 physical visitors and around 2000 website visits per day. 36% arrive through the front page and many check out what’s on offer and scroll through details of entrance fees, opening hours etc. What they see inform their decision whether to go or to opt for one of Copenhagen’s many alternatives. Thus, unsurprisingly, a key function of museum websites is to inform and attract.

Websites can do something else. An optional and by no means universal objective is to use the website to achieve the museum’s core goal itself, i.e. to provide experiences and to educate. To be, if you will, another interface to the collection and related resources.

Interestingly, the general ambition to use the website to extend the museum experience seems to have waned in recent years for many museums. With very notable exceptions we are re-entering the age of the business card museum website: Here are the opening hours, come visit us soon. Explanations for this shift are manifold but one very obvious and indeed honorable reason is the rise of platforms with far more impressive reach such as social media or Wikipedia. It makes simple, practical sense for many to keep the website pragmatically nimble and to let the collection enjoy enthusiastic visibility on your Facebook page (as long as your collection is respectable and non-nude, of course).

Art on Facebook. Often works well, leading many museums to downplay the collection on their own websites.

At SMK we want to inform and attract. But we also want to broaden the accessibility and use of the collection as widely as possible. First of all, our collection contains 260.000 works of which less than 1% can be on physical display at the same time. Secondly, we’re the Danish national gallery and have an obvious obligation to make the collection as relevant and accessible as possible to all Danes, no matter how far they live from Copenhagen.

In the following, I’ll explain some of the practicalities of how we plan to meet this grand ambition. But first, a bit of historical and technical context.

The former website

The former (i.e. pre 15 August 2018) website was launched in 2010 on the TYPO3 CMS platform. It was highly ambitious and involved a wide range of staff members in content production. It allowed the user to search the collection database, although with a modest number of images in fairly low resolution. Though complex in its information architecture (and extremely complex in terms of backend user-experience) it was technically simple as it did not integrate with other systems (beyond search in the collection database) — i.e. there was no webshop, no online ticket sales, no automatic update of staff details, no direct booking of tours etc. A modest number of later revisions included social media sharing features (later removed), improved collection search and a mobile version of certain content types.

The former website — from 2010

In 2018 we’ve had the mobile revolution and its dramatically wide-ranging implications for digital design. From this perspective our former website looks like something of a relic.

  • The design is non-responsive. Having been designed in 2009 the site has never heard of the wonders of responsive webdesign which adapts all design elements to all relevant screen types.
  • Everything is just so small. Not un-typically for its time, it tries to fit everything on the user’s screen. It also uses a large automatic slider to push even more content above the screen “fold”.
  • It is quite nonsocial. Content does not share well on social media due to inconsistent markup and lack of meta-tags.
Content page from the former website

All these things are deal-breakers. But equally important, the site’s tall ambitions are laid squarely on the shoulders of human editors.

The idea here is that human beings would spend a tremendous amount of time editing a wide range of widgets, news items, lists, blogs and other contents while the CMS itself would be relatively unhelpful.

Thus, in hindsight, perhaps the biggest problem of the website has been its over-reliance on manual labour and its under-reliance on all the things a computer can actually do if the content model is carefully thought out.

Hindsight is such a powerful thing.

The new website

The new website springs into existence under the auspices of the SMK Open project, supported by Nordea-fonden. Briefly, the project aims to make the SMK collection digitally accessible, relevant, and useful to as many people as possible. Access comes in two parts: Human-readability and machine-readability. Human-readability means the website while machine-readability means our API, of which more in later posts. The website is the museum’s best attempt at a general, digital, visual interface to everything we have and as such it is a key component in our digital strategy.

Front page of the new website

This new wondrous thing is introduced in two stages. The first stage, launching now, rethinks SMK’s digital design (our visual identity has not been systematically digitized before) and our content. It divides SMK content into:

  • Content pages (e.g. “The history of SMK”)
  • Exhibition pages
  • Events
  • Artworks
  • Staff members (which are content items and can therefore be used across other pages)

Each content item is assigned a number of categories (defining the general topic, e.g. “Conservation”) and a number of tags (defining specifics, e.g. “Henri Matisse”). This taxonomy then helps us generate dynamic lists and collections of content across the site.

“Current exhibitions” on new website. The page consists of automatically generated full-screen links to other pages.

In terms of process, defining a start date is always somewhat arbitrary. But actual planning started when we teamed up with digital agency 1508 almost exactly one year ago. Working from our quite flexible specifications, 1508 has provided UX, design and the actual development and led us through workshops and continuous demos and discussion. We have been heavily involved and have provided continuous feedback at almost every level.

One rare nearly set-in-stone decision was our choice of Wordpress as CMS. Although any choice of CMS comes with strings attached, we strongly feel that Wordpress is appropriate for us. While, our desire for complex use of content items across the site might seem to point to systems with more powerful data models, the accessibility of the Wordpress backend and the fact that it is virtually a Danish museum standard (meaning very little need for staff training) are much more important to us. Notably, though, our implementation is “headless”, meaning that we are using Wordpress more as a data repository than a front-end-generator.

IIIF and the SMK taxonomy

The website does two things that are not immediately apparent, but that are important building blocks for our future work.

Firstly, it implements a connection to our asset management system, allowing us to implement a IIIF viewer for large reproductions of artworks. The IIIF standard is quickly becoming a popular way to display and share images across cultural institutions and we are quite thrilled to start down this path. For the user, it means the ability to zoom easily and quickly into artworks using the tiling logic, known from Google Maps, where you dynamically load only the part of the image that you need to see, and not the entire, enormous world map. For scholars, this also means the ability to display images from different institutions simultaneously for comparison and analysis.

IIIF viewer showing details of an Anna Ancher paniting.

Secondly, Wordpress will function as our “taxonomy hub”. It will make the tag taxonomy available to other systems, thus allowing us to use it across all our platforms and thereby tie all our disparate content elements together. Ideally, when you see a piece of SMK content online in the future it will be automatically related to all other relevant pieces of content (videos, audio, research articles, images, blog entries…). This will be revolutionarily different from the current situation where finding those links can resemble detective work.

Level one completed, get ready for level two

I mentioned that the website is stage one. Stage two (hopefully launching about a year from now) will present the collection in its full, interrelated, high-res glory. We are already hard at work figuring out how to best display everything — thankfully the #musetech community has shared many inspiring thoughts over the years that we’ll greedily draw upon.

Get in touch!

We heartily invite you to check out our new website. As you can imagine our list of bugs and ideas for improvement is already awe-inspiring, but we do genuinely welcome all sorts of feedback. In particular we’d love to know: Is this a place you feel like exploring (physically or digitally)? And how can we make everything even more inviting, interesting and useful for you. Thanks for clicking.