I started writing this post intending to look at some big-hitting art gallery websites and pick out best practice.
The aim was to turn you content marketers green by showing you websites for juicy organisations whose very ethos has always been content, form, learning, information, and which are now trying to adapt and evolve to make some money, too (outside of entry fees and patronage).
You can see this as the exact reversal of, for example, a marketing agency, which stereotypically has always been trying to sell through its website and is now getting its collective head around the idea of information, learning and content as the very top of the sales funnel.
So, I’ll give honourable mention to a couple of big galleries, and then move on to the meat of the post, which has been hijacked by my enthusiasm for Tate.org.uk, a website mottled with the sublime.
Let’s start at the beginning with the grand old institution of The Royal Academy. It’s a little unfair including it alongside Tate and the National Gallery, as it’s a private and independent institution, with fewer resources at its disposal.
Nevertheless, its website should be applauded for a range of content from articles from its monthly print mag, to video, podcasts and learning resources; all quite forward-thinking for an organisation that many have tried to drag into the modern age. There’s some interesting stuff on its collections sister site, too, although this is somewhat of a time-sink (in good and bad ways), being difficult to navigate but ultimately yielding dense content for the art buff.
The navigation is one of the main negatives about the RA site proper. It has to be said that the navigation in the sidebar is not currently fine enough to allow confident browsing of the site. Despite the breadcrumb trail, it’s easy to get a bit lost, and only the Online Shop link in the sidebar yields a page with a new sidebar for finer navigation (obviously a priority, to increase online sales).
It all feels a bit like navigating through an old Encarta CD, and although it works fine, it doesn’t lend itself to discovery like the Tate or the National Gallery do (later).
You can see in the example below, I'm two levels down into the 'Learning' section, and I've found 'Events for Visitors with Limited Mobility', but there were no clues to help me find this, unless I want to use the search bar.
This website is still useful, and to some extent enjoyable, and it's understandably less diverse than Tate and National Gallery, given the context of the RA’s smaller exhibition space, and the fact that most of its marketing revolves around the temporary shows that dominate Burlington House.
The National Gallery’s homepage was found to be non-pareil when it comes to trying to recreate the serendipity of strolling round a decent picture gallery, with its boldly placed ‘Painting of the Month’ and ’30 Must-See Paintings’ a great accompaniment to walking round the gallery proper.
The site as a whole is a large stride ahead of the RA. Below you can see the navigation issue neatly solved in the sidebar, so I’m more comfortable with ‘getting lost’ (in that I don’t really). There’s also a constant top ‘pane’, a little ball of cotton.
In fact, the National could be said to have ticked all of the boxes. The collection can be searched and sorted, this way and that, with the cute addition of a ‘take a chance’ button.
Props here go to Hans Von Aachen for obviously predicting, from 16th century Holland, that two ‘a’s would land himself at the top of the National Gallery collection.
Selecting an artist reveals powerful little shop windows next to each artist biog, displaying relevant products available to buy, elevated above the ‘other relevant paintings’ section, which sits at the bottom of the page.
Checking out the National Gallery ‘Channel’, as well as the ‘Learning’ section reveals great endeavour with content online, but it’s not until you look at Tate.org.uk, which undoubtedly will continue to transform, that you see the true potential of a website.
Tate.org.uk is showing everybody else what a website means in the context of museums, art, communities of students and enthusiasts; simply in the context of ‘bringing everything and everyone together’, allowing users to generate content, as well as comment on collections, and even repurpose content.
As you can see from page three of the Tate’s funding agreement, unique visitors to the Tate website is one of the performance indicators that the government monitors to inform allocation of funding.
I would imagine this to be the case with most government funded galleries, and it gives a direct correlation between £s and web visitors that perhaps allows Tate to focus strongly on interaction and learning through the website, rather than using the website as simply a showcase for a physical collection of art and buildings.
I’m being disingenuous; it’s not government funding that has given Tate license to develop these great features, rather a wholehearted commitment by the organisation itself. Tate.org.uk was relaunched this year and the evolution of Tate Online has been carefully planned from 2010-2012. Digital is seemingly at the fore of development and change, with Tate’s online strategy readily available online.
It’s a surprisingly good read (honestly), and includes frank admissions about the need for change, as it was in 2010, at one point describing the old Tate.org as a ‘relatively flat, even monolithic and impervious, website’. About as humbling (and poetic) as a mission statement for a website could be.
The statement includes ‘ten principles for Tate Online’, which should be a go-to document for all Heads of Online for heritage or museum websites, and also further afield. Particular highlights, for me, include:
2.5 All webpages are the start of a range of possible user journeys
The majority of online visitors enter the site at a deep page, from a search engine or other incoming link. Each page must therefore simultaneously stand alone, make its context clear through navigation, and offer links to closely related content.
2.6 Content owners manage their content
The management of web content will be distributed around the organisation, supported by updated back office systems, training and changes to staff responsibilities. The skills to author web content and to engage directly with online audiences must be distributed throughout the organisation.
What is Tate doing that represents best practice in digital?
I’ve added some screenshots below, though it must be said that most of this stuff is true enough to Tate’s aim of interactivity that visiting the site is the only way to get an idea of how these parts of the site work.
Tate Collectives is an online community for young creatives and gives the chance to upload one’s own artwork and create a profile and gallery space. Here’s a snapshot:
Work is showcased and also added to community groups, for work that runs along similar themes. At time of writing, 1703 people were signed up to add their work to Collectives. Events are listed and curated on the microsite, too, across all Tate locations.
Collectives includes some content that should inspire website owners and marketers to think laterally about the breadth of their user base and provide useful resources from a number of different angles.
Here’s a great example, the Tate Collectives offering 'exam help' to revising students, including past papers:
i-Map is a resource for visually impaired people. Here one can download audio treatments of various works of art, as well as images that can be printed onto swell paper, and with the aid of a heat fusing machine, will provide raised images to accompany the audio. Top marks for accessibility.
Tate Kids – another micro site, like 'collectives' –check it out; lots of fun, with branding different enough to warrant another site. In fact, the branding across Tates locations and microsites is expertly done, consistent, but inflected enough to offer depth in line with the size of the website.
To return to the topic of site architecture and navigation/filtering, how’s this for search and sort, on the collections page..(see below; is that a dig at Damien Hirst?)
Once you select a work, a lovely art phylogeny shows up below it, to let you know what you’re looking at, context-wise.
Interestingly I couldn’t find any selling of merchandise on the artist and artwork pages, though there are discrete links to ‘license this image’, below a selected work.
I suspect that this is because the online shop is so good, a microsite, but always present in navigation; this precludes the ROI of plastering £ signs over the rest of the site.
The online resources page gives a masterclass in filters and navigation. Check the long-arse sidebar..
And finally, perhaps the most impressive part, the ‘Context and Comment’ section; already densely populated. No fewer than 14 mobile apps already and thousands of videos, audio recordings and articles, with the emphasis on registering and commenting.
That’s enough blabbing – I guess this piece was a bit of an homage and is a little bit sickening, plus a bit pointless (all in a day's work), seeing as you could all just navigate to the Tate website.
Ho hum, etc, but the fairly shocking point stands that once I engaged with the website, I quickly found I spend far more time on the site than I do in the galleries themselves. Perhaps some of the bourgeois will argue that’s not a great thing, but I’d say it’s unique (for now), timely, accessible and a joy.