Lessons Learned: Case Studies The Evolution of a Museum Web Site
by Ryan Deussing

Abstract: The Museum of Modern Art Web site was first created as a result of curatorial initiative and has continued to develop organically, in close association with the programs, collections, and exhibitions of the institution. Over time, the success and popularity of the site has seen the system of close inter-departmental collaboration that gave rise to the project evolve into a distinct Department of New Media within the Museum.


The New York Museum of Modern Art's first presence on the World Wide Web was in the spring of 1995, when an online project was created to coincide with the exhibition Mutant Materials. Spearheaded by curator Paola Antonelli and Greg Van Alstyne of the Department of Graphic Design, this first step into cyberspace pointed to the tremendous potential of the Web as a medium of both art and communication and immediately caught the attention of other museum staff. MoMA's Director, Glenn Lowry, had already created a committee (known as the Internet Task Force) to investigate the potential of the new medium and develop strategies to foster online projects. The success of the Mutant Materials pilot project (and two others spawned in its wake) left the Internet Task Force with a strong interest in developing a MoMA "home page" to serve as a framework for future projects and to represent the museum in general.

MOMA Website logo

Soon thereafter Mr. Van Alstyne created a beta-version of the MoMA Web site to serve as a proof-of-concept, illustrating the way in which MoMA could establish a permanent online presence. Van Alstyne, together with MoMA magazine editor Kate Norment, proposed that the museum embrace the potential of the Web and make a groundbreaking effort toward integrating it into the institution's existing programs. To this end, they surveyed other museum sites on the Web and made notes of what to pursue and what to avoid. Above all, they wanted to create a Web presence that was as distinguished and as rewarding as the museum itself.

"There is a nexus of reasons for us to take an exemplary stance in this area," explains Van Alstyne. "It's in line with the museum's history to champion new media." One of his suggestions early on was that the museum maintains control of the creative direction of the site, as opposed to farming the project out to an outside agency. In this way, the museum is able to ensure that its presence on the Web is truly an extension of the institution and not just a signpost on the information superhighway. As a designer, Van Alstyne also expressed an interest in maintaining a degree of aesthetic integrity on the Web befitting a museum of contemporary art. His concept was to take art and design theory and apply it to the Internet. "Modernist tenets about design and communication apply to the Web superbly," he explains. "Form follows function, less is moreÑthat's even sort of a haiku on compression."


While originally under the Deputy Director for Marketing and Communications, who oversees the Museum's Design Department, no particular department dominated the Web site project. As a result, a system of close cooperation developed that allowed interested and self-motivated staff from different departments to collaborate. "Letting the Web site grow organically proved empowering for the middle of the institution," explains Patterson Sims, Deputy Director for Education and Research Support, under whose auspices has operated since 1997. "This was a great challenge and opportunity for younger museum staff. It allowed people who aren't necessarily department heads and chief curators to contribute significantly."

In April of 1996, in collaboration with OVEN Digital, a new media firm that handles HTML coding and design consulting, the museum site went "live" at Though relatively simple, this first public version of the site (produced for the relatively small sum of $10,000) was carefully structured to serve as a foundation for subsequent developments. "We couldn't just start out as the best museum site on the Web," explains Sims. "We didn't have dedicated staff or resources, but there was a point where it was simply necessary to make it happen, to start the process."

In early 1997 the site was augmented with categories for Publications, Education, and Membership and committees were established to pool information and resources. The site continued to grow -- both in size and popularity, through the enthusiasm and initiative of Elaine Cohen, Coordinator of Education Technology, and more recently Andrea Buzyn, who joined the group full-time as Assistant Editor, New Media. Soon a New Media Editorial Board was established to administer online projects in collaboration with the Web Planning and Priorities Committee, which assists the Web site staff with everything from funding to technology initiatives.

At this point the museum's Department of Marketing and Communications, charged with oversight of the Web, asked Mr. Sims (who from the beginning had supported and contributed to the project's development) to take over the site's direction. "My involvement is very hands-on," he explains. "In time the process of developing and maintaining the site has become much more formal by necessity." As overseeing the site became a more complex affair, a system of weekly meetings was established to facilitate communication and planning. "The group communicates a lot via e-mail and telephone but we've found that face-to-face meetings are invaluable and getting the team in adjacent offices was crucial," says Sims.

Detail from MOMA website menu page

Outside of the core group involved with the site's planning, the Web site became increasingly popular with curators, who started to see how they might benefit from the Web's potential. "At first we faced a bit of indifference," recalls Van Alstyne. "But this gave way to a natural process of conversion, as people learned how the Web works and saw what it might do for them." Curators gradually began to view the Web as a tool for both art and education.

One of the first successful online projects was Peter Halley's Exploding Cell [], created in conjunction with his 1997 exhibit. The project consists of nine digital images that users can manipulate to create their own online print, which they can co-sign and output from their computer. "That project began as a kiosk, but when we realized it could be viewed on the Web we made it available and people loved it -- and then we were hooked," recalls Prints and Illustrated Books Chief Curator Deborah Wye. Wye is fortunate to have a Department staff member, Charles Carrico, who has Web programming experience. However, today the interest in pursuing Web projects within the museum exceeds the current staff's ability carry to them out (not to mention the funding necessary to develop them).

To better handle the demand, a system was developed to categorize individual online projects according to size. Projects are labeled S, M, L, and XL according to the amount of graphics, programming, and original content they require. "These criteria are immensely helpful," explains Van Alstyne. "They offer an administrative advantage in planning new projects, because they allow us to easily describe their scope with reference to previous work." Site maintenance and growth, including server-specific tasks, design consulting, and page building, are handled by OVEN Digital on a monthly retainer basis. Certain projects -- such as Barbara London, Associate Curator, Department of Film and Video's InterNyet [] have been created in collaboration with online art sites, including a¨da'web, Rhizome, and Stadium@DIA. Some have been realized by outside Web designers/programmers, including the artist Vivian Selbo.


The planning and maintenance of the Web site represents a tremendous and unique administrative task. "This has brought about a paradigm shift in terms of how the museum functions administratively," comments Sims. "The idea that administrators play roles that are important and on par with curators is very new for the museum." Still, the MoMA Web site benefits from a unique degree of cooperation between museum curators, administrators, and department directors. Weekly meetings remain open to museum staff and there is an open-door policy with regard to proposals. "Of course that doesn't mean 'anything goes'," says Van Alstyne. "But it's important to respond to enthusiasm and vitality."

In July of 1998 a distinct department of New Media was created to oversee the museum's Web site and online projects. Though still in its early stages, the department has its own budget and a dedicated staff led by Design Manager Van Alstyne and Marketing Manager Karin Olander. While one of the department's goals is to develop a digital studio, where work on the Web would be accomplished alongside other creative operations, a more immediate challenge is to create a revenue stream from new media activity.


In October of 1998 the museum launched the MoMA Online Store, offering 225 products drawn from the MoMA Design Store. To develop this e-commerce venture, MoMA enlisted the services of an independent Web development firm specializing in online retail. Using outside developers for high-end programming and database tasks allows the museum to keep pace with the latest advancements in software and Web applications. "The Web moves at the speed of light. Museums do not," explains Van Alstyne.

While the MoMA Online Store has been a great success, it represents only one form of revenue that can be generated by the Web site. "Our plan is to generate different kinds of direct revenue through the Web," explains Karin Olander,'s Marketing Manager, who works closely with Elizabeth Addison, Deputy Director for Communications and Marketing. "MoMA will never sell art, but we may sell access to art information and art that can be online, though not necessarily soon." A system of tiered subscriptions, for example, might make certain online art projects available only to subscribers. "I think several different subscription schemes might work for MoMA," continues Olander. "But MoMA is a world famous museum. Most institutions will have to focus on creating a strong presence and brand identity before charging users for information or access." But of course the fact that everyone knows what MoMA is doesn't mean they visit the museum's Web site; the Museum has plans to highlight in advertisements in order to drive traffic to the site. "Fifty percent of your budget should go toward marketing what you've created," explains Olander. 'Build it and they will come' just doesn't apply to the Web. The MoMA Online Store has been featured in ads in the New York Times, and online banner ads are being produced with a new media agency.


One great result of the cooperative effort behind is that the site succeeds in being many things to many people. The museum uses the site as a public relations tool, an online gallery, a research and education tool, and even as an online storefront. This remarkable coordination of agendas can be attributed to the fact that the site grew organically, responding to interests and needs from different individuals and departments, as opposed to being developed "on assignment." "The site was born out of curatorial initiative and not out of some desire to advertise ourselves on the Internet," explains Architecture and Design Curator Paola Antonelli. "That has worked to our advantage from the very beginning." As a result, MoMA's online presence (which now gets over 2 million viewers annually -- more than number of visitors to the museum itself) retains the "feel" of the museum while facilitating new projects and ways of presenting art to the public.


Never let online information go stale; nothing lowers respect for the site faster.

Allow the energy of the museum's staff and visitors to energize the site, as a dynamic, cybernetic system, through their enthusiasm for the collection, exhibitions and programs.

Establish goals and objectives that will make your site reflect the mission, look/design, style, and aura of your physical site and actual programs.

Prepare to add specialist and new staff regularly; it only works if you have staff dedicated to the Web.

The medium is additive; start where you can and evolve; no one starts with the perfect or even a very good site, but you must launch with what you can.

Seek submissions from all staff; quiet techies and Web savvy people will emerge from unexpected places in your organization.

Modernist theory isn't just for college -- many tenets apply very well to the Web and to information architecture.


Ryan Deussing ( writes for the Village Voice, the Independent, Filmmaker, IndieWIRE, and RES magazine.


Siegel, David. Secrets of Successful Web Sites: Project Management on the World Wide Web (Hayden 1997).

Tufte, Edward. Visual Explanations (Cheshire, CT, Graphics Press, 1997).

Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1948 and 1961).

Internet World news weekly (Mecklermedia):

New Media magazine (HyperMedia Communications):

Virtual Library [museums pages] (VLmp):


Greg Van Alstyne (
Patterson Sims (

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