A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: AFF611A – Practicum

Helping IMMA Plan for the Future

This term, as part of the MA program, I am completing a practicum with IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The practicum provides me with hands-on, real-world experience working on a digital humanities project and helps the host institution find solutions to a unique problem or challenge.

Introduction

As my Bringing Irish Artists Closer practicum with IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art) enters its final month, my focus has shifted to center on the web-based application prototype. While the prototype for this project is initially intended to complement the Gerda Frömel exhibition by presenting information and context on Frömel and her art, it also needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate future artists featured in the series. As a result, many of my conversations with IMMA supervisor Aoife Flynn and exhibition curator Sean Kissane have carefully considered the need to plan for the future and preserve the prototype’s structure and foundation for the exhibitions still to come.

Of course, it can be challenging to envision all possible future scenarios when designing and creating a website prototype, but keeping the expected uses of the prototype in mind can be helpful in guiding the decision-making process. The future of the web application was foremost in my mind when I opted to create the prototype using the WordPress platform. In addition to being a platform with which I am already familiar and proficient, WordPress is free and open-source, with both blogging and content management tools. Most importantly, however, since the project’s timeline and scope didn’t allow for building the prototype from scratch, WordPress offers specific options that will help ensure the application’s preservation.

Migration

IMMA website IMMA’s current website, in terms of both design and content management system (CMS), is more than ten years old. According to Aoife Flynn, IMMA’s Public Relations Executive, the result is a website that “is not extendable and has become costly to use” and update (“Re-Imagining IMMA Online”). Accordingly, IMMA is in the process of planning and designing a new website, with the goal of launching it within the next few years, and therefore it was not practicable or possible to use IMMA’s CMS for this practicum project. WordPress has an extensive library of site themes, which offer opportunities to create a prototype with a clean, streamlined design and structure that can easily adjust to and merge with IMMA’s new website when it does debut.

Such a merger is possible because of WordPress’ functionality and the ease with which a website or blog can migrate to another domain or server. For the purposes of this practicum, the prototype will be created on WordPress’ “.com” platform, with access shared between myself and IMMA. WordPress will fully and freely host this initial version of the prototype until the new main website is live. At that time, WordPress’ capabilities will provide IMMA with several options. The museum’s staff might choose to change the prototype’s URL, directing it towards IMMA’s new website, while leaving the content and structure in place, or IMMA might choose to export the entire prototype in XML format for implementation on IMMA’s new content management system. Both options preserve the original content of the application prototype while giving IMMA the greatest amount of flexibility in deciding how to incorporate the application with its new web presence.

Private Pages

Another key consideration for the future of the IMMA prototype is designing and creating an application versatile enough to accommodate multiple artists. Though the initial prototype will focus on Gerda Frömel, it is IMMA’s intention to use the digital application for the whole of the Modern Masters Series, which will feature a variety of artists. As one might expect, each artist has his or her own influences, affinities, media and practices. Throughout her career, for example, Frömel studied metalwork and sculpture, created devotional objects for Christian churches (such as stained-glass windows), exhibited both small-scale bronze castings and pencil drawings, and designed and produced a large, stainless steel public sculpture on commission. In contrast, Irish artist Patrick Hennessy focused solely on painting still life, landscapes and portraits, while Barrie Cooke was an abstract expressionist painter who also created mixed media pieces.

Given the wide diversity and variety of contemporary artists in Ireland, it would be quite difficult to create a “one-size-fits-all” application. Instead, in consultation with Aoife and Sean, I’ve structured the prototype with a few high-level categories that can then be divided further into sub-categories more specific to each artist. In order to maintain the clean, streamlined design and navigation, these sub-categories will be constructed as private pages in WordPress.

Page VisibilityOne of the benefits of a web-based application comes from (relatively) unlimited real estate on the Internet. WordPress allows users to create as many pages as needed and, most importantly for this project, WordPress offers the option of setting pages as “private.” Private pages do not show up on a website or application’s navigation menu, in RSS feeds or in search engine results. These pages are only accessible through the administrative console, by site editors and administrators. Thus, the WordPress prototype can host multiple pages representing the various sub-categories for each individual artist in the Modern Masters Series. These pages can then be turned “on” or “off” depending on IMMA’s needs for the application at any given time. The overall structure of the prototype will remain the same, but IMMA will retain maximum flexibility over its content, allowing the museum to use the application beyond its initial intended implementation.

Conclusion

In creating a digital resource for IMMA and its Modern Masters Series, I have given careful consideration of the future needs and uses of the application, particularly when choosing a web-publishing platform with which to build the prototype. With the planned new website and a diverse range of artists featured in the series offering unique challenges, WordPress provides appropriate options and solutions to IMMA’s needs. The result will be an application with built-in flexibility to ensure the continued use of a valuable digital art resource.


Works Referenced:

Flynn, Aoife. Reimagining IMMA Online. Dissertation. Trinity College Dublin, 2014. Print.

IMMA. Irish Museum of Modern Art. Web. 6 April 2015.

“Page Visibility.” WordPress Support. WordPress, n.d. Web. 6 April 2015.

“WordPress.com and WordPress.org.” WordPress Support. WordPress, n.d. Web. 6 April 2015.

Digital Engagement with Irish Artists

This term, as part of the MA program, I am completing a practicum with IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The practicum provides me with hands-on, real-world experience working on a digital humanities project and helps the host institution find solutions to a unique problem or challenge.  

Introduction to IMMA

IMMA English logoIMMA – the Irish Museum of Modern Art – is Ireland’s premier modern art institution, and is home to the nation’s collection of modern and contemporary art. Established by the government of Ireland in 1990, IMMA opened in 1991 and, since then, has featured a dynamic and evolving series of exhibitions, events, and programs, which are designed to engage the general public with the museum’s collections while supporting and promoting Irish artists.

IMMA’s emphasis on creating an enjoyable visitor-centric experience for museum guests has led to such initiatives as its award-winning Education and Community Program, the Artists Residency Program, and regularly scheduled talks, lectures and events. Through these offerings, IMMA strives to provide innovative and inclusive opportunities for a variety of audiences, including the more than 400,000 annual visitors from Ireland and abroad.

Practicum Goals

The practicum with IMMA is titled Bringing Irish Artists Closer at IMMA and is primarily focused on connecting and engaging museum visitors with a specific Irish artist and her body of work through a digital resource. In April, IMMA will open a new retrospective exhibition featuring the work of Gerda Frömel, an artist who was well-regarded during her lifetime and who first exhibited in Ireland in 1957. The digital resource will be designed both to complement the Frömel exhibition as a mobile-responsive website and serve as a template for future exhibitions in IMMA’s Modern Masters series. In addition to increasing overall awareness of IMMA and of Gerda Frömel, the practicum will seek to position IMMA as the primary source of information for contemporary Irish artists.

Challenge: The User Experience

There are a number of challenges – and opportunities – associated with this practicum, but one key issue revolves around understanding the user’s experience of exhibition, the digital resource and the combination of the two. Traditionally, a visit to an art museum might involve a visitor giving his or her near-complete attention to the art or exhibition itself. In some cases, there might be a tour, led by museum staff. In these cases, the experience is primarily analogue, with no digital component.

Tate Modern Art App

Tate Modern’s Art Terms App

With the rise in mobile applications designed specifically for museums, however, visitors may now divide their attention between the art and a smartphone or hand-held device. They may Google a phrase or name that might be unfamiliar, upload photos to a social media website or “check in” via a geolocation app. As a result, museums (including IMMA) must determine how to balance the benefits of a digital, mobile resource with the decidedly un-digital experience of viewing art.

During the nascent years of mobile museum applications, many institutions created multimedia guides for exhibitions and collections that were based, in part, on the traditional docent-led tours of gallery. In a 2009 paper for the Museums and the Web conference, Koven Smith of the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out that multimedia and/or digital “tours” with “stops” often do not take the specific user experience into account, thus limiting the usefulness of a mobile, digital resource. According to Smith, only a small percentage of museum visitors still want the “led-by-the-hand” approach. Rather, he says, “museums [must] now encourage users to self-curate.”

A mobile app or other digital resource for a museum exhibition or collection needs to be flexible enough to provide a user with choices that lets him or her drive the experience. This may mean incorporating content that can and should be viewed (or read or seen) while the visitor is at the museum, and it may also mean specifically including content intended to be accessed via the Internet before or after visiting the museum. The digital resource for the Frömel exhibition, for example, will be built as a website, but will also be accessible on and responsive to mobile devices. This decision was made deliberately, as it offers a range of possibilities for IMMA visitors in choosing how, when and where they experience the complementary information. The website option also allows IMMA to use the Frömel exhibition and digital resource as a test for future exhibitions, helping museum staff discover the format that best suits IMMA’s visitors.

Of course, the user experience incorporates more than simply how and when a visitor will use a specific mobile app or a website. The specific nature of the museum, the widespread use (or lack thereof) of mobile devices and user demographics will all influence a visitor’s experience. In working to build a digital resource for IMMA, the Bringing Irish Artists Closer practicum will explore best practices from other museums and cultural heritage institutions, while also analyzing specific data about IMMA’s audiences and visitors to present a whole and complete understanding of how best to engage art lovers and art newcomers alike with the work of Gerda Frömel.

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