Virtual Vision

Navigating the cyber-sea of museums and galleries

"I always dreamt of traveling to far away lands," recounts sixteenth-century sailor Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his Chronicles of the New Spain. That, of course, was long, long before the virtual world of the Internet, a place in which you simply stroll, or rather float, if you want to play, shop, get information, or even indulge in cyber-sex.

Few people understand that creating the 3D illusions found on Websites involves skill, planning, and flair. The success of a company's site has become crucially linked to product sales, and with the rapid expansion of e-commerce, the necessity of good Web design should be obvious to all. Unfortunately you'll find far more mediocre Websites than good ones. As with cheap plastic surgery, institutions often hire pseudo-designers thinking they'll save money, only to end up spending more when they're forced to redesign the site.

What does it take to build a good Website? According to well-known digital designer Clay Andres: "Web design, in its physicality, is pretty much like architecture." He, along with designer/author Ivan Vartanian, shares Leon Battista Alberti's principles for construction: beauty, utility, and robustness (although there's no use for robustness in a space that doesn't conform to the rules of gravity). Alberti's two remaining principles, beauty and utility, in Web-parlance become aesthetics and functionality. The first corresponds to the overall appearance, or the general style that represents what's inside. The second describes how well the different elements fit together.

Keeping this in mind, I took a virtual trip to the various Websites of local museums and galleries. My task was to evaluate the balance between aesthetics and functionality.

A Google search (that encyclopedia of trash and treasures, as one critic recently put it) for the Museum of Contemporary Art's Website initially sent me to MoCA's old site, which was never well maintained. Fortunately MoCA's new Website (mocanomi.org) is a great improvement. (The "nomi" in the address stands for North Miami.)

At the top of the page we get a candy-colored bar menu with eight options, including current exhibitions, about MoCA, membership, contact, education programs, et cetera. Beneath the heading, the title of their latest show is displayed in a moving image, together with a brief description. I played around with the menu: Opting to discover more about MoCA, I was offered an intricate description of the building in which the museum is housed and its architect, Charles Gwathmey. On the same page (next to flashing perspectives of the structure) is a scroll-down menu detailing the permanent collection and the museum's exhibition history that dates back to 1996. The previous site didn't have this feature, but I consider it extremely important for museums and galleries. As a side note, I'm glad they changed their font and point size from the indecipherable Verdana (7.5 point) to Arial (10 point).

Under the education programs banner, click on MOCA'zine, a publication featuring art criticism, poetry, essays, and original artwork, written and edited by Miami-Dade high school students and junior docents. I found an interesting article on William Cordova written by editor in chief Shardae Showers. Other writers include Nadia Joseph, Ritu Paliwal, and Maikha Jean-Baptiste. MoCA's site is user-friendly and constructed in a style consistent with its image -- a contemporary museum that is socially committed.

Miami Art Museum's Website (miamiartmuseum.org) is simple to navigate, with easily accessible information in a clear format. The homepage packs in all the details. Placed horizontally across the top are six options: exhibition, collection, education, programs and events, membership, and visit us. Each title has a drop-down menu that wasn't working when I accessed the site. Scrolling vertically, there's a list of alternative areas, including information about MAM and the proposed museum park -- details of MAM's move to a new location in Bicentennial Park. I was surprised not to find anything related to the history of their current building or its architect, Philip Johnson.

A section filled with photos of MAM's numerous events, entitled "Seen at MAM," has an authentic feel. The museum's exhibition history dates back to 2003. Each event is linked to a corresponding image and with it comes a second page offering a brief summary of information, a press release, and gallery notes in PDF format (a nice touch!). In all, MAM's site is accessible, inviting, and its general look isn't bad. Still, I don't get a true feel for what MAM is about. If the museum moves into a new building, this site will have to be reevaluated.

One underrated Website belongs to the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum (miami.edu/lowe), which gets very good marks in the areas of functionality and aesthetics. Being a university museum, they can sin on the didactic side. The first page is inviting, featuring clear drop-down menus, some with submenus, all of which work properly. Their collection section was instructive and easy to comprehend. They even have a layout of the gallery floor (something I didn't find in the other local museums). However, they need to improve their past and future history of exhibits (everything listed was from 2005).

Now let's take a look at some local galleries.

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