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Museum Transparency and the Tangled Web

No, this is not another exposé; it’s my commentary on museum websites, inspired by the Terry Teachout Challenge. My fearsomely prolific fellow blogger, who is also the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal (among his many distinctions), recently discussed what he likes and dislikes about the websites of American theater companies. He ended the post with a shoutout to CultureGrrl for her critique of museum websites.
I’m going to turn this around a bit, not bothering with the basics. Most museums do provide the essential information about directions, admission fees (don’t get me started), exhibitions, collections, etc.
But most could do more to make navigating their labyrinthine halls less confusing. More importantly, at a time when museums are being asked to display greater transparency in governance and operations, the web represents a missed opportunity for more openness. What follows are things that I’d like to see on more museum websites, with credit to the few who are already doing it:
Help in navigating galleries: For fans of pre-planning, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, provides clickable gallery maps, like this one of the West Main Floor, Gallery 6, the locus of one of the museum’s great treasures, Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Ginevra de’ Benci.” Doing a search for that work can get you a gallery map with its location marked in red. Clicking that dot gets you a list of all the works in that room, each of which can be clicked for a wealth of details, including exhibition history, provenance and even bibliography. You can also browse the galleries by clicking on the various rooms.
What you WON’T see:—Ever go to a museum specifically to view certain iconic works, only to discover that one or more of them is missing? The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., keeps you posted on art that is off view, with an explanation of where it’s gone and for how long.
New on view: On the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s website, you can download their annual reports of Recent Acquisitions, including this one from 2004-2005, containing (on page 14) curator Keith Christiansen‘s discussion of the Duccio “Madonna and Child”. The J. Paul Getty Museum also publishes an acquisitions list.
Annual reports, board minutes: The Getty recently stated that it would publish more detailed financial and governance information on its website. The British Museum already does this: Here are its most recent trustee minutes and its annual report (although the most recent posted report is from fiscal 2004).
Press release archives: Some museum websites include this; few are as comprehensive as the Guggenheim‘s, which goes back to 1998.
Curatorial contacts: Wish you could easily communicate with a curator? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art posts contact e-mails for its various curatorial departments.
SOON: What museums never post, but should.

an ArtsJournal blog