A Creative Beacon sets a New Path
Providence is lucky to have many cultural institutions in our backyard. The colleges here — Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, Rhode Island College — have beautiful libraries and museum resources that the entire community benefits from. The RISD Museum serves the student design & arts community but extends far beyond that, bringing alumni, travelers, and design enthusiasts from all over the world.
The RISD Museum is the 20th largest art museum in the United States with over 100,000 objects in its collection, including Ancient art, costumes, textiles, painting, sculpture, contemporary art, furniture, photography, and more. The museum occupies more than 72,000 square feet in three historic and two contemporary buildings along Providence’s bustling South Main Street and riverfront.
It was with much excitement that we started to have conversations with the RISD team in the fall of 2017 about a proposed re-platform of the Museum’s website. To assist a design-centric museum with their extremely important public-facing project was an honor and a challenge that we were ready to accept.
The Previous Site
Nothing short of a Revolution was Needed
We often say that a website redesign is more like a collective therapy session — it’s an opportunity to air grievances in a safe space, to think about the future untethered to the present situation, and make decisions that could change the course of the organization. Since many websites are more than just a marketing platform, a redesign can affect the entire organization and the way they communicate their value to their own team and the world.
At the heart of this project was a large, existential question: What does it mean to be a physical institution collecting physical objects in a digital world? What do viewers want out of a museum experience in an interactive space? Can a museum be more relaxed about how viewers will interpret the work?
Behind the Museum’s initiative to re-platform the website from a closed system to an open source system like Drupal 8 was another, perhaps even larger, initiative: a plan to “open source” the museum’s entire collection. They want to bring all 100,000 objects online (they have a little over 13,000 available prior to launch, a mere 13%) and use a Creative Commons license system that would allow visitors to download and repurpose high-resolution images whenever the objects are in the public domain. This was the heart of the revolution upon which the RISD Museum was about to embark.
In Process Wireframes
MuseumPlus & Drupal 8 equals Open Access
At the core of this revolution, the Museum believed that a cultural institution should be a collaborative place — that the art inspires new creation, and the Museum should enable that conversation and conversion to happen. Therefore, our process together was collaborative as well. We each contributed what we did best: Oomph contributed strategy, architecture, verification by way of user testing, and web engineering and development while the Museum redeveloped the voice and tone of the content and brought their own design aesthetic to the wireframes.
The heavy lift for our engineers was an integration with RISD’s museum software, MuseumPlus. MuseumPlus needed to continue to be the source of truth for any object, artist, or exhibition. The teams again collaborated extensively to work towards an API that could provide all the correct information between the two databases, and a system of daily jobs and manual overrides to start a synchronization process. As the online connection grows, these connections will be the critical link between the public-facing object data and the internal records.
Our gray and white wireframes evolved only slightly into a black and white interface that kept information clear and clean while allowing the colors of the artwork to shine through. Language around the site’s architecture was simplified and tested for clarity. An element of time — words like Soon, Upcoming, Now, Ongoing, Past — keeps the visitor grounded around the idea of a physical visit, while open access to objects online serves a whole community of art lovers and historians that may never be able to visit in person.
A particularly bold storytelling idea came out of our collective collaborative process. The homepage wireframe first draft that we provided was a pretty typical overview of all the various bits of content that can be found deeper inside the site — events, publications, announcements, etc. But our wireframe also included a “hero” image that we suggested could be HTML5 auto-playing background video. The RISD team took that idea and ran with it. One video might be cool, but wouldn’t four videos be even cooler?
While we were hesitant at first, the concept of the homepage being a gateway into the physical space works very well. Without choosing a path via the navigation, the video is just the exterior of the museum. Click on Visit or Exhibitions & Events and the video takes the viewer inside to explore the spaces and the objects. Instead of a homepage that assumes a visitor wants to see everything and then choose something to explore deeper, this one introduces them to the content in a way that connects them to the physical space and shows them around without a commitment to one type of content. It is a pretty radical idea for a museum to run with, but this approach has proved fortuitous.
“One of the reasons we selected Oomph was actually because they had no museum experience prior to us. That fresh perspective was important to support the reinvention of the museum. The other important aspect was their willingness to collaborate with our team — in the structure of the site, the architecture, the design, and the development.”
Assistant Director, Digital Initiatives, RISD Museum
Awards & Recognition
- Webby: 2019 Nominee Best Visual Design — Function
- SCA Summit International: 2019 Gold Travel/Tourism/Nature
- W3 Awards: 2019 Silver Visual Appeal & Utility
- W3 Awards: 2019 Silver User Experience
- Communicator Awards: 2019 Excellence, Cultural Institutions
- Communicator Awards: 2019 Distinction, User Interface
- Web Award: 2019 Outstanding Website
- Davey Awards: 2019 Silver Cultural Institutions, Silver Best use of Video/Moving Images
An Evolving Partnership
While it is early in the post-launch, site visit patterns have already seen some change: page views have increased, bounce rate has decreased, pages per session have increased, as has average session duration. Thanks are due in part to the new hosting environment with Acquia, which has provided hefty speed increases and stability — page load times have decreased, server response time is significantly less, and page download time is far less as well.
As the RISD Museum grows their online collection even further, we have identified a backlog of ideas that we’d love to address, from a more fully featured search, an integrated audio guide, and a more open and collaborative way for users to share back what they have done with the museum’s assets. A new Drupal 8 implementation gives the museum plenty of room to grow virtually. The collaborative relationship between Oomph and the RISD Museum is only beginning.
Want to know a little more? J. Hogue, Director of Design & UX at Oomph, and Jeremy Radtke, Assistant Director, Digital Initiatives, RISD Museum, gave a presentation at Design Week RI on September 20, 2018, all about the process of the redesign. Watch it on YouTube.