Clothes Shopping Meets the Museum (An Introduction to Online Exhibits)

This week in our course “From Cotton to Kevalr,” Jon Olsen introduced us to basic concepts in design for web exhibits. First we read Paula Petrik’s discussion of the “Top Ten Mistakes in Academic Web Design,” which drew our collective attention to the selection, size and format of graphics and images; the size, density, length and contrast of text; and other matters where technology meets content. Then we turned to an assessment of several online examples.

Jon invited us to look at four examples of web exhibits, to guide our conversation: The Canadian War Museum’s exhibition on the War of 1812; Clark Remix, a project of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; “Inventing Europe,” a “pioneering collaboration between historians and cultural heritage institutions throughout Europe”; and “U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” an online project of the Minnesota Historical Society in observance of the conflict’s sesquicentennial. In addition, students were asked to “come to class ready to present shortly on your own favorite shopping website (not Amazon). Focus on why you like how the site functions.”

In class, four teams of students huddled around their respective laptops, looking at one of the four sites and comparing notes about what worked for them and what didn’t. When we reconvened, each team reported their observations. What did they like in terms of the site’s organization and navigation? What did they notice about relationships between content and format? Of the sites reviewed, “Inventing Europe” seemed to hold the most appeal. Students appreciated its straightforward style and organization. Clark Remix offered impressive bells and whistles, but the need to download new software to participate in the site was off-putting to some; others found the interactives offered on the War of 1812 site to be either too juvenile to engage college students or confusing, like “quizzes” that preceded rather than followed the sharing of content. In its easy-to-navigate format and brief (ca. 200-word) texts, “Inventing Europe” proved the easiest to understand, and hence the most appealing.

When the conversation turned to websites that students engaged with as literal rather than fictive consumers, a handful were named as models of design: Etsy, Rent the Runway, and American Apparel all received mentions. Praise for Rent the Runway centered on the ability to zoom in on the garment to see the fabrics involved, and the presence of images from all sides, to see how a garment hangs on the body. Etsy offers not only appealing content presented in a visually appealing way; it also “curates” (if we can use a verb in a way that has become controversial) the goods on display via the gatherings of “handpicked items” selected by members. The student who mentioned American Apparel directed our attention to the photography and the models, who seemed to look more familiar than many high fashion models. Jon suggested we consider J. Peterman, which on its catalog and site (famously) presents narratives that put the objects on display in imagined contexts. He also showed us the Google Art Project to demonstrate the power of Gigapixel images (something we will hopefully be able to try out in class soon as well).

And so, just as last week we began educating our eyes in terms of the chronology of clothing design, this week we began educating our eyes in terms of web exhibition, and particularly the way users engage objects in online settings. I for one have started paying more attention to the ways that exhibition design could learn from commercial enterprises. The discussion reminded me of a powerful conference paper delivered several years ago by the always-thoughtful Steven Lubar (Director of the Public Humanities program at Brown University), where he noted that museum visitors sometimes seem more engaged with objects in the museum gift shop than they do objects in the galleries, prompting some collective musing about what it is that curators need to learn from that end of the museum enterprise. How can we get visitors to look at the collections with equal care and attention? Jon’s set of exercises helped us think about what it is that we appreciate when buying clothing that might translate to good design in the study of clothing – a fruitful line of inquiry for the weeks to come.

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