Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


New Media Demands New Structures

Tanja Gompf, ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Germany

I. Introduction

This paper will focus on information-structures to suit non-linear media.

Designers and developers of multimedia are still heavily influenced by traditional concepts deriving from editorial or graphic design, developing one dimensional layout concepts. These concepts of interactivity on the Internet and CD-ROMs are generally limited to simple selection of information. Leaving the basic idea about structuring information behind.

The Internets capabilities of non-linear navigation structures are still being neglected. The quality and advantages of an intelligent and functional graphic interface therefore is not the widely spread use of naive iconography, which dominates the Internet and CD-ROM publishing today.

II. The ZKM web-site

A. Concept

We define the Internet as an information room, an architecture, where non-linear navigation has to be understood first. In our concept the orientation and navigation in the virtual space - Internet - picks up metaphors from the real space - the museum space. The concept for the ZKM web-site was based on the architecture of the ZKM building itself.

So in this case it was important before focusing on the concept of the web-site to closely look at the idea ZKM and its concept for the real space.

The ZKM | Center for Art and Media is divided into sections accessible to the public and an area that is reserved for staff, researchers, and other specially accredited visitors. The departments that are accessible during the usual opening hours are the two museums and the Media Library. In addition, the Media Theater, the large music studio in the cube, various seminar rooms, and lecture halls are available for organized events. The area closed to the public largely consists of two institutes devoted to research into, and production of, new media - the Institute for Visual Media and the Institute for Music and Acoustics - and the offices of the Director and the administrative staff.

The new ZKM residence is a former factory building. This impressive example of industrial architecture - it was one of the first buildings produced by concrete skeleton construction was later placed under a conservation order. Stretching over a length of 312 meters, the size and transparency of the building is striking.

A central characteristic of the former factory building is the spacious character of ten light wells. The building offers interesting perspectives along its axes, and footbridges establish coherent connections between the individual light wells.

A glass cube has been installed as a new architectural element in front of the old building. It houses the music studio, whose technical requirements were such that its integration in the original structure would have posed considerable problems. The blue cube-shaped building not only draws attention to the entrance to ZKM, it is also a memorable identity symbol.

The first two light wells are still in the process of conversion, from 1999 or thereabouts they will house the private collections due to be added to the Museum for Contemporary Art.

The creation and design of the ZKM web-site was based on the development of content providing, as well as user-friendly short loading times, embedded into a clear and logical navigation. For this reason profound knowledge on the institution ZKM and its public relevance was in need.

The concept of the opening page reflects in a clear way the floor plan of the building. It shows ten colored squares, which can be seen as a metaphor for the ten light wells of the former factory. The structure of the ten colored squares refers to the geographical situation of the light wells in the building.

After choosing one out of seven languages the user moves along and zooms into the colored squares.

The menus on the colored squares are analogue to the architectural situation. The user/visitor finds the information on the web-site on the same (virtual) location, as he would find it in the museum. After choosing the user zooms into the square. The design is now very enlarged while the information is getting more complex. At the same moment the user zooms through the enlargement into the full color space.

So in this case the real space is the abstract structure for the virtual space. The proportions and color codes of the design visualize the information depth and click hierarchy where the user is positioned in a logic, but abstract way.

The User can either explore the collection of the media museum, get background information on each exponent, take a virtual trip through the whole ZKM building, based on more than 30 linked QTVRs, have access to the latest events, which are updated and generated every night, or have a live experience with our installed web-cams and when he has seen it all, choose another web-site from our bookmarks.

B. Design

Key point of the design is to create a dynamic and for the content suitable concept, which clearly differs from static layouts systems. The main aim was to integrate the contents independently from any formal menu aesthetics.

The graphical idea of the ZKM homepage was the creation of a skeleton, which can easily be transformed to suit new inputs. Dynamic and flexibility new media have to be faced with flexible concepts.

Our graphical concept uses the architecture as a framework and the colored squares as "bricks"; which can be newly arranged to suit any forthcoming needs. This means, the homepage can be freely enlarged to suit any situation. The geometrical colored squares visualize the zooming of the user and are written only in HTML-script and therefore have a low loading time.

III. Defining new structures

A. Linear Vs Non-linear

How do we access information in the real space?

We sometime seem to forget that moving in the real space and interacting with your environment is basically non-linear. A museum visitor for example will enter an exhibition hall, get a quick basic overview of what is happening and in a second step get in depth information on what interests him most. So, in a set up case it could be possible that a second visitor entering the same room, having a similar overview will focus on different aspects. This is the basic concept of non-linear navigation.

In contrary, linear information systems have an exact root the user has to follow. So the same content has to function for everybody in the same way, not knowing whether the user is an expert or a beginner. In our concept of the ZKM web-site we tried to take this into consideration, by defining a zoom factor, by increasing the information depth visualized through the design proportions. Similar to a visitor in the real space, the Internet user can focus on his level of interest. Instead of showing all possible links and information categories on the same level, usually visualized in a menu table on the right hand side, we structured the information into "basic overview information" and "close-up depth information" within the complexity of the building.

We tried to develop a concept, which took non-linear structures in consideration.

B. Tools for non-linear structures

How do you navigate in a non-linear system?

Instead of forcing the user into one way streets, where the only way out is the famous "back" button, we developed a navigation tool, which allows a horizontal navigation. Meaning the user is able to get a complete overview on his chosen level of interest.

While focusing on an in depth description of, e.g. the Media Museum, he can activate our navigator and "jump" to the Institute for Visual Media and access information with a similar depth.

At the same time the navigation tool allows the user to change his selection and shows his position, by visualizing the user click hierarchies.

IV. Conclusion

The ZKM Web application also enhances the museums internal communication. Since the web-site was designed under the same roof, several members of the staff were involved in the whole process, could speak up, complain or complement. In addition there is a constant possibility for creative and technical modification.

A good Internet site is not necessarily good looking. The Internet strength is its ability to transfer information from one computer to another. Time spent waiting for fancy graphics to appear is time that could be spent garnering information. Despite the limitation of bandwidth and screen resolution it is possible to produce good imagery for the web. Nevertheless the most interesting web-sites have their strength beneath the surface - not in graphic design but in information design in the architecture of the site itself.

It is to the designer to ensure that Webster can be both visually and intellectually stimulating. Not either or.