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Featured Museum Site

March, 2000

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Review by Joseph Phelan
What does it take to build a first-rate art museum website?

Basically the same elements that make for a great museum. A world-class collection, conservation facilities and endowments sufficient to keep pace with the times, a well-defined educational mission and a determination to seize the day. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., one of the first major museums to go online, continues to set the pace in the new world of museum websites.

The website is clearly and logically designed. The Gallery's site map lays out an inventory both of the museum and the web version in detail. The Gallery has kept the site technological simple: eschewing software plug-ins which confuse, frustrate and, worst of all, exclude many viewers. The Gallery offers almost 5,000 high-definition images of its holdings in European painting and sculpture, American folk art, and photography. Each image is accompanied by a full range of informative notes.

One can search the permanent collection by artist, title, subject, school, style, historical period, medium or any combination of these.

Moreover, there are almost fifty on line tours of the collection ranging from the Gallery's celebrated Italian Renaissance holdings to this month's focus on African-American painters.

Not to be missed are the in-depth studies of selected works such as Vermeer's Woman Holding the Balance. These mini adventures in the art are free of jargon, clearly focused on essentials, eye-catching and mind-nourishing. They offer the kind of introduction to art history that many of us, despite long academic schooling, managed to miss.

Because the National gets the cream of the traveling exhibits it is especially praiseworthy for its online exhibits. (One has only to compare how fully they present an exhibit with what the other major museums offer.

Almost every new exhibit appears online in some form, culminating in the Van Gogh virtual walk through (still on the site) a wonderful gift to all of us who couldn't attend in person.

There is much more on this site but I'll leave the rest for you to discover. Some museum sites are flashier, some have greater collections of art, but no one has done as fine a job of making it collection accessible and intelligible to us all. Taken as a whole, these achievements define the state of the art. No other museum in the world comes near to offering such abundance on the web.

Previous Featured Museums
  November, 1999: Musée du Louvre, Paris
  October, 1999: The North Carolina Museum of Art
  September, 1999: The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
  August, 1999: National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
  July, 1999: Museum of Modern Art, New York
  June, 1999: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
  May, 1999: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.
  April, 1999: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
  March, 1999: The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  February, 1999: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia