Building the Digital Harvard Art Museums

Screenshot of Harvard Art Museum website collection browse/search.

The Harvard Art Museum website design is new, fresh, clean, minimalist, image focused, large, and in general a joy to use. Here are some notes I took on a talk by Jeff Steward (Director of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology (DIET)) and Steven Waldron (Creative Director and Head of Design).

Description: “Several years ago the staff at the Harvard Art Museums started to assemble a new suite of digital tools to coincide with the opening of the new museums in November 2014. In this session we’ll talk about the implementation of these tools along with the museums’ aesthetic and design, APIs and the collections databases, and the commingling of the physical and digital experience.”


design stuff

  • rationalization of color – linked to time/date with color spectrum – a color a day/365
  • art first – bringing art in front of text
  • Area17 for design
  • index magazine online – same style in print

core services and software

  • EngineYard
  • Acquia
  • Amazon web services
  • Herokee, to host API
  • Harvard Digital Repository Service (DRS) has ~million items
  • Harvard Art Museums API – large piece of project
  • ElasticSearch – better with hierarchies than Solar – good search and speed
  • Node.js
  • PHP framework, Drupal has too much baggage, PHP brings closer to code = a lot of services

some major points:

  • Website is veneer over content
  • Make sure data is captured well first = groundwork
  • Responsive design is important
  • Keep it simple – focus on building blocks
  • Homepage – brings collections to the front – starts you browsing immediatly
  • API available
  • On homepage search box with filters below news items/current exhibits
  • There is a form to set up research appointments, also has a Pinterest type feel, can log in, save to collection, order image
  • Didn’t have specific user in mind – more about effective communication
  • Digital tour builder – sort of powerpointy
  • Also look at Cooper-Hewitt museum doing similar with starting with building blocks
Screenshot of Cooper Hewitt website, the Wallcoverings Department.

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