One of the things all the Internet users in my group whinged about was how really awful the NPG website was. We rather gathered that we might not have been the first people to point this out!
Of course a website is one of the very important ways that people "visit" museums and art galleries these days - and I know that my expectations about the quality of the experience I'll get has certainly increased in recent years as more and more museums and art galleries have given their website a major overhaul.
Understanding how people use websites is a really important place to start. I came away with the impression that the researchers were rather surprised just how much people do want to be able to access both collections and exhibition archives online. I know I was talking to the researchers about all the different museum and art gallery websites I visited all over the world - and how impressive some of them were - and gave them the names of a few sites to go take a look at!
So, I've known for quite some time that a website redesign was planned for the NPG but what I didn't know was when it was due to 'launch'. Yesterday, the newly redesigned website (www.npg.org.uk) arrived complete with improved navigation systems (which used to a major source of complaint) and a greater level of interactivity.
The website has generated some 16 million visitors each year - so it's a very important part of the services which the NPG delivers to the public. The aim has been to make the site more intuitive and easier to use.
It now provides:
- 120,000 records of Gallery portraits online of which 60,000 contain large-screen-size scans and zoom facilities
- access to letters, private and research papers
- the latest groundbreaking conservation work on Gallery portraits
- information about individual portraits is much better organised - For the first time all information about a portrait - for example, where to see it, where to learn more about it, where to obtain a print - is brought together on one page. Here's an example which I chose at random - it's one of the most famous portraits in the museum is that of The Brontë Sisters painted by their brother Patrick Branwell Brontë. As you can see it tells you about the portrait, the sitters, the painter, what is known about the portrait and relevant publications available from the NPG which reference it. In the right hand column you can see how you can use the image, buy a print and see it in the context of thematic collections. Here's another example - the portrait of JK Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright
- 120,000 images online - Visitors can now see 120,000 of the Gallery's portraits listed online - I'm not entirely clear how many more this is than the previous number - although I know that I'm now seeing a lot more drawings - which is great!
- much improved facilities for inspecting certain images - some 60,000 portraits now appear on screens four times bigger than their previous size and it's now possible to zoom in to portraits in order to see the smallest of details. Here's the Zoomify version of Humphrey Ocean's portrait of Sir Paul McCartney
- an improved listing of works that an artist or sitter are linked to - For example, it's now possible to identify all sitters in group portraits. I think there maybe needs to be further improvements to make an even clearer distinction. I noted that works listed as "after John Singer Sargent" are listed as portraits under John Singer Sargent's name without much of a distinction in the listing as you scan it.
- a much improved listing of past exhibitions - These days an exhibition can have an indefinite life once it's on a server! I know I make reference to them all the time and I am very positively disposed to museums and art galleries which make it easy to scan and find exhibitions across all previous years
- browsing has been enhanced and new options offered. For example, visitors can now review works in a room-by-room listing of all the portraits on display
- the latest conservation material can be accessed - for example in relation to the Gallery's Making Art in Tudor Britain project. This details research on key paintings from the Gallery's Collections.
- contact details improved: as somebody who does actually make contact with people in museums and art galleries, the new contacts page was a joy to behold!
- a much improved events calendar on the homepage allows me and other potential visitors to see at a glance which exhibitions, displays or events are taking place on any particular day or range of days for up to several months ahead. For example I can now to find out, with a single click, everything that is happening at the Gallery, as well as activities beyond the Gallery on any one day. I checked this out - and got this for the day my sister is in town. I'm absolutely amazed at how little I knew before!
- I really value the inclusion of a part of the site for digital learning resources. The teachers notes are much better organised and more informative. In particular, the parts which relate to Sitters, artists and photographers talking which includes transcripts of historic recordings with sitters from the National Sound Archive on the Audio Guide. It's just a pity that the views of sitters alive today haven't been done as podcasts. Maybe a development for the future?
- items can now be selected according to an interest - for example interests such as films, youth programmes, workshops or family activities.
- an emphasis on linking shopping and licensing to viewing - I'm less sure about this. The way it's designed keeps it low key on the pages related to individual portraits - but it's obviously a driving force across the site as a whole.
To promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and cultureI also noticed some oddities on on my quick ramble around the site - such as
Objects and Key Policies of the Gallery
- The major omission in that this publicly funded Gallery ignores the 'fair educational' use of images. This is not new - the previous website did the same thing. The copyright policy entirely fails to recognise the concept of "fair use" for educational purposes. It behaves as if everybody wanting to use an image has a commercial intent in mind. It's also very geared up to formal education and tends to ignores online digital learning for adults which is freely available. The gallery really needs to get its act together on this one - particularly given the National Museums Online Learning Project which will be formally announced later this month. Learning now takes place through using and applying digital resources and I personally think the NPG needs to encourage and spell out precisely how people can use online images online without infringing copyright.
- Previous BP Portrait exhibitions cannot be accessed via a link on the current BP Portrait Award 2009 page - which I personally think is a big mistake
- Some very odd matching of images with collections - I was very puzzled by the fact that a portrait of Lady Jane Dudley (née Grey)
by Unknown artist (NPG 6804 c.1590s?) popped up as the image to grace the on the page relating to portraits which are recent acquisitions !
- There are quite a few dud or absent links. However it it now very easy to report the dud link I found for the courses and conferences page for adults!
Overall it's a huge improvement in navigational terms on the previous site. The enhancements in terms of access to images are also very worthwhile.
However I do feel there is a slant towards the commercial aspects of the museum - licensing, shopping and paid events and exhibitions to my mind get more prominence than the educational aspects and making images freely and openly available for educational use to both children and adult learners in both formal and informal situations.
While I can readily understand the imperative under the three year funding agreement with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to generate earned income and pursue efficiency, I do feel that as an organisation which derives well over 40% of its income front grant in aid (ie from the government) it must make image accessible (beyond simple viewing) for learning uses without paying a fee to licence it! The fee paid for such use is the grant they get from the taxpayer!
I really like the National Portrait Gallery and I think we're very lucky to have it. I'd just like to see it providing much more of an emphasis on making more of the images accessible to those wanting to learn and engage with the portraits in terms of the way people learn and record using digital facilities available to them on the Internet. 72 dpi images are no great threat to appropriate commercial licensing and revenue generation!
After all, one of its charitable aims is.........
To increase the understanding of and engagement with the Collection and its subjects through bringing more of the reference collections into use, and through outstanding research, displays and exhibition, education, access, publishing, information, regional and digital programmes, and a higher national and public profile