Thanks to a fantastic collaborative team across the Getty, the online exhibition The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra launched to the world on February 8, 2017. When the idea of creating an online exhibition was floated during the last few weeks of 2015, never did I envision it would turn into one of the most fulfilling projects that I would ever work on.
The online exhibition began as a way to contextualize nineteenth-century photographs of Palmyra by Louis Vignes that had been acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 2015. These photographs joined another rare set of documentation about Palmyra—eighteenth-century notes and etchings by architect Louis-François Cassas—that was acquired in 1984 as a foundational print collection for the Research Institute. Combining these two collections brings out the unique relevance of this ancient caravan city, especially in light of the recent tragic, irrevocable destruction of many of its monuments.
With a goal of offering the same depth and breadth of material as a physical gallery exhibition, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra contains 108 works of art, including 20 “loan” objects from other institutions, and more than 18,000 words of peer-reviewed scholarly text. The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra also includes a resource page that provides links and further readings on both the history of the site and current events.
With the support of a great team of other content producers and editors, designers, and web developers, I was able to keep all the different parts of the Palmyra “engine” going. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.
1. Understand the Curator’s Point of View
As with any project, an in-depth understanding of the goals and objectives is essential in creating the best possible outcome. At our first meeting in December 2015, my team was given 1,500 words and 25 images to turn into an “online exhibition.” But listening to curators Frances Terpak and Peter Louis Bonfitto explain their vision for the project, my manager, Liz McDermott, and I quickly realized that the scholarship, visual design, and user-experience design of the exhibition would be closely interdependent. But unlike some other curatorial projects, we didn’t have the luxury of time to wait for the scholarship to be finalized in order to begin the design process—the structure of the website was integral to presenting the scholarship, and vice versa.
Very early on we assembled a core group of people, each bringing different areas of expertise, and worked together through the entire run of the project. Meeting twice a week, our working group consisted of the curators, a project manager (that’s me), an editor, a user experience specialist, visual designers, and a front-end developer. Though it may not have been immediately apparent, the criticality of each of these team members attending these discussions became evident in the cohesiveness of the website. We all spoke the same language!
Additionally, by viewing the original materials firsthand and reading the narrative in detail, the visual designers and front-end developer gained a very deep understanding of the intellectual component of the material and what the curators wanted to convey, and were thus able to incorporate many design features and website functionality that complemented and highlighted the scholarship.
2. Research What’s Out There, Then Create Your Own Model
At the outset of the project, I spent a week researching everything already published online about Palmyra and inventorying online exhibitions from other cultural institutions. I found no clear example of a website or online exhibition like what we wanted to create. I also went outside the art history realm to look at award-winning websites and immersive websites with engaging features. What I discovered was that, for the most part, online exhibitions were either truncated versions of gallery exhibitions or, if they were online-only, had a focus on images with only extremely brief text. But I did find many examples of features that would be perfect for presenting the content our curators had conceptualized.
We reviewed websites that featured scrolling images and text offering a flowing, narrative experience, websites with full-bleed images and a navigation bar along the bottom, and web pages that featured portraits of people next to sections of text. We realized that all of these were evocative features expressing memories, humanizing the subject, or providing an experience about a specific time period or geographic location, similar to what we wanted to capture in the Palmyra exhibition. There’s no one-size-fits-all model for a successful website—or online exhibition, especially.
3. Embrace Scope Creep (Sometimes)
As we better understood what the curators wanted to achieve, and the depth of the material in the Getty Research Institute’s collection, we made a conscious decision to increase the scope of the project dramatically: from 1,500 words and 25 images to 18,000 words and 108 images. Yes, it meant redoing our schedule and reassessing our resources, but it was worth it in the end when the curators’ vision came to life in a digitally viable and creative way.
So why did we take on this new, increased scope? The simple answer: to share and disseminate the scholarship from these two rare collections, not held together anywhere else, to researchers and the general public.
Of course, it was important to analyze and communicate the implications of increasing the scope of the project with all relevant departments. It also meant pushing the launch date by a few months and adding more resources. Once all these implications were understood and signed-off on, we were free to go full-steam ahead!
4. Use Low-Tech Solutions to Start
Digital doesn’t always have to mean high-tech, at least in the beginning stages. We started out very lo-fi with paper prototypes, wireframes drawn with sharpies on paper, and screenshots printed out and marked up to indicate how features would work. This allowed us to test and rework features and elements with minimal time and little expense.
We convened a group design workshop to brainstorm attributes we wanted for the user experience and visual design of the online exhibition—and those we didn’t want.
5. Accept No Substitute for User Testing
Once we had our wireframes (the basic structure of the website and its functionality), we tested with our three core audiences: an international scholarly audience, enthusiasts, and teachers and students. What we learned from these tests was invaluable in creating the final design of the exhibition, because users see what you don’t!
When you’re knee-deep in the content and structure of a website for a few months, there is a tendency to confuse familiarity with usability. Headers, captions, section names, and instructions can read very differently with different users. We documented every insight we gained from these user tests, analyzed what the implications were, and agreed on the actions we would take. We then went back to the drawing board again and again for almost every feature you see in the exhibition.
6. Document Everything
And I mean everything! Ten months into the project, you are not going to remember whether the yellow overlay on a highlighted image was supposed to be reduced to 40% or 30% opacity. We went back to early meeting notes many times to refresh our memories about why certain decisions were made at that moment, or what had changed since then.
Just as important, make these notes easy for everyone on the team to find. Because we were working with visual designers who did not have access to the Getty network, we used Basecamp to collaborate and communicate. It’s also very helpful to have a dedicated note-taker at every working meeting instead of trying to both take notes and run the meeting.
Documentation is particularly important for digital projects because their launch isn’t the end—but rather, the beginning of use, maintenance, and promotion. In fact, I’m excited to share that the The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is expanding into new digital territory with a translation of the exhibition into Arabic—look for it later this year.
Creating a digital exhibition of this scope took time, effort, and commitment from all the parties involved. Every step we took, every lesson we learned, every failure that changed our course, led to the on-schedule launch of an important, living resource documenting the historical impact of this legendary ancient city. Trust your team, trust your plan, and don’t be afraid to make changes midstream when your expectations prove false. Honoring the curators’ vision was our ultimate goal, and in The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra, we succeeded in honoring all of our visions.