An animation made by a Chilean artist and shown in New York’s Times Square; a Bangalore-based multimedia artist whose work deals with strife in Kashmir; a Mexican artist whose work is evocative of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Disparate and geographically far-flung, these people and projects are united by one thing: the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. Since its launch two years ago, this ambitious project has already spanned two regions—South and Southeast Asia and Latin America—produced two exhibitions, and brought the work of nearly a hundred artists from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds into the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.
Finding a way to embody such an extensive project online has been no small feat. In collaboration with departments throughout the museum, the Guggenheim’s Interactive department has risen to the challenge, producing a beautifully designed website with individualized pages to feature each of the project’s many artists.
Most recently, the Guggenheim launched the project’s most interactive feature to date, MAP Navigator, which locates the project’s regionally focused materials on a world map. Users can explore the map through a menu that lists the project’s assets; on the map itself, they can click circled numbers to pull up location-specific lists of resources; and a set of icons allows a more focused version of the navigation, taking the user directly to specific regions or even to his or her home area.
According to Robert Duffy, the museum’s Interactive Project Manager for Guggenheim UBS MAP, the idea for MAP Navigator was rooted in the rich array of materials the project was generating. “We had this huge amount of resources—videos, blog posts, exhibitions, and more,” he explains. “We produced the artists’ pages to highlight their works, personal stories, and practices, but we liked the idea of also highlighting the many, many other elements of the MAP project. In addition, we wanted to give some context for what we mean when we say ‘South and Southeast Asia’ or ‘Latin America.’”
Rebecca Mir, Associate Manager, Digital Media and Online Learning, worked with Duffy on Navigator’s user testing; she notes that Navigator “shows how diverse and significant this project is.” She points out that the interactive feature was also created to give users a way to explore the initiative based on their specific interests. Within the flexible map format, users may look for a specific place, artist, or author, but they can also enjoy the serendipitous experience of discovering something they had never encountered before. As Duffy puts it, “We considered this more of a browsing exercise than a search exercise.”
The Guggenheim team enlisted design firm Behavior to help envision and design MAP Navigator. Early in the project, both parties agreed that the map format would be an ideal way to achieve all of the representational and functional goals they had in mind. The next step, as Ralph Lucci, Co-Founder and UX Designer for Behavior, recalls, was to “find the best way to choreograph that experience. How could the MAP Navigator stand on its own and also invite exploration and contextual threads?” As Lucci explains, the firm grappled with the sheer volume of data points that needed to be included in a legible way. Ultimately, their solution was “a dynamic dashboard panel wherein content modules scroll and expand.”
As the two teams collaboratively finessed the feature, they weighed options for everything from the technology that would underpin the map to the functionality of the filters. Working with freelance developer Matt Thomas, they chose Google’s map technology to build the world map itself, but they briefly considered finding a way to base the map on the Gall-Peters projection (Google’s maps, like the majority of digital and printed maps now in use, are based on the Mercator projection). Gall-Peters offers a more accurate representation of relative size, and thus had appeal for a project that strives to be culturally egalitarian. However, Google held sway, in the end—being the gold standard of online mapping, Google’s API offered more flexibility, and came with the kind of broad community that allows for robust support.
Creating user-friendly filters for Navigator was imperative, given the large number of items on hand and the geographic breadth they cover. The teams considered having users choose options from a menu that would then populate the map. In the end, as Duffy puts it, “We decided to just put it all on at once, so people could see the size of the project. It’s now subtractive rather than additive.” Says Lucci, “Now users can casually browse at various levels or surgically find what interests them.”
Further refinements came when Duffy and Mir held a user-testing session in the Guggenheim Museum’s computer lab; they invited visitors to try out MAP’s forthcoming new feature, and encouraged them to thoroughly probe its various means of navigation. The most significant change made as a result of this testing: for the circled numbers that mark the groups of resources in any given location, the size of the circle was increased to correspond with larger numbers. This change (inspired by the visual clustering used by Craigslist in its map view) alleviated some confusion about the numbers’ purpose on the map.
Since it launched earlier this summer, MAP Navigator has been receiving plenty of positive feedback, not least of all from the Google Maps API Twitter account, which lauded the Guggenheim’s use of its technology. The interactive feature has also seen a few recent upgrades: for instance, a URL can now be made that can take the user directly to any given city on the map. As the MAP initiative continues, opening exhibitions in new venues and bringing in its final region—the Middle East and North Africa—Navigator will grow and expand, offering a wealth of fresh discoveries to those interested in taking a new journey.