The museum as skeuomorph

Examining the idea of skeuomorphism and how it (unfortunately) applies to a lot of museum thinking. July 1, 2014

Flickr Commons

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.
This is part two of an excerpt from a keynote address I gave at MuseumNext 2014 called “Becoming Authentically Digital.” The first excerpt was posted last week.

Let’s go back to Microsoft’s definition of “authentically digital” from the previous post :

“Instead of looking to the real world to inform our design metaphors, this principle embraces the limitless capacity of innovation that is found in a digital landscape. Instead of awkwardly trying to tie digital assets to their real life counterparts, we embrace the power of our medium.”

Finding a definition for “digital” helps us to get a little closer to re-structuring our organizations in a way that enables us to speak this language more natively. However, we also have to understand a little better what authenticity means in the digital domain. It’s a word, much like “digital,” that we think we understand but for which we don’t really have a sound, functional definition.


For the Metro design team, the idea of being “authentically digital” meant to remove those aspects of their interface design that were “fake” or “superfluous.” For them, being authentically digital means removing what they refer to as “skeuomorphic design constructs.” My favorite definition of skeuomorphism comes from Dmitry Fadeyev over at Smashing Magazine :

“[Skeuomorphs are] design elements based on symbols borrowed from the real world, for the sole purpose of making an interface look familiar to the user; they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces.”

Why is skeuomorphism important to us? Because pretty much museums’ entire approach to working in the digital domain has been based on skeuomorphism.

We have essentially translated physical manifestations of our ideas one-for-one into the digital realm. Let’s just take exhibitions as an example. The idea of a brick-and-mortar exhibition is pretty much defined by constraints and friction. An exhibition is based on the objects that you can acquire, either through your permanent collection or through loans, the amount of space you have to exhibit, the amount of room you have on the wall for text, the fragility of the objects themselves, and on and on and on. The final appearance of an exhibition is pretty much carved out of these constraints. And even though the web, informationally at least, is a pretty much frictionless environment, we translate these physical constraints directly to it. The objects in our “online exhibition” are the same as those we are capable of physically displaying in the gallery. The objects themselves are distinguished with a little image and a paragraph’s worth of text. Maybe you have comments enabled, but the likelihood that the curator of your exhibition will personally answer those comments is roughly equivalent to the likelihood that she would respond to visitor questions in person. If this isn’t a skeuomorph, I don’t know what is.

The fact that so many of our mobile apps, despite really trying hard, still end up being, basically, digital “tours” (even the schema we designed for mobile apps has the word “tour” right in it!) also belies our fundamentally skeuomorphic approach to delivering digital products and services. We are so constrained by this way of thinking that all of our products pretty much by definition end up being analogue products with a digital finish. It’s not necessarily that skeuomorphs are bad in and of themselves, but they are problematic when slavish devotion to them prevents a natural evolution in thinking from taking place, and this is exactly where we are finding ourselves right now.

Same as It Ever Was

Screenshot of LACMAweb from 1997. There is an image of the LACMA main building on the left, and a bulleted list of blue hyperlinks on the right.

LACMAweb, circa 1997

This is LACMA’s website, circa 1997 (hat tip to the MuseumNerd for this amazing find). We can laugh about this (or at least smile about the fact that someone’s nephew probably was paid upwards of $150 to create this on his summer vacation), but when you look at the bones of this site, you realize that the way we approach the web hasn’t really changed that much in the intervening 17 years. “We hope you enjoy your virtual visit to our museum and will visit us in person soon.” It probably took a committee six weeks to decide on that verbiage. I’m not trying to pick on LACMA, here (they should be commended for having a web site years before most museums considered that to be essential). But look, we still all pretty much work from the assumption that a “real” visit to the “real” museum is the only truly satisfying conclusion to any digitally-based interaction with a museum. So not only are our processes not authentically digital, the product isn’t either. And the longer we don’t fix this, the worse the problem becomes.


What? Well, the idea behind a skeuomorph is that it eases users into a new way of working by creating elements that feel familiar from the old way of working. I suppose that for our first generation of users, who knew us primarily from our physical presences, it made some amount of sense to use those concepts as ways of framing our online presences. But if we want to reach users outside of that tiny minority that actually come to visit our museums (and I hope we do), we have to think in a different way. Think of the “disk” icon used for saving documents on the web. We now have an entire generation of users who have never actually even seen a floppy disk, except maybe in one of our museums. This icon, which initially was used to help users understand what to do in an unfamiliar environment, now has the opposite effect. For those (now almost entirely potential) users who have never visited a museum, our skeuomorphic way of organizing and presenting information is similar to the disk icon problem. These skeuomorphs have gone from helpful, to quaint, to anachronistic, to now actively confusing. They have now become what are referred to in the UX world as “anti-patterns.” An anti-pattern, according to UX designer Sarah Kahn , “is a frequently used design pattern that either outright doesn’t work or is counter-productive.” Kahn goes on to say:

“Some of those patterns work, but some do not. If the wheel you are copying is actually square (hey, it works if you push really hard!), then yes Virginia, you actually do need to reinvent the wheel.”

I’m at a point now where I can hardly think of any wheels inside our museums that don’t need re-inventing.

Of possible further interest: