National Gallery puts art lesson on CD-ROM

Through its Micro Gallery interactive computer system, the National Gallery of Art has made it possible for people to learn about - at their own pace - more than 1,500 pieces of the gallery's permanent collection. Much of that collection and knowledge now is available to the world through an interactive CD-ROM and on the gallery's World Wide Web site.

The Micro Gallery first opened in 1995 with touch-screen computer stations in a room in the museum's West Building. Those stations enabled visitors to browse through the gallery's collection in several paths chosen by the Micro Gallery staff. The staff created all the content in-house, said Barbara Moore, head of educational publication programs at the National Gallery.

The systems allows users to search by artist or subject, view a time line that puts each piece in a historical context, use an illustrated dictionary of art terms and names, and view and zoom in on a catalog of pieces. It also includes six featured works of art with in-depth analyses of the composition, symbolism, technique and cultural context of each piece.

"The gallery was thinking about some of the advantages of interactivity and also about giving the public open access to the collection," Moore said. "That would increase their sense of connection to the museum, encourage them to wander and make them feel like they had a leg up on the other visitors."

Almost immediately, people were asking if the Micro Gallery content would be available on CD so that they could use it at home, according to Moore.

"They like being able to create their own search [and] to focus on an area of personal interest," she said. "They really love being able to study the image at very close range."

The CD, entitled "National Gallery of Art, Washington," is being produced in runs of 2,000. It is sold exclusively at the National Gallery and on the gallery's Web site (www.nga.gov), but the CD already is into its second run. Many of the CDs have been sold on the Web site - almost 700 within the first month, Moore said. "The CD is flying out," she said.

The gallery staff created the CD with the same company that helped create the Micro Gallery, Cognitive Applications Ltd., Brighton, England. The company also created a similar Micro Gallery and CD for the National Gallery in London in 1991 and an Image Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1994.

"I think they were selected because they had done the very first electronic compendium of a museum," Moore said. "CogApp had a track record, and they were one of only two companies that were doing work on that scale."

Since all of the work of designing and creating the images already had been completed for the Micro Gallery, the major task in creating the CD was scaling and compressing the images to fit on the computer screen at a reasonable resolution, said Ben Rubinstein, technical director at Cognitive Applications.

But because the CD is intended for researchers and other people who will be spending longer periods of time on the art, the museum and Cognitive Applications were able to put in many features that are not in the Micro Gallery. "In the CD-ROM, which people will spend more time on, you can add features like [the] image windows and full-text search and bookmarks," Rubinstein said.

The image windows enable users to enlarge the entire image and then scale it to 25, 50, 75 or 100 percent. Multiple image windows can be opened simultaneously "so you can compare them side by side, which you can't do in the Micro Gallery," Rubinstein said.

One of the paths included in the Micro Gallery that is not available on the CD is the in-depth analysis features, for the simple reason that they would not fit. The size and resolution of many of the images, especially when the enlarging feature is used, take up a lot of space, and the gallery did not think people would want to pay for two CDs, Moore said.

Instead, those features are being made available to the public through the museum's Web site (www.nga.gov/programs/micro_ga.htm). Viewing the pieces using a browser with Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language and JavaScript, users can access all of the same interactive aspects as the Micro Gallery and the CD. Some of the pieces that were created specifically for the Web also are being transferred into the Micro Gallery's on-site system, Moore said.

As the museum's collection is updated - including the coming addition of more than 100 works recently bequeathed to the gallery by longtime benefactor Paul Mellon - the Micro Gallery also will change. And those changes probably will be passed on to the CD, Moore said.

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