Second site: Graphic galleries

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A GOOD museum will cater to those in the know and those who would like to know more. A really good museum will guide its less expert visitors from the simple to the sophisticated without making them feel stupid or dizzy. The need for institutions like these is particularly acute on the Web, because the polarisation between novice and expert is so extreme. People are swarming on to the Net in ever-swelling droves, and can get on-line with considerably less technical expertise than was needed even two or three years ago. But the tech gap between ordinary Netizens setting up websites, and the virtuosos of Web design, is bigger than it was back in the mid-Nineties.

The rate at which the Internet turns into history is another reason why a site such as Amy Stone's Museum of Web Art (MoWA) is a valuable public service. It was founded in 1997, and its first exhibits were buttons and wallpaper designs, the nuts and bolts of Web graphics. Mostly Stone's own work, they are presented like works of art in a gallery. Instead of details of the materials used, the labels list the software with which the buttons were created. There are captions on the history of each icon, such as the button which "was recently discovered in the basement of an old cathedral, and has since been refurbished thanks to private funding".

Tongue-in-cheek touches like these, which are part of an ironic streak that runs through the whole of MoWA, acknowledge the gulf between a home- made website and a real art museum. But it is MoWA's dogged adherence to the museum metaphor that makes it so accessible. The site is organised into North, South, East and West Galleries, devoted to "things that work", including buttons, "things that are constant", "things that change" and "things that move". Things that change include the counters that display the number of visitors a site has welcomed. The constant things are wallpaper designs, which MoWA suggests are the digital equivalent of textile design.

At every turn there are little icons that look like stacks of leaflets, inviting you to take a brochure, and cartoon "volunteers" offer further assistance. This is belt and braces guidance, which is just what many visitors will want. It provides a sure foundation for the fancy stuff, which relies for much of its effect on subverting and playing with the conventions of screen interaction. Avant-garde sites favour black windows, icons that only appear when the mouse passes over them, letters that perform acrobatics, and other tricks of studied cool. They are often impressive and sometimes exquisite, but can be somewhat daunting to approach at their sites of origin. After a gentle scroll through Amy Stone's button gallery, no visitor will be unduly disorientated by the kind of page where clicking the mouse makes the cursor dissolve into a drop of water.

There's also plenty to see for Web aficionados who know the ropes of arty interfaces and are already familiar with the work of designers like antirom and Auriea Harvey. As the guide says, even if you've seen them before, you'll enjoy seeing them again. And you won't have seen all of the most striking exhibit, a Millennium Diary that counts out 1999 with a new image each day. They're electric, they're animated, and they make one wish that the blockbuster Millennium events were half as inspired. There's even a Kids' Wing, featuring animated stories and games, such as a multicoloured "millipede" that follows your cursor around, and a wave-like design which you can ripple using your mouse. These items bear a close resemblance to exhibits over in the grown-ups' galleries, which are presented as art rather than frivolity. The curator seems to be saying that the Web is not yet a mature medium. And thankfully she's right.

You can visist www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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