Thematic Essay Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History

Reviewed October 2016
Christina Holm, Reference Services Coordinator Librarian
Kennesaw State University
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is a free art history reference and research tool containing 300 chronologies, almost 1,000 essays, and more than 7,000 works of art. Originally published in 2000, the then-named Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History organized the Met’s collection chronologically, geographically, and thematically. In this New Edition Heilbrunn Timeline, users may expect to see a completely redesigned user interface alongside a more robust digital collection. Funded by the Heilbrunn Foundation, the New Tamarind Foundation, the Zodiac Fund, and Cynthia and John S. Reed, the Timeline is maintained by a team of producers, editors, directors, and content contributors.

In a gesture toward simplicity, the webpage of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History opens on a pale grey background void of ornament, with a one-sentence textual description of the site, which also serves as an entry point to the site content via hyperlinked text. This efficient design brings to mind the museum’s physical aesthetic, wherein curators display art objects on bare walls throughout labyrinthine hallways. The elements presented in bold typeface indicate to users of the New Edition Heilbrunn Timeline the modes by which they can interact with the Met’s collection: essays, works of art, or chronologies.

Unlike similar virtual repositories, such as ARTstor, all visual cues in the user interface of Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History are reduced to a few lines of text. In this simplicity, the site goes perhaps a step too far toward minimalism. In a physical museum docents and guards punctuate the blank walls and provide direction, but the New Edition Heilbrunn Timeline user can only find guidance via two low-prominence menu bars and hyperlinks within the explanatory statement on the main page. The landing page’s design may force the user to pause and consider whether they have even arrived at a fully functioning or completed website. 

If the user is sufficiently interested to navigate down one of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History’s virtual hallways, one will arrive to a slightly more visually evocative landscape. For example, the main navigation portals of essays, works of art, and chronologies each open to a page with visual cues. The chronologies portal, for example, has a world map allowing one to navigate via geography as well as time. Additionally, each portal contains a standardized top-level browse menu. Once the user reaches either the essays, works of art, or chronologies landing pages, it becomes apparent that the New Edition Heilbrunn Timeline seeks to replicate the museum’s physical organization by moderating the objects of the collection to promote a thematic vision of art in situ.

While all three Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History portals are equally robust, the aptly emphasized chronologies are a unifying force in the collection’s digital presentation. Here artifacts are grouped by geography, then by time, to create historic overviews. The historic overviews include a key events chronology, a regional menu, a link to essays on the period, and a listing of linked key words as they relate to each subsection of the timeline. Art images seamlessly integrate into these historic snapshots. Running in a thematic band atop each chronology, images from the Met’s holdings invite browsing or selection. If an image is selected, the user will be taken to an item record page that contains medium-quality images alongside an informative description and history. 

Though the site’s stark design choices supply a foreboding landing page, the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History proves itself to be thoroughly exciting. Designed to reduce intermediating pages and maximize space, every page has obvious value. The methodically interlinked content means that the user never lands on a page with abridged information. Ultimately the design simplicity and well-selected content are a boon to the user, preventing information overload or decision fatigue, and providing an excellent resource for the study of art history.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

See works of art

  • 1999.363.15

  • 2005.100.140

  • 2006.32.15

  • 2002.456.5

  • 1999.363.50

  • 1996.403.4

  • 1999.363.16

  • 2002.42a-vvvv

  • 1987.1100.15

  • 1999.363.21

  • 2002.456.1

  • 1999.363.80

  • 2003.270

  • 1979.356

  • 2002.456.12a-f

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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The Jewish Angel

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Rayograph

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Gala Éluard

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Photo: This Is the Color of My Dreams

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The Potato

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Nude Standing by the Sea

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The Accommodations of Desire

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The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box)

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The Doll

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The Barbarians

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Self-Portrait

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The Satin Tuning Fork

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Being With (Etre Avec)

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The Great Sirens

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The Eternally Obvious

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