Creating a Modular, Interactive Learning Tool for The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with Drupal 8

Pantheon’s infrastructure and development tools equipped digital agency Palantir.net to seamlessly solve their client’s hosting needs with tight turnaround.

Summary

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) is the largest public arts institution in the city of San Francisco and one of the largest art museums in the state of California, with an annual combined attendance of over 1.4 million people. Palantir.net is a full-service web agency that helps clients discover, create, and share knowledge.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) wanted to deepen their visitors’ engagement with the art on display. They engaged Palantir three months before a major exhibition to create an interactive website that would extend each exhibit into the virtual world beyond museum walls.

This goal gave birth to the concept of “Digital Stories”—interactive microsites with visual, audio, and written content.

In addition to creating two specific Digital Stories for upcoming exhibits, agency Palantir was asked to build a resource the FAMSF staff could use on their own to spin up additional, unique microsites for new exhibits. They chose to launch on Pantheon for its smooth workflow and infrastructure specialized for Drupal 8.

Pantheon saved the day for Drupal 8. 

—Bill Sprowl, Senior Frontend Developer, Palantir

Choosing Drupal 8: A Masterpiece in the Making

The project promised to be challenging from the start, given the level of interaction and the short timeline. To ensure close alignment with the exhibits, Palantir collaborated with the museums’ education staff to create a prototype. While the educational staff were the experts on the content, they relied on Palantir’s technical recommendation for the website development platform. The agency recommended Drupal 8.

“We thought Drupal 8 really leveraged paragraphs for these interactive components, and they could work out these sites as individual pages,” says Bill Sprowl, Senior Frontend Developer for Palantir. “That was a unique aspect of this project. A single node was considered a self-contained site.”  

The design process was highly collaborative, with the FAMSF educators and Palantir experts working through several iterations over the short timeline to get the right fit for interactions. On the Monet site, for instance, viewers can zoom in on a painting, with an explanation simultaneously layering on top. The Summer of Love site reveals audio and text as viewers examine photos.

Choosing Pantheon: A Renaissance for a Tight Timeline

Before these dazzling sites could launch, they needed a website management platform. The museum team had agreed upfront to own deployment and originally opted to launch the sites on their existing Drupal hosting platform.

However, as the project progressed, Sprowl learned that the previously determined website hosting platform wasn’t working with Drupal 8 … yet.

“There were red flags each time I checked in on deployment preparations,” Sprowl says. “It was near the launch date when they decided to switch over to Pantheon.”

Once it was clear that the original website host was not sufficiently compatible with Drupal 8, it took only a day for the FAMSF leaders to decide on Pantheon for its broader capabilities and ability to support Drupal 8.

Deploying on Pantheon: Creating a Work of Modern Art

After committing files, the actual deployment process was straightforward, with the site deployed to one master branch.

“Working on Pantheon was a positive experience,” Sprowl says. “I found the dashboard tools and interface were easy to use, and the deployment tools worked as expected.”

Palantir used Pantheon’s command line interface, Terminus, to export configurations, documented this work, and later taught it to the museum team, who now maintain the sites and digital story production.

Life on Pantheon: A Portrait of Success

In addition to the initial microsites, Palantir created a tool the museum staff could use to make unique variants of the sites for future exhibits. The highly interactive framework needed to be built on a content management system—Drupal 8 in this case—that could support FAMSF content editors, equipping them with a tool where they could simply upload and arrange content to produce their own dynamic exhibit sites.

Palantir accomplished this by reskinning the site into four themes, which the FAMSF team can customize. FAMSF has already leveraged this tool to build an additional Digital Stories site—digitalstories.famsf.org/degas—and anticipate creating 4-5 exhibit sites per year.

Despite tight timelines, limited budgets and complex design demands, Palantir launched remarkable, interactive online learning tools, and it all deployed smoothly on Pantheon.

Results to Date

Current success for the Digital Stories sites is being measured by individual views and actual participation rate, and early results are on track with FAMSF’s initial goals.

  • The Monet site has more than 30,000 views

  • The “Summer of Love” site has nearly 30,000 views

  • Visitors typically spend 4 - 5 minutes on each page

Benefits

  • Infrastructure specialized for Drupal 8

  • Terminus CLI to easily export and document configuration

  • Ability to design and develop in tandem with Multidev