Beyond Digital: Open Collections & Cultural Institutions

This past June, I participated in a two-week workshop at Harvard University’s metaLAB called Beautiful Data: Telling Stories with Open Collections. Thanks to a grant from the Getty Foundation, the metaLAB brought together over twenty curators, technologists, educators, and scholars to grapple with how we might use publicly available data from museum collections in our work. In the first week, speakers as varied as digital museum specialists to experience designers to scientists who study vision all pressed us to think of our work in unexpected contexts. In the second week, we took what we’d discussed and applied them to projects of our own.

Over the past four months, I’ve let the ideas and theories of Beautiful Data percolate in my visitor-centered soul, and I’ve come to realize this: although open collections is a movement born in the digital realm, I believe its principles are essential to how a 21st-century cultural institution can reach visitors today—whether virtual, physical, or personal.

What are Open Collections?

“Open collections” is a museum technology term that refers to a museum (or more appropriately, a GLAM—gallery, library, archive, or museum) “opening” all of collections data for anyone to freely use, reuse, or distribute it. In this context, data refers not only to an image of an artwork in a collection, for example, but all of an object’s “metadata” or supporting information, such as artist, time of creation, subject matter, size, medium, and so on. If the collection of your museum is digitally open, you release an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to easily pull that data into lots of different contexts, such as websites or apps. The idea, according to the OpenGLAM movement, is that it allows “users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.” (For a more in-depth explanation of museum APIs, check out this blog post from the SFMOMA Lab.)

Metadata sounds like tombstone information—in other words, that basic information that lives on a museum label, and on its own, might not necessarily be that compelling. The magic of open collections data, though, is that through technology, all those individual bits of information can be packaged together and unpacked, visualized and disseminated in different ways. In short, like many of our most successful museum education programs, the cool stuff happens when you release it into the wild and let people play.

Perhaps the most famous example of a museum opening up its collection is the Rijksmuseum, which in 2011 published an API and allowed free access to high-quality images of its artworks. But most stunningly, it not only allowed, but loudly encouraged anyone who wanted to create new interpretations of those artworks, from coffee cups to clothing. They even hosted a contest on the huge handmade marketplace website Etsy.

Another great example is by Florian Kräutli, one of my fellow Beautiful Data participants, who took Tate’s open collections data and visualized it—noticing that over half its collection is by J. M. W. Turner, prompting him into a rabbit hole of discovery into exactly why that is (you can read his blog post on the project to find out more). Museums are supporting this type of play in-house, too: the Cooper-Hewitt team has a treasure trove of ways they’ve used their collections data on their blog, including a search-by-color tool and “Robot Rothko” (which is just as awesome as it sounds). As his final project, Beautiful Data participant Richard Barrett-Small, formerly of Tate, built on the Cooper-Hewitt’s color tool to create Colour Lens, a color visualization explorer for multiple museum collections.

In short, the big idea here is that open collections allow cultural institutions to complete their educational missions: not only showing our objects to as many people as possible (no matter where they are in the world—thanks, internet!), but giving people ownership of our collections and spaces by welcoming them to engage in any way they can dream up.

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Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art

Let’s turn back to my personal experience at Beautiful Data. It’s rare that museum staff are ever able to think about the what ifs and why nots, to set aside time to imagine, play, and prototype. Happily, at Beautiful Data, we had two full weeks to do exactly that.

As a visitor-centered museum educator, I think a lot about the humans experiencing our institutions. As a visitor-centered museum technologist, I think about people too, albeit those in the ether of the web—no less real than my students, though often more anonymous. At Beautiful Data, though, we went extremely big-picture—this meant discussions of data visualizations (graphical ways to show stories about data), institutional collecting patterns and preferences, and thinking about how not just staff but organizations could collaborate together through comparing and sharing their collections data.

To be honest, this sometimes frustrated me. As one of two educators in the group, I was always asking, “but what about the people who will actually use this information?” That question was certainly on the minds of other participants, but I came to realize that “users” could just as often mean internal staff members as external visitors.

With all this in mind, for my Beautiful Data final project, I decided to tackle an idea that has been a seed in my work for some time: amassing stories or personal connections with works of art from museum visitors, and seeing what patterns I could find about how people interact with collections. I posted a survey asking people to share their “transformative experiences with works of art,” and waited to see what I’d get.

I was struck by the stories I received. Regardless of length or whether the respondent was a museum professional or a scientist, even if they had only seen the work one time, each story was full of heart—beautiful, nostalgic, sometimes wrenching connections between a work of art and the person’s own life.

Despite a week blissfully surrounded by all things nerdy-tech (read: 3D printers, APIs, and Lytro cameras), instead of building a minimal website or massaging the words into data, I instead was compelled to handwrite key phrases on paper, print out full responses and images of their chosen piece, and pin them to a wall. My project quickly turned into a completely physical installation: a purposefully unscientific data visualization of the responses people had submitted.

Documentary photos of my installation can be seen through the photo gallery below, or you can visit my album on Flickr.

Some stories were long, others just a handful of cryptic sentences. Some had art historical, factual descriptions backing up their thoughts; others never looked up a single extra bit of information about the artwork after they saw it. Some ruminated on the object for many years; others were hit in the gut all of a sudden upon turning a corner.

For all that, every single story had two things in common. In each, there was a deeply personal reason behind the individual’s connection to the artwork, and each was written in a tone of reverence—towards the power of these images to arrest a person, to stir up unexpected thoughts or feelings, to stick in their mind for years and years afterward.

Open Collections—Beyond the Digital

When my teen program started up again this fall, I brought my students into the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries to look at a single work of art for an hour (you can read more about this process here.) As usual, I noticed the high schoolers opening up to each other, to new ideas, and to finding ways that art relates to their everyday life—whether a photograph of Milwaukee or a landscape by a Baroque Italian painter. These discussions are guided by the students—I might throw in some useful facts to open up the conversation, but they take the lead. As a result, on any given day, we might relate artworks to religion, politics, narratives, families and friends, or even moods and feelings.

During these sessions, the teens are given permission to engage with these objects in a manner entirely new to them: instead of the 7-second “drive by” glance, they’re encouraged to bring their own opinions, thoughts, and questions to these artworks.

This fall, as I watched the students unfold these pieces and their own thoughts every week, and as I thought about my own project at Beautiful Data, I started to realize how intimately connected my discussion-based teaching style and experience-based project are to the big ideas behind the open collections movement.

In the realm of digital, opening collections data and encouraging people to play with it allows for deeper engagement in and participation with our collections. For my teen programs, which take place physically in the museum, the same goal holds—for my students to feel comfortable engaging with and connecting with the collection. For my Beautiful Data project about transformative experiences with works of art, each respondent was open to having an experience with a work of art that turned out to be intimate and meaningful.

Too often in the museum field, we become siloed. The cross-pollinated conversations and projects at Beautiful Data with folks from many different museum departments helped me see that most of the time, we’re all saying the same thing.

We all want our collections to be open to the public. We all want to give visitors opportunities to engage with objects. All that said, the devil’s in the details, as they say, and, as I learned from fellow participants at Beautiful Data, “openness” might mean different things in different contexts, or to different people within our institutions. For a museum technologist who’s part of the OpenGLAM movement, it might mean creating an API for her institution’s collection. For a curator, it might mean presenting art with minimal labels to allow visitors to bring their own thoughts to the work. For an educator, it might mean hosting a monthly “slow art” day, facilitating a one hour conversation about a single work of art. For a visitor, it might mean taking a selfie with a work of art to share with friends on Instagram—or perhaps having a life-changing, transformative moment with an object—or maybe exploring the collection online even though they live halfway around the world from the institution itself.

If we’re all saying the same thing, then why does it sometimes seem like we’re not on the same page? It might be because we’re speaking slightly different languages (after all, our departments borrow from our content areas—whether technology terms, art history/academic jargon, or educator-ese). It might be because when we are speaking together, we’re only hearing what we want to hear instead of what the other person is actually saying. It might be because we’re not taking time to speak to each other at all.

I can tell you firsthand with Beautiful Data under my belt that it’s worth it to step outside the comfort zone of our own department. Internally, let’s challenge ourselves to learn new vocabulary and have discussions with others outside of our own departments. That way, our principles and beliefs can start to be shared among staff in different areas. When we speak the same language internally, we’ll have the power to push our institutions into a new paradigm, as Jay Rounds discusses in a recent article on Museum Questions, or as Mike Murawski suggests in his article about museums embracing a “digital mindset.”

And externally? Open collections, at its core, is about access to our institutions—whether digitally through collection APIs, physically through innovative programming in our galleries, or personally through highlighting the stories of people who have had powerful experiences with objects. Opening access in this way can be scary, because it can sometimes mean giving up some control, such as rights, an authoritative institutional voice, or even the context and purpose of looking at artwork. But those risky moments are also when great change has the potential to occur. If we want our collections to be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century, we must be brave enough to open up our doors—physically and virtually—to support, encourage, and celebrate the profound and magical experiences with art that happen next, whatever they might be.

15 thoughts on “Beyond Digital: Open Collections & Cultural Institutions”

  1. Chelsea, I love the sense of exploration you bring to all of your posts! Your explorations of connection to objects make me think about the idea of “numinous objects” – see Kiersten Latham’s article in the Visitor Studies Journal here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10645578.2013.767728?journalCode=uvst20#.VFvAtvnF9wt.

    There are two issues raised by your post, which feel conflated (not sure if this is the post or my reading of it). The first is open-ended access to objects — allowing visitors to create their own interpretations and meaning. These are the transformative experiences with art you describe, and the experiences you offer your teens. But a separate issue is digital access. That brings up issues of copyright that I don’t fully understand, although I do know that copyright is often owned by the artists (notably, there are no Picasso images on ArtStor, which is not because of the museums which own the works). But there is also the issue of the digital vs real experience, which I think merits more unpacking. In what contexts do museums want to be promoting interactions with the reproduced object? How do we help people understand that the experience with the real object is different from the experience with its replica? Or is it, these days? These are bigger questions which make me think that the disagreements are not caused by (just) a lack of shared vocabulary.

    1. Hi Rebecca! Thank you for your comment–these are fantastic points, and I agree with you. My intent in terms of shared vocabulary was that it can prompt us to open up our conversations within the field, and start to unpack these complicated issues together, rather than separately or not at all–not necessarily that only the act of finding a shared vocabulary would solve the issues quickly or at all.

      Copyright and digital access are definitely a major barrier to the concept of open collections. One of my colleagues at Beautiful Data studies copyright law, and it’s so complex (and fascinating). If we’re truly going to move towards a participatory, open access culture for our institutions, copyright is a major hurdle we need to tackle–worth the consideration, I think, of a larger group like AAM or AAMD.

      For the digital vs. the real object–I still struggle with this one myself. I definitely believe that seeing the real object is an important, essential experience offered by museums. But seeing objects online is also important, whether we view it as a gateway to wanting to see the objects in person, or a way to help visitors feel more connected (for example, for some visitors, remixing an artwork from their own computer could be a friendlier experience than quiet, controlled galleries). And of course, some may never have the means to travel to see works in person, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy and derive meaning from viewing a piece online or even in a book. If the overall goal is access to objects, then why not view it as a both/and? I think it’s worthwhile for museums to offer and value such online experiences alongside (not in place of) those we have in person.

  2. Hi Chelsea, your project to collect stories of people’s transformative experiences with art and the resulting installation is incredible. Even the small excerpts that you gave in the gallery were therapeutic and moving to read. Like your respondents, you wrote about the project with a noticeable reverence so I wonder – did you have a transformative experience yourself in putting this together? Do you have any next steps for the project or any plans to display the installation?

    1. Hi Jessica–what a great question! I’m not yet sure if I’ve had a transformative experience putting these together–I certainly have had a personally transformative experience with a work of art, but I think I’m still processing this project. It’s definitely been meaningful for me, but I’m not sure I could articulate how it has transformed me just yet. I don’t have any concrete next steps for the near future, but someday I’d like to continue this project in a more formal, research-driven way–likely connecting it to the field of art history and interpretation of artworks.

  3. I am glad I found you and this discussion. I am an artist/designer/app developer creating iOS interactive media to introduce young children and their families to art museum assets through narrative and simple games. Most people will never go to the Portland Art Museum or the Walters Art Museum, even if they wanted to, because of the location of the museum. I am indebted to these institutions and others that make images available for use in media projects. I am especially interested in ancient objects and the wealth of information they provide about their cultures and how much we share with those cultures today.

  4. Chelsea, thanks a lot for this wonderful article. Just one day after you published it here I talked at the EVA Conference in Berlin about the role of images and the importance of Open Collections for cultural heritage organizations in the digital age (http://bit.ly/Geschichtsbuch_EVAberlin2014 and http://www.slideshare.net/Tunsch/geschichtsbuch-oder-gesichtsbuch – in German with link to Google translation). It is so important for museums to know, that other than open data will be not included in the semantic web – one of the most important developments of the World Wide Web today. Therefore I wonder, why your article itself isn’t open data as well but restricted to NonCommercial and NoDerivatives (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)?

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