Dealing With Data in Museums.

As the OGs of metadata, other industries can learn a lot from how museums work.

Alana Miller
August 5, 2015

Museums are in the business of metadata. Behind the galleries of every great museum is a meticulously organized card catalog, file cabinet, or collection database being reshaped and repackaged for digital appetites. The museum collection is both a means and an end; the museum exists to seek out and display works, but also to act as their final resting place.

The collecting does not stop with artworks, artifacts, and specimens. With each object acquired, there is an explicit and implicit type of collecting occurring; the acquisition of the object itself, and the collection of contextual information surrounding that object. For every painting, vase, or diorama of wooly mammoths within a museum’s repository, there are accession forms, provenance documentation, and catalog records that describe their significance. This object metadata–that is, the data that describes the objects–is just as valuable to researchers as the objects themselves. Metadata provides insights to an object’s previous history, ownership, and valuation. Metadata takes an intriguing, but otherwise mysterious artifact and helps unlock its secrets. 

It is not enough to collect anymore. We must also share. No matter how altruistic in intention, collecting also carries the stigma of gate-keeping, or worse, hoarding. In the not-too-distant past, a museum’s worth laid in the exclusivity of its content. As the concept of the museum evolved, it took on the role of an institution of learning, but was still very much grounded in terms of physical access. 

This well-intentioned, but restrictive access made sense in the analog age: how else would you learn about the provenance of a piece of artwork than come and consult the yellowed provenance papers in person? This sort of control starts to seem absurd in the digital age, though, and museums have been well aware of this conundrum as they continue to amass collections data and seek new ways of sharing it. 

Prior to the information age, museums were faced with the problem of having too much of a good thing. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a greater movement toward making data digitally accessible and widely distributed, and museums were well-poised to take on the challenge. At the forefront are the museums that have chosen to relinquish their role as gatekeepers in favor of acting as a resources of metadata that can be easily and freely mined. Ed Rodley of the Peabody Essex Museum advocates for museums to be promiscuous with their data: "Being promiscuous means spending more effort on creating and spreading, and less on trying to control access. Promiscuity is one way to demolish the perception of exclusivity that has dogged museums for longer than I’ve been around.” By giving the public access to the information that was previously relegated to file cabinets and card catalogs via APIs and datasets, and doing it in a way that enables users to manipulate and reinterpret that data, museums are expanding the ways in which the public can encounter and interact with their collections. 

"Data literacy has become a prerequisite to cultural literacy."

This kind of unfettered access has also positioned museums as champions of data literacy. If the museum of the 20th century educated its visitors through interpretive displays and tours, the museum of the 21st century increasingly gives its audience–whether in the traditional gallery space or viewing remotely–more ways to digitally curate and control how they experience collections. 

The re-purposing of metadata has the potential to support a spectrum of data literacy and creative applications: from augmenting the physical exhibition space, to allowing use of digital collection materials within the classroom, to creating entirely new, decentralized experiences outside of the institution. Data literacy has become a prerequisite to cultural literacy and museums are investing more resources in creating digital tools and initiatives to explore their collections. 

Unlocking collections with “the Pen” at Cooper-Hewitt.

The newly-refreshed Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is one of the most exciting and tangible examples of what a data-driven museum can achieve. In early 2015, Cooper-Hewitt Labs, their design and innovation incubator, introduced the Pen, an interactive stylus given to museum visitors that allows them to engage more directly with the museum’s collections. 

The Pen provides visitors with two ways to experience the collections: collecting and exploring. Using the Pen, a visitor can build their own personal digital collection from the objects on display. They simply press the back end of the Pen, which has a simple plus-sign button, to any label with a matching plus-sign symbol, which contains a NFC tag coded with the object’s unique identifier, and then the Pen vibrates to indicate that the object has been saved. Anyone who has tried to save artworks for future reference by taking awkward photos of the pieces and their labels can immediately appreciate that this is a much more graceful way of documenting their favorites. And once the visitor is at home and wants to review the objects they collected, they can go to the personal URL from their admission ticket which will pull up all the objects they scanned and allow them to edit, add to, and share their collections. 

The Pen also acts as an instrument of active exploration within the museum. Throughout the galleries, there are interactive tables with screens that display digitized images, pattern, and color swatches from works within the collections. Visitors can use the point of the Pen to select images to enlarge them, pull up detailed information, navigate to related works, and save them. They also have the ability to draw their own images on the table, which then searches the collections for works that include similar patterns or images. 

The backbone of both of these experiences is the Cooper-Hewitt’s Collection API, which the museum revamped and released to programmers, artists, educators, and any other curious minds in December 2014. The API provides an integral layer between the museum’s collections database and visitor data, and its website and in-gallery experiences. Information that was previously in the walled garden of the collection management database—object structured metadata including accession, provenance, and curatorial descriptions—can now be sourced via the API to power any number of applications that re-imagine the collections. The museum actively encourages outside artists and educators to tap into the API to create projects that incorporate the museum’s collection data, which can then be showcased at the museum. 

Metadata as performance and critique at MoMA.

A more direct example of how open collections data can open up crosscurrents and invite critique among museums, technologists, and performers can be found in a site-specific performance titled “A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things)” that took place at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in April 2015. The performance featured three collaborating groups: MoMA, which provided the gallery space and the collection's data; the Office of Creative Research (OCR), a data-visualization collective took that collection's data and curated it into a performance script on iPads; and the Elevator Repair Service (ERS), a performance group who recited from those scripts as plain-clothes actors within the gallery halls standing side-by-side with museum visitors. 

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The most intriguing part of the event was that the actors were literally performing the collection's data. Each actor recited a seemingly inexhaustible list of information about works in the collection and hanging on the gallery walls: and endless stream of titles, dates, descriptions, critiques, and interpretations. The effect was to overwhelm, but also highlight the strengths and biases of the collection–the ratio of male to female artist names, for example–creating an aural visualization of the museum’s collecting history. The performance took something as benign and dry as catalog metadata and transformed it into a jarring critique of the art historical establishment, and did it on their own turf. 

Hacking the digital universe at the American Museum of Natural History.

A programmer, an astrophysicist, and a designer walk into a planetarium. It’s not a joke, but the scene at the Hayden Planetarium one evening in November 2014, when the American Museum of Natural History invited technologists to “Hack the Universe.” The centerpiece of the event was the the Digital Universe dataset, a 3-D astronomical atlas that was initiated by the museum in 1998. Sponsored by the museum’s BridgeUp: STEM program, Hack the Universe was intended to jumpstart actionable applications of the Digital Universe dataset while also encouraging collaboration among a diverse set of participants. 

Working with celestial data collected from dozens of organizations, including NASA and NOAA, the hackers were challenged to create new ways of visualizing the cartography of the known universe within a 24-hour period. During the overnight on-site event, technologists of all stripes paired with museum researchers to tackle, interpret and re-imagine the formidable and often messy data within the Digital Universe. At the closing ceremony of the hackethon, the teams demoed nearly 30 different projects, ranging from an API that makes the dataset more palatable to programmers, to a 3-D experience that uses the Oculus Rift to let the viewer fly through solar system. 

The Digital Universe dataset is free for anyone to download, but by bringing together people from a spectrum of abilities and interests, AMNH was able to catalyze a community of makers, raise awareness about the program, and gain some fun tools in the process. 

"While some institutions might be hesitant that online access to collections will syphon away visitors, many have found ways to strike a balance between digital and physical interactions."
Open your data set, close your doors?

The willingness of these museums to share their data and invest in digital experiences should not be confused with their intention to close up their exhibition spaces and replace them with a virtual museum. While some institutions might be hesitant that online access to collections will syphon away visitors, many have found ways to strike a balance between digital and physical interactions. 

MoMA has digitized some exhibitions with Google Open Galleries, but is also currently in the process of expanding its galleries to accommodate more exhibition space and visitors. These experiments have the shown the capacity for digital projects to complement, not compete with the site-specific museum-going experience. Each of the initiatives explored above engages with the the physical space of the museum and in-person audiences, and while that isn’t a requirement for digital projects, it should be heartening to any die-hard museum visitors who value roaming the galleries as opposed to cruising databases. 

Evidence of this was seen at the Cooper-Hewitt, where attendants handed out The Pen to visitors as they paid admission. While most visitors eagerly employed their pens throughout the exhibits, clicking and saving with abandon, a handful of visitors opted out of the pens altogether, preferring to navigate the museum without a digital aid. The adopters and abstainers demonstrate that digital experiences might not be for everyone, and that there is still an audience for “traditional,” on-site museum-going experiences. 


Staying relevant by truly sharing.

Museums continue to demonstrate that there is much to be gained, and little to be lost, by sharing their most precious asset: information. At a time when many institutions are searching for ways to stay relevant in the digital, sharable age, museums have found a way to cautiously evolve from collectors and catalogers to disseminators and enablers of innovation. Whether they choose to replicate the exhibition-going experience online, create APIs, or host hackathons that encourage makers to develop new applications of museum datasets, many museums are embracing the potential of setting their data free.