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CMA Thinker

Searching for a Masterpiece: Exploring the CMA’s New Collection Online

By: Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer

The CMA’s cross-departmental Collection Information Team launched the new Collection Online in September. As part of the initiative to make artwork information universally available, every layer of the visitor’s online experience was scrutinized to create a powerful search that removes barriers, helping users engage easily and intimately with the collection. Read more about this project from Jane Alexander, the CMA’s chief digital information officer, in the essay below.

When was the last time you looked at the CMA’s collection from your smartphone, an airplane, or the comfort of home? You can now access more than 61,000 artwork records, including those of some of the world’s most beloved paintings and sculptures, like never before. Dive deep into the provenance of J. M. W. Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. Zoom in on every detail of the boxing match in George Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s. Watch videos explaining the story of creation and destruction depicted in the statue Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance. Select alternate views for Bamboo, Rocks and Lonely Orchids to easily examine the handscroll’s intricate images and writing.

Earlier this year, director William Griswold introduced the CMA’s Open Access initiative as a logical and exciting outgrowth of the CMA’s mission to create transformative experiences through art, for the benefit of all the people forever. In addition to around 30,000 images of public-domain artworks, metadata relevant to more than 61,000 records is available without restriction, whether the works are in the public domain or under copyright. Objects are now linked to brand-new content, from videos to 3-D models, all within a sleek modern framework.

Striving to bring the best digital experience, the new Collection Online focuses on features that have never been implemented. Among these, the search function considers general users’ familiarity with Google-like searches as well as scholars’ needs, while the auto-complete accounts for common errors such as missing diacritics and misspellings. We’ve also implemented Microsoft’s Azure Search — an AI-powered cloud service — that ranks suggestions based on the noteworthiness of the search term itself, so more popular artists or artworks are suggested first. Often a user sees what they’re looking for before completing a search, and popular artworks are pushed toward the top. A search for “twilight,” for example, returns Twilight in the Wilderness as the first result despite other artworks having a close textual match.

Unlike any other museum’s online collection, all components of a multipart artwork are searchable. A search for ‘tea service’ provides the option to toggle between viewing individual tea-cups, pots, and trays, or viewing the ‘cover record’ — an image of the set as a whole.

When searching for a particular subject — such as “Madonna” — each page of a book, side of a coin, or part of a set containing that term is returned. Unique pieces of art previously hidden behind the collective of the work now spring into view. These components of larger records can be viewed individually and connected back to information on the whole work.

Did you know you have access to videos relating to 358 artworks? Select the “With videos” option at the top of the search page to enjoy interviews with art historians that highlight captivating interpretive content. This is just one of many options in the new search function. Find what you’re looking for by medium, time period, or gallery number.

We continuously add new content to keep our Collection Online fresh and inspiring. While 10 percent of the collection is on view in our physical galleries at any time, around 90 percent is digitized and available on Collection Online (we plan to be fully digitized by July 2021). We are excited to see how you will use this tool to engage with the collection, find a new favorite, or inspire your next visit.

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