M+ Collections Beta: A new step towards open access

Super Bureau
Dec 16, 2019 · 6 min read

Andrew Kupresanin and Belinda Chen from Super Bureau design studio write about their experience working with M+ on the new version of the museum’s Collections Beta website.


The M+ Collections Beta 2.0 is here! This newly launched version of the platform — an online space to discover the breadth, depth, and diversity of the M+ museum holdings — builds upon the foundation of open access that was set in the first release, and towards enhancing exploration and understanding of the collections.

We’re Super Bureau, a design studio based in New York. Over the past eighteen months, we have been working with Micah Walter Studio and M+ to make the treasure trove of collections data in the museum’s open access API available and useful to as many people as possible online.

One of our big questions heading into the design of the second release was: How do we design something to be fundamentally ‘open access’? That is, in what ways could the design of the collections website make it inherently accessible? Now that the release is out in the wild, we want to share some of our thoughts, explorations, and ongoing questions related to this topic.

Simplifying Entry Points

A key strategy of the M+ Collections Beta design is to extend access by providing a multitude of entry points into the collections and break down any barriers of discovery.

A Visual Front Door

The M+ Collections Beta welcomes you with visuals first and gives a sense of what the collections hold. This visual front door is an introduction, an overview, and a welcoming entryway to help orient and guide you in discovering the diversity of the collections.

Initial welcome to the M+ Collections Beta homepage.

Approachable Ways In

In order to provide approachable pathways into the various areas of the collections, fun facts and exploration tools are sprinkled throughout the initial grid of objects on the homepage. Surfacing these features invites and encourages you to explore and discover something new.

Exploration tools on the M+ Collections Beta homepage.

Encouraging Exploration

The desire for open-ended exploration is a principle woven throughout the experience.

Interactive Discovery Tools

Interactive features across the site encourage exploration of the collections, including: colours, a search tool where you can browse the collections across the colour spectrum; shuffle, a playful element where you can ‘roll the dice’ to reveal an entirely new set of randomised objects; and (if you really want to discover something unexpected) ‘surprise me’, a link that will take you to any object within the collection. Try it 👻.

The ‘search by colours’ tool allows you to explore the collections across the colour spectrum. Learn more about it.

Interlinking Everything

Another significant initiative for this release is to allow for continuous discovery by ‘interlinking everything’. Basically, if something relates to something else, there’s a link to get you there. This exists across the site, allowing you to follow a path of interest by clicking on tags, discovering more about a particular maker, or gaining additional insights through related items from the M+ Collections Archives and M+ Stories.

Interlinked content suggestions from a maker’s page.

Making Unbiased Recommendations

As we began to surface these fluid content recommendations and suggested pathways, a challenge arose. How could we provide them without instilling bias or preferential hierarchies? One solution was to use randomly generated suggestions and the logical connections that inherently exist within the data. Using these, we built a structure for nonlinear journeys and free exploration without the need for pre-planned or editorial input.

Adapting To A Spectrum Of Visitors

Knowing that the M+ Collections Beta site needs to serve a wide spectrum of individuals — each with their own perspectives, interests, and knowledge — it was important to create an adaptable experience.

Overview of M+ Collections Beta visitor spectrum.

Fluidly Adapting

Having such a wide range of audiences and use cases meant looking at ways to allow the design system to frictionlessly transition as you go from casually exploring to searching in more detail. The search results, for example, are very visual in the initial default grid view. This intelligently switches to the list view when within the archives section, to provide additional information and prioritise relevant data points.

Comparison between grid and list view of search results.

Providing In-Depth Access

Affectionately referred to throughout the design process as ‘fancy search’, a new refine feature has been added to the search results to give more control over your search to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Search results refine panel.

A unique feature of the M+ Collections Beta is the integration of 2,710 records representing over 5,000 items from the M+ Collection Archives. To adapt to this level of information and item hierarchies all archive items include a fully exposed archival context viewer, which allows you to understand where the item lives and discover related items.

Archival context viewer from an archival item page.

Giving Context and Understanding

The M+ Collections Beta exists not just to provide access to the digital records, but also to give you a better understanding of the M+ Collections.

Understanding the Collections

Giving insight into the groupings of items helps to create an understanding of the collections. Guiding information has been included to accompany key categories of the site, such as Areas, Object Types, and Makers.

With the inclusion of dedicated result pages for each of the Makers in the collections, we provide both a place to browse by maker, as well as a place to learn more about makers through accompanying information, related archival materials, and content on the M+ Stories platform.

Smartly Formatted Data

As a starting point for building out supporting information, we are displaying data points in an intelligible way to create ‘robo-texts’. This sets up a framework for the development of content over time, whether through the authorship of museum staff or algorithmic generation as our systems become smarter.

Bilingual Presentation

Providing all content in both traditional Chinese and English means that a wider audience can access the information. In addition to the ability to easily toggle between traditional Chinese and English versions of the site in the ever-present global navigation, we wanted to display certain pieces of content in both languages at the same time. In these cases, it was important to figure out where the dual languages were a helpful addition and where they became overwhelming. Currently, all main page headings and primary navigation items are bilingual to ensure that this key information is easily accessible.

Access Is Open!

With this second release of the M+ Collections Beta, we’re excited to see the implementation of many core features that increase access to the collections. As we look towards the addition of new exploration tools and contextualising data, we hope that the platform enhances the lenses through which you can discover the M+ Collections. Happy exploring.

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Super Bureau

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NYC based design studio. Inspired to see new ideas out into the world. We give shape, create clarity and bring delight to original brands and experiences.

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