The M+ Collections Are Open!

Lara Day
Lara Day
Mar 15 · 6 min read

I am thrilled to introduce the M+ Collections Beta, a new online space for the museum to share the M+ Collections, experiment with new forms of storytelling, and learn how audiences interact with our institution’s holdings so we can serve them better in the future. We’re launching the site with a selection of more than 5,000 objects of visual culture, and for the first time sharing a portion of our archives — all presented bilingually, in English and traditional Chinese — with each record also included in our growing open data set, available through our GitHub repository and public API.

This is a big moment in M+’s digital development. Previously, the M+ Collections were represented only in the M+ section of the West Kowloon Cultural District website, which included a few hundred works explorable by keyword, object category (e.g. craft object, performance), medium, artist, and date. With the M+ Collections Beta, we’re building out the collections’ permanent home at collections.mplus.org.hk, adding several thousand more objects, folding in our archival items, and offering, beyond the existing features, some experimental ways to surface the collections. We hope that these will encourage browsing and exploration among non-specialist audiences, who might not know what they’re looking for before they arrive.

This is also a significant step in our journey towards open access. We met our first major milestone last August when we released our first open data set on GitHub, comprising some 2,200 object records, alongside a public API. In the background, we’re continuing to grow, catalogue, enrich, and image our collections, develop our long-term online presence on mplus.org.hk, and expand our staff to support the institution’s rapid growth, all while preparing to open the museum’s permanent building to the public next year.

First Things First: Visual Culture

One of the key things we wanted to communicate through the Collections Beta is that M+ is a museum of visual culture (a common misconception is that M+ is ‘an art museum’). Our collections reflect the diversity of visual culture through the core disciplines of visual art, design & architecture, and moving image.

We’ve surfaced these three disciplines at the top of the Collections Beta homepage through tags. Each leads to a search page that filters all of the objects in the Beta that fall under that discipline.

The homepage also includes a selection of ‘Current Highlights’, which serves up a curated mix of works from across disciplines. Each time you land on the page, you’ll see a different slice of the collections, or you can select the dice icon (basically a ‘random’ button) to view a new selection. At this level you can zoom out to see a larger number of objects at one time, which gives you a sense of just how diverse the M+ Collections are.

An Invitation to Explore: Browse by Colour

Our aim is to make the M+ Collections as approachable as possible. With this in mind, we decided to launch our collections site with an experimental tool that invites you to explore through a purely visual means: colour.

Instead of relying on a viewer’s prior knowledge of the collections to locate a particular object or maker via search, the tool helps people discover the breadth of our objects in a way that feels both intuitive and unexpected. A bonus of this approach: even within M+, where we know our holdings are rich in monochrome objects such as ink-inspired artworks and black-and-white photographs, we’ve discovered that our collections contain a lot more colour than expected!

Evolving Space, Permanent Home

Like the M+ building, the M+ Collections Beta website is a work in progress. For the moment, it offers a baseline experience composed of current highlights, basic search, and colour-led exploration. We’re deliberately launching the site as a space that’s under construction, so that visitors can see it evolve over time as we refine, iterate, and release new features.

We’ve used the museum’s interim digital visual identity (originally designed by Zak Group for sister site M+ Stories), which the team at Micah Walter Studio have expanded to suit the unique needs of a collections website. This includes adopting UX elements such as browsable tags, and surfacing the museum’s bilingualism on an object level.

Eventually, the Collections Beta will take on a new look and feel as the museum undergoes an extensive branding exercise that encompasses digital. But while the website will continue to evolve, from now on our collection objects will each have a permanent space on the internet, with persistent URLs housed under the mplus.org.hk domain. So while it may not look like a polished, ‘finished’ site, what you see now will form the foundations of the future M+ Collections website.

Sustainable Development

The Collections Beta is part of an institution-wide push to make the M+ Collections open and accessible, and has only been possible thanks to the work that’s gone into laying the creative and technical groundwork for open access.

Core to this has been the creation of a rich seedbed of content and storing it centrally in the museum’s collections database, TMS. We’ve been working concertedly since 2017 to improve, enrich, and translate our collections metadata, transforming TMS into a ‘source of truth’ for publishable content, regardless of end platform (you can read more about this process here).

At the same time, we’ve been developing the museum’s foundational technical infrastructure centred around the M+ API, which allows content to flow out from TMS and will feed into any future technology or application we might dream up in the future. The Collections Beta is the first public application to draw directly from the API, working in tandem with ElasticSearch for extra flexibility, and we’re excited to test it out.

What’s Next

We’ll be adding more objects to the Beta as we continue to release new records online, and will also be adding enriched content such as object baseline descriptions and archival record text entries as they become available. We also plan to add more tools and features such as advanced search, user logins, and linkages with our M+ Stories collections content, to help visitors better explore, understand, and enjoy the M+ Collections.

Our goal is to bring the entirety of the M+ Collections online by the time that the museum building opens next year, while also recognising that this goal is something of a north star — the process of cataloguing and imaging objects is time- and resource-intensive work, our collections are continuing to grow, and there will always be new stories to tell, which means that the process of enrichment is never-ending.

For now, it’s an honour to share the M+ Collections with the world, and to find out how the public responds to this Beta. If you have any thoughts or feedback, please get in touch at stories@mplus.org.hk. We look forward to hearing and learning from you!

M+ Labs

Experiments from inside the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong

Lara Day

Written by

Lara Day

Building digital at M+, Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture. Part-tropical mama.

M+ Labs

M+ Labs

Experiments from inside the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong

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