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Museums Are Going Digital—and Borrowing From Data Viz in the Process

Providing online access to a museum’s collections and data is one thing, but developing a curated experience out of it is another

Data visualization is a great way to celebrate our favorite pieces of art as well as reveal connections and ideas that were previously invisible. More importantly, it’s a fun way to connect things we love — visualizing data and kicking up our feet for a movie night. All week, Nightingale is exploring the intersections between data visualization and all kinds of entertainment.

A few months ago I was averaging three museum visits a week, and now I can average three virtual visits in an hour, provided I’m graced with a stable internet connection. While jumping from collection to collection, I’ve held a rather critical eye to the digital museum realm. The trick, however, isn’t to search or expect the same experience that an in-person visit would provide, but be open to a new and different one. Similarly, museums should keep the latter in mind when developing their own digital experiences. I’ll explore the various strategies museums use in terms of their online presence while highlighting digital collections and experiences I find especially ‘successful.’ If you’re eager to skip to the experiences themselves, there’s a list and the bottom of the article, and I’ll never know if you just scroll to the end.

Going Digital

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced museums to reevaluate their strategy from a primarily physical experience into an online one. While digital collections existed long before the novel coronavirus, more and more digital museum content has been surfacing it began. As I will explain later, providing online access to a museum’s collections and data is one thing, but developing a curated experience out of it is another. Unfortunately, it often seems as though museums take an approach that emerges from the physical exhibition, and use a similar structure to express it online. Rather than attempt to reproduce the in-person museum experience into an unequivocal medium, the internet, museums should seek to create experiences unique to the digital realm. Museums should ask themselves what digital tools can be used to display their collection, seeking frameworks and stories beyond an image-based list, or defaulting to an exhibition format. The digital realm has enough unique attributes to be treated separately.

As I briefly mentioned in a previous article on how data visualization can enhance the museum experience, digitalizing collections is a first and important step toward this end goal. It is much easier to pull new relationships and ideas from your collection if you’re equipped with data visualization tools and therefore the means to experiment freely with collections. While this is possible with a standard excel sheet, it is arguably more difficult and time-consuming to find such relationships, as excel sheets demand more manual work and a lot of uninspiring patience. Digitalization should be embedded in the museum’s strategy from the get-go, outlining the intended purpose of the digital collection.

Derby Museums is one example of a museum collective that implemented a digital strategy. Their brainstorming session notes (an image excerpt is featured below) illustrate the benefits of digitalizing collections and the many faces it can take. To review the objectives:

  • Global accessibility online: can easily search, share and use collections
  • Storytelling: create engagement opportunities whether that be in the form of education, apps etc.
  • Management of digital assets: keep the collection organize and accounted for, preserving content that risks degradation
  • Monetizing collection: can demonstrate the collection’s value or even generate revenue

The objectives are made possible by the digital collection, which serves as their linkage and heart.

Diagram presenting illustrating curatorial needs from the Derby Museum

With that said, museums have established various digital experience tiers while moving online that stem from the online collection. From basic to more elaborated:

  1. Online digital collections with basic search features: users can explore the digital collections on their own by searching or browsing.

2. Online digital collections with a guided experience: like above, users can explore digital collections on their own, but there are additional features such as color or time period filters for “guided wandering.” These types of search functions group works in a similar fashion that an exhibition would, with the added benefit of being more malleable.

3. Virtual tours with google or audio tour (a possible intermediary step): users can follow a tour, in an attempt to mirror the in-person experience.

4. Interactive experiences/applications: users can engage and interact with aspects of the collection.

Each seems to build off of one another: in other words, I have yet to find museums that have made interactive experiences out of their collections but don’t have an online digital collection for viewing. Online digital collections seem to be the groundwork for more elaborate applications. The next two sections will consider online digital collections, then the interactive experiences that can emerge from them.

Online digital collections

While there is diversity in the style of online digital collections—from basic search methods to the more creative—the most rudimentary appear like a visual spreadsheet. Apparently, I’m not alone with this impression. In 2015, Mitchel Whitelaw, who works with museums and libraries alike to digitalize and visualize their collections, published an article in Digital Humanities Quarterly called “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections,” which argues that:

“[…] search, as the dominant interface to our cultural collections, is inadequate. Keyword search is ungenerous: it demands a query, discourages exploration, and withholds more than it provides. This paper argues instead for generous interfaces that better match both the ethos of collecting institutions, and the opportunities of the contemporary web. Generous interfaces provide rich, navigable representations of large digital collections; they invite exploration and support browsing, using overviews to establish context and maintain orientation while revealing detail at multiple scales.”

To illustrate his first point about keyword searches, I’ve included an image below taken from the website of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. I invite you to click here to try it out for yourself.

The interface of V&A’s digital collection

Faced with this landing page, what is your first impression? How would you interact with it? Is there a story that’s being told? While the below interface allows more exploration than a simple keyword search without images, it remains unfriendly for those hoping for guided exploration. You could argue that a loose story thread is fabricated when you type in a search word, but there is no guide or curation involved other than the one you are constructing yourself.

I am not trying to undermine digital collections, I am merely hoping to engage conversation on visualizing and navigating through digital collections to the full extent that current technologies allow. Digital collection interfaces like this one take up only a tiny stroke of what’s possible in the digital landscape.

This type of interface for collections, therefore, seems better suited for researchers, or those who have an idea of what kind of work they are looking for in a given collection. Nevertheless, other museums have taken the standard digital collection interface and tweaked it, with amusing results.

One notable example is the Art Institute Chicago that includes a variety of filter features such as color, places, subjects, etc., as illustrated in the picture below. Indeed, customizing search filters by adding a few “non-traditional” options is an easy fix toward a more curated experience out of a standard searchable digital collection, a point I’ll elaborate on in the following section.

ARTIC’s online collection filter options

Interactive Experiences

After the work of digitalizing collections is complete, a laboratory or playground of opportunity emerges, depending on your perspective. Data can be manipulated, filtered, and ultimately used to tell stories. These are experiences that stem from digital collections and are written in the language of the internet. Some tours have even left Google’s street-view, as used by the Guggenheim, and upgraded to virtual reality. Experiences like VersailleVR: the Palace is yours and The Dawn of Art: a journey through the Chauvet cave attempt to replicate the in-person experience but do so at the full extent of modern-day technology. The caveat is that you need to own a computer and a VR headset.

With the above exceptions that aim for a literal translation of museum visits, an advantage of interactive museum applications is that they are unique to the digital sphere. A prime example is the British Museum’s The Museum of the World application.

Starting page from The Museum of the World
A pop-up from the interactive elements

While implementing the standard storytelling thread of chronology, this interactive application allows the user to plunge through time with their mouse or trackpad to click on elements that bring up a multimedia page complete with a description, map of the area in question, audio, and similar objects. Although the whole experience might echo the structure of exhibitions, it is made in the language of the internet with multimedia features that might be lacking in a standard exhibition.

The Museum of the World is actually a product of Experiments with Google, an initiative that contains a variety of creative programs that artists have outputted using museum collections, going beyond collection lists and virtual tours. It represents an instance of how open-source digital collections can expand digital experiences and spur innovation. I admittedly spent a few hours testing all of the applications on Experiments with Google that piqued my interest. I started with Beyond Scrolls & Screens, which analyzes Japanese folding screens and scrolls in a comic book-like format and at least one of those hours was spent fulfilling my childhood dream of studying hieroglyphics with Fabricius. The beauty lies not only in the interactivity, but Experiments with Google pools together pieces from collections around the world, binding them together in a coherent story.

Beyond Scrolls & Screens from Experiments with Google

Universities have also produced experimental applications to visualize art. One of my favorites is a collection from the University of Potsdam in Germany. One application, COINS: A journey through a rich cultural collection invites the user to explore historical coins from the Münzkabinett Berlin’s collection.

An example of one of the filter features from COINS

Another hub of experimental art applications is the Library of Congress’s LABS. Their initiatives are quite diverse, including the highly anticipated Citizen DJ, which will produce hip-hop music from the library’s online collection (to be released this summer), and the multi-media story, Southern Mosaic, which documents a trip in 1939 that recorded southern folk music.

Data Visualization from Library of Congress’s Southern Mosaic

Using recordings of music interwoven with text, photos of the journey, and data visualizations, Southern Mosaic provides a rather holistic exhibition-like experience, with a little something for everyone. Then there’s everything that Jer Thorp did for the Library of Congress, such as A Library of Colors, where mousing over a color triggers a particular piece in the collection.

This tactic of visualizing collections with color to make interactive pages seems to be a common technique: The Library of Congress has another application, The Library of Congress Colors, where visitors view the color palette of a given collection and each piece within it before being exposed to the work it is referencing. Then there’s Art Palette, from Google Art & Culture, with a similar approach to the latter, but it stems from a given color palette, displaying corresponding pieces, and finally my personal favorite from the Barnes Foundation, which allows users to specify space, lines, and light, in addition to color while filtering through the collection. In the above cases, color is the obvious story thread, though each site has its own emphasis. Look through the following pictures, or try the websites for yourself, and try to notice their differences and how these techniques serve to guide you through the collection. How do these added features change your experience from V&A’s searchable collection?

A Library of Color for Library of Congress
Library of Congress Colors: Japanese Fine Prints Pr-1915 Collection
Art Palette from Google Arts & Culture
Digital Collection of the Barnes Foundation

Museums have also taken a more blatant data visualization approach when portraying their online collections. Timelines and histograms are often used, such as the timeline used the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, or the color histogram for Tate.

Chronological histogram visualization of Australian prints and printmaking
Color histogram visualization of Tate’s collection

The above experiences seem to be especially suited to the internet and what we can produce from it. Like exhibitions, they weave a curated story that follows a common thread. Showcasing a bare-bones digital collection is convenient for researchers, or those looking for a specific piece, but there’s less “fun” involved for regular visitors — there’s no story thread or focus. Consequently, it’s easy for the viewer to feel overwhelmed and lost. While first steps to develop more interactive digital collections seem to focus on chronology or color, other methods of filtering collections could unfold, such as we saw earlier in “Beyond Scrolls & Screens,” which narrows in on specific objects, illustrating their appearance in each panel. I could also foresee categorizations from mediums used up to the age of the artist when it was produced. You never know what connections you’ll find, unless you try.

My hope is that by digitalizing collections and making them open-sourced, more initiatives such as Experiments with Google and LABS from the Library of Congress will ensue, thus producing unique, digital curated experiences of art. Given the output and initiatives delineated above, it’s clear that data visualization tools have been used for their design, whether or not the developers were aware of it themselves — developers might continue borrowing tools and techniques from data visualization storytelling until their products are one and the same.

I expect museums to continue to adopt a digital strategy that embraces interactive visualizations, and even exhibition scrollytelling (like here), which would have suited pages like Southern Mosaic rather well. Such endeavors would not only relieve our boredom when museums are closed but these visualization tools could lead to original narratives during the physical exhibition development process as well.

A few digital museum experiences

For interactive experiences:

Audio-based experiences:

VR Tours:

A good resource for online exhibitions, and tours, to be filtered through at your leisure.

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