Origins © Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

Uncovering Treasures: our work with Auckland Museum

Two years ago, the Auckland War Memorial Museum embarked on a journey with us to share its rich collections with the world at large, hoping to reach more people, in more ways than through its website alone.

A platform was built that links to thousands of other such datasets using Linked Open Data, added to a global “knowledge commons.” It now reaches a worldwide audience.

For its subsequent contribution to open data, the Museum has recently been named alongside the BBC, the World Bank, and other global greats as an example of best practice for web standards.

I want to share a little about our approach and the consequent successes from building this important platform.


Context: The Challenges of Memory Organisations

For 160 years, Auckland War Memorial Museum has been amassing a rich and varied collection of objects.

They were, however, actively searching for ways to overcome several challenges.

One was lack of space — room at the Museum’s physical site in Auckland Domain is at a premium, with storage capacity maximised. Built in 1929, the main Museum building was not designed to accommodate the growing number of collections currently under its stewardship, and many objects are not on current display.

Another was their inability to ‘connect the dots’ effectively. The current process of connecting related objects to one another was either expensive, time-consuming, and often unachievable.

Wild Child © Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

The museum wanted to find new connections between objects, at the same time allowing their entire collection to be accessed digitally by anyone, from anywhere in the world. This capability had the potential to unlock new experiences for all who engaged with it.


Approach: A Repository of Knowledge

After Auckland War Memorial Museum came to us with this challenge in 2014, we proposed a bold approach based on newly emerging ideas and technology for data on the web. We backed the proposal with a working proof of concept that laid the groundwork for a whole new approach to digital collections.

Our challenge was to create a platform where collection information could easily be accessed by anyone, and a platform which allowed meaning to surface from rich interactions between collection elements — both from within and outside the Museum.

Pataka Maori Court © Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

We imagined the museum’s collections as vast troves of “facts” that could be linked together to create a rich tapestry of knowledge. If facts could be linked to any other fact, then new relationships could be applied dynamically and we wouldn’t need to concern ourselves with the way we classified collection data.

We also wanted this repository of knowledge to be linked to other similar systems to contribute a more global ‘cloud’ of facts and knowledge.

Our Answer Was Linked Open Data

Linked Open Data is a framework used to link information. Wikipedia defines Linked Data as “a term used to describe a recommended best practice for exposing, sharing, and connecting pieces of data, information, and knowledge on the Semantic Web using URIs and RDF.”

It is “a method of publishing structured data so that it can be interlinked and become more useful through semantic queries. It builds upon standard Web technologies such as HTTP, RDF and URIs, but rather than using them to serve web pages for human readers, it extends them to share information in a way that can be read automatically by computers. This enables data from different sources to be connected and queried.”

Using the Linked Open Data framework, we built a triplestore — “a purpose-built database for the storage and retrieval of triples through semantic queries. A triple is a data entity composed of subject-predicate-object, like ‘Bob is 35’ or ‘Bob knows Fred’.”

Some triple stores have been built as database engines from scratch, while others have been built on top of existing commercial relational database engines.

Upon further investigation, only a handful of larger ‘memory organisations’ worldwide were experimenting with the use of Linked Open Data to make their collections more widely accessible and connectable online — these included the British Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and Amsterdam Museum.

The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of Don Hurlbut.

We worked in increments to first build the proof of concept, then the final product.


Success Stories

After completion, not only were objects accessible through the museum’s Collections Online, but the platform started revealing previously hidden relationships between objects, people, and places — delivering even further value and potential for discovery within the Museum’s data sources.

With other memory organisations using Linked Open Data frameworks, the Museum was also able to join a Linked Open Data cloud containing these organisations and others around the world, allowing further connections to be made within collections, unearthing new insights globally.

Collection information is now also being pulled into both Google Arts and Culture, an online platform created by Google Cultural Institute which showcases artworks, historical sites and stories from around the world, and DigitalNZ — a New Zealand-specific aggregator.

The Google Arts and Culture platform.

As of February 2017, Auckland War Memorial Museum has been recognised as an example of best practice in the World Wide Web Consortium’s most recent “Data on the web”. Founded by Tim Berners-Lee, the W3C sets and maintains the standards that help make the web work.

The museum was named alongside the BBC, the World Bank, the Wellcome Trust, The European Union data portal, and both the US & UK government-data portals as an example of best practice for web standards.

We are immensely pleased by these outcomes, and commend the Museum on their Open Data leadership and attitude towards their collections.

You can visit their GitHub page to read about how to access their data here.

And if you have any further questions about our work with Auckland War Memorial Museum, or Linked Open Data, please reach out to us.