We’re open! — Thoughts on building a new home for SMK’s online collection

Jonas Heide Smith
Nov 28 · 8 min read

On 29 November 2019 we’re finally, proudly, and with some trepidation launching SMK’s brand new online collection. Call it SMK Open.

It’s alive. After months (ok years) of discussion, iteration, and intense testing we’ve now opened the digital door to SMK’s new online collection. We are truly thrilled to be able to contribute to SMK — and openglam — goals of making cultural heritage easily available in friendly, open formats.

A small step for the internet, perhaps, but a pretty big leap for the museum. The collection is the soul of the institution and let’s just say we, oh you know, have fairly strong feelings about it. If you work in museums, you may smile knowingly here.

Working on the project has been both fun and challenging and in this post I’ll share some of our thoughts, hopes and trade-offs fresh off the battlefield.

First, the facts

With the new website we’re sharing as much as we can. At launch we’re including 79.004 artworks.

Art history students working to catalog the collection

This constitutes everything that’s been digitally catalogued out of a total of 250.000 objects in the collection. Close to 45.000 have images and about half of those are in respectable quality.

The site is 95% data-driven, meaning that almost everything is based on data generated elsewhere and often for different reasons. We’ll be doing very little manual editing specifically for the site, the exceptions being:

  • The construction of themes: Small collections of artworks tied together by an explanatory text.
  • The connection of artworks to audio (Soundcloud) and video (YouTube) and 3D models (Sketchfab and ScanTheWorld).

The online collection is built on top of the SMK API which in turns indexes data from SARA, the national Danish museum collection database developed by the Agency for Culture and Palaces.

We’ve built it in close collaboration with the Copenhagen agency Strømlin and their close partners in 1508 (the fine constellation of smk.dk fame).

The previous online collection

It replaces the collection.smk.dk website, an internally developed service launched in 2015. The old site has served us well but had a more professional target audience, a non-responsive design, and was not connected to the museum’s new data infrastructure developed under the auspices of SMK Open.

The grand scheme

Imagine, if you will, that you’re an 11 year-old in Esbjerg writing a term paper on Danish painter P.S. Krøyer. Ideally, you should only need to type that name into Google and that should give you direct access to SMK’s knowledge and resources. We’re doing a lot of very complicated things to make things easy for you. Search, download, paste — don’t worry about databases, taxonomies, licenses (or, necessarily, art history). After all, that’s what they pay us museum types to do.

P.S. Krøyer, Badende drenge en sommeraften ved Skagens strand, 1899.

The SMK Open project aims for radical openness. It turns the museum into a platform by making our material available in the highest possible quality, with as few restrictions as possible, and with the greatest possible potential for re-use. And it specifically aims to make art accessible for non-professional audiences.

Even if you’re geographically and financially fortunate enough to be able to visit SMK and pay the entrance fee, you’ll only — no matter how hard you try — be able to see 0,7% of the entire collection. Is analogue better than digital? The astute reader will recognise this question as a smokescreen. Digital is the only way that most people will ever see our highlights, but more importantly, digital is the only way to make use of (most of) the collection. For anybody.

So, this is the grand goal: To make the art collection of the Danish people actually usable. In a way that as many people as possible will be able to enjoy.

Design thinking

Lofty goals, of course, are nice to have. But anybody who’s been involved in complex design projects knows that strategy does not actually help you make those concrete design decisions. We’ve argued, we’ve revised, and we’ve compromised. And we’re entirely aware that much tweaking awaits us.

And yet! Here it is. Let’s do a few main features page by page…

The welcome page

Instead of throwing innocent users directly at a search interface we went for an old friend: The welcome screen. It shows familiar figures from the collection and introduces the “search menu”, the five entry points to navigating the collection.

Welcome page

Unbeknownst to the user, the first four elements actually open elements of the interface while Explore themes leads to editor-created collections.

A brief text introduces site, focusing explicitly on “exploration” and the potential for use/reuse.

Free search

In a sense “Free search” is the site’s functional front page. Most users who use the interface (as opposed to landing directly on an artwork via Google) will be using free text search and so we’ve been busy making the search field quite friendly. For details see my AI blogpost.

Free search

Search happens in “real-time”, so the results autocomplete, letting you know how many artworks you’ve found.

Three different views are available to suit different use-cases and we’ve included three filters (“Free to use”, “With photo”, and “On display at SMK”) to help narrow things down.

Advanced search

Maybe you don’t want cats or trees or even oceans but rather want to know exactly which woodcut-enthusiastic Italian artist of the 17th century (using the color blue) are in the collection. In that case, “Advanced search” is for you.

You may be unsurprised to learn that it lets the user apply a series of filters which all narrow down the search.

The (long and winding) artwork page

As you’ll have guessed, AI-powered searching is fine and good but we’d really like the user to hang out with the actual artworks.

On the page of Abraham Bloemaert’s Venus og Adonis

The artwork page collects and presents all the data we’re able to pull together. It combines collection database data with images from our asset management system and shows related video, audio files, and 3D files.

Let’s just say we went through quite a few possibilities before ending up at the current visual principles.

At the top — above the fold, if you will–we stretch the artwork to fill the entire canvas. To make things more complicated, we’ve overlaid white text. Now, this means blind cropping (with somewhat mixed, but surprisingly solid results) and it means contrast problems. To solve the latter, the artwork darkens when the user touches the mouse (it’s always darkened on mobile).

It’s a nice principle, in our humble opinion, but one that causes trouble for art where we cannot crop or overlay ad lib, i.e. certain in-copyright modern works. For those, we abandon the fullscreen design for a more modest-size image (that can still be zoomed, however).

Details fold in and out to avoid the dreaded metadata overload and to ensure that visual, exploration-type elements are readily available at the top (not shown here).

To inspire further exploration we show works by the same artist, and various categories of similar/related artworks (manually input into our database and also AI-generated).

On the artwork page, the user can zoom (via a IIIF viewer), download in available sizes (the largest files we have, in JPG format), and add the artwork to a “list”. Those are simple cookie-based collections that the user can put together and share by URL. They’re not meant to be editable (we really wanted to avoid having a user database) so once you lose that cookie, the list stays the same. Lists are mainly thought of as tools for teachers who want to share a handfuld of artworks with their students but we might expand the feature in the future.

Here, as well as on other page types, images are hi-res and served responsively. If you’re on a fancy retina screen, things look crisp and we avoid abusing bandwith (too much) by only sending you images in the quality that your screen can actually display.

Beneath the surface

All this happens because the algorithm gnomes are hard at work behind the scene. As mentioned earlier, the entire site stands on the shoulders of SMK’s API. SMK staff maintains all collection data in the sparkling new (indeed unfinished, at the time of writing) national museum database SARA which feeds our API.

For each artwork your browser requests, we check if it has an image in the SMK asset management system. If not, we check to see if there’s a thumbnail available through SARA. Only if both come up blank do we show the disappointing No image sign.

Up close with Rombouts/Caravaggio/Gentileschi’s card players in our IIIF viewer.

Our media storage is a Hyrax DAM. When an image is added, a JPEG 2000 file is created. These are delivered to the user’s browser via a IIIF server.

Unfinished business

Fortune favours the beta, or so we hope. The road of building on top of unstable data sources is a bumpy one and we have a healthy list of change requests and another list of Important Stuff Not Yet Implemented. This just to say that, what you are seeing is an evolving organism (to opt for a relatively positive metaphor) with a hopefully bright future full of loving revisions, subtle enhancements and quite major additions.

Have a look, click anywhere you’d like, download images like there‘s no day tomorrow, and do please tell us what you like, don’t like and just plain can’t get to work. As always, we truly appreciate your feedback.

Hugs and kisses from the SMK Open team.


Features coming soon

  • Themes: Editor-crafted collections of artworks
  • 3D models for 200+ sculptures
  • Video and audio for relevant artworks

Changelog

Here‘s a list of changes made after 29 November 2019.

  • 29 November 2019: Social sharing improved for non-artwork pages.
  • 2 December 2019: Fixed server bug that slowed things down. IIIF images now show up much faster.
  • 3 December 2019: Connected all SMK YouTube videos to relevant artworks.
  • 6 December 2019: Re-indexed the SARA database to eliminate classification errors that would make certain in-copyright works appear to be copyright free.
  • 10 December 2019: Reduced maximum thumbail size (to 1024px on the long end) to improve performance.

SMK Open

Making the National Gallery’s art collection freely available to everyone — for any purpose, ranging from fun to serious production. The objective is to make art relevant to more people. The project is made possible by Nordea-fonden.

Jonas Heide Smith

Written by

Head of Digital at @smkmuseum, The National Gallery of Denmark. PhD in games. #musetech

SMK Open

SMK Open

Making the National Gallery’s art collection freely available to everyone — for any purpose, ranging from fun to serious production. The objective is to make art relevant to more people. The project is made possible by Nordea-fonden.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade