Museum Data and the Novice Student

Beth Fischer
Aug 14 · 5 min read

On a hot summer Saturday near the end of July, a group of Williams College students, faculty, and staff met to practice using digital tools to tell stories with WCMA’s open-access collection data. This was an opportunity for attendees to play with a dataset that encourages creativity in analytical approach and output format.

We opened with a general introduction to storytelling with data, a show-and-tell of creative uses of collection data, and an overview of some easy tools to work with data. (We showed Google Sheets +Charts and RAWGraphs.) Then we took a tour of WCMA’s unique dataset. After a break, participants spread out to explore approaches to the collection, facilitated by staff from WCMA and the College’s Quantitative Skills Program and the Instructional Technology (ITech).

WCMA’s open-access data includes information about objects in the collection, as well as a zip file with a complete set of thumbnail images from the collection. Participants were provided with datasets that included a subset of the fields from the whole data collection as CSV or Google Sheets files. Those who were interested in specific questions or more advanced programming projects also had access to the complete collection with all fields through GitHub and WCMA’s API.

We used this familiar, human-readable format not only to lower the barrier to working with the data, but also to encourage participants to sample the breadth of the dataset’s contents rather than working solely from the field titles and descriptions.

Museum records like those at WCMA have a lot of variety in content and detail level. The collection includes objects that fall outside the traditional boundaries of fine art. The data has been recorded in different systems, from hand-written ledgers to a variety of computerized databases. Over many decades, multiple individual humans have entered the descriptions and details that were most relevant to the museum’s work at a particular moment. While this variety complicates data analysis, it also provided a valuable way for us to talk about the human components of data and the way that patterns and forms of collecting data expose institutional and community histories that can be lost if we force all the data to conform to our current preferences.

Where does “anonymous” appear in the WCMA collection?

Several participants began thinking of how we could analyze this human-centered content, from looking at the application of terminology like “Indian” or “anonymous” to exploring where “?” or other signs of uncertainty or ambiguity appeared.

The “credit line” field was unexpectedly popular. One participant started exploring this field to look for changes in how female donors were represented. While we felt that we couldn’t consistently assign gender on the basis of the names and titles in the field, we were able to explore patterns, like shifts from “Mrs. Husband’s Name” to women identified as independent donors in their own right.

Museum staff had previously explored gender questions related to the artists and subjects of works in the collection, but hadn’t done anything with the credit line field. Datathon participants had put their finger on the only field in the database that was completely determined by people outside the museum. Donors decide exactly how they want to be identified (or not), including their titles and the order of names listed when there are multiple donors. This makes this field a valuable resource for considering larger issues of representation, power, class and identity.

While other cultural institutions have been sharing metadata and allowing visitors to download images of works in their collections, WCMA is unusual in making it possible to download a complete set of images all at once. This encourages users to think of collection images as data in its own right. Playing off exhibitions that consider the role of color in museum experience, like WCMA’s 2017 Pink Art, one student began analyzing colors in the collection by dates and media. This student used data analysis of the pixels within the images as a way to prompt questions that could then be examined through other types of research.

After a few hours of work (with all-important breaks for lunch and popsicles!), we gathered one last time to talk about what had worked and what needed to be changed.

We discussed how much time it took to develop and refine questions: participants spent a long time getting familiar with the kind of data that was included and how different tools and approaches worked. One student suggested a longer time frame, something like the 72-hour hackathon-type events. The students agreed that a program like that would be particularly desirable over the Winter Study term, when students take only one class and have more flexibility in their schedules than during the regular semester. Crucially, this is also a period when the Western Massachusetts climate favors indoor activities!

We also learned that it was helpful to have some of the museum staff who work directly with museum records present. They could answer questions about the way the content grew and was used in ways that helped participants understand the data better, but even more importantly, this seemed to create the sense of a “client” at the other end. Several participants asked questions about how the museum uses this data and how it relates to the audiences that use the museum. The students in the room seemed especially excited by the idea of doing work that directly related to the museum’s work with students through teaching and programs like WALLS.

So, what’s next? We’re planning to have another event in a few months, but the WCMA Digital team is also using some of these ideas right away to explore new ways to share and display the collection. We’re particularly interested in that externally-populated credit line field, and in ways to play with the gaps and ambiguities in the data (all those question marks!) as entry points for creative approaches.

Special thanks to Laura Muller, Liz Gallerani, and Jonathan Morgan-Leamon for planning, organizing and presenting this event, and to all of our faculty, staff and student participants.

Beth Fischer is the Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Williams College Museum of Art, where she helps faculty, students, and staff find ways to integrate digital tools and projects into their work. Her other research explores the material and spatial networks in and around early medieval illuminated manuscripts.

WCMA Digital

Activating the collection

Beth Fischer

Written by

art historian, medievalist, digital humanist • @scribeth

WCMA Digital

Activating the collection

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