Welcome to the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context advocate for data sharing, data literacy, open access, and community collaborations. In this series, we explore user experiences with online museum collections and question what we can do to use museum collections data in more accessible, inclusive, and efficient ways.
We will highlight how different museums are sharing their digital collections, interview users of digital content, share “how tos” about using online collections, and try our hand at integrating content from different institutions.
Part 1: Who are online museum collections for?
by Pınar DURGUN
It has been a year since Bette Midler tried to shame three teenage girls on her Twitter for looking at their phones in an art museum (Fig. 1). How the world has changed since then! Now that most museums worldwide are in lockdown, only partially open, or closed for the foreseeable future due to COVID19, many of us experience museums only through our phones or computer screens.
As a response to closures, museums have since March 2020 stepped up their online game; they multiplied their digital content and fronted virtual resources on their home pages. Virtual museum tours, online exhibits, short videos, podcasts, story time hours, new Instagram accounts and hashtags are only a few examples of how museums now try to engage their visitors and fans digitally (Here is a good resource that has many more examples).
This year, museums were also asked to do a lot of self-reflection. The obvious necessity and increasing push for rep(m)atriation, anti-colonial/anti-racist practices, and BIPOC representation became much more public this year after museum staff layoffs and thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. The people spoke loud and clear; we wrote petitions, sent emails, and called museums out on social media. Collective efforts by museum staff, public, artists, activists, donors, and visitors made it impossible for museum leadership to ignore the inequities and exclusive practices they have been allowing for centuries (although some still fail to put their statements in action). Critical and free online resources, such as discussions with indigenous curators and peeks into the “behind the scenes” and collections have helped demystify what museums do, who has a say, and who is excluded. However, there is still so much work to be done to create welcoming museum spaces for all, both physically and digitally.
One digital resource, arguably one of the most essential digital assets that museums strive to have, is their online collections database. In theory, making collections available online for anyone to explore is a step towards democratizing information and knowledge. Anyone (that is anyone with internet access) can search for an object and enjoy learning about it for free, on their own time, from the comfort of their sofa. But in practice, the burden of finding the “right” information falls on the searcher. Online museum collections searches are commonly not designed for someone casually interested in searching cylinder seals on their sofa and not write an article about it.
Who is the audience?
Who is your audience? This is the question you are asked in any Museum Studies course you take or any training you do in museum education, pedagogy, or public speaking. Museum educators constantly think about who they are talking to, whom their programming is going to serve, what information needs to be communicated, and how. If you have ever participated in a museum tour or a public program, you may have been surprised by how fast the museum educator can switch from answering a kindergartener’s question about their favorite color to having a deep conversation with an older visitor about museum ethics. Museum education is tailored to the museum visitor. Online museum collections databases are often not.
Museum collections databases are initially designed with specialized users in mind, mainly the museum staff and researchers. In many instances, the database that the museum staff keeps and uses for their own purposes is made public online. When transferred online, sensitive information is often excluded from the public view (such as donor information, the price of an artwork, or images of sacred cultural objects). Other than that, the database retains most of its original content and in some cases even remains in a similar format.
According to my not-so-scientific Facebook poll on Art History Teaching Resources, digital collections database uses were common amongst researchers and museum professionals even pre-COVID. More than 120 people participated in the poll and around 115 of them used online collections both in their teaching and research. And a few started using online collections after COVID. This is, of course, great news. But here is the problem: When I ask my students to search online museum collections, I have to provide clear instructions on where to look for the collections search and how to find objects in a museum database. Figuring out how different museums organize their online database and what keywords they prefer is a challenge, even for those of us who work in museums. What about searchers who don’t have teachers to guide them or years of experience working in museums?
We all use search engines every day. How hard can it be, is what you may be thinking. Did you know that many museums don’t have their collections search visible on their front page? Sometimes one needs to click through 4-5 pages to even get to the collections search. The work doesn’t end there for the enthusiastic searcher. Once in the search page, you are faced with two options: 1) You can write your search term directly into the search bar and scroll through sometimes thousands of results, or 2) you can narrow your search by selecting advanced options and search by department, time period, gallery, and sometimes even by color, light, or directionality. If you are just looking for a mythical animal image for your children to replicate using playdough or Legos, or if you are making pottery in your studio and need some inspiration, what exactly do you search for? How specific do you want your results to be? For inspiration, perhaps you will appreciate having hundreds of results when you search for “glazed vase,” but if you are looking for that winged lion you saw once, would you know to search for a “lamassu” (Fig. 2)? We are not unfamiliar with selective searching: When we shop online for clothes, our search criteria can be based on color, size, fit, or article type. It is annoying to get sandals in your search results, when you are looking for a pair of rain boots. With so many options online and so little time, one might opt for a website that gives the “right” results the fastest.
So why use museum collections searches if you can instead use Google image search? Stay tuned; we will explore search engines more in depth in this series. But putting on my educator and researcher hat, I would say that one of the most important reasons is the reliability of the information. In this age of endless Google search results and skepticism towards expert opinion, spotting reliable information in a general Google search can be tricky. Numerous studies show that Americans consider museums as trustworthy sources of information and that they trust museums more than local papers, nonprofit researchers, the U.S. government, and academic researchers. Online museum searches will bring up results that you can safely recite to your nerdiest friends, your teacher who is a tough grader, and your skeptical relative.
Search engines and companies with big budgets have the resources to work with User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) specialists to provide you with a good search experience. Even larger museums may have digital departments maintaining and improving the database regularly. However, many museums are smaller in size and in budgets, so they don’t have these resources. Especially with the current shrinking of museum budgets and the diminished number of staff after layoffs, many museums don’t and won’t have the necessary means to redesign their databases. So what can they do?
Working with what we have
Online museum collections should be for everyone, not just in theory. So let’s reframe that question: What can we do?
My bucket list consists mostly of museums to visit. I am also an educator who has worked in museums. I use online digital collections databases daily for my research. Therefore, my ideal online museum collection search may look different than my game designer sister’s or history buff mom’s ideal online museum collection search. As someone who has worked in archaeological and museum collections, who entered data on various databases, I also understand that good search results depend on completeness of the information, careful data entry, patience, expertise, time, and resources.
Considering these limitations and many others, this blog sets out to explore how we all can make better use of online museum collections in the state they are in. In this series, we will talk to educators, students, artists, museum professionals, community leaders, social media users, and content creators, and share with you how they use online museum collections. We are also curious to hear from you: How do you use online museum collections? What do you look for? What works and what doesn’t? What would your ideal search and result look like? Your feedback will help in showcasing the possibilities of using online museum collections as they are. It will also be valuable to those designing online museum collections databases, entering data, and using this data. As a result of this series, the Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context will also create online pedagogical resources in collaboration with museums and for museums that don’t have the resources to do so.
Whether you search for a painting in your favorite museum to participate in the Getty challenge or you are looking for public domain images for your website, I hope that this series will inspire you to wander into new online museum collections. “Not all those who wander are lost,” but if getting lost in museum collections is what you are looking for, this series is also for you.
Please email us your thoughts, reflections, and experiences using online museum collections at firstname.lastname@example.org We look forward to hearing from you!