Why your institution should free up its images and metadata

This week the Smithsonian’s Wikimedian-in-Residence Sarah Stierch wrote an article about the NGA‘s March 2012 open-access policy provision that “provided online visitors the the chance to download high resolution images of their collections which fall into the public domain. (source here)” The total, she says, amounts to “22,988 images to date” and you can read her full article, which details the NGA’s plans to increase that number to 45,000 images by 2014, at the link provided above.

While Yale, the Walters Art Museum, LACMA, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Library, and several other institutions are doing this, it’s important that a national institution jumped onboard, setting a precedent for the necessity to put authority-images out in the open. Hopefully now the floodgates will open and dozens of others will follow in their footsteps. Why is this important? Well, several reasons, but I’ll list two.

1.) Giving users access to our stuff makes our websites more meaningful, more engaging, and thus, more impactful.

  • This topic has been breached most notably by Koven Smith of the Denver Art Museum. He argues that we need to open up more innovative discussions that ask the question: What’s the point of a museum website? Specifically, he points out how silly it is to include museum “collections” as thumbnail images that hardly relate to the in-person experience. As a person who works directly with metadata and collections all the time, I have to wholeheardedly agree with him. The truth, supported by dozens of research studies, is that your online visitors are there for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily to visit in person. And, that’s okay. We need to use websites in a new way, finding the benefits in no longer being bound by traditional museum walls.

It’s not about creating more content,” says Koven Smith, “but creating better access to that content.

  • Khan Academy’s Dr. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker Agree. In this blog post they say restrictions limit influence: “The more museums restrict their images, the more works of art appear on the web in poor-quality reproduction, without color controls and without proper metadata. Restrictive museum policies seek to retain authority, but in practice render the museum’s expertise largely irrelevant for those beyond its walls.”

2.) Offering freely downloadable, Hi-Res images is one way that Art Historical institutions can stop failing their online users.

  • James Cuno, past Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and newly instated President of the J. Paul Getty Foundation is all for open-access images. So are educators. So are lots of tech enthusiasts, users, librarians and archivists, and students. In fact, everyone who works in art collections can tell you that it was more possible to find high-quality images in older mediums (i.e. slide libraries, microform) than it seems to be today. Seems backward, but it’s true. The problem is that some stakeholders – largely those focused on financial gain – are still fighting for image control. William Noel has commented: “The policymakers…don’t like the idea that reproductions of these images can be available for free. It feels to them like you are denigrating your greatest asset.” But, Noel has also stated: “Data is going to die if it’s not used.”
  • When institutions choose not to make high-quality images downloadable online, it doesn’t push users to view them from the institution’s source website. It’s much more likely, in fact, that those users revert to low-res Google Image versions of the image they were looking for. That means they’re never actually visiting the one of few places where they can learn the history and context behind that image. Yes, it’s true that the analytics of where that image goes after you release it into the wild might be difficult to track, but it’s hard to make an argument that locking them up will increase your relevance, the knowledge about your collections, or bring more people through your doors.


If the point is to bring users to engage with and learn from carefully collected and curated collections, what better can we do than to give people than full, unadulterated access? That way, at least institutions can share their knowledge of the work and inform users of its context. There’s a valuable teaching moment here that your museum should recognize and be excited about!

Does this mean people will download timeless artworks and photoshop penises onto them? Yes (but they’re probably doing that already). It also means that new creative spaces for image re-use and discussion can be built – and here there is a whole world of possibility. Take the Rijksmuseum’s Rijks Studio for example. Allowing image downloads also means Wikipedia articles with better source images, and that scholars, educators, universities, and museums can share these images on large screens, assembled in new ways, and discuss the details of pieces more closely.


Hurricane Sandy

Here in DC the strong winds & rain really weren’t too bad, despite expectations. After waiting it out for two days [without even leaving the apartment], we never even lost power. We realize how lucky we were in this storm. Our thoughts immediately went out to relatives, loved ones, and colleagues further up the East Coast – especially in New York City.

I hope everyone (& their archives/collections!) made it out okay. I’ve already heard several stories of artists who have lost years of work, dismayed runners who trained for months for the NYC marathon, and of course the millions of people who went without power, others who lost loved ones, and families whose homes were destroyed. It’s painful and tragic to think about.

Such a tremendous outpouring of kindnesses always seems to come in the wake of these terrible storms, though – when we all realize what’s most important and band around that. I have to say that I’m really proud of our President, who was both strong and responsive, and of the impressive reaction of NJ Governor Chris Christie, who stayed centered on what really mattered during the heart of the storm.

If you’re looking for ways to help, this site is a good place to start. Or, over here at Print Aid NYC, you can purchase a print designed around the theme ‘light’ & 100% of the proceeds will go toward the Mayor’s Fund for Hurricane Relief.

xoxo. sending hugs & prayers to everyone affected.

sure statistics have sex appeal, but what do they actually tell us?

Over at ArtInfo, an article entitled “The sudden sexiness of museo-success metrics” discusses the near-viral attention that a paper by Maxwell L. Anderson: “Metrics of Success in Art Museums” has seen in the last few days within the museum community. Although the paper is 8 years old, its enduring relevance, an especially important reminder in the midst of the annoying hype of MOCA’s Director Jeffrey Deitch and his agenda of promoting celebrities, and other other silly stories that only make us lose our focus, has brought about refreshing discourse on the meaning of statisticts and the priorities they [should] point to in our institutions. The lesson and point of the paper – that statistics are an attractive, and easy point of measurement, but are also potentially misleading – can benefit institutions other than museums: it matters for archives and libraries too.

It’s wonderfully straightforward and critical, but also raises good questions about how priorities have changed with the explosive increase of online presences and social media engagement. In a budget crunched field, it’s difficult to decide whether program evaluation, the application and study of best practice, or other time-consuming initiatives are most important to the mission of an institution. There’s no catch-all answer.

Another point that I think is worth addressing, is what numbers mean at all. Although statistics can be valuable, they do not always tell the whole story. For instance, just because Google Analytics tell you that the average person spends less than 25 seconds on your site, doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. That can actually be a reflection of a well-organized website that doesn’t require guess-work or unnecessarily lengthy navigation for patrons to find exactly what they’re looking for. If they want to know ticket costs and open-hours, and they find it within that time frame, those statistics reflect a stronger UX design than one that requires 60-90 seconds to find the same information. Some tasks and reasons for visiting are more complex and time intensive, though, like collection browsing and research, so average stats can be hard to interpret or understand – and it isn’t always valuable (or possible) to psychoanalyze them completely.

Tools like Museum Analytics can give more context toward stats being recorded at other institutions, but this is another place to tread carefully. I believe that  comparison can be extremely constructive if used for the right reasons, and can even bring about collaboration and ingenuity; but it can also be destructive. The web tool received accolades from this year’s Museums & the Web awards, but it’s worth reading discourse on others’ experiences and points of confusion before taking everything it has to offer at face value.

A really valuable discussion has been coming up from the re-emergence of these groundbreaking papers and documents, and it will be a great opportunity to follow along on the social media outlets we’re lucky to have today to see where conversation goes. Stay interested and connected – collaboration is how we can come up with better answers to some of these hard questions as a community.


I am totally geeked to share a new development out of the Scholar’s Lab at University of Virginia (which I also tweet about semi-frequently) called Neatline –> (Github code here) which was just released yesterday! It’s freely downloadable and can be used in conjunction with Omeka (ala George Mason University), one of the best open-source collection management platforms out there!

Rather than try and do a better job explaining what it all is and means for archives & scholarship everywhere, I’ve included Neatline’s own description of the product (or rather, the process). Check out the site to watch some demos, see examples of how it can be used, download plug-ins, or play with the sandbox version right on the web!

“Neatline is a geotemporal exhibit-builder that allows you to create beautiful, complex maps and narrative sequences from collections of archives and artifacts, and to connect your maps and narratives with timelines that are more-than-usually sensitive to ambiguity and nuance. In other words, Neatline lets you make hand-crafted, interactive stories as interpretive expressions of an archival or cultural heritage collection.” — http://www.neatline.org

Happy archiving :)

Search Navigation at the Walker Art Center

Having spent a decent amount of time in my academic career with search functionality, and studying/designing archives and library search functionality, I’ve become extremely picky and vocal about good and bad examples of search.

Time and time again, my favorite example of great search in museums circles back to the Walker Art Center. Not only do they have an amazing, highly engaging and interactive site to begin with, but their collections are easily accessible, and the search is outstanding. Why? A few reasons:

  • The Walker Art Center uses spell check to recognize when you enter something wrong (or they have no results for your query). Where they go beyond the average repository is: instead of just offering suggestions (i.e. ‘Did you mean ____?”) for you to run another search, they automatically re-run the search for what you most likely searched for. Most users probably don’t even notice their spelling mistake, or the amaze-balls design that makes this happen, which is exactly what makes it great!
  • The Walker uses mnemonic auto-suggestions that display terms with similar spelling in a drop-down menu.
  • They have high-level search faceting available via left-hand nav. tools once you pass the initial search interface.
  • They display categories the term appears in – and these are not listed alphabetically by default, but reorder based on the relevance, determined by the number of matched results each of those categories reflected.
  • They’ve built in color-coded hovering mechanisms. When you toggle over specific types of results, the typeface turns blue, red, etc., according to what type of information it reflects (i.e. “performing arts” or “education & community programs”). These categories are abbreviated in a small box to the right of the title/main entry, which also expands when you hover over it.
  • The interface is simple, and matches like conventions (ala Nielsen’s ‘Metaphor’ UI concept) in other search indexes like Google (i.e. displays 10 results per page). This lets you find information faster, and requires less clicks.
  • Thumbnails are always shown where applicable, but are displayed as secondary to other metadata.
  • Search content has also been made into a social experience. Results can be ‘liked’ or ‘commented on’ by patrons, the public, etc. which adds collection interaction and social tagging/crowd sourced experiences around the art, extending a social media arm to the site without the need for the platforms we’re used to. Beautiful.

I could go on, but that hits he basics. Most museum sites don’t have the advantage of an amazing web and media technology team like the Walker, but the difference (and level of success) between low and high quality can clearly be seen here. And I’m sure the analytics reflect higher participation, more time spent on the site, better audience engagement with the museum overall, and a higher number of visits to the actual collections to boot.

Anyone else love it as much as I do? What do you love most about their site? Or a different one?