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.


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?


Extraordinarily excited to hangout at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit all day tomorrow.

Gary Panter & Joshua White exhibit!!! #volunteeringisgreat :)

Also: I keep thinking about how great it will be to see the Mike Kelly exhibit at the Whitney in NYC soon, and remember his Detroit arts roots along the way! RIP – you are sorely missed!

Toledo Museum of Art: Incorporating Technology Interactively

Recently saw a temp. exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art called Small Worlds.

The exhibit was quaint, and stuck with me because it did such a fantastic job at incorporating technology in the right way: an interactive way. The exhibit is perched on  philosophical statements explaining the reality of our humanity’s small-size in comparison with the grander scale of the universe. To bring it into perspective, the exhibit has chosen tiny dioramas and displays that bring humans’ smaller scale to light, allowing us to see our ‘ourselves’ with distant eyes.

[the exhibit] brings together intricate, charming, disquieting, and thoughtful works of art on the smallest of scales. Each of the engaging works creates an intimate space or environment and shows scenes which are familiar, but perhaps slightly askew. – Exhibit description from the museum website

Smartphones can be incorporated into the experience – in fact, they have to: Some of the dioramas can only be seen with bright light or cameras pointed directly through a tiny hole into a house or tiny structure to see the detail inside. It’s brilliant because it requires interaction. And, while you have your phone out, you can also scan QR codes, tweet brief statements about your experience, & tag yourself alongside friends at the museum on facebook or another social media outlet.

Joe Fig

Joe Fig's Self Portrait. Interior view. 2007.

Lori Nix

Lori Nix's: Church, from The City series. Chromogenic print, 2005

I love that patrons are so engaged in this exhibit! What fun!


Breaking News: Interning at the Guggenheim

Very recently I found out that I’ve been selected for an internship at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in NYC over Spring Break. I’ll be working full-time for the week aiding archival development, digitization, and metadata creation!! Maybe I’ll even get to work with Spanish/Italian records!! I’M SO EXCITED!

I’m also stoked for the potential (fingers crossed) to participate in the General Assembly career fair on March 3.

Other museums/exhibitions of note that I am anxious waiting to see/salivate over in all my art nerd glory include:

1.) Mike Kelly Project for the Whitney Biennial

2.) Cindy Sherman retrospective at the MoMA

3.) Bellini at the MET – *never thought I’d miss the Renaissance much, but I haven’t seen a major Bellini collection since the Rome’s Galleria Borghese circa 2008…I’m excited!

4.) Being Singular Plural at the Guggenheim – *I love the concept. I think it will be fascinating, moving, and memorable :)

5.) The Ungovernables at the New Museum

6.) Make Art (in) Public at the Children’s Museum of the Arts – *I’m really interested to see how artists like Jean-Claude, Christo, and Haring are framed for younger audiences, and how well kids receive street art and public installation projects. Will be great visitor experience research! Plus, I have 5-year old level excitement about the things I love anyway, so I’ll probably fit right in :)

I plan to visit everything fo’ free!!
I plan to take full advantage of the free-museum time/day breakdowns delivered so nicely by aGogh (formerly known as iheartnymuseums.com). The site also has a friendly, well-organized UX interface to boot! holla!

Museum Analytics

Museum Analyticsbeta defines itself as “an online platform for sharing and discussing information about museums and their audiences.”

After only having scattered benchmarks to compare progress with, The Netherlands’ INTK developed this API-based web platform for collecting statistics and sharing them with other museum institutions. It looks to be building off of the Walker Art Center’s previous museum stats tracker. Social media and web analytics can be tracked over time, and the information is freely downloadable in aggregated PDF reports.

Over 3,000 museums are already participating!

My main problem with the application is that it doesn’t seem to have considered adding measurability factors to help interpret what these statistics actually mean. 

Although having over 1,000 Facebook “likes” might mean that people are viewing and (hopefully) engaging with a given institution’s content, the information that would be more valuable if it could determine what purpose led users to the museum in the first place, and whether or not their needs were met. Asking questions about the data is just as important as collecting it:

  • Did that user have a good experience? What made it valuable?
  • How many of the online visits are return visits?
  • Are there any commonalities in what returners did on the website that led them to return?
  • Will visitors talk about your institution with their friends and family?
  • …In a positive light? A negative one?

I would be really interested to see Museum Analytics incorporate some type of institutional hash tagging, or sorting by museum size, so that institutions can measure metrics against several types of benchmarks:

  • museums of similar size/budget,
  • museums with comparable content,
  • with the same types of patrons,
  • with shared goals,
  • in the same geographic area,
  • …etc.

Collecting information about not only the social media data, but museums themselves and what they are selecting to measure over time will be a more effective tool in generating valuable visitor experiences.