Monday, 19 October 2015

Collections Online

On Friday we launched our project to put The Dowse's collection online, with a kick-off meeting with our development partner Sons & Co. It's really exciting, after years of working on interfaces for large, diverse online collections, to have a chance to work on something that's as tightly scoped (about 3,500 objects, nearly all post WWII, nearly all New Zealand) and as warm and human as our collection.

The timing was perfect, coming off the back of Museums and the Web Asia in Melbourne and National Digital Forum in Wellington.  At the conference in Melbourne I was able to catch up with Mitchell Whitelaw and his work on generous interfaces; as he writes in the abstract of a recent paper
Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.
At NDF several of us from The Dowse were able to listen to George Oates of Good, Form & Spectacle keynote 'Assumptions, Attention, Articulation' on the changes (and not-changes) between the late 2000s and today when it comes to the web, and the way we do - and could - present our collections online. George's keynote was GREAT and you should definitely take the time to watch it.

At the kick-off meeting we bounced around a lot of ideas, from hot-or-not (don't worry, it won't happen) to browse by colour, material, acquisition date, donor/lender, and emotion. We talked about other sources of information we could wrap around the objects in our collections to tell the fuller story of the artists who made them, including Wikipedia and Te Ara, and a couple of other ideas we'll keep up our sleeves for now :)

I think of what George and Mitchell do as 'alt interfaces', and although that undersells the intellectual rigour, it captures some of the sense of personality and opinion I think they bring to this work (more so than the vast majority of institutions are capable of.  I talked at the meeting about various projects by both Mitchell and George.

Mitchell's work has been about how digitised collections can be presented without the demand of the search box - the requirement that you have a research question before you can enter ...

Australian Prints and Printmaking - browse by decade

Experimental interface to the Macaulay Collection of biodiversity audio and video recording

The Nolan Explorer (commissioned by Canberra Museum and Gallery)

The Queenslander (State Library of Victoria)

George's work at Good, Form & Spectacle grows out of her work from the past seven or eight years, with Flickr, Stamen, and the Internet Archive. It has a bit more humour perhaps than Mitchell's work, and she is following a strong process of prototyping near (or close to) museums and collections.

Have a good sift around in the experiments GFNS undertook for the Wellcome Collection. This project introduced George's use of the term 'fat head' to balance the 'long tail' - the fat head is the place where adding editorial can add a lot of interest and value.

The V&A Spelunker is a guerilla interface to this massive collection. I'm crazy about the Date Graph section, which starts to give you a feel for the way the collection has grown over time.

Twoway.St, an alt interface for the British Museum collections, also makes me really happy.  Again, it gives you the beginning of an understanding of the texture of the collection, a way of browsing by travelling along the lines on which it has been assembled.

George also popped up this image in her presentation of something they're playing with - using the dimensions of objects from the collection to create sketches that indicate size, and providing a tennis ball as scale.

Finally, the delightful Small Museum project, all about 'using dumb tools bluntly', and exploring the research question What would a 21st Century cultural institution be like if it was designed today, from scratch? While not directly about online collections, you should check out the idea behind the project here and have an explore. George talks about this project extensively near the end of her NDF talk - that's the best intro.

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