Visualising the museum collection

Posted on May 26, 2011

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I’ve been thinking today about how we visualise knowledge and information.

Since 1735 – when Carolus Linneas first published Systema Naturae  – we have relied on tree-like hierarchical classification schemes to define and enunciate the similarities and differences between things. These strict binary classifications provide us with an incredibly useful and logical way of relating objects to one another, and organising that information.

But in 2005, David Weinberger asked (PDF) (emphasis mine):

Without trees, how would we organize college curricula, business org charts, the local library, and the order of species? How will we organize knowledge itself?

It’s an interesting question. Weinberger’s piece, entitled Taxonomies to Tags: From trees to piles of leaves, examined social tagging and suggested that it provided the possibility of a new form of classification (one that is, it must be noted, unsystematic). He wrote:

Tags are a break from previous ways of categorizing. Both trees and faceted systems specify the categories, or facets, ahead of time. They both present users with tree-like structures for navigation, letting us climb down branches to get to the leaf we’re looking for. Tagging instead creates piles of leaves in the hope that someone will figure out ways of putting them to use – perhaps by hanging them on trees, but perhaps creating other useful ways of sorting, categorizing and arranging them.

Weinberger’s way of looking at the descriptions we attach to objects acknowledges that there can be multiple relationships between things, each of which can be meaningful in their interpretation. At first glance, it seems much more akin to the information experience online, into which people can jump in at any single point, and follow an unfixed and continually unfolding journey to any other point. But while we can dive straight into a pile of leaves and reconfigure them in countless ways, it probably still helps to know what trees they fell from to understand whether you are rolling around in a pile of poison ivy.

However, where Weinberger’s piece is interesting to me is that it starts me thinking about new ways to organise knowledge.

Over the last week or so, I’ve come across a couple interesting conversations happening in the blogosphere, where other people are also thinking about the metaphors we use to describe our music and our museums.

Ed Rodley’s post on Apps as data visualizations reviews two recent apps – Planetary, a data visualisation app for music; and Biblion, the New York City Public Library’s newest app. Planetary is a data visualisation app that uses the metaphor of the galaxy to describe relationships within your music library. But what really captured me in Ed’s post (and ultimately inspired this response) is the challenge that he throws out, to “Substitute your museum’s CMS for your iTunes library and imagine the possibilities.”

Last week, Mia Ridge proposed that we open conversation on new metaphors for museums. She asks,

…what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

These discussions got me thinking about the very question that started this post. How do we visualise knowledge and information? And how could we? Are there new metaphors that have emerged out of the World Wide Web that could provide us with new ways to see the relationships between things? And finally, how could these new metaphors apply to museums, and only museum collections?

If Planetary can imagine music as the dance of the planets, could we visualise museum collections as a subway network with innumerate nodes where people can choose a direction to begin looking (ie American Modern Art), and travel along that line, stopping as frequently as they want or choosing an express past the objects until they reach their desired location; or until they choose to diverge to a side track (Kandinsky’s greatest hits) with new and spontaneous tracks able to be created in a moment.
(BTW – is it obvious I wrote this post on the train)

Or instead, can we imagine a museum as a city, whose buildings are filled with the markers of those who have come before? Peter M Allen, in his paper from the Complexity Theories of Cities Conference 2009 titled Cities: the Visible Expression of Co-evolving Complexity, argues that:

Towns and cities are the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have inhabited them. The buildings are monuments, some short lived some long, to the activities and identities of successive individuals whose efforts have been guided by the emerging patterns of ‘demand and supply’ of various activities. Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.

I feel that this statement could be equally applied to museums, with museum collections seen as  “the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have [created] them… Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.” Now, doesn’t that sound like the way museum collections evolve, pieced together by different people and influenced by different fashions and gifts to the museum?

And if that is the case, maybe the way we need to consider modelling the information within them requires a more complex metaphor than is provided by trees, or piles of leaves. But what do you think? How could you imagine a museum collection, metaphorically?

Posted in: Ideas, Questions