A museum collection that never ends? Cooper-Hewitt’s new online collection

I keep getting lost.

It’s not just my newly-found geekout obsession with Geocaching either. It’s been happening on the pages of the Cooper-Hewitt collection alpha, launched last week and designed to let you lose yourself in its pages. For me, at least, it’s been working. But there’s lots at play in this collection, so I thought I’d run you through some of the elements that catch my eye and mouse-clicks.

A collection that’s “of the web”
The opening gambit that the collection makes is that it’s the first one self-proclaimed to be “of the web”, linking to (edit – and pulling in from) outside sources like Wikipedia, Freebase and other museum collections. This idea that a museum can gain authority by pointing to/sharing other useful and authoritative content is something that Koven Smith, Nate Solas and others have been talking about for sometime (the Walker being the first to take this approach to their website more generally), and it’s exciting to see it realised on a collection. Just as interesting is the way Cooper-Hewitt reaches out to its users to build the knowledge around the collection via external links, asking:

Do you have your own photos of this object? Are they online somewhere, like Flickr or Instagram? Or have you created a 3D model of one of our objects in SketchUp or Thingiverse? If so then then tag them with ch:object=18452119 and we will connect ours to yours!

This is an exciting move, and I will watch with interest to see how it develops (I cannot yet find an example of an object where a user object has been incorporated in with the museum record, so I don’t know what it will actually look like in practice). This doesn’t seem to actually invite the audience voice into and onto the collection record directly (ie through comments); but it holds promise to weave in external interpretations and iterations of the museum object with the museum’s own interpretation, acting as a form of digital citation. The museum collection record can then act as anchor for discussions/interpretations around the object itself, which to me seems to be an interesting take on the idea of “authority”.

I am curious to see how people react to the invitation to link their images and interpretations of collection objects with the museum’s. Will amateur collectors share their images and knowledge about the objects, and if so, will that force more attention onto the collection itself as the centre for a bigger conversation? (An aside – the museum asks people not to steal their images, so I wonder what the implications are of providing links to other people’s own photographs of collection objects. Does this provide an interesting way to make available images of collection objects without the museum providing them itself?)

A collection that speaks using a natural tongue
While I think the inclusion of externally-derived links/information on the collection is the big move that will get museum people talking, there is much more to like in the collection alpha. One of my favourite touches is the plain-text descriptions of works (often also accompanied by images). I am totally charmed by these textual descriptions. Not only does the language seem far less confronting than traditional museum-ese, but in the cases where an image of the actual work is unavailable, this conjures up a beautiful sense of the object itself. I have a peculiar urge to create tshirts and art products from these descriptions, and hang them on my body or my walls (before photographing them and linking them back into the collection, of course). This is my current favourite.

Night scene of a skyscraper consisting of a massed cluster of low tiered sections below culminating in a monumental tower. The structure is illuminated by the city street lights below and streams of light from a chapel- like central section. A white cross is visible at the top of the tower. Pedestrians walk among silhouetted leafless trees below.
Photostat #1964-5-13

How beautiful is that? Wouldn’t you love to get 50 different people to draw or create a work of art that met this description, and see what they all looked like?

Simple design solutions
These descriptions also serve as a stand-in (as do other natty little invisible design objects) for images where they are unavailable, in a gorgeous response to the problem of digitisation and permissions, otherwise spelled out in this disclaimer:

We can’t show you any images of this object at the moment. This may be because we have not yet digitized this object or, if we do have a digitized image, we don’t hold the rights to show it publicly. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Cooper-Hewitt has found seemingly simple design solutions to the problems that all museums are facing, of digital rights and access and the cost of massive digitisation projects.

Working with what you’ve got
What else? I think it’s great that this collection has been done as an ‘alpha’ release, a minimally viable product. I like that the eccentricities of the raw data are acknowledged. I enjoy the nomenclature used when acknowledging the “village of people” involved in making an object, and the focus on people/creators as well as objects. I love the way that the inconsistencies in data are explained, such as in the “Periods” section.

These sorts of descriptions explain why an object fits under the umbrella of a particular term, and why some of the descriptions are imprecise or less than perfect. It allows for imperfections in the data, but also acknowledges why they exist. Each period description also includes the number of objects you’ll find within it, and the percentage of the online collection that it holds, ie “American Modern — there are 531 objects made around this time which is about 0.43% of our online collection” which helps give context and proportion to the period in comparison to the larger collection.

Navigating a dozen ways, but still delightfully lost
There are nice ways of navigating this collection, which give credence to both what the museum thinks is important (ie departments), some classic parameters (countries, periods, media), and also the options for searching by people, their roles, or random. I also like being able to click on a time period, like “1900”, and getting a page that says this “We may not know what everyone in our database, did during the 1900s but we know about a few of them.”

At the moment, the display seems to be weighted towards those individuals or periods with the most number of objects, and therefore the largest percentage of the online collection, which would be a logical choice in terms of highlighting collection strengths or at least the weight of the collection. I’d be interested in whether there were future ways to weight the collection that might put emphasis on individuals in the collection who were considered to be important, but who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of objects, but right now the approach is logical.

Because there aren’t many images at the centre of the navigation, I tend to click on the most interesting or random words, and I wonder whether this is typical search behaviour or not. I will be interested to see how other people navigate this collection, and whether they get as sucked into it as I do. But so far I have indeed been wandering serendipitously.

There is much more I could write about, but I’ll leave it here. This is a very exciting step for the Cooper-Hewitt, and for online museum collections in general. I look forward to seeing how it develops and is received. Congrats to Seb, Aaron and Micah on the launch. Also, I think that both Aaron and Micah will be at MCN2012, and Aaron is a keynote at NDF2012 in New Zealand. Now is the time to swot up on questions to ask at these conferences on both sides of the world next month.

Have you had a play in the Cooper-Hewitt collection yet? What do you think?