Beyond On-line Collections: Putting Objects to Work
Brad Johnson, Second Story Interactive Studios, USA
Many great and small museum collections around the world are on-line, accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime. This really is a wonderful thing. Now what? This paper is a look at two exciting projects – The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s exhibition America on the Move and the Peabody Essex Museum’s ARTscape – that go beyond the inquiry-retrieval model of an on-line collection as an end in itself, to one that provides the foundation for dynamic, extensible and diverse interactive offerings. While it is possible to add objects to and edit metadata in a collection database, most interpretive presentations are fixed programs that are difficult to modify. What if the same kind of browser-based administrative tools that are used to easily update collections could be modified to enable museum staff to curate, annotate, paginate and publish custom collections? Imagine curated collections, new stories, tours, on-line exhibitions, and media-rich presentations easily being added without involving designers, programmers or developers! When the dynamic collection and the storytelling tools are integrated, audiences benefit even more than the storytellers. Visitors can even create their own exhibits.
Keywords: on-line collections, enhanced browsing, dynamic storytelling, storytelling tools
As museums continue to make their collections accessible on-line, objects are liberated from the hidden recesses of storage, archives and unvisited gallery walls; audiences are empowered to make new discoveries and connections, and our collective cultural heritage is enriched. On-line collections offer an unmediated alternative to exhibitions and interpreted interactive presentations staged by museums. On-line visitors can directly access what they want, how they want, when they want. Visitors can select from a multitude of different pathways and a variety of perspectives; every image that appears in the site itself becomes a hub linking to every other instance (and hence context, story and perspective) of an object. Individuals can forge new, personalized paths through the site, finding new connections and meaning in the objects to reflect their own interests, experiences and curiosities This interconnected, cross-pollinated approach provides many intersections for interactive exploration to any subject matter.
At its most basic level, an on-line collection is a tool that helps individuals find what they are looking for. Fixed between the hundreds, thousands or millions of objects in a collection and the hundreds, thousands or millions of visitors who might access them is an interface: the gatekeeper-arbiter of ‘who gets what’ and ‘how they get it’. The first responsibility of a collections interface is to provide the clearest and most direct connection between visitors and objects. Evolving from a library science model where results are retrieved from focused, surgical inquiries, many conventional collections interfaces are excellent for experts who know what they want, but fall short for broader audiences that don't.
The first step in extending the utility and value and of an on-line collection is to help audiences discover what they weren’t looking for. Interfaces that go beyond traditional inquiry-retrieval paradigms facilitating unsolicited discovery and meaningful browsing serve wider audiences and more diverse user experiences. When vague curiosities are rewarded as effectively as focused inquiries, an on-line collection can migrate beyond the mere ‘tool’ and start to be thought of as an experience.
With the Peabody Essex Museum’s ARTscape, physical objects in a gallery connect to a unique on-line collection tool. Visitors to the museum bookmark objects with an audio wand, then retrieve the breadcrumbs of their visit on-line. Through an intuitive interface that suggests relationships between objects and ideas, and an extensive keywording system applied to all objects, a ‘fuzzy logic’ approach helps users discover connections between concepts, art and objects. Rather than generating a limited set of search results, this approach helps forge experiences as unique and personalized as each individual’s imagination. Focused searches or vague curiosities are equally rewarded with new discoveries that can themselves be bookmarked and shared with others.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History exhibition America on the Move looks at how transportation technology shaped American culture. The Web site’s dynamic collection database is the foundation for the entire site: from the on-line exhibition to the thematic story-tours, every screen in the site connects to and builds on the collection. Curators can continue to add objects and presentations, ensuring that the collection and the interpretive message work tomorrow as well as today.
Discovering and Sharing New Connections
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, the oldest museum under continuous operation in the U.S., has over 2.4 million works of art, architecture and culture in its diverse collections. The redesign of the museum’s site coincided with a transformation of the museum’s physical form and a new approach to the interpretation of art: one that creates a richer experience for visitors by bringing art, architecture and culture together in new ways. Central to this mission was realizing the new vision on-line with an innovative experience that helped visitors forge personalized journeys through the collection and yielded unexpected discoveries. Towards this end ARTscape was created, a tool that helps generate experiences as unique and personalized as each visitor’s imagination.
Launched in June 2003 with a record for every object on view, ARTscape (http://www.pem.org/artscape) directed visitors to commence their experience either by browsing particular collections (like American Decorative Art) or by searching for keywords (keywords can be searched across all collections or within a particular collection). Searching and retrieving is just the start for ARTscape, however; this experience is about the process of discovery, revealing connections, and creating your own ‘collections.’ Once an initial query is made, a spark ignites the process by revealing thumbnails in a results strip along the bottom of the interface. Visitors can quickly scroll through hundreds of results, scanning the cropped thumbnail representations and rolling over them for titles. When something is of interest, it can be clicked and loaded in the center of the interface where the title, date, creator, origin, medium and donor are revealed.
With a result selected, a user can elect to view the record where interpretive text and additional media are accessible. When users Show Connections, they have the ability to find more objects in the collection that are in some way related to the current record. This facilitates the rapid discovery of related items according to the fields a user enables the connections to be made in. For example, a visitor could elect to show connections for items with the same origin, the same medium, or both. Rather than relying on a fixed classification system, a predefined taxonomy or set cataloguing conventions, an extensive Google-like keywording system is applied to every record incorporating both concrete and abstract criteria. This fuzzy logic approach results in interesting and unexpected connections between concepts. Rather than generating a limited set of search results such as those typically made through traditional on-line collections, ARTscape helps forge experiences as unique and personalized as each individual’s imagination.
The fruits of every journey through the collection can be saved, shared and connected with visits to the physical museum. Across the top of the ARTscape interface is a persistent zone where visitors can ‘bookmark’ objects that they want to include in their personal collections. Results are selected and records are bookmarked, thumbnails of which are visible in the Bookmarks. If visitors are logged in, their sets of bookmarks can be saved for later retrieval, or e-mailed to friends, students or colleagues. This feature helps curators assemble exhibitions, teachers gather artwork for lessons, and visitors revisit their trips to the museum.
Bridging the Onsite and On-line Experience
As part of their admission to the museum, every visitor receives an Acoustiguide audio wand to use throughout the galleries. In addition to the traditional audio segments available for some works on view, these modified wands have an additional ARTscape button. Every single object on view has a five-digit ARTscape number clearly visible on its respective interpretive panel. Throughout a visit, audiences can enter the ARTscape number of any object of interest to them - hence bookmarking them - and their entries are recorded in the wand. When the wands are docked in any of the kiosks deployed throughout the galleries, visitors can interact with ARTscape where every object they bookmarked in the museum will be represented. Before leaving the museum, visitors can enter their e-mail address in a kiosk and an e-mail is sent to them with a link to ARTscape. When this link is retrieved on the home computer, the visitor can log into ARTscape and see a personal bookmarked path through the museum!
These features transform an on-line collection into a powerful tool enabling museum visitors to revisit, extend and enhance their experiences on-line. A ‘breadcrumb trail’ is saved of their physical tour so more in-depth information about bookmarked objects can be accessed at any time. Through the Show connections fuzzy logic functionality, visitors can discover other objects that are similar or related to their bookmarks, such that each bookmarked object on view becomes a launching point for new journeys through the collection. As more records are added to the database over time, visitors figuratively weave between the exhibition walls and the storage stacks where every work of art - on-view or off-view - is an equal stepping stone in a unique personalized pathway.
Personalization, Playlists and the MP3 Paradigm
The recent evolution of music formats, distribution, collection and playback has striking similarities to the ARTscape experience and plenty of characteristics that are inspirational in developing new approaches to on-line collections. Any MP3 playback application is essentially a front-end organization tool and player for a collection of MP3 files. Music is ‘ripped’ from a CD, and information is downloaded from remote databases containing artist, disc title, track titles and other information and embedded in the music files. Once an MP3 collection is amassed, music is organized according to genres, artists, composers, albums, and tracks. Music can be easily found and played, all without the tedious time-consuming tasks of finding CDs, inserting them in a player and searching for the song of choice.
Just as a disc-jockey assembles a string of songs for a radio show, MP3 applications make it easy to create and share custom playlists. From a pool of MP3s in a collection, users can easily sort, sift and browse tracks, adding any songs in any order to a playlist that can be saved, shared or modified. The same collection of music could be used by several different musicologists to assemble playlists that illustrate different interpretive views. An orchestra’s music director could experiment with different arrangements of work when developing a season’s schedule. Couldn’t we think of a museum exhibition as a kind of playlist that a curator created in much the same way? Couldn’t the shared ARTscape bookmarks of a curator from the Peabody Essex Museum be considered an exhibition playlist? What if an on-line collection could not only enhance the organization and browseability of a collection, but also act as a personalized playlist editor, capable of publishing on-line exhibitions? That is exactly the concept behind the National Museum of American History’s America on the Move on-line exhibition.
On-line Collections-based Storytelling
The administrative tools commonly used to manage content in an on-line collection stand in stark contrast to the tools required to publish interpretive presentations. While it is usually easy to add objects to and edit metadata in a collection database, most interpretive presentations are fixed programs that are difficult to modify. While many exhibition sites provide unmediated access to the objects in an exhibition, that access is most often accessible in a segregated part of the site, often connected but wholly unlike the mediated presentations that interpret the objects. What if the same kind of browser-based administrative tools that are used to easily update collections could be modified to enable museum staff to curate, annotate, paginate and publish custom collections? The flexible, fluid backend of an on-line database can lay the foundation for interpretive presentations that can be modified and expanded over time. Imagine curated collections, new stories, tours, on-line exhibitions, and media-rich presentations easily being added without involving designers, programmers or developers!
America on the Move
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History exhibition America on the Move (http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove) looks at how transportation technology shaped American culture. The Web site’s dynamic collection database is the foundation for the entire site: from the on-line exhibition to the thematic story-tours, every screen in the site connects to and builds on the collection. Curators can continue to add objects and presentations, ensuring that the collection and the interpretive message work tomorrow as well as today.
There are three principal sections of the site:
While it might at first appear that these sections are traditionally segregated, a few clicks through any section reveal their interconnectedness. Every image on every page in the Exhibition section links to the corresponding object record in the Collection section. From here a visitor can discover every other instantiation of that object in the site and see how it is used in other contexts, in the same way an MP3 player might show you every playlist in which a selected song appears.
As objective, neutral and unbiased as storytellers can hope to be, the editorial decisions they make invariably posit a subjective viewpoint that reflects their worldview, their culture or the age in which they live. Another person, a different group of people or someone in the future would make different selections. A different telling of American transportation history will be more meaningful to a different age, and from the same collection of objects at their disposal, a different perspective could be presented. The objects in a collection are the building blocks of stories: they can appear, reappear, be rearranged, regrouped, and reinterpreted throughout the site in as many ways as there are perspectives or playlists to share. In this site, the same database behind the on-line collection is supporting the Exhibition and Themes interpretive sections so that the objects are not inextricably bound together in a mediated ‘story.’ Every use of every object - be it on a collection record page, the third page of a story about radiator emblems or halfway through the exhibition narrative - is managed by the same database. Every time a new story is created, objects are grouped, annotated and published, and all related records pages are automatically updated. The building blocks of the story are organized by the database, not trapped in the narrative.
Turning Content Management Tools into Storytelling Tools
Museum staff, curators and invited experts use browser-based content management tools on an administrative site to edit any record or page of the site. Creating new stories is just as easy as adding an object to the database, with additional flexibility for a high level of customization. Once a new story is named, described and credited, the author decides which themes are relevant, related stories and links are identified, a custom color scheme is selected, and representative thumbnails are chosen. Then the fun of assembling the content begins. Site administrators can browse the collection and save records to specific lightboxes, and they can have as many unique lightboxes as there are stories they wish to compose. With a pool of objects and any amount of text (some stories are purely playlists while others are more like papers) ready to copy and paste from a text file, the creator can start authoring a page. Pages are comprised of varying amounts of horizontal components: custom containers for headers, text, images, audio and digital video. When a component is added, the author must select from one of 20 different component styles: one big block of text, a block of text and two images with captions, an image, then text, then another image, etc. A new blank component is embedded in the editing page where text can be pasted in and images cropped, placed and captioned, right out of the author’s lightbox. As more components are added to a page, the cumulative page size is totaled so pagination considerations can be made in light of downloadability. At any time the components can be reordered, and edited, and the page previewed. Once all the pages are satisfactory, the story can be published; it is automatically interconnected in the theme finder, related records pages and any related stories pages, all without any designers, programmers or HTML authoring!
If we care about creating interactive projects that can withstand shifts and changes in technology, why wouldn’t we care about creating projects that can withstand shifting points of view? Museums and cultural institutions would like to think their efforts will be accessible, viewable and of value to visitors in the future. Adhering to industry standards and separating data development from technology development goes a long way towards insuring against technological obsolescence. By developing sites that can accommodate dynamic interpretive presentation generation, investments are as editorially extensible as they are technologically extensible.
When the dynamic collection and the storytelling tools are integrated, audiences benefit more than the storytellers. This interconnected, cross-pollinated approach provides many intersections for interactive exploration on any subject matter. Visitors can select from a multitude of different pathways (from mediated to unmediated) and a variety of perspectives (from the ‘official’ museum meta-voice to diverse, alternative viewpoints); every image that appears in the site itself becomes a hub linking to every other instance of an object. Individuals can forge new, personalized paths through the site, finding new connections and meaning in the objects to reflect their own interests, experiences and curiosities.
A survey of exhibition and content-related museum sites (as opposed to institutional or promotional sites) from the past several years reveals an exciting landscape of innovation, diversity and ingenuity. Some museum Web sites provide austere library-science-like access to information, while others have documentary film-like storytelling qualities. For some curators, the Web is an opportunity to get out of the way and give visitors free access to all that is hidden in their physical museum; for others, the multimedia possibilities are a way to enhance their controlled presentations and add on even more interpretive accessories. Some sites provide unmediated direct access to their entire collection, while others provide carefully curated presentations.
There are great reasons for projects at each extreme of the mediation gamut, but there are very few good reasons for fixed presentations. While static presentations generally make it easier to create rich, compelling and immersive interactive content, this comes at great costs. There is no technological extensibility, no editorial extensibility and very little design flexibility in fixed features. Dynamic features, by contrast, are fluid, flexible and keep the components (content, presentation and technology) transmutable. Over time these features will inherit the same rich, immersive characteristics as fixed presentations.
This paper looked at two approaches to expanding the strengths of on-line collections into richer, mediated, storytelling experiences. Objects in collections databases can be more than a query result. They can be put to work as stepping stones in personal journeys. They can be bookmarks from a museum visit. They can be the building blocks of story. When visitors themselves can play a more active role in contributing their ‘playlists’, personal pathways, annotated collections, and stories with these new interactive formats, then we will get a taste of how revolutionary the Web can be.
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. America on the Move. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove
Peabody Essex Museum. ARTscape. http://www.pem.org/artscape