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V&A Search the Collections

Victoria and Albert Museum
Design: The Other Media. Development: In House - V&A Online Museum

The V&A’s new Search the Collections is surely now the sector’s leading example of a user-centred collection discovery service on the web.

An innovative change in principle - Firstly it takes a bold strategic step forward by shifting the balance of power straight to the user. The V&A’s entire internal object catalogue, as used by curators, is now publicly available and accessible straight from the web. For researchers, this means that what the Museum has documented, they can access directly. There is no filtered subset, just the records. This is a significant change of emphasis that has already changed the internal culture. Curators now think of the web as a matter of course as they catalogue objects.

A huge increase in access - Over a million records are available, more than ten times the 80,000 previously available, with images jumping from about 30,000 to over 140,000. A mobile web version offers a faster simpler interface for search on the run. This version launches automatically from web enabled phones.

Support for the semantic web - The new service is based on an open API, which allows developers to access the data in code friendly outputs, using a simple set of operations for querying data. This has already had benefits in the rapid development internally of services. For example the creation of the mobile version and physical multimedia search interfaces in the V&A’s physical have been developed much more rapidly that would be possible from scratch.

A beautiful interface - The new search has a clean, simple and intuitive interface that is elegant to look at, but effective to use. The click and drag feature offers a rich visual browse. Within individual records there is cross-linking by related subjects based upon the catalogue data offering a rich exploration by theme, in addition to the standard keyword option common to web search.

A streamlined cross-platform mobile interface - There is a mobile version of the search for users of web enabled mobile devices. This allows the basic search functions and returns records optimised for mobile use. This service launches automatically when access from a mobile device and is not linked to any proprietary handset or platform, using common web standards.

Allowing users to help choose the best crops for images - In early 2010, a new crowdsourcing feature was introduced in beta, which allows users of the website to enhance the image views available in records by voting on a number of automaticaly produced crops of images. This is a radical shift of process to users, and gains insight into its their views and preferences, and is probabaly the first use of crowdsourcing in a key reseach service offered by a major international museum.

Increased use - Use of the new version of Search the Collections has been increased by nearly 3 times ,with a jump of average visits from around 50,000 over the 6 months prior to launch, to just over 140,000 in the first 2 months after its launch in October 2009.

In short, the new Search the Collections is visually exciting, offers depth of material, completely open access, world-leading innovation and user input in one great service. It is the standard by which other Museum collection searches should now be judged, and truly can be considered as one of the best research tools available anywhere on the web. 

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