Challenges of Representing and Finding Collections Online

When thinking about our session on ways to visualize the past through cultural heritage collections, I found that my ideas fell into two broad categories: how institutions might visualize individual objects and collections; and how researchers might want to use those objects and data for their own research. What follows in this post are some of my initial thoughts about what museums and individuals are doing now and challenges facing them.

Institutions often represent individual digital objects with a visual, like a photo with a caption and some metadata. Still, very few museums, libraries, or archives are doing much else to communicate visual details and meaning of physical objects online.

    Visualizing for Individual Objects:

  • Scale: One of the biggest challenges in representing artifacts with digital images online is to illustrate scale. ArtsConnectEd is one of the few sites I know of that deals with scale by including dimensions and by using a visualization of a hand, elephant, building, to communicate scale:
  • Movement: Two-dimensional images of 3D objects are generally all that is available, while dimensions, depth, and full examination of an object can be difficult to visualize as a user. QTVR is not used very often, even though this type of software that sews together multiple images of an object to create a 3D representation has been available for nearly 10 years. While possible, this process can be time consuming. Few history museums incorporate an inexpensive option of using short videos to can create a similar effect.
    Visualizing Object Networks

  • Pieces of a Whole: Most history objects are related to other objects and embedded in stories about their production, exchanges, owners, uses, significance. Some of these things are part of a set, one of many related pieces–think of pieces of the USS Maine spread out across US—or panels from the Migration series, a factory whose pieces have gone in many directions. Though it is possible to re-connect disparate pieces online, this practice often is not done. One example is the King’s Kunstkammer, a partial reconstruction of the Royal Danish Kunstkammer (a large cabinet of curiosities) that currently exists in several physical collections held in several different museums. The design tried to mimic a cabinet and the idea of rooms, which actually is useful in visualizing the cabinet as assembled by the King.
  • Geographical Movement: Representing the geographic life of an object, visually, is extremely challenging since most mapping software only allows an item to contain one location. Are there ways to store lat-long data that can be mapped to show how an object is created and migrates, such as the life of a t-shirt (field-to-factory analogy)? A researcher could create their own visualization of an object using their own map, but it would be nice if an institution could represent its objects connecting multiple data points on the same map.

As a researcher, I may want to use and interact with online collections to create some of these networks, for instance, but am often foiled by step one: finding collections and data online! I’ve found in my survey of US history museums that only 17 percent of those museums provide a searchable databases for users (level of data available varies by institution), while 37 percent offer no collections information at all (not even a finding aid or a summary). If you are interested in objects, there just isn’t much there.

Once I locate relevant collection objects online, often there is no way to harvest data, other than by copying and pasting into a database that I create. For example, the Arago site contains a huge online database of postal history resources, but I can’t get any of it out of Argo easily. A small number of museums offer APIs, and finding public OAI-PMH sets is challenging.

Once I, or an institution, create a database of object data, there are tools like ViewShare that then offers options for visualizing this object data that can then be shared. But, the task of formatting, entering/creating, normalizing data requires a lot of labor ahead of time, and even more so if a museum works at the object level or is creating unique networks for objects (recording individual videos, adding icons that symbolize scale, geolocating).

One option for institutions would to make their collections available and the data harvestable in some way. LAMs might find that researchers are more than willing to share their “curated” data back with the institution for others to see/use/learn.

Most of what I outlined above probably seems extremely obvious. The reason for sharing these thoughts was to keep in mind that while there are different ways to represent collections and to use collections data to formulate new scholarly questions, a lot of work is involved just getting to the stage of creating a visualization.

I am most interested in working with the group to see if we can figure out ways to visualize movement/migration of items (could apply to people too), and to represent networks of objects or an object’s network.