Friday, February 19, 2021

How to Search Online Museum Collections

Digging Digital Museum Collections: A Series written on a white wall. On the table by the wall, there is an old alarm clock, a small framed image of the glazed brick lion from the Ishtar Gate. The laptop on the right is open and the screen shows a collections search bar of an unidentified museum.

Welcome to the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context advocate for data sharing, data literacy, open access, and community collaborations. In this series, we explore user experiences with online museum collections and question what we can do to use museum collections data in more accessible, inclusive, and efficient ways.

We will highlight how different museums are sharing their digital collections, interview users of digital content, share “how tos” about using online collections, and try our hand at integrating content from different institutions. 

Part 3: How to Search Online Museum Collections

by Pınar DURGUN

When my friend and colleague Zach Rubin reached out to me to ask about activities students can do in his Meeting with Mesopotamia course, I was excited.  “Why don’t they search for museum objects in online collections?!” is, of course, one of the things I immediately suggested. (You can find more virtual museum activities in this resource.) 

His course looks at important Mesopotamian objects and monuments and questions how they have been used and abused in historical and modern contexts. The online collections search activity would be the perfect opportunity to discuss why objects from ancient Iraq are now on display in the British Museum, for example.

An activity like this would require a guideline for students because 1) not every museum has objects from Mesopotamia, 2) every museum has a different online collections search. Even when museums use the same collections management software (such as TMS, Argus, EMu, PastPerfect, or MuseumPlus), the online public version may look different. 

This is a problem for many students, educators, and researchers: “I falsely assumed that tracing objects across different digital platforms would be relatively easy,” says Emily Mazzola, a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture Program at the University of Pittsburgh. “It quickly became apparent that this was not the case.”

Some museums already have specific guidelines on how to use their collections. Take a look at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum’s guides.

Sophia Walker, Learning and Community Programs Project Manager for Museum of Fine Arts Boston, informs me that MFA Boston is also putting together a resource on how to do a search in their collections. This resource, Sophia says, is a result of conversations that happened in their teaching workshops and is based on the feedback teachers provided. It is a collaborative effort where the library, accessibility, education, visitor service, and curatorial departments of the museum have contributed. Keep an eye out for MFA Boston’s search guide coming out by the end of February 2021!

Such guidelines are very helpful in figuring out how the online search in that specific museum collection works. On the other hand, these guidelines are often institution-centered, meaning that the guidelines may work perfectly for searching one museum’s collections, but not so much for searching across different museum collections.

There are efforts to compile museum images through platforms like Mirador, CLEO or APE. Soon we can also find educational museum resources streamlined through Museums for Digital Learning (MDL), which we are very excited about! At the moment, educators and students teaching and learning remotely need easy to access tools to use online museum collections and resources. 

A two-year study by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access showed that a brief and effective training —even a one-hour orientation—improved digital museum use. You can read more about this study here. Based on this study and testimonials by students like Emily and educators like Zach, we created a video to get searchers started on their online collections journey.

You can read the transcript of the video here or turn on the close captions on Youtube.

While watching the video consider the following:

The key is “keywords”

Finding the right search words is key to getting your desired results. If you don’t want to spend too much time trying out different keywords, you may want to invest some time in gathering contextual information. The easiest way to find the related keywords is to look up “who, what, where, when” and use those as keywords (bolded). For example:

Who/artist: “Frida Kahlo

What/artwork: “Self-portrait” 

Where/culture-place: “Mexico” (you can add this in the geographical location filters)

When: 1940 (some museums have era/period filters as well)

Alternative search terms: “surrealism” (in other collections: Mexicanidad)

On a white background is the name of the artist Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954) is written in black under the MoMA logo and page navigation. There is a small black and white photo of Kahlo on the right corner. The text reads: “Frida Kahlo began to paint in 1925 while recovering from a near-fatal bus accident that devastated her body and marked the beginning of lifelong physical ordeals. Over the next three decades, she would produce a relatively small yet consistent and arresting body of work. In meticulously executed paintings, Kahlo portrayed herself again and again, simultaneously exploring, questioning, and staging her self and identity. She also often evoked fraught episodes from her life, including her ongoing struggle with physical pain and the emotional distress caused by her turbulent relationship with celebrated painter Diego Rivera.” Below the  text is an example of one of the three works online, which is  the “Self-portrait with Cropped Hair.”
Figure 1: A screenshot of the search result for “Frida Kahlo” in the Museum of Modern Art Collections search.

Even though there are standardized vocabularies, each museum categorizes and tags its artworks and objects differently.

Dr. Yelena Rakic, Associate Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ancient Near Eastern Art Department, says that one of the advantages to using online museum collections searches is that you can often sort your results in multiple ways. If you are getting too many results, try an “advanced search.” This means using filters by geographic area, period, material, or department. Many museums provide these general categories as suggestions in their collections search (such as MFA Boston). The Walters Art Museum has extra suggestions such as “artwork of  the day” or “community collections.” 

Dr. Rakic notes one big difficulty of using online museum collections: the inconsistencies in cataloguing terms across institutions but also within an institution. Being patient and prepared, therefore, is the second key to achieve the best search results. When searching for a place name, try its ancient (or modern) name if nothing is coming up. If the term is in an ancient language, one may need to try different spellings.

Alternative spellings and words are therefore useful: If your search on “vessel” is not bringing up the desired results, try keywords such as “vase,” “pottery,” “ceramic,” “bowl,” pot,” or culturally-specific terms such as ”lekythos.” 

You can use general search engines to prepare for your museum collections search. Luiza Osorio G. Silva, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, says her first instinct is usually to do a more general search to bring up as many objects as possible. Then, once she has narrowed down the search, she looks into museum collections searches “because the information they provide is generally superior to anything else one might find on the internet (other than academic or scientific articles).” The reason for this is because database entries and object descriptions are almost always written by curators, collection managers, researchers, and other experts. 

In the video, we used the example of a Google search, as it is the most commonly used search engine. But there are some ethical issues surrounding Google, such as privacy concerns and biases in the algorithm, especially against women and People of Color. Read more about how search engines reinforce racism in Safiya Umoja Noble’s book Algorithms of Oppression. Alternatively, you can use other search engines such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage to gather contextual information and find good search terms. 

Look out for outdated language and information

Make sure to check if there is a date on your collection search results or object information pages. Double-check the dates of museum blogs, articles, and resources such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History essays that we point to in the video. Some of the information in these pages may have been written and entered into the database a long time ago and may include outdated, offensive, and racist language. It is important to address these issues in a way that is visible on object pages. The Harvard Peabody Museum acknowledges on their collections search page that:

Collections records may contain language, reflecting past collecting practices and methods of analysis, that is no longer acceptable. The Peabody Museum is committed to addressing the problem of offensive and discriminatory language present in its database. Our museum staff are continually updating these records, adding to and improving content.

If you are an educator, it is a good idea to do a little bit more research on the appropriate terms that scholars and communities use today and suggest those as keywords to your students. You can point out to students why these terms or ideas are outdated, racist, colonial, or orientalizing. If you feel inspired to do the work, you can contact the museum and let them know. Museums often have a general contact email, commonly found under “Contact us.”

Quick tips for a successful online museum search:

Do some research on contextual information: who, what, where, when?
Think about alternative search terms.
Find out if the museum has a guideline for their online collections search.
Use advanced search or search filters.
Use the museum’s suggested categories or read through their resources to find out what keywords they use.
Bonus: You can search in a general search engine about the object /artwork by adding “museum” after your keyword to see which museums have similar objects.
Check the date of the museum’s object page, blogs, articles, videos, other information.
Be patient:)
Allow yourself to explore!

Don’t be afraid to expand your search

One of the most exciting things about online museum collections is that there is no end to exploring and discovering. We tried to give some suggestions to aid you in finding specific results. But looking through seemingly unrelated results may inspire your research in unexpected ways. Eric Kansa, the Program Director at Open Context, once made the point that getting lost in search results is like getting lost in a library. You never know what exciting book you will find on the bookshelf just across the book you are actually looking for. 

To keep things short and sweet, we limited the number of museum collections represented in the video to the highest voted ones on the Art History Teaching Resources Facebook poll. But there are small museums out there that have wonderful resources and interesting collections. Don’t limit your search to the big encyclopedic museums. Find out what your local museums have in their collections. And feel free to reach out to these museums or your school librarians to help you with your search.

Make sure to visit our Resources page for a printable worksheet on searching online museum collections and more pedagogical materials.

Keep an eye out for our future blogs on using museum collections for research and using museum images. Let us know if there are any other blogs or resources you would like to see.


Happy searching🔍


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