Most digital cultural collections demand a query – that is, if you don’t know what you are looking for these digital sources are practically unusable . Mitchell Whitelaw writes, “as our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life land use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us.”
We must create user interfaces that encourage browsing, especially for visitors without a background in art history or the humanities. Our current digital collections are centered around search engines and keywords. While this might be an effective model for finding random information on Google, it quickly becomes ineffective when used for digital collections and archives.
Whitelaw helps us recognize the usability issues with our current digital interfaces through a thought experiment –
Imagine you are at an art museum, in a new city that you know nothing about. You enter the building and the only way to access the collection is by writing down an item or question on a slip of paper and handing it to an attendant. Museum employees will then bring out a few items that relate to your query which you can view from the lobby. What if the items they pull to show you are not what you are looking for? What if you didn’t enter looking for anything in particular or any knowledge of the collection at all?
I imagine a world where browsing an archive or a museums digitized collection is like online shopping – you can find something you like just by browsing, even without any preconceived notions of what you might want. Whitelaw emphasizes the need to display an naviagable overview of collections while giving opportunities for more detailed exploration when the user would like to know more.
Review of The Barnes Foundation Digital Collection
The Barnes Museum, located in Philadelphia, PA, is an art collection that highly emphasizes education. Their online collection is one of the most navigable museum websites I have visited.
If you click on the “Our Collection” in the top right. Upon clicking, you are immediately presented with a gallery of auto-populated random images. If you scroll your mouse over an image, it displays the artist and title. At the top you can sort by color, line, light, or space. I have never seen abstract search filters such as these on a collection website. For lines, you can sort by vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or curvy. For space you can drag your cursor along a gradient from shallow to deep.
Another option is the “search collection” tab where you can filter by Culture, Year, Category, Room, Copyright, and Artist.
Under the artist tab, it lists all artist options (with options to sort alphabetically or by frequency).
The Barnes seems to balance overview and detail as Whitelaw suggested for generous browsing. The ability to search abstractly caters towards all audiences and encourages browsers without a background art history.