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Smithsonian Joins Forces with 14 Museums to Pool Data on American Art

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Envisioning what networked art information at US museums might look like. (slide image via americanartcollaborative.org)

Imagine typing “John Singer Sargent” into a search engine and being able to see every painting the artist ever made that’s owned by an American museum. Today it’s not that simple. Museum collections are like closed-off silos that you have to access individually to get the information you want.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hopes to change that. It has launched the American Art Collaborative (ACC), a consortium of 14 museums across the country that will connect these silos, creating what you might call the art-world version of the Digital Public Library of America. “Art museums share a commitment to helping audiences of all ages experience, learn about, appreciate and enjoy art — thus our missions also include promoting access to our collections and research,” SAAM director Elizabeth Broun said in a release.

The project has been described as a database, but it’s actually much more like a web. Current data from museum collections will be placed in the cloud and tagged with Linked Open Data (LOD) — something that’s already prevalent in the scientific world, but less so in the cultural sphere. For the technologically un-inclined, just know that it’s going to make it a whole lot easier to find connections and relationships between works, artists, materials, and styles across collections.

“As an example, a museum within the AAC might have the latest research on a specific portrait painting but the detailed biographical information about the sitter may be held an in archival collection,” Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, collections data manager at the participating Yale Center for British Art, told Hyperallergic. “[LOD] would allow us to make these semantic relationships without needing to set up a central relational database.”

Though the project was first announced by the Smithsonian February 2, it’s been around for a while now. The collaborative first came together after SAAM began its own internal LOD project to make 44,000 collection records more accessible a few years ago. It eventually evolved into an informal group of museums interested in exploring what the technology could offer. Last July, the Mellon Foundation issued a $50,000 grant to the Smithsonian to help educate participating museum officials about LOD ahead of a two-day meeting in DC this week. During the gathering, representatives from the museums met to work up a plan for converting their collection data and managing it.

Museum officials hope the project will ultimately enhance research about and increase appreciation for American art. “Telling fuller stories about collection objects will engage a broader and more diverse audience,” said Kate Blanch, database administrator at the Walters Art Museum, another member institution.

But it isn’t without its challenges — issues with copyright, privacy, and stubborn mindsets abound. Blanch told Hyperallergic that building a technical infrastructure that suits the capacities of all participants will also be difficult. “Museums possess different levels of informational technology infrastructure depending on their size and strategic priorities,” she said. Jana Hill, digital engagement manager at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, agreed. “Structuring and hosting LOD present serious challenges to a museum of our size, as does communicating the complexity of the technology in an accessible way,” she said, adding that ACC members are thinking about ways to pool their resources and lessen the strain on individual institutions.

Patricia King, assistant director of the Colby Museum of Art, added that many smaller museums also lack staff who are devoted specifically to digital resources. “It can be difficult to keep current in this ever-changing technological world,” she told Hyperallergic. “That’s also why this collaboration is terrific — the participants are working together sharing knowledge and resources.”

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