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Wikipedia for art?: IMA leads $1M project to bring museums to the masses

April 23, 2007

The Indianapolis Museum of Art took over administration this month of a national effort to develop an online database that could make art more accessible to the masses.

The two-year project, which got rolling last fall with $1 million in funding, revolves around a Web site that allows aficionados to look at images of artwork held by 10 museums and input descriptions in their own words.

Museums then could use the free software for search engines where everyday people can enter simple terms-called tags-to find and view artwork online, as IMA plans to do when it relaunches an updated Web site in August.

"Tags allow for more of a browsing or shopping experience of the art," said Robert J. Stein, the local museum's chief information officer.

Organizers hope the technology opens the floodgates for people who want to find a piece of art but might not have specific information about what they're looking for.

Take, for example, someone who visited a museum and remembers the look of a painting but not the title or artist. A Web search of the museum's collection would be nearly impossible, since most institutions catalog their artwork by artist name, title, creation date, period and genre.

With the new online database-dubbed "steve," for no particular reason-the person could search broadly for whatever he remembers from the painting.

The IMA's technology team took over project management from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 1. The project has received $1 million in funding, half from a federal grant and half from 10 participating museums.

Though the idea of using everyday terms to catalog artwork isn't new, harnessing that idea via the Web is. Many museums face the same challenge: Though they can easily link images with the traditional data they have on file, they don't have the staff to go through and add descriptive terms.

In fact, the IMA is still working on getting and uploading images of the more than 50,000 artworks the museum holds. Only about 35,000 are in its database now, and not all of those are available online.

And even if museum staff had time to add descriptions along with the traditional data, there's no guarantee the terms a curator might use would match what an average viewer might type into a search engine.

"People see things in the artwork that you wouldn't see yourself," Stein said. "Are the tags they use similar to search terms they'd use online? If so, that's free labor to tell us new things about the artworks."

Organizers asked member museums to supply the Web site-www.steve.museum-with1,300 images. Now it's running several experiments via the site to track whether the tags people enter are useful.

By fall 2008, researchers should have data on how tags work and a software program any museum can use. The goal is to be able to link participating museums' databases, said Jennifer Trant, a partner of Torontobased Archives & Museum Informatics.

"People are interested in the art, not what museum it's in," Trant said. "If you share the tags across institutions, it becomes a really powerful, users-driven way to approaching museums."

And the project could be expanded to allow museum visitors to enter tags via their cell phones or kiosks as they view the work in person-a draw for those who want to feel they have a say in the content they see, such as those who contribute to Wikipedia, an open-forum, online encyclopedia that anyone can update.

Still, there's been some push-back from academics about whether the general descriptions will be accurate or do enough to educate the public about the art, Trant said.

"There are some that feel they have a professional responsibility to care for and explain works of art and [using tags] is not fully living up to that responsibility," she said.

But that's an old debate taking place over a new medium, said James Nottage, chief curatorial officer at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.

He said since the 1960s at least, experts have worked on systems to catalog artwork using everyday terms.

"That part of it is not new but the question is, will the new technology allow something like that to work better?" he said. "I think a lot of people in the field will say it's an interesting idea, but let's see how it develops."
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