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Why we need new search interfaces for OpenGLAM resources

A few days ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released freely online 375,000 images of public-domain artworks from its collections, together with the metadata. They are now available for reuse, research and wide dissemination on the Web.

I don’t like to be excited by the numbers in the GLAM sector, thinking that the qualitative effects are more important there. Of course, the positive change in one’s mind, or just a small aesthetic impression made through contact with cultural heritage artefacts can’t be easily recognized and measured, but still has more in common with the core of museum or archive mission that competing in the “who gives more” category. That rivalry promotes institutions that are rich in resources, skills and funds, even if the amount of work which must be done to free collections online is the same – or even bigger – in the smaller ones.

But of course it is great news that Met Museum has supported the global cultural commons in such a strong way. This is the next step in securing a new, if obvious, standard in the GLAM sector, that free availability of digital heritage artifacts is a norm and copyright restrictions should be only an exception there. But with another large amount of heritage resources placed on the Web, we should be starting to ask the questions about new ways of searching through them.

If I decided to spend a few hours every day to look at 100 digital reproductions of Met Museum artworks and to read their descriptions, it would take me about 10 years to view the collection. So 375k digital objects has become available only in theory – there is no way we can access all of them. We need to search for new ways of consuming cultural resources to make them truly available.

One can say that digital humanities tools like ImagePlot can be the answer. Let’s take all the 375k images and try to visualise it in a different ways. Ok, but will it be a true and qualitative consumption or just a chance to test the flavor and analyze the meaning?

I can just only wonder about a few new ways of qualitative accessing the large heritage collections online:

  • right now, we are dependent on the descriptions and metadata prepared by the Met Museum staff: what about building own and profiled indexes and search engines to access the collection in a new way?
  • to allow an intimate connection with a heritage artifact, we need to focus on a detail — as it happens, for example, in the Slow Art Day annual event. Can the new search engines and apps help us to access the details?
  • we have to work out new ways of searching without using textual keywords, which are always formatted by culture, professional language and the institutional usus. What about searching by emotions, colors, or contingency?
  • the reverse image search could be a standard for a large collections;
  • can the metadata be truly and officially subjective? I can imagine a system where all the heritage objects are described dynamicaly by a protocol aggregating the descriptions and emotions connected with the artwork from social media resources;

The basic condition of such experiments is public availability of objects and data. Met Museum has already done this – so now it is our turn to find new ways of accessing such a rich and large collection.

Image source: Italian armet, ca. 1440, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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