New Interactive Program to Help Museum Visitors Use Data to Explore Artworks

People will be able to connect the dots among thousands of objects at a Kansas museum

7 August 2017

The Spencer Museum of Art, part of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has more than 45,000 objects in its collection, including historical photographs, ancient and contemporary paintings, and jewelry and textiles from around the world. Each item tells a story, but it’s not always easy to see how each contributes to the artist’s backstory. This year a database manager and a data scientist have teamed up to help the museum’s visitors connect the dots.

IEEE Senior Member James Miller, a professor of computer graphics at the university, is working with Robert Hickerson, the museum’s database manager and archivist, to develop an interactive Web-based program that will allow visitors to learn about the museum’s collection by typing simple questions. If someone wants to know about paintings done by Kansas artists during World War II, for example, the program would search the museum’s database and display works such as “American Gothic” by Gordon Parks and “Our Good Earth” by John Steuart Curry. The website, Art and Artists Through Time and Space, will be available this year, Miller says, adding that the interactive application will be introduced as part of an exhibition opening in the fall.

“We’re interested in telling the innumerable stories attached to the items in the collection, the artists who made them, and the inspiration behind their works,” Miller says.

ART HISTORY MEETS DATA SCIENCE

Miller began working on the project this year after he was awarded a research fellowship by the museum’s Integrated Arts Research Initiative—a program intended to create and foster interdisciplinary research and educational projects across the sciences and humanities.

The museum’s art database contains much more than images. Included is basic information about each work plus biographical information about the artist as well as where and when the art was created.

For users to extract information from the database, Miller and Hickerson are creating an application programming interface. The API includes interactive query and filter capabilities to let people search the database and find artworks based on specific criteria—“Show me paintings from the 17th century done by Spanish artists,” for example. The program would return a list of all the artworks that fall within the search parameters. The places where the artists were born, lived, and died as well as where the art was created can also be displayed on an interactive map that has images of specific works. Other location-specific data are viewable as well, Miller says, such as international exhibitions to which Spencer has loaned its art.

“These locations help tell the artist’s story,” he notes, adding that they could give visitors insight into what motivated the artists and the message they were trying to convey.

A search on artist Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, would pull up her paintings along with details about her journey, from attending art school in Chicago to her home in Santa Fe, N.M.—a chronicle that illustrates her influence on American modernism, from her cityscapes to iconic images of bones and desert skies.

Although the program is still in beta mode, a curator used it to plan a current exhibition on the work of immigrant artists in the museum’s collection. The program identified items not easily found using the current database interface.

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