Reflections on MOMA online collections, with Blevins and Robertson, in mind.

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the past week, the Museum of Modern Art unveiled expanded offerings on its website, transforming online collections beyond a selection of items to include information and materials from all of its past exhibitions. The recent additions are part of the institutional archive of the museum, including some behind the scenes materials, like lists of the specific objects in an exhibition, used by curators and installers, or press releases and other promotional materials. Published exhibition catalogs, many out of print and/or expensive, are also included. The online archive is not static, and will continue to be added to, as new exhibitions are mounted and as additional, older material is digitized. The coverage in the New York Times quotes the museum’s chief of archives:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “The entire website is conceived of by the museum now as a living archive,” Ms. Elligott said, “and this is really just the beginning, the first phase of bringing its history out in all its detail.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In looking at the newly released, exhibition-centric MOMA collections, through the lens of observations and arguments from Cameron Blevins in, “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense,” and Stephen Robertson, “The Differences between Digital Humanities and Digital History,” several themes surfaced.[1]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The online archive upgrade is about access. Not that these materials were unavailable before, but now they are accessible to anyone online.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In an assessment of recent years, Cameron Blevins says, “In digital history, the predominant goal has been to make those sources available and accessible.” Blevins then proposes that digital historians should “reengage with argumentation” because “making arguments is a fundamentally valuable and necessary way to further our collective understanding of the past.” The materials in the MOMA collections represent or document history, specifically of the institution, but also of art, culture, and society. But they do not offer interpretation or analysis, only the raw materials for it. There is some fuzziness here, in that the exhibition catalogs in the archive do include analysis and arguments, but the archive itself does not, nor was that its intent.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The archive is comprehensive, in that every exhibition is represented, in some way, though the quantity and selection of materials varies.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Robertson notes that, “much of the early digitization of historical sources was highly selective, chosen from larger collections to answer specific research questions, or to make available well-known or popular documents.” Robertson believes this tendency has limited the usefulness of history related online archives to scholars. The MOMA efforts appear to be addressing this problem, to some degree. This is perhaps the result of advances in technology, which allowed the museum to process more materials at a lower cost, or the emergence of software or hardware that can handle the data in better ways, but it might also be an understanding that materials related to the museum objects themselves offer something to researchers, and that a long, complete view is valuable.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The search is keyword based and works, though it presents problems with taxonomy. The filters are not nuanced.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Robertson is also concerned with the way users access collections, specifically the limits of search functions. In this way the MOMA collections are typical of other large online collections, maybe more limited in access points than some. The landing page for the exhibitions part of the online collections sorts the exhibitions chronologically, so the earliest are on the first page. This is a reasonable and useful way to look at the materials, for some, but the keyword search will likely be the way most users find materials. It is unclear how deep the search goes, for example it does not appear to search within the published exhibition catalogs. But, for an initial survey or review of materials, the search seems to work, especially if a user knows what they are seeking.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 For researchers interested in modern art, industrial design, architecture, and planning, the enhanced MOMA online collections are an obvious upgrade. But there are materials there for many others as well. Consider the late 1942 exhibition, “Useful Objects in Wartime Under $10,” as just one example.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [1] Both articles appeared in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 21, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    This is interesting, I’m going to have to check it out. Usually search engines on museum websites are very limited to categories, artist, and dates of their works. I’ve had to go through pages and pages of digital archives just to find what I was looking for, but I’ve never been on the MoMA website for this, Modern Art isn’t something I like I prefer the MET.

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