Photograph of Rousseau installed at MoMA

Installation photograph from The Museum Collection of Painting and Sculpture exhibition, held 20 June 1945 to 13 February 1946

On September 7, 2016, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York cracked open a new repository on the code repository service, Github. In addition to the release of their popular collection dataset, the museum also made the unprecedented decision to share the exhibition history of the museum (from 1929 to 1989), which also included a ton of archival material like press releases, installation photographs, and catalogues. You can see the official version on moma.org.

MoMA asked Good, Form & Spectacle to make a spelunker to showcase this data, and we were thrilled to oblige.

Voila!   http://spelunker.moma.org

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First Steps

As with all our previous spelunkers, the first step we usually take is to map out a basic plan for the information and how you’ll move around in it. This is often a basic List -> Item pattern, where List can be made up from any of the main data elements. In the case of MoMA, that was Exhibitions, Roles, People/Orgs, and Departments. From each list view, you can move to a single instance of that type of thing, and from that single instance, back out into others, like from an exhibition to the year it happened, or to an artist in that exhibition. (We also get a Python project running on Heroku, and pop our own first commits on Github.)

The main reason we enjoyed making the MoMA Exhibition Spelunker so much was because the data was of a different nature to a collection dataset. As well as listing each exhibition over that period, the data also shows all the people who were involved, both the artists, but also, interestingly, museum staff and other collaborators. We’ve looked a little at how metadata can represent institutional dynamics with Week 1 of the What’s in the Library? project with Wellcome Library, but this was altogether more fine-grained. Who are the actors in this institution? Can  you see their influence?

First Impressions

So, once we have the basic List -> Item scaffold in place, it’s really a matter of trying to answer the questions that come up for us as we poke around all the corners of the data. One of the first simple visuals we added as the basic timeline, to show quickly and clearly what happened, and when.

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Straight away, even a simple graphic like this asks questions. What’s that peak in World War II? Why the dip in the 50s? Why was 1978 such a full year?

It’s important to say at this point that a lot of what I’ll write next about what I discovered in the MoMA Spelunker is pure conjecture and presumption, based on looking at this data quite a lot. It may not be true, at all. (See Open Data, Assumptions and Naïvety below.) 

The Museum & People Dynamics

We don’t often get to see or know the dynamics and politics that go on within the walls of a museum. It can be such a designed space, all about the art or objects, that often the people who made an exhibition come true are almost entirely invisible. It was a real pleasure to work on this data from MoMA specifically because it isn’t about the art, but about the people. When we first began the project, I was keen to be able to show the art, but that desire was quickly supplanted by interest in, and display of, who was doing what.

One of the visualisations we made was about directors of departments, how long they were directors, and in some cases, showing where people went as they moved around the museum, in some cases in careers spanning 40 years. You can see in this screenshot what we can highlight a single individual as they move around too, so you can see who skipped where and when, like John Elderfield

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It was bordering on titillating to imagine who might have worked together and how such long term tenures really did shape the museum as it is today. But, it’s also crystal clear that a little map like this can reveal nothing about why people moved around. You’ll need to look in the Archives to learn those stories.

MoMA Characters Emerge

I was enjoying the way that showing this kind of data over time helps you spot blobs and trends and gaps in the data. I was interested to try to uncover whether we could show who the key staff were that really got MoMA off the ground in the early years. By taking a role – Curator – and drawing it over time, you can see quickly see who was kicking things off, in this case, the founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., curated 36 exhibitions, and worked there for about 40 years.

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Something interesting happens when you change how that list is sorted. We can show the same data, but order by who curated the most exhibitions, to get a really different picture that shows the curators who’ve worked on the most exhibitions, and how much they made in any given year. It’s there that you start to notice the effort of curators like William S. Lieberman, who led three different departments over his career, or Dorothy C. Miller, who worked at the museum for about 30 years, and was head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture for a relatively short time, too. Did they work together? Did they like each other?

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We liked this “most appearances” view much more, so set that as the default.

This list view is cool too, when you’re looking at artists. There’s a lot of info squished into that single list view, and the overall impression is mostly that MoMA has an incredible collection full of heavyweights (and very good relationships with collectors and other museums), and shares it with the world a lot! Here are the most exhibited artists in the 1929-1989 data… could you infer Jasper Johns blasted on to the scene at some point there?

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One small design thing I introduced was to show a small  symbol in big lists of people, so you could spot women quickly. This revealed a little gap in the data, where gender isn’t always noted. Since perfect is the enemy of good, rather than remove the feature, I’m trying to help by slowly making additions/corrections to a copy of the data, which MoMA is welcome to. (Want to help?)

World War II and The Responsive Museum

defenseflyer008Something that piqued my curiosity almost immediately was about how the museum operated in World War II, 1939-1945. They were exhibiting a lot, and browsing 1942 and 1943 in particular, there were clearly lots of exhibitions related to the war.

I first noticed the annual exhibitions called Useful Objects of American Design under $10.00 that opened in 1939, and repeated for a few years thereafter. I found myself wondering if this was austerity-related, but then realised I didn’t know the equivalent of $10 in today’s money! Nevertheless…

Then I noticed several others that were much more specific to war, starting to emerge in 1940 and many more in 1942/1943, and beyond, like War Comes to the People: A Story Written With The LensNational Defense Poster CompetitionArt in War: OEM Purchases from a National CompetitionWartime HousingRoad to VictoryCamouflage for Civilian DefenseUnited Hemisphere Poster CompetitionThe Museum and the WarNational War Poster CompetitionArt Education in WartimeWar Caricatures by Hoffmeister and PeelAirways to PeaceMagazine Cover Competition: Women in Necessary Civilian Employment, and more.

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Airways to Peace (and a cool interactive dymaxion globe!)

With a little further digging beyond our dataset, I quickly discovered that “numerous exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art were produced in collaboration with the United States government,” as it continued to exhibit the very best in modern art, including Starry Night, which MoMA acquired in 1941, and exhibited soon after.

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I simply don’t know how data like ours could possibly show that Victor D’Amico chaired the Committee on Art in American Education and Society, which established as “art education’s answer to Fascism and its contempt for creative art. We hope to mobilise the art educators and students of America, combining all their art efforts, large and small, throughout the nation to work for victory.” It’s just one or two steps away from his basic data, and you always have to stop making new columns in data at some point, don’t you?

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The committee worked throughout the year to keep art on the educational agenda. There’s a lot more background about the museum and the war available in this archival finding aid online: The Museum and the War Effort: Artistic Freedom and Reporting for “The Cause”. (It’s worth a read.)

I have to say it makes me wonder how and if museums in the USA (and elsewhere) are mobilising to produce a “vast program of art activity” in this way to combat the 45th president. Ahem. In any case, I actually removed a bunch of other “this was interesting” and “I enjoyed this” links and stuff. You can find your own way!

What did the critics say?

NATURE and social satire are the themes of two current shows here. Both are important and well worth seeing.

Jacob Deschin, on Elliott Erwitt: Improbable Photographs

Remember mashups? When publicly accessible code-level interfaces (or APIs) became a thing back in the day, the fantasy was that all manner of mashups could be made to combine and recombine data from all over into compelling new presentations.

One of our early ideas for this spelunker was to try to bring in content from the fabulous New York Times archive, a treasure trove of history around New York City and its surrounds from 1851 to the present. We knew that The New York Times regularly reviews events and exhibitions at MoMA, so it was simple step to try to combine that with the MoMA exhibition data. Luckily, too, the MoMA team had already done a lot of the work to connect exhibitions to articles, which was hugely helpful.

Could we show what The New York Times critics said about MoMA through the twentieth century? Yes! Critics such as Edward Alden Jewell, who was watching from the start in 1929, or Jacob Deschin, who often wrote about photography exhibitions from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, also form part of the fabric of the exhibition history at MoMA.

(Note that you can’t see full articles unless you’re a subscriber. We can show first paragraphs, which is a start.)

Open Data, Assumptions & Naïvety

This work for MoMA has been interestingly different from previous spelunkers we’ve made. In other projects, we’ve made exploratory interfaces into object-level metadata, which is (arguably) simply factual, representing objects and their attributes. While there may be errors or omissions in this kind of metadata, each object is as well-described as possible. Sometimes, viewing this data in the aggregate can bring insights — like seeing instantly that prints form the largest group of things by type at the Victoria & Albert Museum — but there’s really not much ‘colour’ to it.

Part of the provocation of the spelunker concept is to challenge the notion that people know what they’re looking for when they encounter a new museum’s collection, and I’m wondering if that could be extended to museum datasets. It seems to me that “drawing” this data makes it easier  to hypothesise about and ask questions of than examining a big .CSV file. You follow your instincts or an image that appeals or a person you recognise or a theme you’re into, and, I think, start to form your own opinions pretty quickly. The challenge is that this metadata can be quite rich, but, at least in our experience so far, also pretty superficial, so the picture that’s drawn for you is just a surface view. Perhaps though, it’s like a physical exhibition where you don’t read any labels (or there aren’t any), and you’re left to make your own judgements, some of which may be wrong, but all are personal.

As we were fleshing out the interface to the MoMA spelunker, I found myself making all sorts of assumptions about the institutional dynamics at the museum related to who was working when, and why they might have moved around, their areas of interest or speciality, and things like that. I’d written about some of that sort of stuff on the About page, but the kind folk at MoMA archives were good enough to let me know that some of those assumptions were just plain wrong! Maybe it was more that the data we were able to display only gives you a tiny glimpse into the actual dynamics, and it’s simply a must to explore more deeply with experts or other source material. I don’t want to draw wrong conclusions, and experts in house, who live with this information day to day, surely don’t want to express things that are wrong. Of course not. I think what I’m coming around to is that these sorts of explorers help orient viewers towards questions they’d like to answer, once they’re acclimatised to the terrain. That seems good!

More broadly speaking, we’ve now made six spelunkers at G,F&S, and it’s probably about time I had a proper think about how well they’ve worked and whether they’re useful. More on that later…

The team for this project was George Oates (design, project lead), and Phil Gyford (engineering). Thanks, Phil!

We’re very pleased to have some lovely new shelves made and installed by Scott Stannard join us in our Bloomsbury studio. They’re fantastic, and now we can get all the crap off the floor and every other surface!

Here’s the pre-installation shot:

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And the evening post-installation, with weird Charlie head, and Phil working hard on our new Explorer project (more on that later).

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It’s like it’s a real office or something.

This is a blog post by Phil Gyford, who helped me make a thing. I’ve been curious about a tool called sheetsee.js for ages, and we made a site to show you the museums we visit, and it’s driven directly from a Google spreadsheet! I find myself wondering if small museums might be able to use this simple tech.


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PHIL SAID:
George has been keeping track of the museums she’s been visiting in a Google spreadsheet and wanted to make it a little more visible, useful and attractive.

Sheetsee.js looked like it might be just the thing to help. It makes it relatively easy to use data from a Google Spreadsheet to make pages containing tables, maps and charts. One of the Sheetsee.js examples, Hack Spots, was along the lines of what we wanted, which was reassuring.

Within a day we’d got a quick single-page site up on Heroku, letting us list all the museums, clicking one to display a museum and its details, including a map. Pretty good! We spent a second day refining it, making nice URLs for each visit, and filtering the table to show only the museums built, founded or opened in a particular year.

The site has barely any back-end; there’s a single PHP file and a `.htaccess` file to make URLs like /visit/23 load that one file.

Sheetsee.js uses Tabletop.js to fetch the Google Spreadsheet’s data. We run through that data and tidy up each row a little: we make some fields more readable; and add fields to show (for example) whether or not that museum has any external URLs, which helps with displaying its details. Sheetsee.js then handles displayig the table, paging the data, making it sortable, and making the filter form work.

The JavaScript listens for clicks on the museum names and then displays its details. When the data includes latitude and longitude we use Leaflet to display a Mapbox map.

Making the page work more nicely — changing the URLs for each museum and keeping the browser back/forward buttons working — involved more custom coding, which got me in a bit of a tangle, given I’m not used to making single-page, solely-JavaScript-powered sites. It seems to work, thanks in part to History.js.

Displaying the museums that were only built, founded and opened in particular years also involved going round in circles a few times, and involved more URL-fixing shenanigans and manually filtering the data before handing it over to Sheetsee.js.

All-in-all Sheetsee.js was lovely to use and it would be a great tool for creating nice views of modest amounts of data held in a Google Spreadsheet, without the complication of a database. Going beyond what it can do by default can be trickier. For example, we wanted to have the table’s filter only filter based on the contents of a particular column, but that’s not easily possible. But, otherwise, two thumbs up!

Hi there. My name is Eliza Gregory, and I came to visit George in London last December, to observe what she was doing with The Small Museum and Museum in a Box, in particular, but also to bask in her fabulousness more generally.

I’m a social practice artist, and so I think a lot about how interactions, conversations and relationships relate to art (and can even become art themselves). I tend to make art out of conversations, experiences, and relationships, and I sometimes layer social elements with other media like text, installation, photographs, or audio. My favorite projects that I’ve done have taken months or years to build, and unfold over time, with the goal of cultivating relationships across class and across culture in a given community. Sometimes I also do much simpler one-off events, like The Box Project, which I wrote about for George a while back.

Increasingly I’ve been working with museums in mutually beneficial collaborations. The museums commission me to create events and artworks that connect with specific audiences. Sometimes that results in some kind of physical object being made (a book, a photograph) and sometimes it’s a very process-focused activity that results in a new group of people feeling connected to the museum, or a new set of connections between people (those relationships across class, or across culture that I mentioned). And I’m experimenting with how museums can become engines of social change, by looking carefully at (and potentially changing) whose stories are represented, how they are told, and who gets to listen.

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For example, this is a book I produced in conjunction with the Asian Art Museum, as part of a project about contemporary immigration in San Francisco.

I’ve been thinking through the potential for Museum in a Box and the Small Museum to increase interactivity in museums as a way to drive social change. A few different projects that are touchstones for me have challenged museums to acknowledge their interactivity in fundamental ways–challenged them to evaluate: who really is welcomed by the institution as a visitor or a staff person? What narrative is really being put forward about power, justice, race, gender, and equality? What does a visitor get out of each visit to the museum, and is that enough? When only a small subset of the population in a place visits the museum, can the society justify the amount of resources it takes to maintain the institution and the collection? How many resources devoted toward preserving stuff is too many? And who is getting to choose what is preserved?

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The Box Project 2016 @ the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Photograph by Quincy Stamper.

These are all questions about values. Unsurprisingly, social values all over the world have gone through major changes in the last 60 years. But museums, which are inherently conservative–they actively conserve the past–have been slow to adapt to the new social contexts in which they find themselves. So the most interesting projects I’ve seen artists and creative administrators take on have challenged museums to evolve; to become agents of social justice, to become more truly public, to become relevant to the present and the future as well as the past.

I’m thinking of Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2004 Musee Precaire, where he convinced the Pompidou Center to loan a great many works out to a space in Aubervilliers. Quoting Alfred Pacquement, director of the Pompidou at the time, as published on the Tate’s website,

After doing several short internships – such as working on the installation of the Biennale de Lyon – a group of twelve young people had a two-month full immersion in the different departments of the Centre Pompidou, including security, art handling, framing, installing and public information and education. Since they were well prepared before the opening, there was a strong sense that this Musée Précaire belonged to them. The hands-on involvement of the residents of Aubervilliers was always at the heart of the plan, so we approached the training programme as we would any other professional internship. We made no special exceptions because of the size or the ‘precariousness’ of their future museum.

The result was a quite extraordinary atmosphere. On the one hand there was this incredibly relaxed environment. Under usual circumstances, people tend to act differently in a museum – such as lowering their voices as they walk around the space. Yet in Aubervilliers, the residents did not change their everyday behaviour. There was music playing. There were kids hanging out in the Musée Précaire’s café, playing and running around in front of the exhibition space. In stark contrast though, there was an air of utter dedication when it came to the young people employed by the museum. It was obvious that they took their jobs extremely seriously. One could sense that they felt the responsibility and trust confided in them by the Pompidou in lending them these artworks.

Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky Et Al. (described here by the Whitney) from 1971 exposed connections between slumlords in Manhattan and the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where the work was to be part of a solo show (which was canceled). Now owned by the Whitney and formally acknowledged as “institutional critique,” it has become part of the canon, although the subject of the work should be no less threatening today, and is no less radical. While not exactly interactive, this work exposes the interactions the museum is built on, calling out the conceit that museums are simply places of display that have somehow shed the messiness of social context.

And a third example: In 2013 Erica Thomas worked with the Portland Art Museum to put a small LED light next to each work in each gallery that was made by a woman.

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Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be very few works–just one or two paintings in each European gallery, for example, was lit up.

But the Native American galleries glowed.

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It was moving and astonishing to make something we know but don’t think about so intensely visible. (Images courtesy Erica Thomas.)

All three of these works make the structure of “museums” overt. Hirschhorn calls attention to the staff, the visitors, the culture of comportment, and the notion of security and permanence. Haacke looks at the power structures (and potentially dirty money) that fund museums. And Thomas shows us the cultural bias and prejudice reflected through curatorial decision making.

By making the institutional structures overt, these artists also expose the limits of each institution in a new way. Haacke’s piece could not be exhibited in the moment that it was made because the Guggenheim could not have continued to exist without the support of its trustees and their funding. It’s not that the institution was wrong to cancel the exhibition–what’s interesting is that the cancelation itself demonstrated the limits (and the architecture) of the institution. He found the way the whole place could be broken. Hirschhorn demonstrates that such an inversion of the power (and racial) dynamics of the Pompidou are possible, but not sustainable–they are inherently temporary and precarious; a gesture, an amusement, but not a permanent shift in power. What’s so effective is now we know they are possible, which means that we as a society make a choice not to sustain them. He shows us that the process by which societies tell stories about themselves depends upon consent and engagement from whoever has the power in that society. He has made the social conventions and the money surrounding the institution visible, just like Haacke, but through an entirely different avenue. Finally, on a smaller scale but no less poignant because of it, Thomas shows us that vague perceptions of contemporary institutions as equitable are not real. The museum may wish to be seen as a place that supports women and female artists generally, but the collection tells a different story.

The idea of a small museum gets around some of these issues by simply not being able to participate in them (lower security, less funding, a wider variety of neighborhood micro-contexts both physically and socially). To me, the more aware (and intentional) a small institution is about how and when they are reenacting the structure of a big museum, the more interesting they will be. They have lots of opportunities for explicitly inverting traditional rules or practices, often out of necessity, and I think that can be a real strength.

Museum in a Box, meanwhile, is playing with how to strip away MOST of the structures of the museum, while still being part of museums. How many elements of the museum can you remove and still have a museum? When it’s in a box, we simply have: objects (or pictures of them), information about them, relationships between them, and an audience. Most simply that’s objects, ideas, relationships and audience. Again, if you’re starting with the most basic incarnation of a museum, when you begin to add the layers back on, you can play with them. You can be MUCH more deliberate. And you can communicate new ideas–and enact new social relationships–through what you include, and what you leave behind. As a platform, rather than an institution or a program or an object, Museum in a Box offers museums the ability to use their collections (and their past) to participate in a democratized, contemporary conversation that allows for debate, for multiple histories, for nontraditional (and potentially disempowered) narratives. You might not be able to create an institution that doesn’t depend upon the powerful for its existence, but you can have a conversation that eschews power. So this platform represents an experiment where powerful institutions could condone and support radical conversations. That seems like a space for real social learning, and maybe even for compassion. That’s very exciting to me.

 

In part one of this two-part series about how we went about building an Alpha website for Wellcome Library, we looked at how we turned ‘subject headings’ into webpages.

This post looks at the second major type of aggregation pages we settled on: people.

At first we were tempted to refer to these as ‘authors’, using the language of books, but of course the library isn’t just books, and so sometimes the people might be editors, collaborators, artists (the library has an art collection too), scientists credited on academic papers, and so on.

Within the MARC metadata we were given, people are referenced mostly in the 100 field (‘Main Entry–Personal Name’), but also in the 700 field (‘Added Entry-Personal Name’). As far as we could make out, there’s only ever one person in the 100 field (with only a couple of exceptions), but there could be many in the 700. It wasn’t clear to us what the semantic difference was, so we took the decision to merge them all together.

Each person field contains a bunch of sub-fields for the person’s name, title (Mr, Mrs, Sir, etc) and dates (normally just birth and/or death), as well as some other lesser-used sub-fields like ‘numeration’ (e.g. the ‘II’ in Pope John Paul II) and ‘attribution qualifier’ (used for describing someone as the ‘pupil of’ an artist, when the actual artist is unknown).

One awkward stumbling block was that the name of the person followed the library tradition of being in ‘surname-comma-firstnames’ format. This convention makes it easy for computer systems to sort by surname, which historically has probably been the most useful order for readers. But we felt strongly that it is the least user-friendly way of actually reading people’s names, as it inverts the natural order of the way we pronounce people’s full names (no-one talks about ‘Hawking Steven’, but ‘Steven Hawking’ is a household name). Switching the order back sounds like a simple task (split the string at the last comma, then reverse the order), and mostly is, but there are always exceptions – and where we encounter strings like “Peter, of Celle, Bishop of Chartres,ca”, it’s a bit harder to turn these back into more readable names.

With our goal being to make the library catalogue browsable (rather than just searchable), our next task was to find ways to enrich the information about the people in the database, helping readers to find out more about them (which may in turn shed some light on what the content of the book is likely to be).

Like with subjects, many of the 100 and 700 people fields contain an ID linking the person to an external authority file. Unlike with subjects though, we only encountered  a single authority file in use: the Library of Congress Name Authority.

Where they existed, we could use these IDs to make sure that multiple books by the same person would appear on the same single person page, even if their name was spelt out or punctuated differently on the different records.

It would have been tempting to use these Library of Congress IDs within the URL structure of the Alpha site. But because they weren’t always present (either because that person isn’t in the LOC authority file, or just because the record has been matched up), we couldn’t do that, and so minted our own IDs instead. For simplicity’s sake, these are simple numbers, but preceded by the letter ‘P’ (for person).

We discovered an existing project called VIAF, which aims to link together name authority files from many different institutions across the globe. By querying this database with the Library of Congress IDs, we collected up all the other IDs that were available. This means we can construct links from the people pages on the Wellcome Library website to the equivalent pages on other catalogues, such as the national libraries of France, Germany, Spain, Canada, and many more.

Pleasingly, VIAF has also collected IDs referencing Wikipedia pages. As Wikipedia allows others to uses its content under a Creative Commons licence, we could query the site (using its API) and display the content on our person pages. We decided to display the first two sentences (with a link to Wikipedia to read the full biography), on the basis that that’s usually enough information to get a sense of what the person is mostly known for. We also removed any text from Wikipedia in parentheses, as these are normally dates (which we show elsewhere), a pronunciation guide to their name, or other minor details that weren’t needed for a quick read.

As well as text, we also collected the images from the Wikipedia page, and use the first one (if there are any) within a circle to illustrate the person on both their person page and aggregation pages. This mostly works – where it’s a photo or drawing of the person, or even if it’s a scan of one of their works – but does sometimes show a slightly misleading image.

There was a small amount of concern over using Wikipedia as a source of content (although most were positive). One issue is what might happen if we pull the content from Wikipedia at a point in time when that page has been vandalised. We could mitigate that to some extent by regularly updating our content on a rolling schedule (and relying on the community to resolve) – but to allow for any major issues to be resolved more quickly than that, we added an admin feature to immediately refresh the content from Wikipedia. So if someone at Wellcome spots a page where the Wikipedia introduction is inaccurate or contains vandalised content, they can fix it on Wikipedia itself, and then have those changes reflected on the Wellcome Library page.

As well as the Wikipedia intro, we added a feature allowing Wellcome staff to add a separate intro to be displayed alongside it. Our rule of thumb here was that this intro should be specific to the Wellcome institution, rather than repeating the sort of general information that might be on a Wikipedia biography. So things like that person’s relationship to Wellcome (e.g. if it’s Henry Wellcome himself) or noting what sort of material from that person was available at the Wellcome Library (which could be quite a lot, if it’s one of the people whose personal archives are held there).

After these context-setting introductions and photo, we display some data about that person collected from the catalogue itself: things like the subjects their works are mostly about, a timeline of when their works were created/published and what format their works are mostly in. More experimentally, we tried displaying some links to other people who are the “contemporaries” of that person. This query changed a few times as we tried to refine it, and ended up being something along the lines of “people who have produced works about the some of same subjects and who were born within 10 years”. It sometimes works well, sometimes doesn’t.

Finally, we added the ability to highlight ‘interesting’ people to appear on the homepage.

Our last and most recent step was to go back and use an additional type of metadata that we originally missed: field 600 which contains people, but who are the subject of a work rather than its creator. Pleasingly for these ‘person-as-subject’ pages we could re-use the simple URL structure for subject pages (/subjects/S1234) but replacing the S-number for the person’s P-number. (One key benefit of differentiating your IDs for different types of things).

As part of building the Wellcome Library Alpha, one issue we had to grapple with was ‘subjects’. We knew we wanted these to be a core part of the browsing and discovery experience, as these a crucial to understanding what the collection is about.

However, ‘subjects’ have a long and many varied history within the world of libraries. Fundamentally this is because, unlike the data about a book’s title, authors, page count and so on, all of which are actually printed in the book, a book’s subjects are subjective.

You could imagine a system whereby a librarian who is cataloging a book gets to write a whole paragraph of carefully considered prose about what a book is about. Actually you don’t have to imagine: this is pretty much what art curators do.

But whilst a paragraph of prose accurately describing what a specific book is about would be super useful once you’d got to an individual catalogue record, it’s less useful for searching (not to mention that librarians probably don’t have the time).

So instead, libraries use lists of subject terms (which are called ‘headings’ – because they were once headings on actual pieces of card).

These terms can be ‘controlled’ – i.e. only a limited set can be used, with control over adding/removing terms held by some group, or ‘uncontrolled’, in which case new terms can be made up on the spot at the point of cataloguing.

Wellcome Library uses a mixture of these. Some subjects are entered as free text, with any consistency down the individual cataloger. Others are referenced against an external controlled vocabulary.

And there isn’t just one external list of subjects in place – there are many. The main two are MeSH, which is Medicine-specific and controlled by the U.S National Library of Medicine, and LCSH, controlled by the U.S Library of Congress. Other minor vocabularies in use include one designed for use in Children’s Libraries.

Some of the differences between these subject vocabularies are pretty minor: things like capitalisation, pluralisation, or the presence of an extra full stop at the end of the phrase. These don’t matter too much if your main interface is search (so long as your search engine can support fuzzy matches), but we wanted to be able to show things like the top subjects across the collection.

So we spent quite a bit of time merging these subjects together. It’s a big job though – whilst we could handle the minor differences automatically, others require manual intervention (such as knowing that “World War II” and “1939-1945 World War” refer to the same event).

Both MeSH subjects and LOC subjects have IDs within those schemes. Because we’re merging them together though – and because there are also plenty of free-text subjects within the Wellcome Library catalogue – we minted a new Wellcome-specific identifier for subjects, the ‘S-number’ (visible in the URL). However we retain the IDs within other schemes as concordances, and they’re listed at the bottom of each subject page.

Finally, the controlled subject vocabularies aren’t always just flat lists of terms. In the case of MeSH, the terms are organised into hierarchies, and each term also has a list of synonyms and a ‘scope note’, which is a sort-of description of the subject (albeit probably written more to aid catalogers than library users). We imported all of this extra metadata, making use of the synonyms within search, the hierarchies for browse, and the scope notes for context. They’re all a bit weird. Within the MeSH hierarchy, the subject ‘Thumb’ is buried deep within ‘Body Regions’, within ’Fingers’ within ‘Hand’ within ‘Upper Extremity’ within ‘Extremities’, but ‘Breast’ and ‘Perineum’ are immediate children. And ‘milk’ is described in the scope notes as ‘The white liquid secreted by the mammary glands. It contains proteins, sugar, lipids, vitamins, and minerals.’

Treating subjects as top-level objects within our design and database structure, rather than just attributes of record, gives us a place to add extra editorial content too. So editors can add a Wellcome-specific introductions, including links to relevant blog posts. For an example see ‘Beards’. We also added a way to flag subjects as ‘interesting’, so that we could show a selection of those on the homepage and subject pages.

The aggregated set of things about a given subject also help to describe it. For each subject page, we calculate and show the people who’ve written most about that subject, the types of things that the subject mostly contains, and the other subjects that the subject is often seen with (‘co-occurances’).

The list of co-occuring subjects presents an interesting design challenge: do we just link to those subjects, letting you go ‘sideways’, or link to a page showing things tagged with both subjects? For the time being, we do both – the latter link signified with a ‘+’.

What next? We’d like to link subjects to Wikipedia pages, and any other sources that might be interesting or useful (news topics? international disease classifications? geonames?). Some of these mappings may even already exist (the US National Library of Medicine has a metathesaurus which looks promising).

There’s also some extra structure in the MeSH headings that we deliberately flattened: ‘qualifiers’. These allow subjects to be further narrowed by the addition of phrases like ‘prevention of’ or ‘adverse effects’. Our process of flattening means that where we encountered these qualified subjects, we tagged the item with both the qualified and un-qualified subject. This feels to use like the right trade-off of simplicity to expressiveness – but we could decide to retain some relationship between the terms, so that we can at least link between them.

Finally, the next logical step in improving the usefulness of the subjects metadata is to add an interface to allow editors – and perhaps even any external researcher? – to easily add subjects to an item.

Since this commission began, there’s been a visit to MVRDV in Rotterdam, a Part I blog post, and an interview about these ideas with Annet Dekker published on the HNI website. Annet also wrote a great scene-setting post there too, about the challenge of this kind of digital archiving, with a great reading list: Bringing out subjective relationships: Relations of technics, concepts and actors in digital archives.

I must admit, it’s taken me much longer to complete this speculative commission that I’d first thought. I’m now sure answering the questions it asks could be a life’s work, and that made it a bit daunting to try to collapse the huge range of initial ideas into two blog posts (and the interview). In any case, I’d be curious and appreciative of any reactions you have to it.


New Representations of Work

One theme that’s emerged through conversation and research is that we’re missing an opportunity to do better, more relational, and richer archival representations of organisations. There is very much more available to us than the more traditional “bucket of files” which is often deemed the equivalent of an archive (when really it’s just a backup of a bucket of files.

In a previous life, I was art director at Stamen Design in San Francisco. When we had a design intern join us for a few months, Zoe Padgett, I wasn’t sure how to keep her busy and engaged from the outset, so I dreamt up a piece of work that could simmer away while she was with us: to visualise the company itself. In this project now, I’ve found myself returning to what she made. It feels like a new representation of corporate life, and has a particular focus on the people in the company, not necessarily the company’s output. During her internship, Zoe conducted a bunch of interviews, surveys and other chats, and painted a picture of us that we’d never seen before, even though we lived it each day.

by zoe padgett

Zoe studied us and the studio, figuring out who we were, where we’re from, and what we liked to eat when we were in the office. One of her interview questions was ‘what is your favourite animal?’ and that resulted in one of my favourite staff lists ever.

By Zoe PadgettThe other thing I enjoyed about Zoe’s approach was that it wasn’t particularly about our projects, our output, but about us. There is (and has always been) so much more material available to us about the whole company that what it makes public, to illustrate and even explain the company dynamics.

MVRDV is a titan in the architecture world. It’s a big, successful firm that’s made hundreds of projects, many of them built, and the public facade online reflects that. It’s ultra-professional, and (interestingly) specialises in creating hyper-real aspirational imagery around its projects. One tricky part with architecture archives though, is that it’s almost never possible to collect The Thing made by architects. Inevitably they’re about process around the thing, and in fact, it’s actually quite rare that an architecture project gets built in the world, in which case it’s all process.

Today though, there’s a pretty big gap between representing the process of creation and what we often think of as the archive… The digital archive is handed over as a bucket of files, like someone dragged a backup disk onto another backup disk, so what you’re seeing is files and folders and files and folders. No sense in there of who did what when and why.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still interesting to look at working files. But, what I can’t know from the bucket of files in its current form is who made them, at whose request, for what stage in the project, whether the boss was happy with it, whether it reached the client, or anything like that. We can’t know that from Zoe’s Stamen Menagerie either, to be fair.

(Does this mean I want to be a social historian?)

This problem is hard, and most companies probably don’t really record this kind of information in a organised or archival way. Is there more of an opportunity than ever to witness the people involved in the creation of raw archival material? How does having a named account on a web service where you upload stuff (Dropbox, Google, Instagram, Flickr) improve potential for identity in archives? It’s no longer endless folders of IMG_3467.jpg, is it? Can we do better? How can we do better?

Actors in the Archive?

I wanted to know much more about the who, so I set about a quick study of the MVRDV actors to see if I could figure out anything about who worked there. The first piece was a bone simple survey that asked a few simple questions:

  1. What are the four most important projects at MVRDV?
  2. What’s your job title? optional
  3. What year did you start at MVRDV? optional

With the caveat that the staff probably didn’t know anything about me or this commission so why would they do the survey, we ended up with 25 responses from the company. Even in these responses, the results were as expected: respondents would probably mention the famous projects.

MVRDV Stage 1: Staff Survey, Top 4 Projects

# Project Votes %
TP261 Markthall 19 76%
TP065 Expo2000 15 60%
TP010 Villa VRPO 7 28%
TP028 Silodam 6 24%

I’ve published the raw results and some cooked views on it as a Google sheet, with permissions set to ‘anyone can comment’. I liked that because people had been asked for their Top 4, it seemed like there were quite a few personal favourites mentioned in the results too. 33 projects got a special mention in the end.

Another highlight for me was a glimmer of something that you probably wouldn’t find in a bucket of files; someone’s answer to “When did you start?” was “I don’t wanna know”.

The Soylent Archive: It’s Made of People

I’m drawn to projects that put people in the centre. Here are some of my favourite examples.

1. Hacking Rambert
You’ve probably heard of Leila Johnston, and if you haven’t, you should have a look at her work. She’s a prolific writer, thinker, and maker who’s constantly putting out incisive, original work around the collision of art and tech. Anyway, I watched with interest as she worked on her latest project called Hacking Rambert, installed as ‘digital creative in residence’ at Rambert Dance Company in London.

I looked into a lot of interesting things. Time. The building. Code. Rendering sound. Musicality. Portraits. Heat. I looked at people – especially dancers. How is it possible that most people never get really good at anything, yet other people find themselves here, doing such an extraordinary thing for a living?

I particularly enjoyed Johnston’s portraits of the dancers, especially in the context of the ephemeral performance. I love that she made digital captures of the dancers, and then printed them in 3D physical form, and even more so that a lot of it was very ‘lo-poly’ or low resolution. As Johnston suggests, low resolution can mean high fidelity and that’s not something traditionally witnessed in archives, I’d suggest, except maybe after years of work?

by Leila Johnston

She also published a short book about her reflections on the residency, and one phrase struck me, her conceptual prompt, “how can I ensure I’m not doing ‘interior design’ or simple illustrations of dance concept on stage etc, but show something of the authentic situation of digital and its relationship to dance, as it stands in 2016?”

Hmm… authentic situation of digital… in 2016.

2. Tracking Transcience
Is a much older piece of work, but still living, which is sort of nuts for a digital thing. Tracking Transience was started in 2002 by an artist called Hasan Elahi (who has gone on to make all sorts of brilliant things). After 9/11, Elahi got hassled a lot as he travelled, always getting bothered at borders and airports and questioned unfairly, so he did something amazing. He put his whole life online, in remarkable detail. Where he was all the time, what he ate, what he bought… the lot. So the next time he was hassled, he could point to precise evidence of his whereabouts.

In 2002, this was a radical act, and I think that level of transparency still is radical. As much as the world has turned since then, and many of us post a lot of ourselves online, it’s rare to show ourselves wholly. It’s even more rare for a company. Transparency can be threatening, but maybe if there’s a company who would be up for it, perhaps it’s MVRDV.

3. Who lives in the Wellcome Library?
A project I’ve been working on over the last ten months or so with the Wellcome Library touches on this idea of trying to find the actors in a collection system. Library websites can be really dry, and almost always rely on people knowing what they’re looking for, so we tried to directly reveal the WHO and not just the WHAT.

With our What’s in the Library? project, we looked at the data from a bird’s eye view, and were able to display the people in it. Visualising people in a dataset like this can show you a really different dynamic in the collection. Just by clicking around and exploring interconnections of people and subjects, you can learn something about who was writing what, and when.

people.png

It’s simple, but a nice way to explore.

Who are the actors in the MVRDV performance?

Even though this commission wasn’t about making a piece of software, I did a few sketches about showing people, who they worked with, and how many of their projects ended up getting built. I wonder what data you’d need to drive a visualisation like this?

mvrdv-sketch1.jpg

When I began this project, I started following MVRDV on the popular web services like Facebook. I noticed an announcement that they appointed five new partners, and immediately wondered about all the things that had led to that announcement.

Then I wondering how the staff at the firm has changed over time, and who worked together a lot and formed great collaborations. Which of the lots of fresh interns made a great impression and stuck around? What might be interesting about mapping job titles and pay rates over time?

Turns out you can start to see this sort of thing, if you look, on LinkedIn. I spent an afternoon looking up everyone who listed the company in their profile, and made a note of when they started, and you can easily see the growth of the company over time:

graph

Start dates for MVRDV staff listed on LinkedIn

This is just a small thing I suppose. I remember on the visit to the company back in November last year wondering if I could access the more HR-related records. I’m looking for some kind of overlay of all the digital output of the company with the people that made it.

But, what about born-digital work?

It’s really hard! You must be indefatigable, and not many of us are.

  • Track and manage all external systems. In my first three months of making Good, Form & Spectacle, I’d used about 30 online services in some way.
  • Try to use a common thread across your projects, like an sequential identifier. MVRDV does this, and I’ve started to. (HNI is #011.)
  • Make plan for documenting and packaging near-past work. Teach all staff, and even better, collaborate and talk over it all together. Add this step of describing together to your workflow.
  • At some point you’ll have to attack the early projects. As a first step, you could archive at least one born-digital element for each?
  • Determine “important” projects by interview and/or data analysis (cost, profit, built/not built, staff happiness, press attention etc). This sort of analysis will be interesting for future visitors too. Even imagining that your company may be interesting enough to be poked at by a future researcher is a good thought, because it’s useful to imagine an audience for your archival narrative.
  • Assess whether old works need to be able to be re-run or just well-documented. Even though a Proper Archivist would want to truly encapsulate it, that just might not be possible. These vast software systems we see today (Facebook, etc) would require archival infrastructure the like of which has not been seen in order to be encapsulated for posterity.

A Live Archive?

Let’s just say you’ve done the hard work of going back over your work and archived it all beautifully. What might you do into the future, as you work?

Since very many of us are now using computers to do our daily work, we create and hold  dates, files, IDs, assets etc for all sorts of things as we go. This is broadly good. It’s a lot more raw material than we’ve had before, and it has some automated metadata that’s useful (instead of being ‘in the shoebox under the bed covered in dust and only brought to an archivist posthumously’).

For me, one of the main revolutionary aspects of Web 2.0 was this idea that you could be looking at a live dataset in a webpage. Before that, everything was fixed (if updated here and there). Since then, a lot of the web and its design has become centered on liveness, or recentness. It’s possible to know in bizarre but fascinating detail who did what and when.

Look at this animation of six weeks of coding on the open-source Linux operating system:

So what could a live archive be like? What if archiving things was a moment-by-moment active task? Remember that a backup is not the same as an archive, mostly because it’s not especially described separate to its existence. Perhaps there are instant or daily uploads into it, like you’d upload to Dropbox or Google or wherever. Perhaps there’s also a daily ingest by a local institution or one you’re a member of. (So for me, that would be Islington Council Libraries and Heritage Services, or maybe even the British Museum). Perhaps it’s about drip-fed longevity instead of great globs. Perhaps a junior archivist could actually be a computer program. It might compute things about your work, a bit like Slack’s weekly updates, or the lovely, now defunct Dopplr Annual Report.

dopplr_02

When I was starting up Good, Form & Spectacle, I was fantasising about what sorts of roles I’d like to have make up the company, and archivist was hire no. 2. Therefore, I was envious when I came across an LA design studio that has created a position called Studio Mirror, whose main role is to document things, and then report back after projects are finished. What luxury!

The studio mirror is a distinct role and a job title. In our studio Luke’s role was to archive our work and reflect it back to the team in a unique way, much like the documentation of these principles. Pursued with persistence and the eye of a journalist, the Studio Mirror should capture not only WHAT is being made but HOW and by WHOM. This isn’t simply dumping files on a server but rather curating the content in a way that is compelling and consumable for the team. For example, our studio created a quarterly magazine. You can read ADQ2.1: The Launch Issue here.

There are many reasons to identify a single person to own the documentation process. First and foremost, the details of a project are easy to forget, especially when projects last several years. Archiving work is both productive and functional; a reflective studio believes that the work can always be done a little better. Finally, a well-documented project also makes it easier for new studio members to enter a project quickly and efficiently.

But perhaps the most important value for persistently documenting the collective work of a studio is that it is a sound investment in the future. The longer I work the more I have come to appreciate how people behave throughout the entire design process. Thus, the story of the product is not only how the product itself evolves, but also how the individuals and team grew while making it.

In a world which demands so much in the present, I value that at some point in the future I can look back through our quarterly magazines with a glass of whiskey in my hand, examining the process of what was made and how we made it, and think, “That was a good place to work, I learned something and we made great things.”

https://medium.com/@rhysys/no-dickheads-a-guide-to-building-happy-healthy-and-creative-teams-7e9b049fc57d#.2qjb1n672

There’s a mountain of live reporting tools to show you exactly where your devops systems are at, and the smallest changes in performance of massive systems (and small ones) like web services or data centres.

the web is covered in dashboards

These sort of things tend to show you what’s happening, and not always why, and I think that’s the tricky part and not just with born digital stuff.

I’m afraid I don’t have a mind blowing conclusion. It’s a combination of creator-awareness, small bit archival just-in-time processing, and humans to keep an eye on it all.  It’s helpful to imagine yourself leaving notes to the future, and how they might be read. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on my own work through this, and making small interventions.  I’ve started a Slack channel where I post photographs of every whiteboard before we erase it, annotated and dated, with the view to making an artefact of it at some point down the line. I’ve started writing README files for all client and project folders, about how the work came about. And one thing I’ve tried to do from the outset is write a lot about what’s happening along the way.

So what could this mean for MVRDV? There’s some thinking to do about how transparent they might like to be with Het Nieuwe Instituut. There’s an opportunity to share company machinations in very great detail, very much more than a back-up bucket of files. In order to fully do that, and fully embrace the capacity for our born digital work to generate all this metadata, there must also be spiritual confidence that this level of revelation around client correspondence, finances, HR, good times, bad times, failures and so forth must be as easily discoverable as the folder of working files for TP261, the Markthall.

If I had another twenty years to think about I might be able to figure something out. I guess the main thing is that we’re not just what we produce.