Internal R&D Project #4: Two Way Street

It’s pretty late on a Friday afternoon, possibly the dumbest time to launch something, but, my conspirators and I decided to only work on this this week, so, we kind of have to launch it now.

The thing is called Two Way Street, and it’s a new way to explore The British Museum collection. It’s truly a museum of the world for the world, and we think Two Way Street is fantastic for looking around. Our team was George Oates, Tom Armitage, Frankie Roberto, with a cameo data-munging appearance by computer scientist, Tom Stuart. Thanks also to Harriet Maxwell and Tom Flynn for working on the (unsuccessful) proposal to NESTA for funding, Felix Ostrowski for RDF-to-JSON advice, and Barry Norton for restarting the BM SPARQL endpoint.

Two Way Street is basically an exploded view of the catalogue. Once we’d processed the big catalogue into a format that was easier for us to work with, we built just a few simple template views on top of the catalogue. We also skewed the user experience towards learning about the acquisition history of the museum. There are some really interesting trends and people involved in the formation of the institution. The British Museum was founded in 1753, and is the world’s first public museum.

Here’s the home page, where we introduce the first of a handful of visualisations, acquisitions over time, by decade.


We’re also able to display a bunch of facets we selected as interesting. You can use them as leaping-off points into the collection. There’s another subtle visualisation there to show you which facets are well-understood in the metadata.


Here, you can see a list of all the people (or institutions) who found, excavated, or collected things…


Like Chloe Sayer, who found/excavated/collected 6,296 things in the later decades of the Twentieth century…


It’s a Ruby, Elastic Search, Heroku, AWS-y thing. We’re also making use of the British Museum’s data dump from last August, and hitting their SPARQL endpoint (possibly a bit harder than everyone is used to). I like to think we’re some kind of “cultural white hats” that might actually be able to constructively help the museum to understand and develop the infrastructure it needs to serve more external development.

There’s a little more about it all on the site’s About page, if you’d like to go and have a look. Tom’s going to follow up, too, with some thoughts on using Elasticsearch instead of a database, which we all through was pretty cool.

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