Monthly Archives: September 2016

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.

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.