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The University Art Museum is one of 14 museums in the newly created American Art Collaborative, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced on Feb. 2.

The goal of the Collaborative is to make the museum collections more accessible and useful by connecting them in new ways, Smithsonian American Art Museum Deputy Director Rachel Allen said.

The Collaborative plans to create a diverse critical mass of Linked Open Data, or interconnected bits of structured data, on the Web on the subject of American art by putting the collections of participating museums in the cloud and tagging this data as Linked Open Data, the museum’s press release said.

Cathryn Goodwin, manager of collections information at the Art Museum and the University’s liaison with the Collaborative, said that the Art Museum has been involved in this project for slightly more than a year, adding that involvement in the Collaborative was less formally organized until about nine months ago, when the Mellon Foundation funded a planning grant.

Goodwin said the Smithsonian contacted the Art Museum directly to participate in the Collaborative.

“We have been active in this kind of data exchange project for many years,” Goodwin said. “We are interested in this kind of research into making collections information accessible.”

Allen said that the Collaborative, which began a few years ago when a small group of museums interested in Linked Open Datacame together, was very excited to have several university collaborators like the Yale Center for British Art and the Art Museum.

“We have large museums, small museums, we have museums that have a bigger context of support in terms of computer and information sciences,” she said. “But each one brings to the collaborative a different experience, and that’s all a part of understanding and planning for what it will take to move not one or two museums forward, but all museums forward as we think about the future.”

Goodwin said the Collaborative would lay the groundwork to search across collections and enhance research and scholarship.

“We see a direct connection with the digital humanities at Princeton and the possibility of being able to provide much richer access to our collections than we’ve ever been able to before,” she added, noting that the Art Museum is particularly excited to be participating in this project, as the Collaborative gives the museum staff colleagues to talk to and experts to help answer questions that would be harder to answer on their own.

Associate professor of art and archaeology Rachael DeLue, who focuses on American art, said the Collaborative will have a positive impact by helping to overcome one of the major obstacles to research, of knowing what information, and what archives and what works are out there.

“When museums have huge collections like ours, only a fraction of which can be on view, people at other institutions and campuses don’t have a sense of what’s behind the walls in the vaults. So making this information accessible can only advance research,” she explained.

DeLue noted that the Art Museum serves as a classroom for various departments because of its encyclopedic collection, which covers relatively all geography and time periods.

“As far as my experience goes, if I can imagine wanting to look at a particular object, the museum has it. So it really is a wonderful collection — it’s broad as well as deep,” she said.

DeLue said that more extensive knowledge of the collections at the museums is likely to enhance teaching and lead to sparks in innovation. She added that having more extensive knowledge of and being able to work with the collections are especially useful in terms of American art, because a lot of the work is in paper, print or photographic form, and not often on view.

DeLue said that while she thinks that it is a good thing to have information freely available to scholars and students, she would not want the data sharing to reduce firsthand examination of objects or the number of visits to museums.

Allen said the benefits of the Collaborative might not be instantly recognized because a lot of background work is required, although the positive impact of Linked Open Datais already beginning to showcase itself.

“We are already beginning to see the effects of Linked Open Data in big search engines like Google, for example, where the little boxes you see on the side are getting smarter and giving you more context and more ability to differentiate different names or different ideas,” she said.

Allen said the Collaborative hopes to create a number of applications to demonstrate the value of structuring information through Linked Open Data.

She described one of these applications as almost like a public curation tool, which allows users to bring up a name and connect it to another name, and then build a little story around the connections made. The effect would be as if a docent were guiding you through the museum and linking the works of art that you see, she said.

Another example of a prospective long-term application is to connect geographic locations of outdoor architecture and outdoor sculptures with the weather patterns of those areas. This application would be useful to look more deeply at the conservation of these works and their condition and get a better picture of how the environment might be playing a role in cultural resources, Allen said.

“To me the exciting prospect is making those connections,” she said. “It’s easy for us to think about making them within our own sphere of influence. But what gets me excited is thinking about how they link across other disciplines, where we might find more discoveries.”

Goodwin said that dedicating resources represents the biggest challenge of participating in the Collaborative, as there is a lot of labor involved.

“But we have a wonderful team of people in collections information at the Art Museum who are all very excited about working hard on this project,” she noted.

On the other hand, Allen said that the biggest challenge of the Collaborative was an educational one, as Linked Open Datais not an area where most museums have expertise.

“I do think that that’s both a challenge but it’s also the benefit of working together, that you don’t have to feel like you’re alone out there trying to master something new, that we can work on this together and benefit from each other’s knowledge and understanding,” she said.

According to Allen, the first in-person meeting with the representatives from every participating museum took place on Feb. 4 and 5.

“All of our members agreed and understood the value more deeply of doing this, and so we have an agreement to move forward and some initial next steps we need to take,” she said.

Allen said that the Collaborative was undecided about its future and that it was a wonderful topic that needed to be thought about. She mentioned expanding the collaborative or providing more information so that other people could follow along with future initiatives.

Apart from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the University Art Museum, the Collaborative’s members are the Yale Center for British Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, the Autry National Center, the Colby College Museum of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and the Walters Art Gallery.

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