Lunch & Learn: Smart Art: Database tools for research and curation

For the past three decades, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Office of Information Technology have collaborated on many innovative projects. During the 1980s. the Piero Project produced a real time three-dimensional tour of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Tuscani. During the 1990s, OIT led the development of Almagest, a media management, presentation, and authoring tool.

Today, OIT and the Princeton University Art Museum are collaborating on the delivery of the museum’s collection through Roxen, the University’s web Content Management System. Customarily, museums are able to display only a small fraction of their holdings, but all museums recognize that one of their most important objectives is to make available scholarly content. Today, with the availability of powerful new development tools and special components to cost-effectively connect to the museum’s SQL Collection Information Management System, the Art Museum will be able to promote existing collections and to provide online access to local and even international researchers to a much larger portion of its holdings and events.

At the November 18 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, three speakers from the Art Museum introduced a website created to accompany the Museum’s exhibition, Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait. The website highlights the unique and compelling archaeological art primarily from the first millennia A.D. of the Bering Strait region.
Janet Strohl-Morgan, Manager of the Information Technology department at the Princeton University Art Museum, emphasized that the new system dynamically loads images from the database to the web. As a result, events can remain on the web long after events have ended, and continue to grow over time.

The Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer of the Art of the Ancient Americas, Bryan Just has been interested throughout the project in providing open and robust access to the images and the information about them that the museum spends so much time compiling.
The exhibition and its associated web site were both launched in October, but the Museum has continued to work on the exhibit, additions that have been added to the web site. Visitors can dynamically search the site geographically and by theme, to explore the artifacts almost however they want. The site is so useful, remarked Just, that the museum hopes to extend its utility to other exhibits, artifacts, and cultures.

The architecture of the site permits museum curators to share updated information automatically. There are numerous meta-data fields to permit coverage of time periods, cultures, and geo-references, yielding useful entry points into the collections. In one experiment, Just created a set of place-marks within Google Earth as one guide to the artifacts, a useful technique, he suggested, for gaining access to a researcher’s materials or for large repository holdings.
Cathryn Goodwin, who manages Collections Information and Access at the Princeton University Art Museum, showed off the site associated with the current exhibit, described the workflow associated with the effort, and demonstrated the robust collection management system.
Perhaps the most important criterion for the Museum in the development of the site was its insistence that they not have to input data into Roxen but rather finding a way for Roxen to talk directly to and to query the SQL management tables behind the existing database. Success came after about 8 months; then it was simply a matter of design. Curators can now flag the items that they want to share on the web. As a result, content experts who may have little web experience have complete control over which items will be shared and highlighted. At the curator’s request, the site pulls objects, images, and content directly from the database.
The current exhibition will run physically through January 10, 2010. But thanks to these new technologies, you don’t have to come to Princeton to see it, and you’ll be able to enjoy the exhibition long after the exhibition comes down.

A podcast and the presentation are available.