Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Museums get hip to tagging

Posted by Richard Koman - March 28, 2007

It's been quite a while since tagging was in the news. For Web2 adherents, it's so obvious it hardly registers as something to think about. Not so for the museum world. For curators, the intelligence of the masses is just now hitting like a ton o' bricks.

The New York Times reports that the country's greatest museums are opening up their online galleries for public tagging, in recognition that curator metadata just isn't doing the job.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art ran a test in fall 2005 in which volunteers supplied keywords for 30 images of paintings, sculpture and other artwork. The tags were compared with the museum’s curatorial catalog, and more than 80 percent of the terms were not in the museum’s documentation. Joachim Friess’s ornate sculpture “Diana and the Stag,” for example, was tagged with the expected “antler,” “archery” and “huntress.” But it was also tagged “precious” and “luxury.”

“The results were staggering,” said Susan Chun, general manager for collections information planning at the Met. “There’s a huge semantic gap between museums and the public.”

A group of museums formed a tagging project - steve.museum - received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and tagging is now up and running at a number of museum websites, including the Met, SFMOMA, the Guggenheim and museums in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.

“Our keywording was insufficient in a lot of ways,” said Effie Kapsalis, senior digital producer at the Smithsonian's photograpy site. “There’s no taxonomic system that could cover the subjects of all these photographs. And we want a lot of tags for each image. So that’s why we turned to the public.”

The tags range from the obvious and mundane to the impressionistic and personal. A photo of Greta Garbo was labeled “lonely” while one of boys dressed in Civil War uniforms inspired “innocence.” The tags create sometimes instructive, sometimes amusing links between disparate images, and these unexpected connections make the photos easy to browse through in a way museum sites rarely do.

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