It is particularly exciting because for the Powerhouse the collection represents our core reason for being. The collection is not only what differentiates us from other institutions, but also what differentiates us from other leisure venues and social spaces. In every museum the collection, traditionally, has been the preserve of scholars, researchers, and experts and in most museums the only time it appears on show is through the highly interpreted space of exhibitions, or limited run print publications. Online, the traditional way of presenting the collection has also been highly interpreted – specialist microsites, ‘virtual galleries’ for the ‘general public’; and for the researcher – collection databases overloaded with complexity only an information scientist would appreciate.
We took a different approach – one that placed the casual user at the core, and attempted to simplify and inject a degree of pleasure into the experience of navigating the collection (much like the pleasure we hope that visitors through our doors experience in browsing our showcases). Behind the scenes we also broke the unsustainable level of ‘extra interpretation’ (additional curation, editing, etc) that we applied to collection microsites – opting for a direct publication of as much of our raw content as possible. Far from undermine the Museum’s ‘authority’ the exposure of this rich but uneven data has enhanced the Museum’s reputation and brand (“oh I didn’t know you had such a wonderful collection of . . “), as well as lay bare the reality that any museum’s collection is always a ‘work in progress’.
The Powerhouse Museum’s new relational search and collections database is a model for organizing, exhibiting, and promoting museum collections. Alongside detailed traditional search functions, the site invites users to add their own metatags (folksonomy), search, and browse by tag cloud, by “relatedness” of items/objects, or by special collections in an easy-to-use, transparent interface that offers consistent and near-instantaneous feedback and results.
Beyond the metadata and search functionality, the depth of database entries “opens the bank vault” of the museum to visitors, enthusiasts, and researchers as many entries are presented with not only tombstone metadata, but article-style contextual information and one or more images — with three-dimensional objects photographed from multiple angles and accompanied by an indication of scale/size. This not only makes the site rewarding to casual browsers and researchers alike, it provokes thought about the function and purpose of museum collection and preservation. The Powerhouse has already begun to to realize the value of lay expertise via its embrace of folksonomy (an innovation alone worth emulating throughout the museum community), as online users have brought to the museum’s attention objects for potential physical exhibit that were previously considered to be only of ephemeral or specialized interest. An exemplary site.
When we first made our tentative steps with our new collection database that some readers might remember went public as a ‘beta’ site in mid 2006, we had no idea that it would be the success that it has been. We are continually astonished by the volume but more importantly the diversity of use the site gets. It is this evolving usage that drives our continual addition of new features, and hopefully ‘improvements’ to the site.