The Digital Humanities practitioner and theorist Mitchell Whitelaw exposes the disconnect between the embodied experience of visiting a museum and the digital experience navigating a museum’s online collection. Museums are designed to encourage browsing and perusing their many galleries. Their layout often illicit a more casual engagement with art, focusing on the actual experience of viewing. Online collections, as Whitelaw notes, have historically been inquiry-driven– guarded by the search box. Users are expected to have a specific interest (keywords) to begin their search online, creating a very controlled and lateral experience. Whitelaw argues for a change in museum online interfaces that mimics the experience of visiting a museum:

“As an interface, search fails to match the ample abundance of our digital collections and the generous ethos of the institutions that hold them. A more generous interface would do more to represent the scale and richness of its collection…instead of demanding a query it would offer multiple ways in, and support exploration as well as the focused enquiry where search excels.”

The size of collections, both physical and digital, call for a more generous approach of engagement– one that allows for browsing and discovery. And it seems that the generous interface would be advantageous not only for users, but for institutions. Digitizing collections can be (is) a long and meticulous process and it would be unfortunate to have all of that material hidden behind a restricted interface of search boxes and predetermined categories. Why wouldn’t a museum want to show the breadth of their collection– to really show it through their digitized images rather than a list of categories?

Through a brief search of museum’s online collections, one can see that institutions are experimenting with their interfaces and some, though not all, are try to create a more generous experience. Take, for example the collections page for the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The webpage for the Cleveland Museum is stark, with only an advanced search menu crammed to the left-side. There are images of objects from the collection set as a banner on the top and bottom of the screen, but their small sizes almost makes them entirely superfluous. The Victoria and Albert Museum makes a stronger attempt to display images of their collection as an immediate entry-point to their collections webpage. This page serves more as a “sneak-peak” rather than an expansive sweep of their collection, but I appreciate the assortment of images as they don’t appear to be grouped by certain themes, time periods, etc. And, every time you refresh the page, new images appear, which allows for more browsing.

These are but two examples of the types of interfaces museums and archives are utilizing to digitally catalog their collections. And whereas the catalog for the V&A Museum is more generous than the Cleveland Museum, it is by no means the the zenith of generous interface. Drawing back on Whitelaw, he includes both Manly Images and the Prints and Printmaking Collection of the National Gallery of Australia as two examples of generous interfaces. Both provide certain categories or themes that lead to an open view of images or terms for discovery. They are interfaces that have been curated to a point, providing a selection of ways to enter into the collection, but after an initial category is selected they open to less-restricted exploration.

In reviewing all of these interfaces, I am left with the question: is there such thing as an over-generous interface? To me, it seems like the ‘pure’ generous interface would be one that provides access to all objects at one time– one page that showcases an entire collection. On the one hand, this ideal interface seems the most democratic in that in gives full control to the user. But yet, I also see how such an interface would be overwhelming and potentially counterproductive for browsing. With such an expansive amount of information, a user could easily become disillusioned and even frustrated by the lack of structure. Museums do not hang their entire collection on the wall with no rhyme or reason (and in fact consciously moved beyond a time when galleries did this) and their online catalogs should maintain the same integrity, right? There should be a combination of curation and open access at some level. But then, have museums found that balance? Are the generous interfaces that already exist the best solution to this dichotomy? Is there a limit to how generous these interfaces should be?

Whitelaw. Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1 (2015).