Generous Interfaces

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).


  1. I agree with your assertion that there exists a disconnect between the experience of visiting a museum, and the digital experience of navigating a museum’s online collection. Although I would add that the quality and thoughtfulness of the layout of the galleries can vary. I always thought it was odd that the Italian art galleries in the North Carolina Museum of Art were broken up with the insertion of furniture articles, although I believe that has now changed. Whitelaw’s statement about online collections being guarded by a search box is particularly apt, and it does seem as though we are being kept at a distance from the very thing for which we’re searching. I believe part of the problem is stated in one of our earlier readings, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship, by Diane Zorich. Art historians typically do not have any formal training in the tools required to digitize a collection, and many of them don’t have any interest in learning them, either. This is a definite roadblock towards digital progress. I wonder if part of the issue may also be financial concerns. As you mention, digitizing a collection and maintaining it is costly and time-intensive. Do museums feel digitization is cost effective? And if a majority of art historians do not really understand digital art history, perhaps they view the return on the investment negligible, at best. The generous interface you speak of would be a boon for researchers, but you’re right when you say it could be overwhelming. In addition, most museum don’t display all of their holdings at once, and to have everything brought out of storage to be digitized would require a team of workers which they currently don’t have. I don’t think museums have found the right balance, yet, but I believe they will. If they can’t provide images for each object, I wish they could at least have the object number, and a brief description so you could inquire about it. Last year I was trying to find a Mayan artifact at the Mint museum’s site which there was a picture of, but there was no link to an object number, or further information. I had to email the curator, who had to find the information for me. I’m sure that curator had better things to do, but there was no other way for me to get the information I needed. You ask if there is a limit to how generous these interfaces should be, and I believe the answer is yes. The point you make earlier about being overwhelmed by too much information is certainly a consideration. I think what would be most advantageous to everyone would be for museums to portion a part of their annual budget to digitizing and maintaining their collection online, and that would enable the project to continue to grow. Smaller museums would devote a smaller percentage than larger museums, but at least there would be perpetual progress. Many museum sites look as if they were digitized at a certain point in time and then nothing has been done with them since.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Annie. I agree with your points and am also curious about the questions your raise. In my experiences working at museums, it definitely does vary. But you are right, Art Historians aren’t necessarily trained in Digital Humanities and thus might not have a firm understanding of the value of digitization. I do think this is changing, if only because institutions are feeling compelled to follow their tech-savvy peers.
      I like your suggestion on providing object labels for the parts of the collection that aren’t digitized. I imagine that researchers would greatly benefit from this (and it could potential increase traffic for the museum and their archives)!

  2. Emily Hynes says:

    I appreciate your post so much! It echoes concerns I have with creating generous interfaces, but in a different way. I think an overarching theme from the reading response to Whitelaw’s Generous Interfaces is that it is impossible to know exactly what is generous to some, not enough for others, or yet even too much for those who can feel overloaded with information. I wonder if your question on whether you can have one generous interface could be seen in a different way – could there be multiple interfaces on one site which provide opportunities for narrative storytelling, general collection browsing, advanced searches, interactive mapping, and more? Perhaps it is about displaying the information in multiple ways, rather than finding the one way that works for everyone – because as we all know there isn’t one. You allude to this well in your post. I like your uses of the Victoria and Albert Collections and your summary of Whitelaw – well put!

    1. admin says:

      Hi Emily,
      Thanks for your comment. I like your idea for multiple generous interfaces on one site, I hadn’t thought of that!

  3. Taylor Barrett says:

    Funny that you mention an entire collection all at once, because that made me think of this: “On January 6th, 2016, The New York Public Library made over 187K digital items in the public domain available for high resolution download. This is one of many experiments by the NYPL Labs to help patrons understand and explore what was contained in that release. [ ]. While this isn’t a museum making its own collection available online, rather a library showing us an enormous amount of images in the public domaine, I think it serves as a pretty great example of the pros and cons of just putting it all out there with very little curation. There is some curation, or I would really call it organization more than curation; you can view this collection of images by time period, genre, collection, and color. The pros of using any of the four groupings is that the results are visual (duh, its a visualization!), and I think that can come in handy. When viewed by time period, we can see, there are maybe 7x the amount of images from the 15th century as the 11th century. This could probe users to ask why this might be and do their own research into why we generally have less images from the 11th century (because things degrade, get lost, burn up, etc.). The grouping by color option is the most fun, but I think possibly the least useful, though I am sure someone out there found it to be helpful with their scholarship (maybe?). Generally, as someone who both personally and professionally LOVES organizing, I think this is not the greatest way to present a mass amount of digital data. Its too open, too big and doesn’t have enough structure.

    We talk about this a lot in SILS in terms of user needs and trying to predict and accommodate those as best we can with the database interfaces we design. I think, as you alluded to (and as Annie also touched upon) there, maybe unfortunately, needs to be a balance between user needs and creator abilities/time/finances etc. that often doesn’t get highlighted. We cant always anticipate why or how someone is going to use a collection. It would be ideal if we could have metadata work in a way that would make every image or item discoverable for the widest array of users, but to do that we would one, need to be mind readers and two we would need an unreasonable amount of time to put such a metadata schema into place. And then what would we have? One image with 70 different tags? Would that truly be helpful, or would it just make finding out information about an artwork hard in a new way? I think that questions about discoverability and access are really tricky, and reasonable but useful solutions can sometimes be ever harder. Thanks for the great post (and comments)!

    1. admin says:

      Hi Taylor (great name!)
      I hadn’t heard about that project at the NY Library, but yes that does exemplify the ‘overly generous’. The situation is tricky, I agree, but in a way I think that conversations like these are fundamental to progress. For me, the generosity of an interface was not even on my mind, but if we are able to think critically about how we are presented information, then perhaps that will compel Digital Humanists to make some changes.

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