Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Exploring the NMA catalogue - first thoughts

As part of the Master of Digital Design, this semester we will be developing data visualisation projects from the National Museum of Australia's digital catalogue. Project development can be followed with the tag 8199 (the unit number). The project is being led by Mitchell Whitelaw.

This is an exciting (and daunting) culmination of work to date. The NMA is in the process of digitally cataloguing it's very large and important collection (of collections). The NMA conserves the 'National Historical Collection' which contains more than 200,000 objects representing Australia's history and cultural heritage, of which so far 48,000 objects from 1003 collections have been catalogued. A tiny fraction of these objects make up the public exhibitions at the Museum - some of the exhibition material is valuable such as many of the indigenous artefacts, while some of it is perhaps not especially so but is important because it illustrates cultural stories (in one of the displays there is a windmill with a cut out magpie).

Phar Lap's Heart, National Museum
My first approaches to all of these objects online has me overwhelmed. Here there is no curation. I am confronted with a search box. Without having in mind something specific like Phar Lap's Heart I look to browse elsewhere. At the side there is a random selection of object thumbnails (many of the objects dont have photos, and most of them appear to be low resolution). Initially I didnt realise that these were links, but they were all the same engaging. Next there was the opportunity to browse by object type - this I found to be the most interesting - cabinets, cake tins, canoes, chemical jars, cricket balls, cut throat razors... Then there was the opportunity to browse by collection - here I was confronted by many unfamiliar names that I assumed to be donors or the focus of the collection. Unfortunately I couldn't access a description of the collection, only a list of the objects it included. Elsewhere on the NMA website I found descriptions of some of the most significant collections.

Examination of individual object records left me feeling no better connected to the material of the collections. Each item that I viewed (except Phar Lap's Heart) had a very brief factual description of the object, but little contextual information other than a date and place. I could not tell what the significant of the object was (surely some of the objects are more significant than others?) and I was not told why it was part of the National Historical Collection.

So the task I am most interested in is constructing a better narrative around these objects. Data items that stand out as possibilities to construct some analytic context are date, place, materials, dimensions, collection size and number of object type. It is my expectation that visualisations based on these data items can better situate oneself within the collection and assist navigation / browsing. It is my intention to make both visualisations of and an interface to the collection.

The designed ability to zoom in and out within a dataset and to comprehend the scale of the whole and it's parts allows large and complex data that was previously only superficially understood to become powerful and sophisticated information tools. Of course data analysis is only as valid as the source data and data can be misunderstood when it is out of context - or in a wrong or partial context.

Mitchell Whitelaw's visualisation project for the National Archives is a great demonstration of the potential for design to transform the accessibility and legibility of a large data set that was previously incomprehensible. The overview Series Browser is able to represent the entire data set of series in a way that reveals structure and relationships, while the zoomed in A1 Explorer uses a word frequency cloud and histogram to indicate some of the contents in a more succinct and engaging way than a contents or index page possibly could (the A1 series contains 65,000 items). Both visualisations suggest themes to focus or zoom further in on - and being interactive are part analytic, map and interface.

National Archives Series Browser, Mitchell Whitelaw, 2010 - series are arranged
chronologically with their size and provenance indicated

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