Susan Chun, Founder, Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project

Susan is a researcher and consultant to cultural heritage organizations. She specializes in publishing; intellectual property policy and open content initiatives; information management; visualization; advanced search strategies; and multilingual content development and management. She leads several multi-institutional research and development projects in the museum and library community: She is a co-founder and project lead for Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project and program director for Project Audience. She researches, writes, teaches, and lectures regularly on museum publishing, intellectual property policy, open content initiatives, information management and cataloguing, search and access, and social software. Starting in 2012, she is a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, researching information visualization and museum practice for a Smithsonian Fellowship in Museum Practice.In her career as a museum professional, she’s worked for and with museums of all sizes and sorts, including fifteen years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, until 2007, she was General Manager for Collections Information Planning in the Office of the Director. She has also worked at the Asia Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Alfred A. Knopf.

Her specialties include information and IP planning for museums, search and access strategies, multilingual content creation and management, collection documentation and visualization, and print and electronic publishing.

The Steve Social Tagging Project

The steve social tagging project began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as Susan began to check search logs, and realized that 50% of searches yielded no results.  This phenomenon sparked the question of, “How can the museum promote visibility and access on the site?”  The thought of using “regular people” to help describe the collections came about shortly after because it was thought that their descriptions would be closer to the terms that people were using (unsuccessfully) to search the museum’s collections.

After some discussion of the steve project implementation, acceptance and results, Susan explained that the steve project is now dormant.  The project left the museum community with two major lessons.  1) Steve was the first large scale quantitative research project produced by a museum without the help of an academic institution, proving that museums could produce their own research studies.  2) The museum was left with a great number of terms that gave the museum an excellent idea of what their visitors take away from the artwork.  Erroneous tags can be used to create “teachable moments.”  As Susan said, “We don’t know what they don’t know.”

What’s next for Online Museum Collections?

Museums will need to accept that the public will increasingly expect online access to a museum’s collections – and not only through the silo of an individual museum’s website, but through large scale aggregations such as ArtStore or linked through other websites such as Wikipedia.  Museums should make their content “linkable and accessible.”

To conclude, Susan discussed her current research on the potential of information visualization for museum practice.  She hopes to be able to show how a museum may inform their decisions by being show data as a visual instead of attempting to digest large data sets.  Its use with Museum Collections, for example, could more easily show gaps in collections metadata.  The museum could then steer their visitors toward search fields that would provide them with a higher volume of records for their searches.

Listen to the interview

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.


  1. Linda Hruza-Jones says:

    It was fascinating to hear from Susan Chun about the origins of the Steve Project, its implementation, initial resistance, and assessment. I am more comfortable with visitors tagging museum objects after listening to this interview. It is especially reassuring to learn that a high percentage of tags are applicable and that the percentage of “naughty tags” is quite minimal. While there are some incorrect tags, they offer “teachable moments” and provide a chance for museums to better understand their audiences’ needs.

    1. Lisa Eighmie says:

      When I went on the Steve Project site and looked through all the various tags that people added, I was a bit concerned at first. Like you said, after Susan’s interview, my mind is more at ease when it comes to those incorrect or naughty tags that may at the very least, cause confusion with visitors. I think using inaccurate and misinformed tags as teaching opportunities is a positive and optimistic way of interpreting this issue.

  2. joan says:

    Susan Chun

    Thank you for highlighting the benefits of tagging for museums; specifically the ability for museum staff to tap into specialized knowledge repositories by engaging enthusiasts such as aviation or automobile passionistas. What a great way to build community!

    I had not considered the way in which visitor tags could reveal misunderstandings, common misunderstandings that can be addressed by the museum when connecting with visitors, either in an offline or online environment.

    The benefits of tagging tied in nicely for me with Peter Samis’ reflections on the effectiveness of providing the first SFMOMA blog in our weekly readings.

  3. Brittany Baksa says:


    I am fascinated by the concept of using tagging to help describe museum collections and inviting the general public to participate as it is a great way to engage the community and get them enthusiastic about museum collections. Thank you for addressing how different museums other than art museums can benefit from a tagging project such as the collection from the MDL. I wonder if this would hold true for a natural history and science museum where the descriptions of objects are already written for the expert or enthusiast.

    I am excited for the future of museum collections management as we move from the world of highly structured data to one that is less structured and more accessible. It will be interesting to see how institutions will handle the transition of being in complete control of their collection to allowing it exist in the vastness of the world wide web. And I completely agree with you, “This idea that we get to tell them how to look at our collection or how to browse our collection is crazy!”

  4. Matt Eaton says:

    It was remarkable to hear that fifty percent of website visitors searching for collection objects yielded no results on the Met’s site before the Steve project began. Overall, this was a fascinating subject to learn about.

    Last year, I attended a state museum conference and learned a bit about social tagging through the Johnson County Historical Society in Kansas ( ). Their site features a large photographic collection that allows site visitors to tag search terms and names on unidentified photos and to leave comments as well. What really surprised me during this conference and from the interview with Susan, is that spammers are not actually a big problem. It seems that the majority of people that use these tagging features put a lot of thought into what they do.

  5. Carly Dykes says:

    Thank you so much for coming and speaking about your work!

    What i love is that this wonderful program was born out of a problem – I think sometimes the best museum programming and ideas are often built out of “pinch-points,” which is what the education department at my museum call frustrating issues.

    I also like that you mention that perhaps the reason that you had less spamming is that the visitors attracted to museum websites may be less likely to spam. I would be inclined to agree that the people who “troll” on the internet are more likely to stick to reddit and 4chan, where victims are at the ready, instead of venturing to the webpage of a cultural institution.

Comments are closed.