Aaron Cope is part of the team reinventing the collections website for the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Aaron talked with us about digital museum objects and what the future of online collections might look like.
The Copper-Hewitt’s Manhattan building is currently closed for renovation (set to reopen in 2014). While physical access to the collection is restricted during construction, the staff is determined to use digital tools to celebrate the collection and offer delightful ways to interact with it online.
Web visitors looking to browse the Cooper-Hewitt collection find themselves in an “alpha release” of a new collection database. This site is under active development and users are informed that what they see might be buggy, incomplete, or even erroneous.
What is made visible through this alpha release is a museum grappling with its role in the 21st century—what does it mean for the Cooper-Hewitt and its collections to be part of the network, to be of the Internet? We can see glimpses of what this might mean in interfaces such as browse by color, one of the most popular functions of the collections website. The Cooper-Hewitt team is busy improving the “underlying plumbing and architecture” of the collections data so that more interfaces for searching, browsing, and manipulating the collection can be built on top. The overall goal is to create a “large surface area” on which people can use and interact in the ways that are most useful and interesting to them.
Developers and “tinkerers” are invited to manipulate data in myriad ways through an exposed API (a structured way that computer programs to talk to one another). The API, Aaron says, “keeps you honest,” because the museum is using the same tools that it makes available to the outside world. Through development of the API and a “services layer,” digital staff hope to meet the needs of exhibition designers as well as build code that scales up gracefully and can be shared and repurposed inside and outside the museum’s walls.
How might visitors interact with the collection digitally in the future? Aaron talked with us about his desire to build services that are “quite, polite, (and) set in the background.” For example, a service built on Twilio could give people a way to easily interact with the collection using SMS (text messaging). A casual browser could send a text message to receive information about a random object. Or a visitor might enter a specific object ID to receive a longer description, which could then be emailed to herself to read later on the subway. Such services would piggyback on the tools people already use outside of a museum. Aaron says this approach is about “having the confidence to be invisible.” What we don’t want to be, he says, is some kind of “History Clippy,” constantly nagging people.
Who is the audience for all of these new and interesting ways of interacting with the collection? While maintaining a core audience of scholars and experts, Cooper-Hewitt staff also want to serve casual visitors who are “busy being awesome in other fields.” And there is a third audience that is becoming increasingly important: the robots, the network itself. How might the network use the collection? Aaron describes a 300 lb. robot, built to leverage the advanced computer power and cheap data storage now available to us. What if robots like that were loaded up with digital data about ALL of the millions of objects in the Smithsonian? And then those robots wandered the earth, stopping at campfires and telling people stories? Is this a future we might soon be living in?