open source art provenance

Open data dusts off the art world

Open data is not just for spreadsheets.

Museums are finding ways to convert even the provenance of artwork into open data, offering an out-of-the-box lesson in accessibility to public sector agencies. The specific use case could be of interest to government as well -- many cities and states have sizeable art collections, and the General Services Administration owns more than 26,000 pieces.

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Most art pieces have a few skeletons in their closet, or at least a backstory worthy of The History Channel. That provenance, or ownership information, has traditionally been stored in manila folders, only occasionally dusted off by art historians for academic papers or auction houses to verify authenticity. Many museums have some provenance data in collection management systems, but the narratives that tell the history of the work are often stored as semi-structured data, formatted according to the needs of individual institutions, making the information both hard to search and share across systems.  

Enter Art Tracks from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) -- a new open source, open data initiative that aims to turn provenance in to structured data by building a suite of open source software tools so an artwork’s past can be available to museum goers, curators, researchers and software developers.

“Interactive was actually the original ‘goal’ of Art Tracks, but when we started to build it, we discovered that we couldn’t do it without structured data and without a thorough cleaning and normalizing of our data,” said Tracey Berg-Fulton, collections database associate at CMOA and primary data wrangler for the project

The Art Tracks team created a provenance standard, designed to resolve ambiguities and provide structure and machine readability. It also captures timeline data on the artwork’s acquisition method, its location, owner and length of ownership.

The Art Tracks software is all open source. The code libraries and the user-facing provenance entry tool called Elysa (E-lie-za) are all “available on GitHub for use, modification and tinkering,” Berg-Fulton explained. “That’s a newer way of working for our museum, but that openness gives others a chance to lean on our technical expertise and improve their own records and hopefully contribute back to the software to improve that as well.”

Using an open data format, Berg-Fulton said, also creates opportunities for ongoing partnerships with other experts across the museum community so that provenance becomes a constant conversation. 

This is a move Berg-Fulton said CMOA has been “dying to make,” because the more people that have access to data, the more ways it can be interpreted. “When you give people data, they do cool things with it, like help you make your own records better, or interpret it in a way you’ve never thought of,” she said. “It feels like the right thing to do in light of our duty to public trust.”

Art Tracks will be implemented in phases over a number of years, according to a blog post by Jeffrey Inscho, who leads the innovation and emerging media lab at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. The staff is currently working on phase one, in which proof-of-concept projects will demonstrate the potential for structured provenance information for museums. Phase two will take the CMOA provenance standard and software prototypes and expand them to address the needs of collecting institutions.

The first project is a recodification of the standard for writing provenance “to allow automated structuring from provenance texts. The second is a software parser that performs this destructuring, converting semi-structured text into structured data,” Berg-Fulton wrote in a paper describing the project. The third project creates a user interface that allows researchers to quickly read, modify and verify the automated conversion. Finally, a prototype interactive gallery display will be built using the structured data.

And because Art Tracks -- which is funded by a grant  from the National Endowment for the Humanities -- is collection-management-system agnostic, Berg-Fulton said, it is set up so museums without the same resources as CMOA have access. “Many times smaller museums do not have the budget or staff” to use one of the larger collection management software systems, or the staff time and capacity to implement new software, she said.  We’re hoping to enable better provenance by “making intuitive and easy-to-use tools,” she said. “And lowering the start-up barrier for outside users is top of the list for us.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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