Photograph of the Digital Media Lab at Carnegie Museum of Art

Visualizing the Stories and Lifespan of an Artwork

The Digital Media Lab at Carnegie Museum of Art is attempting to structure provenance and exhibition history data so curators, scholars, and software developers can create dynamic visualizations that answer impossible questions—and we’ve assembled a talented team to do it. But of course that’s a fairly simplified explanation of the project. To better understand exactly what we are looking to accomplish, I need to delve deeper.

For instance, have you ever wondered how artworks arrive at a museum? I’m not talking about the physical logistics of art object transportation, but rather the journey over time and space that artworks make to arrive at a particular museum at a particular moment in time?

Or maybe during a recent museum visit, as you explored a recent Impressionist exhibition, you noticed an interesting set of artworks arranged next to one another. Perhaps a fleeting question emerged about these objects’ previous lives. Have they ever shared owners? Were they ever previously in the same city together? Did they, like their human counterparts, all experience a large-scale world event?

Inside the digital media lab of Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo: Jeffrey Inscho.

Outside of the art objects themselves, the stories and lifespans these objects hold are often emotionally moving and sometimes astonishing. These are the ethereal nuggets to which people can relate, as story and narrative are the foundation of human connection.

Additionally, the ability to ask impossible questions and receive answers previously inaccessible, across a museum’s full collection and (eventually) across many museums’ collections, is a resource art historians and scholars would find extremely valuable.

This is what we’re attempting to do with a new project at CMOA called Art Tracks: The Provenance Visualization Project.

A Tale of Good and Not-So-Good News

The good news is that most museums research and catalog the narratives we’re after in provenance and exhibition history records, which live in an institution’s curatorial files. Some museums, such as CMOA, are lucky to have provenance researchers on staff. These researchers spend a lot of time and expertise tracking the elaborate lifespan and chain of custody of artworks. Some museums, also such as CMOA, are luckier yet to have this information stored digitally in a collection management database.

The not-so-good news is that to do anything remotely interesting with this information (digitally and at the scale of a museum collection), we need the narratives to be available to developers as structured data. Unfortunately, there is not a structure of record for provenance data at this time. Ours currently lives in a narrative text field, which is semi-structured according to provenance research standards, but not usable in a development capacity.

A Multi-Phased Approach

Like most good iterative development projects, Art Tracks will exist in multiple phases over several years. Phase 1 is currently underway and will primarily consist of work on internal data structures and prototyping with a subset of CMOA collection objects. By year’s end, we hope to deploy a set of three proof-of-concept projects that demonstrate the types of stories that can be told with this type of structure data.

In future phases, we will scale outward from our own museum to include partner institutions (Phase 2). Ultimately, we aim to create a free and open resource for the cultural sector (Phase 3).

A Dynamic Team

We brought on some amazing talent to work on this project. David Newbury, lead software engineer on the project, comes to us with a wonderful mix of art and technology know-how, and has experience crafting projects such as mobile applications that launch fireworks and robots that print custom-flavored Oreos.

Tracey Berg-Fulton, a registrar by trade, will serve as the primary data wrangler for the project. In addition to object registration, Tracey has a background in database administration. It’s a perfect fit.

Along with David and Tracey, a cross-departmental team spanning most departments here at CMOA will be involved with shaping the project moving forward. We all plan to blog about the Art Tracks process, so be on the lookout for regular updates.

It should also be noted that our work on Art Tracks was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through award # MA-10-13-0337-13.