What other possibilities could digital platforms explore to serve users?

Focus group participants freely admitted that they have become spoiled as more and more academic resources become available online and publications such as these catalogues have made valuable information and images available under open access licenses to the public. They talked about how much the nature of research has changed over the past twenty years, and how quickly their expectations also change as new tools become available. When reflecting on where these digital catalogues might go in the future, the following ideas emerged from the conversations:

Digital catalogues should reach beyond their own museums to make connections with other institutions and scholarship

Focus group participants pointed out that a major advantage of putting catalogues online is the ability to link the catalogues to content anywhere else on the web. Although the catalogues reference work beyond their institutions, participants wanted to see these references take the form of live links so that researchers can continue to explore a topic beyond the boundaries of a single institution:

I feel like all of these were so siloed that they’re not taking advantage of what exactly it is the digital humanities can offer, which is a much broader access to that. So I wanted things to be able to go broader, kind of from a scholarly perspective instead of stand locked within their institutions.

The Getty catalogue was praised by one participant for showing objects from other museums:

One of the things I loved about the Getty catalogue, and this was a really interesting and meaningful step they took on two counts: that they would show things from other museums, that when they made a comparison, it’s like, “Okay, here is the one in the British Museum that backs up what we’re saying.” And wherever they could, they went to the commons, and having the Getty acknowledge the commons—I hope you noticed how many of their images were Wiki Commons hosted—is like I think an incredible embrace of the public sphere, and if these institutions would be willing to have more connectivity with each other, that would be really cool.

Participants criticized other institutions and publications that are too self-referential or digital works that don’t allow interaction. The Heilbrunn Timeline developed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was mentioned as an example of an innovative online scholarly resource, but one which would be much improved if it was not restricted to the museum’s own works. Our participants felt strongly that digital catalogues and museums owe it to the field to make connections beyond their own walls.

Catalogues from multiple institutions could increase usability by incorporating standardized conventions

Some focus group participants also expressed a hope that there will be a standardization across different institutions in how digital catalogues are presented:

You know, I found myself wanting some sort of standardization. Can we all agree that this is how we will find citations? And I realize that, you know, we’re in the Wild West in publications right now, and eventually something will happen and we’ll all decide this is the way we’re going to do this.

Many researchers have embraced citation management tools such as EndNote and Zotero, and to serve these audiences many scholarly databases now allow users to download references directly to their personal citation libraries. Incorporating standardized features such as these across institutions could greatly improve the user experience and perhaps make users more inclined to seek out digital catalogues as scholarly resources.

Interactive tools that allow users to add their own information could be used to enhance individual research and encourage scholarly discourse

When asked about other ways they might like to interact with the catalogues, participants had many ideas on ways catalogue tools could be expanded to serve the individual user better but also to encourage dialogue between researchers.

One participant wondered if it might be possible to allow varying points of view or different interpretations to be added to the catalogues via a juried comment system. This is one way the digital platform could be used to engage scholars and extend the discussion on their collections.

Another participant requested a map and timeline feature that allows users to add their own works. The Mapping Titian project was also brought up as an inspirational example of digital humanities. Mapping Paintings was listed as another that allows users to interact and visualize their own data.

Participants also envisioned ways that image comparison tools could benefit scholars if they could reach across institutional boundaries, allowing researchers to virtually reunite objects from collections that have been divided or make scholarly comparisons of works across multiple museums:

Speaker 1: I mean, just comparisons are great because so many of these paintings—especially if we get to provenance, and we can get a bunch of paintings that were once owned by one person, and we can have the ability to see them and see a taste for collecting that may not be possible in the current form because they’ve all been spread out. That would be a fantastic way that museums can use their properties for these greater connections.

Speaker 2: And things from a set. So much that I work on is broken up: assemblages or multiple pieces. I mean how much Medieval and Renaissance painting is multi-part stuff where the parts are in 8 million places? And significant comparisons. I mean, interesting comparisons. And hyperlink allows a museum (if they’ll agree) to link to each other to make comparisons in a way that I think might be really stimulating to the museum essay as an art form and the online essay as an art form.

The comment above makes an interesting point—that expanding catalogues in these ways has potential benefits not just for the researchers who value the information they are providing but also for museums in allowing them to build new forms of arguments and move the field forward in innovative ways.