What kinds of content and information are most useful to users?

The email survey asked respondents to rate a variety of text features that digital catalogues might include, based on how important that information might be to their work. Object entries received the highest ratings. Participants expect catalogues to include these, and since catalogue use tends to focus on specific artworks (see Why do users visit the catalogues?), these entries are critical. Scholarly essays and object bibliographies were also quite important to users. More specific details such as object provenance, technical information, and exhibition history were rated lower but still fairly important in the eyes of most users. A glossary was rated closer to the middle of the scale and less critical than any other text feature. The AIC’s glossary received a lukewarm response from focus group participants, while glossary features in the NGA and Getty catalogues did not receive comment and may have escaped participants’ notice. The PMA’s catalogue does not include a glossary feature.

Focus group discussions about the text content of the catalogues generated some of the richest feedback and reflections on what museum catalogues are and should be. Some important themes on the content users want and expect from digital catalogues follow:

Users see variability in what museum catalogues contain and don’t always expect scholarly essays

One participant pointed out that the word “catalogue” can imply a lot of different things in the museum world. Sometimes it’s a “handbook of the collection” with basic information on each work provided through individual object entries. Sometimes if it’s an exhibition catalogue there are standalone scholarly essays that contain a deeper level of analysis and interpretation. She noted:

I feel like there’s confusion about what to expect… Should we just expect basic information or should we expect groundbreaking scholarship and new ideas? I don’t know.

Some focus group participants noted that the stand-alone scholarly essays they encountered in the homework are not the type of information they generally associate with museum catalogues. One participant commented on the dry-mounting article in the Matisse catalogue, saying:

I never in this lifetime would have expected to find that article in that location. I would have expected it to be in a very, very different type of publication. I would have expected it to be in the AIC Annual Headings or in some other journal… It was a wonderful article, but I never would have found that.

A participant in another group made a similar comment, noting that many catalogues don’t contain these types of scholarly essays but that she was happy to find them in the NGA and PMA publications:

Well, printed catalogues can vary tremendously. They don’t always make these scholarly, argumentative interpretive essays. There are only a few museums in my experience (at least in the fields I work in) that do this. So I was thrilled to see them at both PMA and NGA, and the NGA ones were fantastic, really, really, really good.

Users want museums to provide interpretations of artworks in the catalogues, both in essays and artwork entries

Users don’t always expect to see scholarly essays in museum catalogues (see the section above for more info), but when they are present and done well they are appreciated. When asked if museums should focus on providing information on single artworks or making thematic comparisons, one participant commented:

I feel like it’s the job of a museum and, and certainly the curators to interpret the objects that are there and put them in context with other objects. So I would hope for more kind of—online exhibition is the wrong word per se—but that kind of approach to putting content out there. So I think the permanent collection is key, but contextualizing the permanent collection is also really important and makes it relevant to the general public and other scholars.

One focus group spent some time critiquing the ways museum scholars interpret objects for exhibitions and publications. This group, which consisted primarily of graduate students, said they didn’t always trust the scholarship of museum catalogues and suspected that the writing contains more biases than peer-reviewed articles. One individual noted that the language in catalogues can sometimes sound outdated, such as when artists are praised for their “genius.” Another commented that the museum that employs a curator can have an invisible influence on their writing. Despite these criticisms, one professor ended the conversation by giving these scholars and their works credit:

But the essays [in catalogues], I think we would all say they matter. They matter to people starting out. They matter to people cutting across fields. And even though I can kind of turn up my nose, I will say sometimes I’m looking at an essay and I go, “Oh, [right].”

Focus group participants also wanted to see interpretation within the artwork entries. One focus group participant expressed disappointment that the Matisse catalogue focused more heavily on technical information and featured less in the way of scholarly interpretation:

To me that seemed like the weakest one of all of them, just because, you know, there wasn’t much interpretation. There was kind of description, and then there was so much technical information from the conservation perspective, which you know, I guess I was wondering to whom was this a digital catalogue directed?

All of the catalogues produced by the AIC take an “object-centered” approach in order to highlight artistic process, and the heavy focus on technical and conservation information is an intentional decision by the team that produced these catalogues.1 If this intention is not clearly indicated for readers, they may be left wondering, as this participant was.

Users want catalogues to provide technical information, as well as the ability to navigate past it

Heavily technical information on artworks, such as conservation information, is not relevant to the work of every catalogue user, but those who need it note that museum catalogues are one of the only places to find such information:

I always appreciate the technical information because that’s something you’re not going to get from any sort of peer-reviewed journal. You’re not going to get it from anywhere else but from the museum.

I think the area in which I do tend to trust them and lean into them is for technical art history and knowledge of the object… One of the things I liked was the catalogues that leaned into that. The NGA descriptions of their works were beautifully written and really helpful because—that someone who actually has experience with the object itself, that kind of, that intimate knowledge of knowing it.

Another participant pointed out that technical information and interpretive information complement each other and are useful to find together in a single resource. A curator who expressed an interest in artistic process stated she wanted both from museum catalogues:

The technical can really help inform maybe other aspects of the text…it can help inform and give you a really fuller, picture—you know, how the artist’s process played out in a certain situation. It’s bringing together the cooperation of art history and technical studies.

That being said, some participants requested that technical information be organized such that users can navigate past it easily if they are looking for other types of text. A few participants were turned off by the amount of technical detail included in the Matisse catalogue, for example, even though this information was praised by others as extremely useful.

Users value cohesion and catalogue narrative

Focus group participants expressed a wish that digital catalogues exhibit cohesion in their style of writing. They also talked about the value of having an interpretive narrative to tie the catalogue together, rather than the entries being presented merely as a list of items. One focus group noted that introductory material that explained the catalogue topic for non-experts was useful. Participants noted that the NGA provided introductory material on the Rembrandt project and the Getty provided similar information. Another participant talked about how the PMA’s catalogue had a cohesive theme that made it easier to reflect on the objects featured:

I liked how the John G. Johnson collection… they’re talking about these objects, but they’re talking about them in the scope of John G. Johnson’s collecting practices. And so…, it’s easier to get some purchase or traction on those things.

Not all participants agreed on what gives a catalogue cohesion. One participant felt the Matisse catalogue lacked narrative to tie everything together, while another participant felt the Matisse catalogue felt unified but the Dutch Paintings catalogue did not. Another participant with experience in digital catalogue design discussed the pros and cons of a catalogue with a strong narrative, noting that while it can provide cohesion for the work, it can also filter out potential users who might be interested in individual artworks or a different angle on the collection than the one highlighted by the catalogue.

Select users are interested in the history of art interpretation, which can be lost in a digital environment

Although most focus groups didn’t dwell long on the temporal nature of the catalogues, one group raised some interesting concerns about the roles of traditional print catalogues and what might be lost if they take on a wholly digital format. Several members of this focus group were interested in exhibitions and art interpretation from a historiographical approach. For their work, print catalogues capture valuable information about a moment in history and how art was being discussed and displayed at that time:

I do research with catalogues a lot because I look at exhibitions theoretically, like as landscapes. So I do end up spending a lot of time in catalogues because that’s the best way to reach that—the ephemera of what an exhibition was—especially if it includes notes on programming and stuff.

One of the things that museums do that’s really important is that they can create really pivotal cultural moments that actually do shift art historical dialogue or do shift cultural dialogue or do shift popular culture movements. And if museums stop producing catalogues and they stop documenting what those events were like, then we lose them, we lose them to history.

Another participant who researches how Native American art has been displayed and interpreted through history said that print catalogues capture important information about a specific moment in time, and these details are likely to be lost in an online catalogue that is continually updated with new language and images. A conservator raised a similar question regarding the catalogues’ permanence:

We [conservators] so often go back to explain what happens in the last hundred years and at what moments in time certain alterations were made or certain restorations were done. And so looking back at old catalogues, old images, et cetera, et cetera, you can piece things together. And with especially moving towards an only-digital catalogue, that becomes a little gray in the future. So I’m looking ahead. How are we going to look back in fifty years on these catalogues, and do they actually still hold the information, and are they still accessible?

One way to address these participants’ concerns is to provide archived versions of catalogues, as the NGA does. Providing dates when pages were last updated could also help users understand the context of the writing.


  1. Martha Lucy, “Digital Scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago: The Impressionism and Post-Impressionism Series,” Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art Newsletter 26, no. 1 (2019): 1–3.