Reviewed August 2018
Kiana Jones, Visiting Fine Arts Librarian
University of Pittsburgh
Art Tracks is a Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) open source online provenance initiative that intends to promote the conversion of provenance records into structured, linked data based on the CMOA Digital Provenance Standard. The project also provides software and tools that can be utilized by museum professionals in order to visualize provenance data in interactive ways for gallery visitors. Initially funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the second phase was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
The project’s Digital Provenance Standard, which was last updated in October of 2016, states that one of its main goals is to develop a “digital model for storing and capturing the data within provenance in a machine-readable format.” The standard is poised to stand on its own with in its open source JSON Schema, thesaurus of Acquisition Methods Vocabulary, and well-written documentation and guidelines. The standard’s documentation demonstrates the pioneering nature of the standard, as it is the first that approaches organizing provenance in such a granular manner, as well as its usefulness in the transition from a document-based structure to an event-based structure for managing collections. The linked data nature of the standard alone can prove valuable to museums. By championing linked data as a best practice in museums, the project encourages the digital publication of often hidden museum provenance data and increased access to this data for researchers and the public. If the standard is to endure, the real test will be in how often it is maintained and updated by CMOA, as technology and our questions about provenance data change.
In order to demonstrate uses of the standard, Art Tracks makes open source software tools available, including the Elysa tool for museum professionals to clean and finalize digital provenance records, and a Prototype for creating in-gallery visualizations of provenance data for the public. The Elysa demo is by far one of the most effective and persuasive features of Art Tracks, as it lets users interact with the software by making practice edits and adding information to the various fields. Users can also view the original record, and view and interact with a timeline populated by the Provenance Party Records and the Exhibition History. The Prototype of the in-gallery interactive experience for the public, linked to as a full interactive demo on Github, is also most persuasive. The demo uses the CMOA collection as an example to show what the public would see when interacting with it in the gallery. For those users who can visit the CMOA in person, a production version of the provenance visualization application is on view in the Impressionist gallery. The in-gallery version can be manipulated by the user in the gallery space as they interact with the software, with the intent being for them to explore new questions about the intersections of objects and history. The Elysa and the Prototype demos, along with the live visualizations in the CMOA’s galleries, can help prospective implementers to better understand potential benefits and uses of the tools and underlying Digital Provenance Standard.
Art Tracks and its work to establish a digital provenance standard are impressive, and have great potential for museum professionals and/or those interested in learning more about linked data. In particular, the well-produced open source software and demos made available on GitHub are an important contribution, as they demonstrate the potential of what linked data can do for provenance. Although the use of Github and knowledge of the JSON markup language may present barriers for some, the promise of converting provenance records into structured, searchable data that can then be visualized and manipulated in new ways may be worth the effort. This work could allow museums to increase access to their open data, highlight hidden collections, and encourage new questions, scholarship, and cross-institutional relationships.