Reviewed February 2021
Elizabeth Davis, Visual & Archival Resources Specialist
Jannes Library, Kansas City Art Institute

The Williams College Museum of Art Collection Explorer is a simple, open-access platform featuring a fluid desktop browsing experience that connects art objects with interdisciplinary programs at Williams College. The explorer was funded by the Mellon Foundation and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation as part of a three-part WCMA Digital Project, and was completed in June 2020. The WCMA Collection Explorer succeeds at providing a digital space for Williams College students and faculty to make connections between relevant art images and to discover similar works, even if they are not familiar with the WCMA collection.

Screenshot of the WCMA Collection Explorer home page

Students may learn intuitively by using the WCMA Collection Explorer and make connections about the objects and their own research methods organically. The Collection Explorer offers two methods of viewing the entire 12,400-object collection at a glance. The first tab organizes the objects by color in a rectangular grid, while the second moves objects into a circle to organize by similarity. A particularly useful part of the keyword feature at the top of the page is that it prominently displays other keywords that are used with objects within the results and uses font size to indicate relevance. Hovering over additional keywords displays how search terms may overlap or reduce the number of search results if selected. The Collection Explorer is also unique in how it explicitly displays how narrow a search is by displaying excluded objects in a separate part of the page from the search results. Not having to click between pages of search results makes for an easy and enjoyable browsing experience that could facilitate both serendipitous stumbling and more focused research.

Close up of Collection Explorer's similarity view

Clicking on an image gives a brief overview about the image/object in a modal window overlaid on the right side of the page, which may also include relevant course codes for Williams College courses that have used that image. The new Israeli Film Archive - Jerusalem Cinematheque’s interactive map feels similar to the explorer; clicking on a point on the map, results appear in overlays on the right hand side, and the user can scroll to what kinds of archival material are associated with specific historical sites in Israel. A Williams College student unfamiliar with the explorer or the arts in general are able to use their course code or its prefix to help them find relevant images, even for science or math disciplines. At the bottom of this information column is a “More info” link, which opens a new tab in the Williams College Museum of Art’s complete online collection with more detailed information about the object. The user is not able to customize or make an account through the WCMA Collection Explorer, but there is an option to quickly create an account through the Williams College Museum of Art’s main collection page and add records to the user’s personal collections. Unfortunately, there is not a link to redirect back to the Collection Explorer from the WCMA’s main collection page.

There are some limitations to the WCMA Collection Explorer. Primarily, it will not work on any mobile device and requires the API WebGL to run; the site is also missing alt text (based on a sample test using the WAVE tool by WebAIM). WebGL works well with most internet browsers, and the Collection Explorer can be functional on tablets. It would be beneficial for the mobile site’s redirection page to include a link to the homepage of the WMCA Digital Project, where there is a history of the grant-funded initiatives and access to object records and images if a mobile user needed more immediate access to records. As the WCMA Digital Project page accurately points out, the collection’s data files are transparent templates for other institutions to use when developing or revamping their own image collections and considering new forms of accessibility in an online environment. Chad Weinard details the different existing initiatives used with the collection prior to the Explorer’s creation in a post on Medium and makes the case for documenting use as a core component to the history of an object, including anything online. The WMCA Project is a valuable resource for researchers and students working on digital humanities projects with a “Collections as Data” approach.

Between the Collection Explorer and additional resources of the Digital Project page, this resource is a tidy bundle that leans into the unique flexibilities of a digital resource rather than recreating what can be accomplished in physical collections. The simple design is attractive for users at all levels: without cumbersome pages of results to wade through, the search process is made more fluid and flexible, which may encourage users to stick with their browsing process for a longer period of time.

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