A New York Museums and Pratt partnership: Building Web collections and preparing museum professionals for the digital world

Tula Giannini, Pratt Institute, USA, Jonathan Bowen, London South Bank University, UK


The New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) involves the research libraries of the Brooklyn Museum, Frick, and MoMA. Together with the Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn Museum and then NYARC have undertaken partnership projects to implement digitization of collections in a museum-education setting. This paper explores challenges including integrating digital information within the physical museum and on the Web, recognizing the crucial role this plays in user engagement. Education is a key aspect, and information on a new master program to support professionals in the interdisciplinary skills needed is also presented. Leading museums realize the importance of an integrated digital approach. The Cooper Hewitt Museum’s newly redeveloped display is presented as a model example. Educational underpinning and inventive use of digital technology, with regard for social and cultural issues, are key aspects for success.

Keywords: digital cultural heritage, digitized collections, museum education, museum partnerships, museum professionals, visitor engagement

1. Background

Negroponte (1995) predicted the digital revolution in his insightful book Being Digital. Others in the 1990s also considered the ways in which new technology was changing people’s lives (Economist, 1996). That decade saw a rapid growth of the Web that has deeply affected all advanced societies and organizations, including museums (Bowen, 1995, 1997a, 2000, 2010). The first Museums and the Web conference was held in 1997 (Bowen, 1997b), and the conference has continued annually as a focus for museums wishing to be at the forefront of digital developments, especially online. Digital aspects have become increasingly central and critical for museums, especially larger ones (Khan, 2012). Many museums use general facilities for providing online resources, such as YouTube for video (Gladysheva et al., 2014).

However, whereas early developments were very technology focused, nowadays a much more holistic approach including social, cultural, and behavioral aspects is needed for success. Museums need to recognize this move of issues affecting the use of digital facilities from technical to social concerns. As an example, communities have always been associated with museums, and these are increasingly virtual as well as physical (Beler et al., 2004; Beazley et al., 2010). These can involve both the general public and museum professionals; for example, see the Museum Computer Network (Marty et al., 2013). Issues of accessibility are also important and have the potential to help all visitors, not just those with specific access concerns (Lisney et al., 2013). Alienating a section of a museum’s potential users unnecessarily is something to avoid if possible.

Degree programs aimed at museum professionals are well established. However, the skills needed are rapidly changing as information has moved from non-digital to digital form. This affects not just behind-the-scenes activities at museums (e.g., collections catalogs), but the whole way in which exhibitions are presented to the public, both within the physical museum and through virtual, online means. User engagement is of increasing importance, and this requires understanding of the varying behavior of visitors, both virtual or real. The issues affect libraries, archives, and museums, with increasing convergence (Coleman et al., 2015).

Collaboration is an effective way for groups of museums and related organizations to provide added value. This has become easier in the increasingly digitalized world, especially through use of the Web. An example of a beneficial collaboration is the Brooklyn Visual Heritage website (http://www.brooklynvisualheritage.org), in which three leading Brooklyn-based cultural heritage organizations participated in a project led by the Pratt Institute to digitize photographic collections and make them readily accessible online (Giannini, 2013; Giannini & Bowen, 2014). A feature of the project was that postgraduate students were involved in funded positions to make the project a success, thus providing benefits in multiple ways.

This paper presents a collaboration of a consortium first started in 2006 of the research libraries in three major New York art museums—the Brooklyn Museum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives), the Frick Collection (http://www.frick.org/research/library), and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, http://www.moma.org/learn/resources)—collectively known as the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC, http://www.nyarc.org, Figure 1), together with the Pratt Institute. This partnership has the aim of synergistic digital enhancement of resources.

Image of NYARC home page

Figure 1: NYARC home page

The paper also considers the issues of museums becoming more digital in nature, development of a master’s program for the twenty-first century to train professionals in this area, and, through a case study, an example of successful application of the underlying principles in newly redeveloped museum displays. Digitization of collections is needed (Punzalan & Butler, 2014), but the interaction and behavior of visitors is also an important part of exhibition design, using digital aids as appropriate (Wernick, 2014). We predict that these will all be increasingly important aspects of digital development for leading museums.

2. Introduction

In 2012, the Manhattan-based Pratt School of Information and Library Science (SILS), in collaboration with Brooklyn Museum and NYARC (Brooklyn Museum, Frick, and MoMA), launched M-LEAD-TWO (Museum Library Education and Digitization – Technology, Web, Online), a three-year IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) grant focusing on developing NYARC’s Web collections and Web archiving, together with engaging Pratt students as interns. The project builds on the earlier IMLS M-LEAD-I project (2010–2013) between the Brooklyn Museum and Pratt. The Brooklyn Museum libraries and archives resource (Figure 2) provides access to over 108,000 records (e.g., see Figures 3 and 4).

Image of Brooklyn Museum collections: libraries and archives page

Figure 2: Brooklyn Museum collections: libraries and archives

Image of Brooklyn Museum libraries and archives: Fashion and Costume Sketch Collection, 1912-1950

Figure 3: Brooklyn Museum libraries and archives: Fashion and Costume Sketch Collection, 1912-1950 (Day dress, Cheriut, Summer 1912. Long blue dress with short blue jacket; jacket has white collar and 6 rows of buttons; orange turban with feather; walking stick; back view included. Bendel Collection, HB 001-02.)

Image of Brooklyn Museum libraries and archives: Scrapbook of trade cards, 1878-1885

Figure 4: Brooklyn Museum libraries and archives: Scrapbook of trade cards, 1878-1885 (Tradecard. C.A. Warner and Company. 534 Fulton Street. Brooklyn.)

Similarly, the Frick Digital Image Archive (Figure 5) allows access to large-format images online (e.g., see Figure 6).

Image of Frick Digital Image Archive: Childs and Martha Frick, 1888

Figure 6: Frick Digital Image Archive: Childs and Martha Frick, 1888 (Photographic print.)

With NYARC institutions serving as learning centers for Pratt students pursuing careers in museums, students participate in the M-LEAD project by carrying out two-semester internships that combine formal and experiential learning with practical training. M-LEAD enables students to make significant contributions to public access and use of the NYARC’s collections, while gaining understanding of museums and their digital life. The internship also enriches learning in museum technology, with a focus on digital content, metadata creation, description, access, and selection of diverse hybrid collections held by NYARC. Associated research materials include books and special collections such as documentary photographs and sketches, archives, and eBooks, eJournals, and other digital resources. Project M-LEAD emphasizes access to museum collections across sophisticated shared digital platforms that connect the treasure trove of world-class research materials and collections of physical museums to the virtual world of the Web.

It is now a prevailing mission for museums, libraries, and archives to provide public access for a large and highly diverse audience. Importantly, M-LEAD-TWO supports this mission and the need for museums to work and collaborate across institutions and museum departments in order to advance the integration and use of digital information and media, now at the heart of user engagement, education, and experience. Thus, as the Internet, network, and Web continue to advance and be integral to museum work, Pratt has been challenged to develop new models for graduate education that prepare museum professionals with the digital skills needed for this rapidly emerging field. Responding to this task, Pratt has introduced a new museum master’s degree for the digital world—the Master of Science (MS) in Museums and Digital Culture, to launch in Fall 2015 (Pratt Institute, 2015). This paper looks at the program’s design and raison d’être.

3. Museum work goes digital

Tracing trends in the nature of work of museum professionals reveals the emergence of digital museum departments, the growing importance of digital information behavior, and the interesting ways in which the digital world is transforming the relationship between museum objects, information, and the user.

Through M-LEAD-I with the Brooklyn Museum, Pratt’s Advanced Certificate in Museum Libraries within the Master of Science in Library and Information Science (MSLIS) was developed, including awards of tuition scholarships to participating students enabling them to complete this 12-credit program. For M-LEAD-TWO (Technology-Web-Online) with the Brooklyn Museum and its NYARC partners, student work has been centered on NYARC’s shared online catalog, known as Arcade, together with the building of digital collections, including Web archiving to produce curated collections of art resources. As M-LEAD-TWO completes its third year, Pratt is entering a new phase, inspired by the work and accomplishments of a total of six years of project work, marked by the dramatic developments in the digital life of museums. Museum work has gone digital, encompassing its diverse functions and activities from collection management to exhibitions. Building on lessons learned while working with the NYARC consortium and other New York museums, Pratt has introduced a new MS in Museums and Digital Culture, with the goal of enabling students to acquire the knowledge and skills to meet the needs of the twenty-first-century museum (Pratt Institute, 2015).

4. Master’s program in Museums and Digital Culture

Engaging the museum visitor has moved to center stage in today’s museums, and digital tools and technology provide the means to accomplish this. Equally significant, digital culture has changed social relationships between the visitor and the museum. Visitors have moved from being observers to participants, through social media, interactive digital tools, and embedding digital features in physical museum galleries and exhibitions. Departing from museum studies programs grounded in traditional curatorial museum function, the Pratt MS in Museums and Digital Culture is grounded in the fields of information science, museum informatics, and digital cultural heritage to prepare museum professionals for today’s digital world (Pratt Institute, 2015). This is advantaged by the digital convergence of practice across libraries, archives, and museums.

Why do we consider digital culture? Because conceptually, digital culture goes beyond digital tools and technology and must incorporate digital information behavior, information experience design, and user interaction, especially since visitors, real and virtual, come to the museum with their own digital information behavior in tow. This places the visitor/user at the heart of the enterprise, empowered to participate and contribute, to be creative, to learn, and to engage. Drawing on the long-standing programmatic focus on cultural informatics at Pratt SILS, the curriculum is concerned with how museums use digital resources across the full range of museum functions and activities. It is organized into five major study areas (Pratt Institute, 2015):

  1. Theory and Practice
  2. Museum Collections and Services; Digital Preservation and Curation
  3. Digital Tools and Technology
  4. User Experience, Education, and Information Design
  5. Field Research and Practicum

Building on SILS’s partnerships and grant projects with New York City’s leading museums, the program provides a structured practicum and field research in support of a culminating and required research project. Hands-on experiential learning is supported by SILS’s teaching and learning facilities, featuring laboratories designed for student projects and research. These include the iLab for Digital Culture, Research Seminar Lab, Information Experience Lab, and Cultural Informatics Lab, together with four seminar/laboratory classrooms supporting active participatory learning (Pratt Institute, 2015). Importantly, this fast-growing field provides many new opportunities for graduates to transform themselves into creative and innovative professionals.

5. Connections between art and digital information

Digital convergence across cultural institutions provides new opportunities for museum libraries and archives to connect to the mainstream of museum work. As museum libraries increasingly work on digital projects that make their holdings accessible and usable via the Web, they are more able to connect directly with the museum community and with their colleagues in other museum departments. This enables new and exciting possibilities for working across museum departments and sharing data, images, and expertise.

Drawing on experience with the Brooklyn Museum, NYARC, and the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 2008 onward, we have followed the rapid development of the ways in which museums are using digital media and technology. As library special collections and archives are digitized, new opportunities emerge for these digital objects to join the mainstream of museum collections, and these augment the digital methods and tools used by museums to enable objects to be discoverable and usable. With the increasing use of digital information and design in galleries and exhibitions to create more engaging and meaningful user experiences, and as digital art becomes more prevalent, the space between art and information is narrowing to the point where the two seem inseparable and part of the same fabric.

It is clear, from observing this paradigm shift from the perspective of the museum library and archives, that integrating their digital collections is imperative. Many such collections have previously been little known, often not for lack of high visual and informational value. These can now become part of the museum’s digital life, tied to the full range of its digital activities, including galleries and exhibitions. In this way, museums can heighten the quality of their exhibitions and gallery experiences, moving from scant textural plaques identifying objects to new combinations of art and information. The possibilities seem limitless as digital information morphs to be itself sometimes experienced as art. Importantly, museum libraries and archives must take the initiative to demonstrate this through innovative projects, while museums need to commit to breaking down silos and working collaboratively through digital connections and commonalities.

At Pratt, student research and projects have evolved with dramatic developments, tying professional work to all that is digital, designed to serve the needs of users in the physical and virtual museum spaces. While digitization continues to be a key component of projects, the importance of Web access and use, the network, open access, and linked open data continues to grow. Another significant area is what museums and libraries designate as “hidden collections,” which represents a wide range of materials essentially unknown to the public and having little or no public access. Through digitization, hidden collections are becoming more freely accessible online.

6. The digital curator

As museums continue to invest heavily in building digital assets, digital museum objects are driving the need to share museum information and spark social interaction with visitors. Digital assets have spawned new museum departments, such as digital asset management and e-publishing, and activities related to integrating digital information into museum galleries and exhibitions. At the same time, the digital realm now invades gallery space, so it is now expected that exhibitions must be designed with the user experience in mind and address the use of digital media incorporating the field of information experience design. Lacking this approach, exhibits seem dusty and “old school.”

A recent example of this new direction was most vividly on view at the reopening of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York on October 11, 2014. This not only introduced digital media into the gallery as a means of engaging visitors, but also, and equally importantly, significantly changed the way in which we consider exhibition curation. The approach is exemplified by the work of Seb Chan, the museum’s director of Emerging Technology and Digital Media, working with the museum’s digital team (Grimes, 2014). Their work responded to questions concerning how a museum can use digital facilities to transform viewers into participants, learners, and creators. Further, it has redefined the role and skills of a curator. At the reopening of the museum, some unexpected results were evident: visitors were talking to each other and sharing their thoughts on the works on exhibition, facilitated by digital installations. The reopened Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum features the integration of digital media in galleries and exhibitions, melding the museum object and information in ways that serve to engage visitors in thoughtful and participatory activities.

Clearly, advances in digital technology and tools will enable new possibilities for engaging visitors in the narrative of objects and their significance and meaning. This provides exciting opportunities for using museum library collections and archives, especially in revealing their “hidden collections” through digitization, which can facilitate cutting-edge approaches to bringing depth to visitor experience and education. A recent New York Times article notes, “Museums are being redefined for a digital age. The transformation, museum officials say, promises to touch every aspect of what museums do, from how art and objects are presented and experienced to what is defined as art” ((Lohr, 2014). Further, according to Seb Chan: “The digital pen is one ingredient in the redesign of the museum that is intended to ‘give visitors explicit permission to play and to explore the process of designing for themselves.’” (Lohr, 2014).

Digital capture and curation is essential to preserve an exhibition and visitor experience and interaction (e.g., for installation art). As museums begin to take the art of the museum experience more seriously, they will need digital curators that in essence choreograph the visitor experience. Thus, exhibition curation now takes on new dimensions that require advanced skills not only in digital media but also digital culture, which includes digital information behavior and social interaction.

Museum objects and their value, in combination with the value of information, often perceived in polarity, have melded within a new digital construct, forming close ties between art and information in the context of museum “digital objects.” We see that a digitized photograph gains more than it loses in terms of museum preservation, study, global access, and use. This gives greater standing to museum photographic archives, for which the Frick Reference Library is a wonderful example, as their rich photographic collections come online, making these important museum objects accessible and usable much more widely.

Speaking from a curatorial perspective, Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, observes:

“We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.” Museums, Ms. Antonelli insists, have an important role to play in helping people explore and understand the emerging hybrid culture. “It’s this strange moment of change,” she explained. “And digital space is increasingly another space we live in.” (Lohr, 2014)

This notion of the digital is elaborated by the authors (Bowen & Giannini, 2014), in which they propose:

(All things) X Digital = Digitalism. From the digitization of documents to the digitization of life itself and the birth of the digital self, digitalism demands new ways of doing, knowing, being, and thinking. Digitalism has become a central driver of human activity and sits at the heart of all disciplines … What most distinguishes digitalism is that it goes beyond people using digital technology and tools to a new realm of digital behaviors…

Thus, the modern curator in a successful museum needs interdisciplinary skills that cross technological, social, and cultural aspects of the increasingly digital world.

7. Conclusion: Digital challenges and decisions

This paper has presented a collaborative initiative in the area of museums informatics and cultural heritage involving the Pratt Institute and a consortium of major museums in New York (NYARC). In tandem, a new master’s program for aspiring museum professionals has been developed at the Pratt Institute to meet the needs of leading museums. Forward-looking museums like the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum are harnessing these skills to present exciting combinations of exhibitions, incorporating real objects with effective digital augmentation for significantly improved visitor engagement. The authors predict that this will become increasingly important for the future development of museums, with the digital convergence affecting the whole of society, including cultural heritage organizations (Marty, 2014). Some may see digital development as a challenge, but the authors see it as a huge opportunity. The museums that make the right decisions with respect to digital integration using appropriately trained interdisciplinary personnel will lead the sector in the future.


Jonathan Bowen is grateful for support from Museophile Limited.


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Cite as:
. "A New York Museums and Pratt partnership: Building Web collections and preparing museum professionals for the digital world." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 29, 2015. Consulted .