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How Do Institutional Philosophies Manifest in Online Collections?

by , September 2014

SFMOMA’s ArtScope

Undertaken while the museum is closed for a transformational expansion, SFMOMA Lab is conducting a series of explorations into key questions of contemporary museumhood. As part of research focused on digital storytelling, we’re investigating how museums (and their GLAM1 peers) communicate internally, interinstitutionally, and, in particular, with their many audiences. We’re also interested in how an institution’s professed mission, brand identity, and culture — its philosophy — help shape the various communications, engagements, and experiences it provides for its audiences. Here we address that question by examining the ways such institutional philosophies manifest in online collection presentations at three peer museums. To help inform our internal thinking on this topic, we interviewed experts from those institutions as well as key members of the SFMOMA team. What follows is a survey of our findings and some speculation on SFMOMA’s future direction in this arena.

In developing this study, we consciously chose to focus on three international institutions with different types of collections. We began our interviews with Peter Gorgels, internet manager for the Rijksmuseum, the largest Dutch national museum of art and history. In April 2013 the Rijksmuseum launched an online collection presentation (developed under Gorgels’s leadership) that features a section called Rijksstudio, where visitors are invited to download full images or details of artworks in the museum’s collection and use them in creative ways, free of copyright restrictions. Next we spoke to Aaron Cope, senior engineer at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum, America’s only museum dedicated exclusively to historical and contemporary design. The Cooper Hewitt’s new collections database is currently in a public beta phase. Our third interview subject was Andy Neale, head of DigitalNZ, a government-funded service run by the National Library of New Zealand that partners with museums, libraries, community groups, and media organizations to surface New Zealand digital content. Finally, we interviewed two long-term SFMOMA staff members, Peter Samis, associate curator, interpretation, and Tim Svenonius, senior content strategist, interpretive media, to gather insights about SFMOMA’s history and future aspirations in this area that would allow us to consider our own trajectory alongside those of the institutions under study.

Audience Engagement

Writing about the online presence of museums in 2008, Peter Samis quoted artist Olafur Eliasson: “Objecthood doesn’t have a place in the world if there’s not an individual person making use of that object… I of course don’t think my work is about my work. I think my work is about you.”2 Samis emphasizes that he himself is “not that interested in the collection just as a repository. I am interested in how it interacts with the public and with a social mission.” Writing in 2012, Koven Smith, former director of technology at The Denver Art Museum, echoed Samis on the centrality of considering the audience when developing online collection presentations. Smith identifies a gap between imagined and actual audiences for such content, pointing out that “our current online collections typically aren’t deep enough to really serve scholars, nor are they friendly enough to serve casual visitors who don’t know what they are looking for.”3

Olafur Eliasson, Notion Motion, 2005; Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen; Photo: Ian Reeves

The Rijksmuseum made a clear choice to gear their collection toward a type of visitor they call the “culture snacker.” Gorgels describes this type as a person who regularly shares visual content online on social networks like Pinterest and Instagram. In deference to this image-orientated target audience, the Rijksmuseum developed a simple interface that focuses on the visual qualities of its objects. Gorgels describes this as the common point of interest for both culture snackers and a secondary art-educated audience: “If we could make something really beautiful for the culture snacker,” he says, “then maybe the art lover would also love it.”

Each collection image is presented in full-screen view, allowing users to zoom in to examine the smallest details. The museum chose not to resize images to fit the user’s screen, so in most instances the user does not see the entire image at first. In addition, the initial image view does not include text information about the work beyond the artwork title, artist name, and creation date. Notably, Rijksstudio gives the user the ability to select, manipulate, download, and share images from the museum’s collection, whether for study or for everyday use as designs for handbags, fabrics, and more. Recently, the museum took steps to further encourage such personalization of the collection by establishing the Rijksstudio Award, an annual prize awarded for the best design made using Rijksstudio. In addition, the museum has collaborated with Etsy to publicize the availability of its images for designers.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as The Night Watch, 1642; collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum is a state-owned institution whose mission statement includes a mandate to “link individuals with art and history.” In this spirit, the Rijksmuseum has designed an online collection presentation that facilitates intimacy with and ownership of the images in the online collection. Gorgels explains, “The strategy we came up with was that if we think that the collection belongs to all of us, then we should bring the collection close to the audience, closer to people. As much as possible, we want people to have a little part of the Rijksmuseum collection in their home.”

This effort to foster individual connections and attachment contrasts starkly with the arm’s-length approach taken by DigitalNZ, which centralizes and aggregates digital content from or about New Zealand from a range of sources, including museums, archives, libraries, media organizations, and community groups. Given the national focus of their digital content, DigitalNZ recognizes that its collections are of interest to audiences as diverse as New Zealand itself. Andy Neale says, “since we started the service … we have felt that we can never create a website that would meet everyone’s needs. … We can’t be close to everyone, we can’t build features for everyone.” As a result of this philosophy, Neale identifies DigitalNZ’s core audience as other software applications. Thus, the organization dedicates significant resources to their open API (Application Programming Interface), which enables special-interest groups to use DigitalNZ’s materials in creative and meaningful ways specific to their communities. One example of this is an app built by NZ On Screen using film- and TV-related content available through DigitalNZ. In addition to facilitating such projects, DigitalNZ encourages the surfacing of new content by providing resources on best practices for digitization in Make it Digital, a subsection of their website.

The openness and collaboration encouraged by DigitalNZ’s open API and web resources reflects their mission to “make New Zealand digital content easier to find, share, and use.” Neale explains that as a relatively small, stateless country with only two tiers of government (national and municipal) and a strong library and museum sector, New Zealand is uniquely situated to share content and cultural resources in ways that might not be possible in larger countries, and DigitalNZ aims to facilitate such efforts.

The Rijksmuseum and DigitalNZ both use their websites to open up their digital content to their audiences for creative and personalized use. However, their approaches to their audiences reflect unique institutional philosophies. The Rijksmuseum has positioned online images of the works in its collection as part of a visual culture that individuals can personalize and consume, whereas DigitalNZ has deliberately avoided proscribing the ways that diverse audiences can share the content they collect. Yet both organizations have imagined who their key audiences are, and have allowed those assumptions to have a determinative influence on the way content is presented on their sites.

Photo: Johnna Arnold

Peter Samis says that at SFMOMA the aim is to develop an online collection presentation that can reach audiences at several different levels. “We’re honoring the questions of the culture snacker,” he says, “and using them as an opportunity to dig deep.” Tim Svenonius sees that this can be achieved through focusing on the stories told by artworks and the collection. “I think that SFMOMA’s strategy is largely to facilitate human relationships with artworks,” he says. “By exploiting people’s natural tendency to respond to individual works, to the icons, we can form lasting bonds with our public.” Samis echoes the centrality of stories as a defining and unique element of SFMOMA’s approach to its collection, and believes that telling stories is the best way to develop relationships with the audience. “It is the combination of reason and feeling that comes in a story that really opens people up,” he says. As SFMOMA thinks about the next iteration of its online collection presentation, creating human connections to artworks — especially through stories — will be a key goal.

Access and Preservation

Much of the rhetoric around online collection presentations continues to assume that by placing images of and information about its collection online, an institution can immediately provide access to a collection. Over the past several years, many museum professionals have acknowledged the deficiency of this approach. In 1997 Kevin Donovan argued that simply allowing users to search through extensive lists or to use a blank search box does not equate to access, and that cultural institutions should focus on facilitating learning rather than just providing information. Though technology has advanced, this problem of nominally providing “access” to a collection without offering ways to learn more persists in the dominant single-object approach.

“It’s not really enough just to say, ‘Here it is, here’s some material, here’s our collection,’” says Neale. DigitalNZ’s focus has therefore been on improving the quality of the metadata associated with the collections they surface in order to help users find more specific digital content from their more than 150 contributors. In this way, DigitalNZ is, in Neale’s words, a service rather than a website. Neale says that DigitalNZ’s users “usually have goals, and they’re looking for material for a particular purpose, and they want to use it. . . . We are all about immediate gratification . . . As a team, we aren’t so concerned with preservation . . . we don’t have pointers to physical things that people have to go in and visit.”

By contrast, the Cooper Hewitt does own the objects it digitizes, and sees its online collection presentation as serving dual functions of access and preservation. Cope says that if the Cooper Hewitt collection wasn’t online, an audience accustomed to highly searchable online databases like Google and Amazon would question the institution’s mandates for preservation and access. “It really forces that question of preservation without access,” Cope says, “which, particularly for a public institution, is a dubious kind of preservation at all.”

Each time period, designer, movement, and object within the Cooper Hewitt collection has been given a stable identifier and URL, so that it will be findable online in the future. “That URL will be there in 100 years,” says Cope. “And it should be there in 200 years, particularly because we are the Smithsonian, and that’s our job, that’s our responsibility.” He identifies a goal outcome as being a reference for people to link to, in the same way Wikipedia is. They have therefore provided blurbs at the bottom of each object page that provide links and references to assist their audiences in tagging the Cooper Hewitt’s objects across the web.

In this way, the Cooper Hewitt sees digitizing their collection as part of their mandate to preserve history, in the same way that conservation work on physical objects preserves their collection. Because DigitalNZ doesn’t own the physical objects they reference, there is no motivation to be a singular, expert source for items in the collections they present. Neale instead likens DigitalNZ to a “wholesaler” of digital content and says the content itself is more important than the institution it’s from. “The first principle was that from a customer perspective, customers don’t care where material comes from,” he says. “They don’t care if it’s library or a gallery or a museum or a newspaper. If they’re looking for something or they’re interested in something, they just want it.” The Cooper Hewitt, on the other hand, has an online collection presentation that enhances their authoritative institutional position. These approaches reflect fundamental differences in the roles that these two collection presentations serve for their respective organizations.

SFMOMA is not a public institution, though Samis characterizes it as “public facing.” He argues that having an online collection presentation in some form is “part of the minimum daily requirements for what a museum has to do if it’s at a certain level and it’s functioning with peers like Tate and MoMA.” Svenonius sees online interpretation of the collection as just as important as accessibility: “It is our responsibility as a kind of custodian of cultural heritage to make it as available as possible and to make it engaging and interesting and useful.” Without the nominal “public access” mandate that comes hand-in-hand with taxpayer funding, SFMOMA can be guided by its own institutional philosophies. As Samis puts it, “How can we make this an opportunity to demonstrate excellence and uniqueness as SFMOMA? We have to tell the best stories. They have to be meaningful and rooted in the collection, they have to be the authentic stories of the collection that are told in a way that’s not dry.” For SFMOMA, the imperatives of access and cultural custodianship can be realized through sharing stories that allow audiences to engage with the collection in deep and meaningful ways.

Data and the Visual

Online collection presentations are a meeting point for internal and external museum data about their collections and the visuality of artworks and objects themselves. Historically the typical interface for online collection presentations has been a slightly enhanced version of that used in internal collection management software, often without rich and deep information about the objects being included. This templated approach has limited the possibilities for more complex connections and conversations between and across artworks, and has also limited the aesthetic experiences available online.

As a design museum, the Cooper Hewitt’s collection includes everyday objects, and the museum aims to present “compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life.” The quotidian quality of the collection is reflected in an online presentation that prioritizes the shape of the collection overall and the relationships between works, rather than the preciousness of individual pieces. Each object receives the same interface treatment, and Cope refers to the entire collection presentation as a “database.” The museum’s decision to include objects for which they have no image and little or no information reflects a philosophy that “the value of the aggregate is greater than the sum total of some perfect subset,” as Cope puts it. This aggregate information allows the museum to see information about the broad shape of the collection, such as the fact that more objects are from France than the United States, or that drawings are the most common type of object. For a public institution, Cope argues, this approach is important for public accountability, as it provides data about how the museum actually collects.

The Cooper Hewitt was originally conceived as a working collection, and this philosophy has carried over to their open API and the public alpha and beta releases of their collection website. Cope says that this openness surrounding their online collection presentation was the result of a strategic decision made by the museum: “It is to show that we don’t have a monopoly on the interpretation. Creating an open space for other people to engage with the collection simply strengthens our position.” The usability of the Cooper Hewitt’s data parallels the daily usability of the objects in their collection.

As a design museum rather than an art museum, the Cooper Hewitt has to face the “larger question about how the distinction around an item at a museum is collapsing,” says Cope. He jokes that if Amazon were to put one of everything from their website in a warehouse and hire a team of curators and conservators, it would look a lot like a design museum. Tellingly, Gorgels at the Rijksmuseum instead draws an analogy to Pinterest and Instagram, reflecting the museum’s commitment to offering users an interface that facilitates looking at the rich details of the Dutch Golden Age paintings and other masterworks in its collection. As Gorgels notes, “We were aware that we have a lot of those great old paintings, with a lot of detail, and it’s really beautiful to zoom in and enjoy all those details.” In an effort to support this online visual experience, the Rijksmuseum has created an interface that showcases the most popular and renowned works in its collection. “We strongly believe in the power of the image,” says Gorgels. “The Rijksmuseum has really great images, and so we want to try to get a position in that new visual culture.” The museum intends to continue to simplify the interface to bring it closer to the functionality of image-driven social sites.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (detail), ca. 1660; collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Though they have taken distinct approaches that emphasize visuality and data richness, respectively, the Rijksmuseum and the Cooper Hewitt have used their online collection presentations to fulfill their mission statements, reinforce the value of their collections for their audiences, and emphasize their uniqueness as collecting institutions. Neither an exclusively data-driven nor an image-centric online collection presentation is right for SFMOMA, though the next iteration of sfmoma.org will certainly include elements of both approaches. One of the unique benefits of being a modern and contemporary art museum is access to living artists and the ability to include artists’ voices in our stories. Embracing this, Samis characterizes the website and related multimedia as means of sharing “stories that matter.” He sees the ideal SFMOMA online collection presentation as “being able to draw from that really smart database through an API and then have some tools, almost like a model train set, different lengths and shapes of track that allow the stories to take different paths and have different scenery around them, the landscapes of our history.”


The constant thread throughout the interviews with staff members from the Rijksmuseum, DigitalNZ, and the Cooper Hewett is how closely their online collection presentations align with their stated institutional philosophies. More specifically, it is striking to see how these organizations’ brand and mission statements, and the ideals they embody, are being interpreted and executed by the people tasked with presenting their collections online. Particularly in light of the very different outcomes achieved by each site, the success of these three online collection presentations is rooted in making a close connection between institutional philosophy and its manifestation, and in a commitment to thoughtfully considering the institutional purpose of an online collection presentation before jumping in.

SFMOMA has a long and storied history of art interpretation, and we intend to extend this tradition in our new building and our new digital spaces. As Samis puts it, “The more we can continue to do things that are intuitive and delightful and yet steeped in the truths of the objects and why those objects were groundbreaking or are crucial to our understanding of what it is to be human, the more valuable we become.” It is this thinking that inspired the museum to produce the interactive feature Making Sense of Modern Art in 2000 rather than simply putting the collection online as a searchable database. The object-specific or numeric aggregate of many online collections is not the only way to articulate the ideas, questions, and histories found in those objects.

Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

We believe there is great potential in an approach that is narrow and deep, rather than wide and shallow. We’re interested in the stories that can be found at URLs that don’t end in object IDs or accession numbers. With this philosophy in mind, we are building an SFMOMA online collection presentation that will be a rich toolkit with which storytellers can craft and share meaningful stories, and a place for our audiences to discover connections across the collection and across contemporary culture.


K. Donovan, “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web and the Evolution of Museum Automation” In D. Bearman and J. Trant, eds. Museums and the Web 1997: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1997. https://www.archimuse.com/mw97/speak/donovan.htm. Consulted March 31, 2014.

P. Gorgels, “Rijksstudio: Make Your Own Masterpiece!” In N. Proctor and R. Cherry, eds., Museums and the Web 2013, Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web, 2013.

P. Samis, “Who Has The Responsibility For Saying What We See? Mashing up Museum, Artist, and Visitor Voices, On-site and On-line” In J. Trant and D. Bearman, eds., Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings Toronto: Archives and Museum Informatics, 2008. https://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/samis/samis.html. Consulted 31, March 2014.

K. Smith, “Online collections, hey! Online collections, what?” Koven J Smith Dot Com, April 16, 2012. https://kovenjsmith.com/archives/498. Consulted 31, March 2014.


Aaron Cope
Senior Engineer, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Interview conducted via Skype, March 3, 2014

Peter Gorgels
Internet Manager, Rijksmuseum
Interview conducted via Skype, March 19, 2014

Andy Neale
Head of Digital NZ
Interview conducted via Skype, March 11, 2014

Peter Samis
Associate Curator, Interpretation, SFMOMA
Interview conducted in person, March 11, 2014

Tim Svenonius
Senior Content Strategist, Interpretive Media, SFMOMA
Interview conducted in person, February 25, 2014


  1. GLAM = Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums.
  2. https://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/325.
  3. “Online Collections, Hey! Online Collections, What?” https://kovenjsmith.com/archives/498.

Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith; photo: Don Ross

Keir Winesmith

Keir Winesmith is the head of Web + Digital Platforms at SFMOMA.
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