Folksonomic findability

It is a pet peeve of mine that museums so rarely draw on the knowledge and understanding of visitors to help interpret their collections. Ever since I read Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture,1 I’ve sought out initiatives that facilitate community interaction. In global terms, there are plenty of examples, especially in terms of public programs. But in terms of the core business of museums – collection management, and exhibitions, it remains rare for a museum to involve audiences in the process of making collections meangingful. (Your examples are welcome!)

In the world of the web, though, the story is different. Social software enables visitors to the site to help make the site. And the cultural heritage sector is starting to explore the possibilities.

a tagged imageSteve is a project of a group of seven museums.2 It emerged out of the mismatch between the classification systems of museums and the way users tend to think about collection items. A museum might describe an artwork in terms of the artist’s proper family name. Whereas a visitor might search for an artwork according to how they remember it – its shape, or the fact that a painting had some nice clouds in it.

The Steve people are researching and developing a tool that will enable website visitors to add descriptive tags to any item they are viewing. The tags then join in with the official description of the item, so that the collection takes on a hybrid official and vernacular classification system. And henceforth each item becomes more findable for more people. And more collectively meaningful!

Have a look at, and join in, this wonderful experiment. (You need to register if you want to do some cataloguing.)

circular fabric designorange fabric designBut wait! Here’s another example, closer to home. Our very own Powerhouse Museum invites users to help describe swatches of fabric, dating from the 1890s to the 1920s. You can enter your thoughts on their colour, pattern, mood and/or ‘other facts’.

1. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (eds), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
2. Steve stands for Social Terminology Enhancement through Vernacular Engagement.

8 thoughts on “Folksonomic findability

  1. Interesting article Cath. Maybe the web is an experimental playground for us all at the moment, and what we’ll soon see (or are beginning to see already) is a trickle down effect where these ‘experiments’ begin to influence physical museum spaces as well.

  2. Hope so, Lisa. Seth van Hooland in Belgium is doing some research on cultural institutions — such as the National Archives of the Netherlands — that are experimenting with incorporating user comments. I’ll post more on this as it emerges.

  3. I’m studying these issues for a masters thesis (in archives): am testing the implications of user contributed descriptions against traditional archival theory. Museums & libraries are really leading the way here but I have found one good archival example which I thought might be of general interest: (it is a School of Information, Uni Michigan, project). Thanks for the stimulating post, Cath.

  4. Glad that you find steve an interesting prospect. The project’s name, steve, really doesn’t stand for anything, though the D-Lib article used “Social Terminology Enhancement through Vernacular Engagement” in its title [see

    If you’d like to follow the our progress, visit and sign up for the discussion list, and check out the list of recent Papers including one at Museums and the Web 2006 [ ]

    You don’t have to register to use the tagging prototype, but we’re encouraging it, as the demographic data provided at registration adds richness to our analysis of the tags gathered.



  5. Jennifer – nice to see you here! And thanks for your corrections. I am already enjoying the steve discussion. And your comment is a timely reminder to go back and exoerience the newest version of steve.

  6. Janet! Nice to read you here. Yes, I’ve been following the Powerhouse Museum’s initiative. I bow down deeply to Sebastian Chan and the forward-thinking senior management there.

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