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Collections and Connections

What can we learn from Amazon when putting museum collections online?

Museums aren’t the only organisations that have large collections. When thinking about ways to present collections online it’s always worth looking further afield. How do other industries do the same job? Libraries and archives often have better structured data and can be a step ahead in providing a range of ways to access the information. How often do we look at organisations for inspiration that are outside of the cultural sector?

Amazon have an immense collection of catalogued items, from books to movies to baby toys. While their ultimate goal is to sell you stuff, they have put a lot of effort in providing ways to discover the items. Many of the features in the Amazon search interface are things which we should be considering when building online museum collections.

Categories for content

Amazon categoriesVisitors don’t always know the broad range of the collection.  They need an overview of what you have to offer and easy ways to get to sub-sections of the collection. Amazon provide shortcuts for browsing by department and a full directory page listing all the main categories. Providing just a simple search box makes it tough going for the casual visitor.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London does a nice job of this. They provide a series of detailed subject hub pages that break down the collection and provide additional context.  Interested in the V&A’s jewellery collection? Just go to the subject hub page and find shortcuts to their articles and videos, as well as plenty of links to related subjects, collection items, events and shop items that fit with the theme.

Options for refining results

Europeana filterIf you search in Amazon you don’t end up on a simple results page. You get provided with options for refining your selection to get to what you really want to look at. A search for museum gives you options for refining by department (e.g. look for just Books -> Education & Reference) and useful counts of the most common matching categories (e.g. by Format or Author).

Europeana is one example of an online cultural collection which takes a similar approach. A search for limestone includes options to filter in several ways including by media type, date, country and copyright.

Suggested items that may also be of interest

Te Papa categoriesThe visitor has viewed the details of one of your objects. What next? They may not yet have found what they are looking for or may be interested in continuing to browse the collection. Amazon provides options to view other items which they think you may be like, both through links on the records (e.g. click on the author to see other books they have published) and suggested similar items.

Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand, gives sections of helpful links alongside each collection record, including groupings by people, places and categories.

User generated content

Amazon reviewsAmazon lets users add to the content by providing reviews of each item. This gives other users a better idea of what they’re getting and allows Amazon to gather additional data that would be impossible to create with just their own staff.

Museum sites can use commenting and tagging to get more information from users. Users can also assist with improving the quality of the information. For example, the Trove cultural heritage aggregation site in Australia allows users to correct text created by its newspaper digitisation project.

The new alpha collection site for Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum is trying something new. They provide instructions at the bottom of each collection page for tagging external photos you may have of the item. If this gets enough momentum they hope to be able to include some of this user generated content in their collection website.

Are there features on non-museum websites that you think are might be applicable to museum collections?

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