A Curated Digital Experience: Searching for Context in Online Collections

By: Dave Nicosia

March 29, 2017

Here at Vibethink, we have been supporting the digital needs of museums for years. One of our favorite projects is with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). We created an interactive experience for their Russian Fabergé Egg Exhibit (https://vmfa.museum/collections/faberge) that included a storytelling website (http://faberge.vmfa.museum) and a mobile app for didactic experiences inside the museum (https://tinyurl.com/zsvogpd).

While these have all been fun efforts, one of the works we take most pride in has been in opening up their collections for public search. The VMFA needed an extendable, easy, affordable way to deploy searchable online catalogs of their collections. Additionally, they did not want just another faceted search experience – they wanted a platform for learning, research, and exploration by putting context and relativity around the art itself. This concept entails building a curated digital experience for the visitor both on-site and at-home where art objects are tied to everyday news, educational stories, curator content, media (audio/video), educational resources, geography, time, and more.

Storytelling and Curation

To meet these goals, our UX team worked with the curators to bring their ideal user journeys to the website. We are designing stories like the one below to match curated navigational patterns. Our goal is to ensure finding relevant pieces happens within context – like geography, time period, or physical museum location – and never leads to a dead end. Our suggestions for related stories and further discovery lead to continued unexpected learning from users’ digital experiences.

On the technical side, simply using traditional Digital Asset Management (DAM) tools like Piction, traditional collection management software like TMS, or even embedded search engines like Solr alone could not match our design vision. Enabling online search using these methods could have resulted in slow, painful, even biased search experiences. Not to mention that they were all separate databases with limited abilities for complex queries.

Elasticsearch to the Rescue

So how did we create an affordable system to search multiple collections online and stay within the curated experience? Partnering with the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) and the VMFA, Vibethink is using Elasticsearch, WordPress, and custom code to offer the VMFA a dedicated Collections site, designed with the search audience in mind. We developed an extensible schema to use across many data sources (such as Piction), but because DAM implementations tend to customize individual fields, we needed custom migration scripts for our common schema. We were then able to configure Elasticsearch and start producing more advanced queries than a traditional faceted search would allow. Users will now have a more curated path to search through the online art objects.

Contact Us

Our solution provides a unique museum experience while providing context and relativity to fascinating collection pieces. If your institution wants to explore ways to service online user communities with more open access, contact us here (https://vibethink.com/contact).