Art Museums Experiment with TaggingSuppose you're at a museum where you saw a picture you liked, but you can't remember where it was, what it was called, or who painted it. You can try asking at the information desk if anyone knows where, exactly, the "big painting with the little dog in the corner" is hung, but, unless it's a famous painting, odds you won't get a very helpful answer.
With the advent of tagging, this situation is beginning to change, if not at physical museums, at least with their online collections. A project called steve.museum1 is experimenting with social tagging to produce folksonomies2 that reflect how visitors categorize (and interpret) the works they see. These visitors' categories are a complement to the categories used by curators creator, date, size, materials, use, etc.
If you go to the Indianapolis Museum of Art site, you can see an example of the results of social tagging. On the main page, a list of the most frequently assigned tags indicates by font size, how many images each of the listed tags has been attached to.
You can see the entire current list of tags presented as a tag cloud by clicking on the "view entire tag cloud" link. You will immediately notice one of the problems with social tagging the presence of synonyms (e.g., "beard" and "bearded"); you may have to check several tags to see all items in a category of interest to you (e.g., "bearded men"). There is also the issue of alternate spellings of the same tag (e.g., "theater" and "theatre").
If you'd like to experiment with tagging images yourself, you can visit the Smithsonian photography site. There you will find how the Smithsonian (not part of steve.museum) has approached the project of creating a "visual search interface for browsing, tagging, and sequencing" photographs. The Smithsonian describes its tagging initiative as
an invitation to contribute to an ongoing dialogue about pictures and words and how they come to signify different things to different people at different times.To get started, click the "Enter the Frame" link. I did this and was quickly confronted with another of the issues social tagging presents bad tags. For instance, I accessed photos tagged "animal" and then checked the tags assigned to a photo of a kangaroo. Some easily amused visitor had contributed "crocodile."
A final example of where you can try out tagging is the swatch collection of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. Just click on a swatch and then click on "Describe" in the window that comes up.
1 "Steve" is also the name of the open-source tagging tool that the project is developing. The participating museums are the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For an illuminating discussion of the thinking behind steve.museum, you can take a look at "Investigating Social Tagging and Folksonomy in Art Museums with steve.museum," a paper by Jennifer Trant (Archives and Museum Informatics) and Bruce Wyman (Denver Art Museum), available in pdf format here. You can keep track of press and blog comments on the project by checking the list for the tag "steve.museum" that Jennifer Trant supplies at del.icio.us.
2 Thomas Vander Wal coined the term folksonomy.