As burgeoning digital historians, understanding metadata and its significance to the online experience of museums are essential to the production of functioning online exhibits and archives. The effective application of metadata is particularly pertinent to researchers accessing the collections of those online exhibits because it depicts necessary information describing the object of research. Although I describe museums and archives here, metadata is used across the web to make the discovery of information easier. As institutions that prioritize the dissemination of quality information to a mostly technologically literate public, it makes sense for museums and archives to be more mindful of the quality of their metadata so that a wider audience can gain access to their collections. Once found, metadata makes it possible for the public to know the ins and outs of a particular item. Metadata, at least in the case of cultural institutions, usually comprises the pertinent dates, dimensions, location, and copyright of the data.
For this week’s examination of metadata, I looked at two institutions that deal with the same kinds of collections. Both the Chicago History Museum and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum hold a robust online collection of costume and textiles. The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s search engine, found through the ‘Collections’ tab on their main page for their collections, shares some of the 50,000 pieces and their accompanying metadata with website viewers. The catalogued objects were listed neatly with a photograph, the associated dates, as well as its corresponding object number. When the viewer clicks on an image, they are taken to a more detailed entry with more information about the history of the object, the donor, and designer information if known. Interestingly, the FIT also offers two ways of viewing the objects in their collections. They can either be viewer in “light box view,” that is with images and no metadata for quick skimming, or “list view” which enables the viewer to see more information on the object before clicking on it.
Similarly, the Chicago Museum’s Costume and Textile Collection offers a “light box” view of their collections, but the functionality for the purposes of researching costumes and textiles specifically is more difficult. It may be an unfair comparison, as the FIT is solely dedicated to the preservation of textiles and costumes while the Chicago History Museum holds other kinds of artifacts as well. Like the FIT, users can perform a general search for specific items that appear across numerous collection; however, unlike the FIT, all of the costumes and textiles artifacts are lumped together in one sub-section of the database. To their credit, Chicago Museum’s digital collections provides “suggested topics” and filtered searches that the careful construction of metadata and subsequent tagging made possible. Although the organization within the costumes collection itself is burdensome, the tagging of pieces of metadata allows for greater connection among objects than the structured and finite navigation of the FIT.
The FIT’s metadata seems more an afterthought in consideration of a digital necessity while the Chicago Museum uses its metadata to create opportunities for heightened engagement. Both sites provided comprehensive background information for their digital collections, although ease of access slightly differed. Metadata can provide researchers and museum goers with necessary awareness of the essential background information regarding collections in a museum’s care. It behooves institutions to “fashion” detailed metadata for consumption while also taking care to make it easily accessible to all.