Exploring the Activist Possibilities of Expanded Metadata

“Perhaps those of us who are interested in seeing more robust cultural critique need to be more specific about where the intervention might most productively take place. It is not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it is about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it does not reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.”

— Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities”

My project started with mangos.

“Those are mangos,” my Museum Interpretation classmate said, pointing to the large painting in front of us with the label covered.

“No, they’re not,” I said reflexively. “Consider where we are.”

We were in the Modern and Contemporary Gallery at the RISD Museum and it turned out we were standing in front of Wifredo Lam’s The Eternal Presence.

The memory of gripping peeled mangos with my tiny hands, feeling the juice running between my fingers and the tiny strands of fiber in my teeth, is one of my oldest. Long before I ever knew what fine art or a museum was, I ate mangos. Yet, encountering a motif from my past in a place like the RISD Museum did not make sense–or shall I say, being Latina did not prevent me from experiencing implicit bias toward an artwork by a Latin American painter.

Shortly after this experience, I was inspired by an internship description at the Smithsonian Latino Center that proposed identifying and tagging objects within their collections that were made by Latinxs. This succession of experiences made me think about performing a case study on the RISD Museum site, using publically-available metadata and interviews with staff to explore ways that metadata could be optimized to make objects of Latinx or Latin American provenance more accessible. (Note: I selected the RISD Museum due to proximity and relative access, since I am taking a class there this semester).

But then I had another idea. What if instead of using objects to understand how communities use the RISD Museum website (which is difficult to do because analytics don’t provide context) I used objects to try to understand the people who selected them better: curators?

Why Curators?

Within a museum, the curator’s work is strategically less public; in some ways, curators are considered to have done their jobs best when they’re not “seen.” Nevertheless, curators control how objects are organized, displayed, and interpreted. Their training (art curators are often expected to have PhDs in art history) depends on them developing highly specialized knowledge about certain art disciplines, movements, and artists in order to appraise artistic value; not necessarily a rigorous understanding of how race, ethnicity, and culture impact human lives. This can be problematic when you realize that the profession is not diverse. According to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, published in 2015:

Non Hispanic White staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership (from director and chief curator to head of education or conservation). In that subset of positions, 84% is Non-Hispanic White, 6% Asian, 4% Black, 3% Hispanic White, and 3% Two or More Races. With the exception of the Asian demographic category, which makes up 5% of the United States population today, these proportions do not come close to representing the diversity of the American population…There is no comparable “youth bulge” of staff from historically underrepresented minorities in curatorial, education, or conservation departments. The percentages of staff from underrepresented communities in such positions are basically level at 27.5% across the different age cohorts born from the 1960s to 1990s. Therefore, even promotion protocols that are maximally intentional about the organizational benefits of diversity are not going to make museum leadership cohorts notably more diverse if there is no simultaneous increase in the presence of historically underrepresented minorities on museum staff altogether, and particularly in the professions that drive the museum’s programs in collection development, research, exhibitions, and education.

The decision of museums like the Met to publish and grant access to information about their objects is a reversal of the traditional flow of information about objects, which was historically controlled by the curators, to the audience. This shift meant that not only could the objects be scrutinized more critically, but the curators as well. Given the typically concealed role of the curator and under-representation of POC as curators, I was interested in examining whether or not expanded public access to metadata for online collections highlighting the nationalities, ethnicities, and/or cultures of object creators would help us understand curators. This lead me to my hypothesis:

Expanded Metadata Functionality and/or Expanded Public Access to Digital Collections Metadata Can Help Public Humanists Understand Curators

When I started this project, my assumptions about museum metadata practices belied my lack of knowledge: I assumed that if metadata was not displayed on the RISD Museum website, it did not exist. I did not make the distinction between assets that are published and not published. I didn’t realize that there is not one universal standard for organizing information about objects. I didn’t realize that when institutions share API, they are not necessarily sharing all of the information they have on the objects.

As I found out later, when studying metadata, it makes more sense to select an institution to study based on the availability of usable data rather than the other way around. Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight used a spreadsheet uploaded by the Met Museum to GitHub as a lens to analyze the Met’s history: my Public Humanities colleagues Andrea Ledesma and Leah Burgin performed a case study on the Harvard Art Museum, using API to analyze their collection of 14th century sculptures.

Originally, I thought the ten or so objects on the website that I found using a “Latin America’ query were all that existed of the collection. I didn’t realize that the 8,892 objects available on the RISD Museum site only represents around nine percent of the 100,000 objects that exist in the RISD Museum collection. Suddenly, this was less of a copy-and-paste information into a spreadsheet exercise and more of an API-job, as it is a useful tool for working with large amounts of information. Even accounting for the variety of user-friendliness in API, having direct access to information about a museum’s assets would have been a faster, more thorough, and more accurate approach: in this case, physical proximity to a museum didn’t automatically increase digital access.

This project was inspired by Miriam Posner’s essay, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” Posner wrote:

There are probably a lot of reasons, many to do with practicalities and efficiencies and who is actually aware of what data is where. But one big thing is that, technically speaking, we frankly have not figured out how to deal with categories like gender that are not binary or one-dimensional or stable. But what if we did try to figure it out?…What would maps and data visualizations look like if they were built to show us categories like race as they have been experienced, not as they have been captured and advanced by businesses and governments?

Metadata functionality exists for logging a person’s nationality and culture within a few metadata standards. The RISD Museum uses the CDWA metadata standard, which utilizes the Getty vocabularies. Within Section 28 “Person/Corporate Body Authority,” field 28.8 corresponds to “Person Nationality/Culture/Race,” field 28.8.1 corresponds to “Preference,” and field 28.8.2 corresponds to “Nationality/Culture Type.” I met with Denise Bastien, the RISD Museum’s Documentation and Digital Resources Registrar, who provided some helpful context about the role of the registrar in the museum and the evolution of the role over time. Over the course of the 20th century, the registrar position morphed from that of a bookkeeper to a librarian. Within a museum, a registrar inputs information (or content) as data values and does not provide interpretation. This means that the information and interpretation a curator provides is especially important.

If organizing schemas are made by humans to fit human needs and these needs change over time, then there is a need to increase diversity at the top of museum’s institutional hierarchies and to incentivize and promote the use of data fields that account for race, ethnicity, and culture. It seems that the future of the registrar profession is moving towards open linked data, which presents exciting possibilities with creating relationships between data values and connecting information that is currently siloed within various museums. However, systems are only as useful as the information that gets input. If the goal of the registrar is to make information as accessible as possible and if relationships between data values are fine but interpretation is not, then we need to make sure certain values get included in the first place.

Closing Thoughts

In “The Existential Questions of Metadata Work,” Kelly Davis wrote, “A lot of people are technologists but not art historians, and vice versa. To do this kind of work, you really need a foot in both camps.” This type of work could also benefit from input from scholars studying issues of race and ethnicity from a social psychological lens, who could assist with analyzing biases that reveal themselves in the difference between the ability to collect information and actually collecting it, as well as the difference between collecting information and using it.

Part of what makes issues like racism difficult to discuss is that the burden of proof lies on the person experiencing it. Anecdotal experiences do not pass the muster of a positivist world. I think that the computability of data sets like “all the artworks a museum has collected” offers digital humanities practitioners a possibility to make connections between collections and issues of race and ethnicity in contemporary art museums, whose primary mission is to preserve art. Aside from the work digital humanities can do, I think that digital humanists themselves, not owing allegiance to a certain discipline or profession, can bring an open-mindedness that is helpful when discussing issues that are considered critical but uncomfortable in conservative settings like museums.

Even with the promise of linked open data, it is clear that in the current moment, museum metadata and its public dissemination is an institution-specific issue. With time, I would be interested in exploring: given the diversity of metadata standards that exist in the first place, how can institutions be urged to populate certain fields and to what end? Here is where I see the potential for individual and collective activism; for curators and registrars and organizations to advocate for the applied use of these metadata fields within museums in order to catalyze institutional change and assure that a larger spectrum of perspectives are accounted for in the construction of database schemas and controlled vocabularies. Biases may be inherent to human experience, but they should be acknowledged, not ignored. I myself am trying to examine the origins of my own implicit biases and how to unlearn them, so that the next time I see a mango in an artwork, I know it.

Brigitte Santana is a graduate student in Public Humanities at Brown University.

Works Cited

“About.” RISD Museum, http://risdmuseum.org/about/collection. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Bastien, Denise. Personal Interview. 25 April 2017.

Becker, Carol. Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production. Paradigm, 2009.

Davis, Kelly. “The Existential Questions of Metadata Work.” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty, 17 October 2016, http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/metadata-specialists-share-their-challenges-defeats-and-triumphs/#jon, Accessed 21 April 2017.

Gonzalez, Desi. “Applying Digital Humanities Approaches to Museum Collection Data.” Desi Gonzalez, 16 November 2013, http://desigonzalez.tumblr.com/post/67178874721/applying-digital-humanities-approaches-to-museum. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Introduction to Metadata. Ed. Murtha Baca. 3rd Ed, e-book, The Getty Research Institute, 2016.

Lam, Wifredo. The Eternal Presence (An Homage to Alejandro García Caturla). 1944, RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

Ledesma, Andrea and Leah Burgin. “How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Open Data: A Case Study in the Harvard Art Museums’ API.” Medium, 13 March 2016, https://medium.com/@andrea_ledesma/how-we-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-open-data-a-case-study-in-the-harvard-art-museums-api-893c3f40ecb7. Accessed 24 April 2017.

McGrath, James. Personal Interview. 21 March 2017.

McGrath, James. Personal Interview. 11 April 2017.

“Metadata Standards Crosswalk.” The Getty Research Institute, 16 April 2014, https://www.getty.edu/research/publications/electronic_publications/intrometadata/crosswalks.html. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Radtke, Jeremy. Personal Interview. 20 April 2017.

Roeder, Oliver. “An Excavation Of One Of The World’s Greatest Art Collections.” Five Thirty Eight, 6 April 2017, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/an-excavation-of-one-of-the-worlds-greatest-art-collections/. Accessed 15 April 2017.

Schonfeld, Roger, et al. “The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 28 July 2015, https://mellon.org/media/filer_public/ba/99/ba99e53a-48d5-4038-80e1-66f9ba1c020e/awmf_museum_diversity_report_aamd_7-28-15.pdf. Accessed 24 April 2017.

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