HOW do you fancy searching online for artwork by colour rather than text, or picking up interesting information about a sculpture in a gallery by simply waving your smartphone at it?
The beefing-up of the everyday mobile phone is just one of the developments that have increased our ability to access knowledge in different ways.
And while museums are by no means the only way to interact with the past nowadays, there’s no reason that they can’t also get involved with how we do so in future.
The Culture Grid online service allows users to discover more about what’s in collections in the UK, and has access to a catalogue of more than a million digital records released by the independent museum collections group The Collections Trust for non- commercial use.
Last week, the Collections Trust jointly organised the Culture Grid Hack Day with the North East Regional Museums Hub, challenging web developers, programmers and designers to take this material and present it in a more attractive and accessible way.
These experts had a day to develop a rough mock-up of how to present this information, with the possibility of funding to develop it further if it interested the organisers.
North East Regional Museums Hub e-collections project co-ordinator John Coburn said: “As well as the project ideas, it was important for us to get a conversation started with the digital sector in the North East.
“If we do want innovative ideas in future to change how we deal with digital content, we have people who now understand how it operates.
“We’re not the traditional old and dusty institutions we once were. We’re very interested in moving forward and getting involved with projects such as these.”
Coburn said mapping was particularly popular as a suggestion as to how to use the collection. This involves using a tool such as Google Maps to plot certain relevant information on a map by location, whether this is the origin of a painting or the subject it depicts.
There were also conversations about “data visualisation”, or the art of presenting data in a new and more accessible way.
For example, participant Mike Hurst worked on a mock-up in which collections could be searched by colour, rather than text.
Coburn said: “People that access collections don’t necessarily have the knowledge to do searches based on traditional text, such as writing the name of the artist or period.
“This search could break down the results by the colours that appear in the image, and therefore you’re searching by aesthetics rather than pre-supposed knowledge.
“We could refine that tool so searching can be more accessible for things such as craft and painting and fine arts, especially for younger visitors.”
Chris Neale and Rob Kilby also came up with an idea that a barcode called a QR Code could be placed next to exhibits, and visitors can scan it with their smartphone to access information from the collection on the piece, and to share it with friends by “liking” it on their Facebook account.
Gateshead-based Vector76’s Shaun Allen – which creates 3D content for locations such as NewcastleGateshead in online world Second Life – was also looking at ways to present collections data in the virtual world.
For example, the collection has a number of photos and historical texts relating to the history of the Tyne Bridge, and there were discussions about how Second Life visitors passing the virtual bridge could access that information via a link.
Coburn said he hopes to hold another hack day in future to further explore options for novel presentation of data and media.
He said: “I did say at the event that we need to maintain some contact, whether that’s in the form of another hack day or not. There was an agreement among the people that attended that both sides were interested in doing that.”