Access to Collections Online

Museum’s missions have always included (if not emphasized) the importance of collections, collecting, and researching those collections. It’s not what most of the general public thinks of when they visit a museum, because it’s the raw stuff, it’s not meant for them.

We’ve talked a lot about the accessibility of museums, what it means, and what forms it takes. One that we haven’t talked about yet is the accessibility of collections to researchers.  Increasingly, museums (at least those that can afford it) are taking their collections databases, and making them public, or at least semi-public.  Most of the time it’s a chore to find the link, if not deeply hidden, at least not completely obvious.

What’s the benefit of that? Are they intentionally trying to hide the link to their collections online? Or are they just not prioritizing it? How accessible is it, if you can’t find the link? 

So here are a couple museums. I challenge you to find the collections, specifically the database where you can actually look at or search for objects. To be fair, you should do it from their actual home page, not by googling “Museum name + collections” – because that only works if you already know they have collections online.

The Autry – The Autry National Museum of the American West 

The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology – at the University of Michigan

San Francisco MoMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 


3 thoughts on “Access to Collections Online

  1. Challenge accepted! I was able to get to the database of each of these website and I did not use the Google either. I would say how, but then nobody else would have the fun of struggling to find it on their own. Earlier today I was looking at the archives of the Logan Museum here at Beloit and I was very caught off guard on how hard it was to find the collection database. I think I had to go through like 3-5 links before the database even showed up. I’m pretty sure I ended up there by accident too. If museums are trying to make their collections more accessible I don’t really see the benefit of hiding the link to the database. I could see it as a potential downfall where the administrator may see it as a profit loss in that people will only look online at the collection and not come to actual museum to see the exhibit. If I was interested in the exhibit I would first want to look online and get a glimpse of some of the objects that would be on display in order to motivate me more to see the actual exhibit. Since there is a risk for a profit loss I do think that museums are hiding the database links. I do believe that museums should have a link to their database right on the homepage or at least under the exhibition tab as a quick link. By hiding the links they are kind of going against their own statement of being an educational institution that people can access.


  2. The Autry: I found collection under research, the problem with this one seems to be that you need to know exactly what you are searching for or you can’t look at the collection.
    The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology: The collection was easy to find, it was a tab on the main page, it was broken down into several categories; notable collections, collection history and search collection. I was easier to their collection compared to The Autry because you didn’t need to know what exactly you were looking for.
    SFMoMA: I found the collection by clicking on the explore modern art tab and from that page there is a tab labeled collections.


  3. I also took your challenge to find the collections databases on these various websites.

    1. The Autry:
    I found the link rather quickly, probably less than 30 seconds. The link was located under the Research tab, then Collections, then click “Search Collections Online”.

    2. Kelsey Museum:
    I found the Kelsey collections search more quickly than The Autry. For the Kelsey Museum click “Collections”, then “Search Collections”, then “Kelsey Museum Artifacts Database”.

    3. SFMOMA:
    Explore Modern Art > Our Collection > Search Our Collection

    Although it was easy for me to find the databases, I do not believe it would be nearly as quick for a casual visitor to find the collections databases. I have experience conducting research in museums and digitizing collections, so I am aware of the kinds of language associated with databases in the museum world. However, I don’t think a casual museum visitor is likely to click the tab “Research”. If they have no interest in conducting research on the museum collections, why should they click on the Research tab?
    As with all presentations of media, knowing comprises the audience is of upmost importance. Therefore, I think all museums should have two separate presentations of their collection database. One database should be a user-friendly search tool geared towards the average visitor. The user-friendly (ideally interactive) database should be located under a tab that is more likely to be used by casual visitors, such as the “Exhibitions” or “Visit” tab. The other database should be a more detailed, logically organized database for the use of researchers, and could be located under the “Research” tab.
    My above suggestions are for an ideal world. Unfortunately, most museums lack the proper funding needed to undergo such a project. However, if collections managers incorporate this idea into their long-term goals, they will likely be able to make multiple presentations of their database online that are accessible to a variety of audiences.


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