Beautiful Data

Beautiful Data

I spent the last two weeks of June at Beautiful Data, a workshop funded by the Getty Foundation and run by Harvard’s MetaLab. I’m not sure why the name, “Beautiful Data”: but it seems fair, given that the workshop address both data about beautiful things and data made beautiful by its utility. The question for the workshop was what we might do with the newly available data about the collections in art museums.

The workshop was pretty intense. Twenty two participants, a half-dozen MetaLab staff, three or four interns. Twelve days straight, 9-6 each day. (I snuck away for the weekend.) Many outside speakers. Not many breaks. But the time was well spent, the discussion fascinating, the subject important.

The participants were an interesting bunch. Chosen from over one hundred applicants, they were pleasingly diverse: museum technologists, designers, curators, education specialists. They were mostly from art museums, but some were from museums of other sorts, and some were academics and librarians.

The staff and guest speakers were a remarkable group, some of the top people in the field of museum data visualization and related fields: We had presentations on graphics, cognition, public uses of data, libraries, and more. Among my favorites, from a public humanities view:

David Weisenberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Lab, spoke on changing ideas of authority (from objectivity to transparency, from settled to engaged, from certain to fallible) and on new ways of thinking about the work the library does, as the change that a collection works upon the user. The discussion got a bit theoretical, as many of them did, with citations of Heidegger (as a network theorist!), Lakoff, and Mumford. But the user was central to this work, which was very appealing.

Yanni Loukissas, a senior research at MetaLab, showed off his wonderful tree-ring visualization of the history of planting at the Arnold Arboretum and discussed what one might learn from it – and what one should not. He has learned to be cautious: often, the patterns in the data are epiphenomenon, artifacts of the data, not the history you’re after.  I’m interested in exactly this kind of question, and so this talk, and talking with Yanni, was a highlight of the week for me. He knows how to get inside of the data, how to question it. He asked the question: what does visualization offer the humanities, and answered it three ways, looking at the relationship of data and narrative, the ways we evaluate data visualizations, and the politics of data visualization.

Jeffrey Shnapp, director of the MetaLab, asked the question: What would happen if you described objects as network of relations? He explored this in a course, Teaching with things, and in a range of visualizations. What if, for example, if instead of a simple photograph of an object on a museum’s website, you always showed a gif of it being moved, in someone’s hand? Or if you captured the conversation about the artifact? Or if you described artifacts with verbs, not adjectives? This discussion offered new ways of understanding the range of uses and meanings of artifacts.

Jeffrey Steward, director of Digital Infrastructure at the Harvard Art Museums, described the ways that these museums are living up to their new motto of “open” in making data available. I’m indebted to him for patiently explaining how to use APIs!

Rahul Bhargava, from the Center for Civic Media at MIT, talking about his extremely low-tech “data murals.” Community work at its finest, letting local groups tell their own story. The workshop: give a group kindergarten toys—pipecleaners, legos, bits of cotton—and ask them to visualize data. Quite remarkable, the way that changes group dynamics!

Many other speakers, too! You can search twitter for #beautifuldata to see more, or if you’re really interested, write and ask for my notes.

The second week of the workshop was devoted, mostly, to projects. Some wonderful work came out of this. Just three examples here…There were technical tour de force, like Richard Barrett-Small’s Colour Lens. Laresse Hall created beautiful small hand-bound books, and a video documenting her process of learning how to make them. Katherine DeVos Devine created a three-dimensional visualization of her processes for understanding the nature of transformative works of art as networked objects. Much of the work will eventually made public, I believe.

I’ll just briefly mention my project. Kristina Van Dyke, from the Pulitzer Art Foundation, and I  considered how we might tell a new kind of museum history based on open metadata now being made available by so many museums. We talked about zombie artifacts in museums, and called our project “Museums of the Living Dead.” (Many thanks to Yanni and Matthew Battles for their advice.)

Kristina drew some wonderful pictures:


I created some conceptual data visualizations:


Together, it added up to quite a remarkable installation:


You can see our presentation here.  Still preliminary. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

And you can see a more traditional explanation of our work here.



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