Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hermitage Museum Digital Collection

The Hermitage Museum Digital Collection
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia has digitized most of their physical collection, although it is not clear exactly what percentage of their three million objects are accessible through the digital collection search engine. The site lacks any indication for why they have digitized the collection, or portions of it, although they devote a substantial amount of space on their “about” page to vague support of educational programs. There are twelve categories based on the physical space and characteristics of the objects including weapons, machines and tools, sculpture, paintings, and decorative arts.
There is no clear curatorial presence associated with the collection, although IMB appears to have supported a large portion of the digitization effort. There are several sections written about the type of imaging technology IBM developed and used with the Hermitage Museum, most specifically their Image Creation Studio. The digitization was begun in 1997, but there was no indication if the effort continues or is now static.
Each object is surrounded on three sides by metadata and search options. On the left is a “quick search” box where a visitor can type in key words. Below that are “browse”, “QBIC searches”, and “advanced search”. Browse allows visitors to search by the twelve categories, advanced lets the visitor choose from drop down menus different values for physical type; time period; and geography, including city in some cases. There are two values for physical type, one is the broad category such as “paintings, prints, and drawings” that then narrows into “paintings”, “drawings”, or “miniatures”. After this the city, time, region, style, European stylistic school, and genre are only some of the possible ways to further narrow a search.
Underneath the image are directions for the zoom function. There is only one level of zoom but provided directions seems to indicate the collection creators assumed a very low level of technological expertise from their projected audience. Below these directions is information including the conventional title, date, origin, creator (if known), and “source entry” which provides the place and date where the above information was agreed upon. There is no further data on how, or who made the decision that the more traditional metadata is correct, but it is an interesting attempt at a piece of information rarely made accessible.

The right side of the object has a button for moving through the collection, the number of ‘best fit’ matches for the search terms, and some mildly confusing digital qualities (“600x600 screen resolution”). There is also a “similarity search” where the visitor can look for likeness in physical attributes, objects from the same region, and time period.
One of them most interesting aspects of this collection are the QBIC searches which allow the visitor to look for 2-dimensional objects by color, and 3-dimension objects by color and shapes. The searches are not perfect, some color searches do not have any results, but the interface for using the QBIC is very easy and there are tutorials located on the right of each search capability.

Some of the information, or metadata, provided with each image seems contradictory in terms of guessing at the predicted audience. The directions for zooming and searching indicate a assumed low education or low technological expertise of the user, while the ‘about’ page contains very specific names and data specifications for the digitization software. the presence of the IBM corporation indicates that this digitization project was sponsored for publicity, philanthropic, or as testing environment for new digitization software, and my concern with this is that IBM may have lost interest in the project. If this is the case it is regrettable because the collection and searching functions are sophisticated and easy to use.

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