"Ways of Seeing" online collections 👀

Written by Hon Boey
Published on 5 January 2024

About the author

Hon is an art director of 10+ years and a frontend developer of 5+ years. He is also a Principal at the Interaction Consortium.

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In the nineties, when I was a teen, I made it remarkably easy for my parents to buy me presents. I instructed them that every Christmas I was to be gifted a year’s subscription to the punk journal Maximum Rock N Roll and for my birthday they would get me the year’s subscription to Thrasher.

As each month brought new issues, I would consume each one over a couple of days. The rest of the month was spent, scissors in hand, cutting out pictures of my favourite artists and storing them away in an old shoebox. This repository of images formed the library I would draw from in creating little collage shrines on my wall. They were never as beautiful, layered or intentional as Hannah Hoch or John Heartfield, but they definitely had meaning to me, and I would treat them through layering and sequencing in ways that made sense to my own rules.

Hannah Höch. Indian Dancer: From an Ethnographic Museum (Indische Tänzerin: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum). 1930. Cut-and-pasted printed paper and metallic foil on paper, 10 1/8 × 8 7/8" (25.7 × 22.4 cm). Frances Keech Fund

A picture of Joe Strummer would live next to a cut-up of Tim Armstrong because, to me, they shared the same punk drawl to their singing. Tim Armstrong may then be placed above a shot of Siouxsie and the Banshees because they shared the same gothy aesthetics that would epitomise the genre in the eighties. And between them might be a picture of pizza because that was my favourite food at the time and it made sense that it would live between two of my favourite musicians.

30 years later and it’s obvious why I was attracted to graphic design. I have never been good with words and I always found it easier to express myself with visuals. It’s part of the reason why I see our work as being so important – giving a digital voice to cultural institutions that are a key part of our society.

Building online collections

At the IC, we have some solid experience in building search and browse interfaces for online collections. Namely for the Art Gallery of NSW and MCA in Sydney, SFMOMA, Art Gallery SA in Adelaide. We are currently working on deeper integrations between content and collections with the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian Museum's natural history and anthropology collections. Working on these online collections, I can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia for my younger self – there are so many parallels between storing works online and storing cutouts in a shoebox.

Art Gallery of South Australia's online collection

It seems timely that as I write this we have arrived at the 50th anniversary of John Berger’s collection of short films, Ways Of Seeing. His thoughts on the Western tradition of art seems especially relevant when we talk about digital collections and the curatorial power of the people.

In the first of his four films, Berger narrates that “once… all [European] paintings belonged to their own place”. Their meaning was intrinsically linked with the environment that surrounded them – in a church, a museum, an aristocrat’s home. In episode 3 he continues this further:

“Art galleries are like palaces, but they are also like banks. When they shut for the night they are guarded, lest the images of the things which are desirable are stolen”.

It is key to understand that the environment in which the work is displayed informs how we interpret the work and instructs as to which lens we view it – whether it is religious, valuable or trash.

An online collection takes artworks out of these spaces and places them onto our screens, screens that, with the advent of phones, can now be placed anywhere we like. Now that these artworks can be accessed anywhere, and in any environment, we have “stripped artwork of its mystery/religiosity” (Berger). This is exciting, democratising and empowers the audience. It shifts power away from the institution both in guarding access to the artwork, but also in defining what meaning we attribute to it.

I believe that as designers of digital experiences, we must be aware of our responsibility as builders of the context for an online collections. Designing the digital home of online collections means that I find myself once again, holding a pair of digital scissors in hand, with the power of recontextualising the meaning of an image. We have the power to “manipulate the meaning of artwork” (Berger) both through its digital home (its environment) and treatment (crop, focus, movement, sequencing and sound).

Most importantly, and in the spirit of the proudly Marxist Berger, we must acknowledge that seeing is a political act shaped by context and acknowledge and ask ourselves, how do we navigate our role and responsibilities in creating the context in which these artworks are displayed?

These responsibilities are not abstract – they have concrete applications in the real world. Some of these questions we need to ask ourselves are:

  • What information and imagery do we prioritise and what does that say about our own prejudices?
  • How do we sequence images on a page and what impact does it have on features such as image carousels? (“The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it” (Berger))
  • How do we showcase works when the frame it lives in (i.e the screen) is not fixed?
  • What manipulations do cropping, focus and movement do to an image?

Curate-a-Crate

At the start of 2022, the National Gallery of Australia approached us to build their Curate-a-Crate project, a project which would allow people to create personal art lists from any object in their digital collection – a collection made up of 150,000+ works of art.

The potential for Curate-a-Crate is enormous. It will be an invaluable reference tool for practising artists and art educators across all sectors of our education system. It will allow the Gallery to showcase non-exhibited work as well as give the public a new way to interact with the collection.

But what interests me the most about Curate-a-Crate is the personal – the ability for everyone to recreate their own meaning from the art. Essentially, it allows anyone to construct the same kinds of collections of images I did in my bedroom 30 years ago.

I see this as a great democratisation of curatorial power. By removing art from the context of galleries and placing them in the hands of the public we make ambiguous the meaning of these works. And when that meaning is stripped away then people can use them for their own purposes. As Berger states, “Images can be used like words, we can talk with them”. To me, this is the most exciting potential of Curate-a-Crate. We are giving people another tool in which they can voice their own stories.

When the project is launched my first Art List will be a gift to my family. It will be made up of references, in-jokes and stories that will be intensely personal and maybe even private. And in the spirit of Berger, the meanings that my family will derive from the works may not be the intention of the artist nor the Gallery. But it will mean something to us in a way that may not be expressed in any other format.

End of article.
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