Virtual Symposium Program | Terms of Art: Design, Description, and Discovery in Cataloging



Institutions such as museums, libraries, and archives have a mission to preserve, interpret, and disseminate cultural heritage. In addition to new acquisitions for their collections, these institutions must also update the tools with which researchers access and study these holdings, objects, and works of art. Increasingly, stakeholders like academics, educators, and the public treat a collection's digital representation–its metadata records–as an entry point for discovery. Paradoxically, these web-based experiences meant to expose collections to broad audiences often assume users have specialized knowledge of the terms and processes GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) institutions use to describe their own work, making them inaccessible to the majority of visitors. Additionally, variation and evolution of language often outpaces or does not align with public understanding. For example, someone interested in 17th-century Dutch art might not know that the phrase "Dutch Golden Age" has colonialist implications and has been removed from many museums' internal databases. The search language isn't wrong, it's just outmoded. 

The Hood Museum of Art and Dartmouth Research Computing have organized a virtual symposium to bring together museums, libraries, and archives to discuss issues of access and ethical vocabularies in cultural heritage. The goal is to develop the debate about how the language we use to describe collections impacts the communities that create and seek out art. The organizers hope to prompt dialogue on the issues curators and researchers face in trying to maintain equitable and anti-racist progress and research. Additionally, this symposium will emphasize the role of technologists who specialize in user-centered design as critical to promoting equity in information systems. In combining subject-matter specialists and user-centered design technologists, we aim to bridge the communication gap between institutions and the publics they serve, allowing each to educate the other about how they describe collections.

Click here to register! The symposium is free and open to all.

Click here to learn more about the symposium speakers.

Symposium Schedule

February 22–24, 2023

Jump to the schedules for Thursday and Friday.

Please note that all times are Eastern Standard Time (UTC-5)

Wednesday, February 22

9:30 am: Welcome
Ashley Offill
, Associate Curator of Collections, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth
Elizabeth Rice Mattison, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Academic Programming, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth
John Bell, Program Director, Data Experiences and Visualizations Studio, Dartmouth
Meredith Steinfels, Assistant Director, Digital Platforms, Media & Archives, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth

10:00 am: "Reparative Archival Description at Rauner Library"
Caro Langenbucher
, Processing Specialist, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth
Joshua Shaw, Library Web and Application Developer, Digital Library Technologies Group, Dartmouth
Richel Cuyler, Cultural Heritage Technical Developer, Dartmouth
Moderator: Peter Carini, Archivist, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth

This group of presenters from Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth, will focus on their work to contextualize harmful content in Rauner's collections and remediate damaging, outdated, or incomplete language in archival descriptions. The group will discuss their goal to incorporate a reparative framework that will ensure marginalized people represented in Rauner's collections are accurately and respectfully represented. The session will begin with an overview of the process before diving into a moderated discussion regarding the specific issues and obstacles encountered.

11:00 am: Continuing the Conversation
This informal 30-minute Zoom session is intended to provide a space for attendees to continue the dialogue from the previous session. Participants are encouraged to connect, brainstorm, and ideate. This session will not be recorded. 

12:00 pm: "The Spectacle of Bodily Difference in Georgian England: A case study in describing visual and textual representations of bodily differences in historic printed materials"
Alex Kither
, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections, The British Library

This session will address the challenges to current practice in the description of printed heritage materials depicting disabled and impaired people, particularly those exhibited for public amusement in the late eighteenth century. The focus of this session will be on the analysis of a case study of Daniel Lyson's Collecanea at the British Library. Daniel Lyson's Collecanea is a multi-volume collection of prints, clippings, and ephemera compiled under the theme of "public exhibitions and places of amusement." It also contains numerous historical depictions of physically disabled persons. Through examination of this case study, the goals of this session are to question the ethicality and efficacy of existing vocabularies and methods used to describe these resources, highlight how cataloguers must challenge historical depictions of disabled people which may be exaggerated, degrading or simply inaccurate, and raise questions regarding accessibility and the type of language we expect library stakeholders to use when searching for this material.

12:30 pm: "Case Study: Leveraging the Authority of Labels to Align Design with Diverse Audiences"
Dr. Kiersten Thamm
, Collections Curator, Museum of 21st Century Design

The Museum of 21st Century of Design (M21D) uses the privileged position of museums to work toward an egalitarian future by researching, promoting, and normalizing design that positively impacts society and environment. We take the mission to re-image museums for the future seriously: our design collection lives online, and our temporary physical exhibitions occur in surprising locations and other museums. Spanning all projects is a dedication to aligning object labels with the museum's values and with the interests of its audiences.

Conventional labels represent canonical ideas of author and place that no longer have the same purchase they once did, yet labels maintain connotations of authority and fact. M21D labels attempt to answer the most pressing questions of its community quickly: what are the materials and methods of production, what is the long-term environmental impact, what are the working conditions and wages of makers, how does the design impact individuals and groups, and what are the users' experiences? Answering these questions requires unconventional research, flexibility in presentation, and sometimes recontextualization and imagination on the part of the viewer.

This case study presents and investigates the M21D labels for a menstrual cup, the Warwick Junction, and a digital education campaign associated with breast cancer. Looking at three disparate examples of design highlights how M21D navigates the tensions of integrating unruly information, the authority of labels, and the need for clear and compelling communication.

1:30 pm: "Trouble with the Curve: Describing and Cataloguing Ornament"
Elizabeth Saari Browne
, Remote Senior Research Cataloguer, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
Adrienne Childs, Independent Scholar, Art Historian, Curator
Rachel Jacobs, Remote Senior Research Cataloger, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
Hazel Wilkinson, Associate Professor, University of Birmingham

The detailed description of a work of art is one of the oldest forms of literary writing. Known as ekphrasis, motivated descriptions of artworks––real or imagined––were utilized to bring the object to mind, and to expand or guide interpretation of the object or of the scene in which it played a role. Yet, description does not have to be narrative for emotional, persuasive effect. Which objects, and even what features of said objects, are accorded description (in an epic or in a museum collection), informs what we see—what is brought to mind or pulled up through a search function—and how.

The cataloguing of ornament prints presents a particularly complicated case study in the methods and ethics of describing works of art. Ornament inherently resists descriptive classification: columns turn into reeds turn into acanthus leaves turn into satyrs, the latter already half-caprine, half-human beings; motifs propagate over the entire field, minutia redoubling into outsize text; and traditional forms and terms of ornament, such as blackamoors or chinoiserie, have Imperialist implications and etymological histories that problematize translation.

This roundtable discussion brings together a group of professionals—art historians, curators, cataloguers, collection specialists, and practitioners—to discuss best practices and futures for describing and cataloguing ornament prints in ways useful for scholars and sensitive to the public searching our collections. Questions to be addressed include: What tools can a museum provide to help define and contextualize the abundant and evolving terms or ornament? How might these historic and modern terms be consolidated to provide guidelines for cataloguers and to make search access easier and more consistent? Is it necessary to preserve certain problematic terms to describe and discuss them accurately? What do we lose or gain if we re-contextualize and modernize the language of ornament?

2:30 pm: Continuing the Conversation
This informal 30-minute Zoom session is intended to provide a space for attendees to continue the dialogue from the previous session. Participants are encouraged to connect, brainstorm, and ideate. This session will not be recorded

Thursday, February 23

9:30 am: "Open Office Hours with Elizabeth Rice Mattison: Cataloguing Complex Heritage and Data"
An informal Zoom session with Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Academic Programming, Hood Museum of Art, and symposium host Elizabeth Rice Mattison

Libraries, museums, and cultural heritage institutions collect objects that can present challenges in cataloguing. While data records necessitate set fields, like "Title," "Author," "Location," or "Date," many objects do not simply fill these fields. For instance, a seventeenth-century teacup made in China, transported by Swahili merchants, purchased by Tanzanian families, filled with Indian tea, excavated by British archeologists, and purchased by American collectors defies an easy description by geography. Likewise, a nineteenth-century translation of a book written in the fourteenth century and expanded in the fifteenth century cannot be understood as being 'written' in one time period. This discussion asks: how can institutions create records for objects that do not neatly fit established categories for cataloguing? Moreover, what are the best cataloguing practices for communicating these complexities to the public? 

10:00 am: "Alt Text Power Hour"
Amelia Mylvaganam
, Curatorial Research Aide, The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University 
Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate for Collections Information and Digital Interpretation, The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

Over the past year and a half, The Block Museum has generated alt texts for over 35% of its online collection. In this 45-minute session, the presenters will lead the group in what they call an "alt text power hour," a music-filled describe-a-thon, which has given momentum to their project. They will begin the session by introducing some general guidelines and by guiding participants through examples that demonstrate inclusive descriptive practices. They will then lead the group in writing descriptions while listening to music for 15 minutes, before dividing into smaller breakout rooms to connect and discuss the experience. The session will conclude with a larger group discussion intended to make space for and learn from colleagues at other institutions.

11:00 am: Continuing the Conversation
This informal 30-minute Zoom session is intended to provide a space for interested attendees to continue the dialogue from the previous session. Participants are encouraged to connect, brainstorm, and ideate. This session will not be recorded.

12:00 pm: "Case Study: Tag Along with Adler"
Jessica BrodeFrank
, Senior Manager of Digital Management Services, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Doctoral Candidate the University of London School of Advanced Studies

Cultural institutions have experimented with, and invested in, crowdsourcing over the last decade; perhaps most notably on transcription projects such as the Smithsonian Transcription Center, Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project, and the Freedmen's Bureau project. Transcription is still one of the core tasks offered on crowdsourcing platforms, however, more than just textual collections can be used in crowdsourcing projects, and more tasks than transcription can be leveraged to enrich them. This presentation looks at metadata crowdsourcing projects as a way to expand access points and enhance representation by framing these projects as a mission centric engaging activity with the public. As social justice movements challenge power structures, the ways in which cultural institutions create knowledge are also under scrutiny. Instead of using traditional top-down approaches to cataloguing, cultural institutions should be actively co-creating object metadata and research with the public.

Using the "Tag Along with Adler" project as a case study, this presentation centers on how public involvement enriches the narratives shared, building transparency and trust within organizations and the surrounding communities whilst increasing accessibility through diversified language and enriched image description. This case study will examine three prongs to crowdsourcing projects: the ability to engage a more representative and diverse public than is represented by museum staff alone, the promise of these projects to be a transparent and engaging experience for the public, and the opportunity tagging projects present to bridge semantic gaps between cataloguers and the public while also providing important image descriptions. I hope to present how this work can not only increase access to collections within catalogue search portals, but also be used as a tool for increasing alt-text and image description to open up collections online for those with disabilities or those accessing images outside the museum's official accounts.

12:30 pm: "Case Study: Assessing the Application of a Locally-Developed Controlled Vocabulary"
Hannah M. Jones
, 2022 LEADING Fellow, Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC
Mark E. Phillips, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Digital Libraries, University of North Texas Libraries
Hannah Tarver, Head, Digital Projects Unit, University of North Texas Libraries
Ana Krahmer, Ph.D., Director, Texas Digital Newspaper Program, University of North Texas Libraries

University of North Texas Libraries (UNTL) has been developing digital collections for approximately twenty years, and during this time have developed a local, hierarchical vocabulary called the UNTL Browse Subjects (UNTL-BS). This vocabulary provides a broad set of terms intended to support browsing and improve searches, as well as to support the UNTL local model for a minimally viable metadata. To date, over 1.8 million item records have at least one UNTL-BS term.

This presentation will discuss an analysis of UNTL-BS terms in The Portal to Texas History that is being undertaken as part of a 2022 LEADING fellowship funded by an IMLS-Laura Bush grant awarded to Drexel University. This analysis utilizes computational methods and focuses both on the structure of the vocabulary as it developed over time and on how these terms have been assigned in the collection. Specifically, the evaluation will focus on the UNTL-BS schema as an aid for user browsing, assessing its language and application as one part of a metadata environment intended to facilitate user discovery in multiple modes. Additionally, the analysis will include a review of the subject terms to identify biased or antiquated terminology. This presentation will represent the results of this work, and will offer next-step recommendations both for the UNTL-BS implementation and for similar vocabulary assessment projects at other institutions.

1:30 pm: "Case Study: Casting Terms"
Milena Gallipoli
, Head of Research, Museo de la Cárcova and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Argentina

For a long time, plaster casts have been stored and forgotten in the warehouses of museums and educational institutions and only in recent times has there been a revaluation and rebirth of such collections. Even though many museums are combining historical research with digitalization strategies of accessibility, this proposal seeks to address an elemental issue that receives less attention: the usage and application of terminologies in the classification of plaster casts. In general, a basic division is created between copy and original: a plaster cast regarded as a reproduction and the work of art that is reproduced. However, hybrid objects, mainly re-castings, constantly appear in these collections.

The Museo de la Cárcova in Buenos Aires has the largest collection of plaster casts in Argentina, which are being currently undergoing a process of inventory and cataloguing. This case study shall analyze some objects from the museum that challenge and transcend the traditional conception of a copy. The common feature between the proposed cases is that they are copies of copies (surmoulages in French). While some casts are recent re-castings made by the museum, other items have been identified as historical re-castings, either because there were exchanges between casting workshops or because the original work of art was restored, and the resulting cast derived from a cast that was produced before the intervention of the original. By delving into a set of specific works from La Cárcova a series of general questions emerge: How can description address such nuances in reproductions? And mainly, can this issue result in standardized catalogue entries? Debating such questions can be fundamental not only for an efficient exchange of information, but also for defying hierarchies and traditional value of artworks.

2:00 pm: "Case Study: The Office of Art and Archives, US House of Representatives"
Michelle Strizever
, Photography and Digital Content Specialist, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Art and Archives
Mackenzie Miessau, Registrar, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Art and Archives

This case study concerns the embedding of metadata onto digital surrogates shared via an online open access portal. The Office of Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives has rethought how digital surrogates of physical objects in the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives are publicly disseminated. Currently, digital surrogates are shared via a lengthy permissions process. The Office of Art and Archives is moving toward distributing digital surrogates via an open access portal. While planning the portal, we have deliberately considered the importance of embedded metadata and made it an integral part of the design. 

The purpose of embedded metadata in digital surrogates shared via an open access portal is to provide information about the image and where it comes from. This way, users will be able to know what they are looking at if the file is separated from its original context—for example, if a user downloads a file from an open access portal and then opens it a year later, unable to recall where the file came from or what the image shows. Embedded metadata also can enable access by visually impaired users.

Our methodology was to explore existing standards and survey repositories by downloading digital surrogates from their websites and examining the embedded metadata. We explored both descriptive metadata and rights/usage statements. While we found many resources describing best practices concerning embedded metadata, we found little documentation and consistency about specific metadata schema, fields, and vocabulary used across institutions. We determined the metadata schema, fields, and vocabulary based on the needs of our users and institution. This case study will present our research and our decisions about best practices for embedded metadata in the digital surrogates shared through our open access portal.

2:30 pm: "Open Office Hours with Brinker Ferguson: 3D Documentation, Archiving, and Dissemination of Cultural Heritage Objects"
An informal Zoom session with Research Associate and Head of Cultural Heritage Preventive Conservation Program, DEV Studio, Dartmouth, Adjunct Professor and Lecturer, Anthropology Department, Dartmouth, Dr. Brinker Ferguson

There has been rapid growth in the production and usage of 3D models over the last decade for both educational and conservation purposes. In this open discussion we will look at three of the most common methods for recording precise three-dimensional information about real-world objects or environments; photogrammetry, laser scanning, and structured light. Through a variety of cultural heritage case studies, we will dive deeper into what are some of the best practices for the capture, archiving, and dissemination of these 3D datasets.

Friday, February 24

9:00 am: "Designing and Curating East Asia Art in the Digital Age"
Janet Fong
, Research Assistant Professor (Curating), Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University
Harald Kraemer, Ph.D., Curator, University of Hong Kong, University Museum and Art Gallery
Shuo Sue Hua, Ph.D., Assistant Curator (Postdoc Research Fellow), University of Hong Kong, University Museum and Art Gallery
Ying Liu, Ph.D., Curator (Director of Digital Archive Department), Zhejiang Art Museum (ZJAM) and Associate Director, Chinese Artists Association Print Art Committee – Zhejiang Province, China
Zhu Yi, Ph.D. Candidate, Lingnan University

What activities, ideas, and histories give meaning to and create space for promoting equitable access to digitalized collections, exhibitions, and the information systems at GLAM institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) that distribute cultural heritage in the context of an increasingly interconnected East Asia? How do our disciplinary and curatorial orientations affect how collections and catalogs are described, decoded, translated, and interpreted when subject-matter specialists and user-centered design technologists work together to create exhibitions and databases?

In this workshop, the presenters will identify and present three concerns confronting digital-data-inflected curatorship in East Asia: diversity (both in terms of content and audience), translation, and sustainability. Digital-equipped exhibitions use new media, interactive, and multi-touch techniques to engage visitors with virtual reality in a playful manner and allow them to post comments and personalize viewing. It raises questions and potential challenges for curators, educators, and information technology specialists: how to construct a metric for audience participation that incorporates diverse age, gender, and language groups productively? Digital academic collection catalogs necessitate robust and fruitful collaborations among curators, scholars, translators, editors, and computer scientists since the objects involve cultural signifiers embedded in a plethora of languages and dialects (i.e., Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and Hokkien). They will also discuss sustainability from the perspective of indexing the collections and archives, as well as the cost, visibility, and reproducibility of the project over its whole life cycle.

The workshop presenters are multi-generational academics and curators with experience in working with collections and exhibitions of East Asian art internationally. They will highlight the challenges, benefits, and opportunities that digital and data-influenced methods offer in curation, research, teaching, and publications and outline possible strategies, ideal vehicles, and/or solutions to address these opportunities in a dynamic and effective manner.

10:00 am: Continuing the Conversation
This informal 30-minute Zoom session is intended to provide a space for interested folks to continue the dialogue from the previous session. Participants are encouraged to connect, brainstorm, and ideate. This session will not be recorded. 

10:30 am: "Roundtable and Workshop:"
Sharon Mizota
, DEI Metadata Consultant
Amanda Acosta, Digital Archivist, MHz Foundation
Christina Stone, Digital Archivist, MHz Foundation
Ravon Ruffin, Educational Programs Manager, MHz Foundation

This 60-minute session will be divided between a 40-minute presentation and a 20-minute guided discussion or breakout groups. The presentation will address the presenters' work on, a cultural heritage metadata aggregator that facilitates open access to public domain and Creative Commons-licensed content through a social justice lens. They will discuss the design of the site's metadata schema, which not only allows searching across multiple institutions, but enables the addition of Curationist-generated metadata to enhance records from each museum. Curationist's digital archivists add subject terms where none were available or supply appropriate cultural context terms where outdated colonial names are in use.

In this way, they create an information ecosystem that is more open and participatory than traditional cataloging practices. Part of this process is the selection and vetting of terminology that accurately and respectfully identifies objects, groups of people, and cultural traditions that have been underrepresented or misrepresented in museum metadata. In keeping with Curationist's open-access ethos, these terms are managed using Wikidata as a controlled vocabulary, adding to it as needed to further expand the possibilities of cataloging on the Internet.

The presentation will include real-life case studies in which the archivists discuss their research and decision-making processes and how they approach the addition of metadata with cultural humility. They will also discuss the limitations of English-language research, and how in some cases they have shifted away from traditional sources towards more crowd-sourced ones like Wikipedia. The discussion portion of the session will use more examples to open this cataloging process up to the audience and explore some of the thorny issues that arise in selecting, vetting, and authorizing terms. Metadata categories to be considered include cultural context, place names, time period names, artist's names, and alt text.

11:30 am: Continuing the Conversation
This informal 30-minute Zoom session is intended to provide a space for interested attendees to continue the dialogue from the previous session. Participants are encouraged to connect, brainstorm, and ideate. This session will not be recorded.

12:00 pm: "Media Preservation: Open Office Hours with John Bell"
An informal Zoom session with Program Director, Data Experiences and Visualizations Studio, Dartmouth, and symposium host John Bell

Variable Media is a paradigm for preservation that assumes change is inevitable: paint fades, technology breaks, and ideas mutate over the course of years, much less centuries. To preserve works under this assumption requires stepping back from singular objects and asking what an artwork really is and what it means to the people who perceive it. But how can we record the experiences of creators, curators, and patrons when disparate communities don't even share an understanding of what makes a work significant? This open discussion period is an invitation to think about Variable Media's potential as a window into understanding multifaceted description, presentation, and preservation of art.

12:30 pm: "Open Office Hours: Student-Led Projects and Initiatives with Ashley Offill"
An informal Zoom session with Associate Curator of Collections, Hood Museum of Art, and symposium host Ashley Offill

As visitors, interns, employees, and volunteers, students in higher education and other young adults are vital participants in ongoing discussions about the roles and potential of cultural institutions. Furthermore, they contribute important insights through their lived experiences and exposure to ongoing research and debates in the humanities and beyond. In this open discussion, we will explore projects and initiatives led or instigated by students, as well as best practices for engaging students in cataloguing, language, accessibility, and digital initiatives.

1:30 pm: "Terms of Art: Reflection, Dialogue, and Facilitating Change"
Join the conference hosts and symposium attendees in this hour-long group reflection session. There will be dedicated Zoom rooms based on emerging themes and topics, as well as a space for open discussion.


Written February 16, 2023