Teaching with WCMA's Data and Digital Resources

The Williams College Museum of Art uses digital approaches and data projects to provide expanded ways of accessing the collection; to enable new methods of research that incorporate a broad range of disciplines; and to guide students in learning and critiquing the ways imaging and data tools are being used in scholarship and public media.

WCMA has resources and support available to help classes use digital tools and methods relating to art and museum collections. Most projects grow out of considering the needs of a specific course. We can work with you to offer projects that range from a single class session to a term-length assignment, at an appropriate technological level. 

Contact Beth Fischer to find out more. 

Digital Storytelling

WCMA staff work with students and faculty to use digital tools to tell stories with and about art. These storytelling platforms can include things like deep image zooming, 3d models, video, and custom maps. 

Students use these tools to share research, build their own exhibitions, and create personal or imaginative responses to individual works of art. We address topics like bringing more voices into histories of art; colonization and heritage ownership; and the creation of museum collections. 

Common tools include ArcGIS Storymaps; image-driven, open-source tools like Storiiies (used for the WGSS class example shown here) and Exhibit.so; and data visualization platforms with storytelling support like Tableau and Flourish.studio

Critical Cataloging & Archives

The museum catalog is both a living research database and an institutional archive. Students often start with specific objects in the collection, considering how they have been cataloged and the way this cataloging favors certain kinds of knowledge and expectations about art and cultural heritage. Students can explore the front-facing online catalog; browse online spreadsheets of the collection, its exhibition history and class use; and try simple data visualizations that help them understand the opportunities and challenges of categorization.

We can lead discussions about the ongoing challenge of developing a database that can be searched by the general public but that doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes or codify prejudice. We often address topics like race, gender, and nationality; the politics of geographic terminology; timelines and periodization of history; and issues of provenance. 

Data Exploration and Analysis

WCMA’s catalog data includes information about more than 15,000 works in the collection in JSON and CSV formats, or as an easy-to-explore Google Sheet. This data set is an ideal size for students, as it is large enough to make computational data practices useful while still being small enough for students to explore directly. Additional data is available about the use of objects in classes and exhibitions, and we have a downloadable image set that is suitable for projects that incorporate machine vision and image-based analysis. 

We can work with students to apply principles of basic data analysis, including processes for creating, cleaning, and exploring data sets in the humanities. WCMA’s data sets are also useful for discussing major issues of concern around data bias and data justice in a way that connects Williams’ own history to global topics like cultural heritage and identity. 

Students have the opportunity to work on original projects that can help guide the museum in future research or collections projects. We also encourage using the data and images in creative data and programming projects, and support students creating their own experimental apps and design projects by enabling automated access to the collection via an API and IIIF-compatible image manifests. 

New Imaging & Modeling Techniques

Students in a study gallery look at a closeup imaging model projected on a wall

Students in Chem 364 use RTI to examine an Indian miniature painting 

Students can use imaging techniques to explore aspects of objects that are hard to see with the naked eye. We use these approaches alongside the objects in the gallery or study classroom, enabling students to consider how different imaging approaches compare to what they can see through direct observation. 

Students can use completed digital 3d models, or participate in creating a model of a museum object to better understand the relationship between original object and digital models. They can also learn to use new imaging techniques that make use of extended light spectra and computational imaging practices, like Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), UV, and IR imaging. These approaches are especially useful for exploring details of object materiality, production/craftsmanship methods, and signs of use. 

Working with staff at CET, we can also 3d print some objects in the collection.

Read more about how the museum is using these approaches and the ways students can get involved.