First Monday

ArtsConnectEd: Collaboration in the Integration and Access to Museum Resources

This paper discusses the philosophical underpinnings for museum collaboration; background, implementation, and evaluation of a particular collaboration between the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, ArtsConnectEd; and a vision for future directions for museum collaborations.


ArtsConnectEd's Parts
Sharing Resources: Integrated Access
Project Management
Audiences and Their Experience
Re-examining Resources: Museum Information
Future Vision


The ArtsConnectEd "experience" includes:

Shared Values

The starting point for the collaborative efforts between The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center is a set of assumptions about technology and communication, the nature and value of museum information, and the role that museums play in the modern world. Among these shared values are the beliefs that:

Because of these shared values, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center agreed to collaborate on a series of interrelated projects to develop digital resources and the infrastructure to present those resources to a networked community. Both institutions also agreed to create additional content that would make those resources more readily available, and to develop strategies and structures to give access to that content and those resources.


The collaborative efforts of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center have evolved through a series of projects.

Gathering or even creating digital resources required a context and a gateway. Together, the institutions explored the particular perspective of educators by creating the ArtsConnectEd site on the Internet using the digital resources developed in the IAIA Project. ArtsConnectEd provides a single point of access to all of the digital resources that the two museums have made available to date through IAIA. These materials are organized to address the needs and interests of teachers as well as students in educational settings. ArtsConnectEd was initially funded through a grant from MCIWorldCom.

ArtsConnectEd's Parts

The major sections of ArtsConnectEd include the following:

Art Gallery
Search the combined art collections of the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Check boxes allow users to limit search results by collection and digital image availability. Browse and tour options provide access to synthetic materials that have been created from the digitized resources, such as the Walker's feature Through Your Eyes. Related lists of links to Minnesota art museums and online visuals arts resources provide connections to Web-based resources beyond those of the immediate partners.

For Your Classroom
Designed specifically for teachers, For Your Classroom is a tool for searching the ArtsConnectEd database of educational resources. The search form allows teachers to select material by availability (online or other), type (thematic units, activities, tours), grade (K-3, 4-5, etc.), institution, and relationship to Minnesota's graduation standards. Browse options provide access to the same materials by grade, learning area, and format (slide set, video, CD-ROM, etc.). Related lists of links to online resources for teaching the arts, professional resources, and technology and education connect teachers to other Internet resources. For teachers interested in discussing ideas/concerns with their colleagues, For Your Classroom links teachers to the ArtsNet Minnesota discussion list hosted by the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Libraries & Archives
Search the libraries' card catalogs, selected archival material (sound and moving image collections), independent texts (labels, docent manuals, and bibliographies), and select Web pages of the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The link list in this section connects to Minnesota libraries and the Library of Congress.

Still in development, the Playground provides direct access to Web-based interactive art activities. Designed primarily for children, the Playground removes the metadata layer that is returned when the activities are discovered through one of our search functions.

Search All
Search All allows the visitor to posit cross domain queries that look across all of the ArtsConnectEd databases. Check boxes allow for all possible combinations of resource types (artwork, audio/video, library catalog, education materials, Web pages, and text).

Sharing Resources: Integrated Access

A central feature of the digital projects that The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center have developed has been to integrate a wide array of resources. Initially, this integration has emphasized basics because providing this degree of integration had not been attempted in the museum community before. The initial phase allowed the participants to move through many difficult stages. Each content holder has specified how their content is to be presented and utilized: the library records look like they might in a library system, the object records like they might in a collections management system. A set of similarities based in part on standards such as those being developed by the CIMI (Consortium for the Interchange of Museum Information) Project, AMICO (Art Museum Imaging Consortium) or those proposed as the Dublin Core elements have been defined for these data sources. These facilitate the integration, but they also point towards inconsistencies in the data or the effects that using various standards have.

To an extent, the integration is seamless, appears to occur quite naturally, and has required little comment or explanation. This fact does not mean that paying attention to the ways that the information is integrated does not need review and evaluation. Distinguishing the kinds of integration usefully points to the issues of integration that continue to be factors.

Project Management

For ArtsConnectEd, the budget was split in three pieces with each institution having the same amount of money within a given year for equipment, staffing, and resource development, with the third chunk kept in a shared expense column for common expenses such as our Internet server and related expenses including programming and contractors as needed. During the preparation of the initial IAIA budget, there was much discussion around the pros and cons of creating shared or redundant administrative as well as technical systems within the two institutions. Ultimately, it was decided that each museum would hire separate project managers and education specialists as well as set up their own digitizing operations within their existing photography and program services departments.

We cannot say whether the decisions made in 1997 about the project management structure would be made again in 1999 were we to start over, but driving a two-headed beast has its challenges. Much like the two institutions that we represent, the members of the MIA and Walker Project teams are at once partners and competitors in the work that we've undertaken. It's an interesting, talented, and spirited set of players with overlapping responsibilities but not necessarily duplication in expertise. On the Walker side, Robin Dowden was hired as the project manager to work with Steve Dietz, their director of new media initiatives, and Trudy Lane, a Web designer. At MIA, the project is led by Scott Sayre, who has an impressive track record in the development of educational multimedia presentations, Tammy Sopinski, project coordinator, and Willy Lee, Webmaster. Finally, Jim Blackaby, who tends the middle ground, was hired by the project to implement the search engine.

It perhaps goes without saying, that one our biggest challenges has been keeping this remarkable group of people moving forward in sync. Communicating "well" with each other is a constant issue, and while we use e-mail and Webboard for project discussions, it is the face-to-face weekly meetings that have been key to our accomplishments. Of course beyond the immediate project teams, there are the greater communities in which each of us work, comprised of our directors, educators, financial officers, development and public relations departments. The politics of collaboration involves making sure that everyone is equally informed and careful balancing of the control factor to avoid any implication that one institution is superior to the other.

Audiences and Their Experience

The initial IAIA Project created a repository of content; the ArtsConnectEd Project presented that repository for a particular community. In part, this presentation is a matter of interface design and appropriate access strategies. In part, it is a matter of developing some appropriate content to help serve the educational community better. In part, it is a matter of emphasizing parts of the available data and de-emphasizing others. Consideration is being given to developing similar resources for audiences besides the K-12 audience of ArtsConnectEd, such as the general public or professional researchers.

What do users need?

Owning and presenting the collection in context is only a part of the museum experience. The other part involves serving and understanding audience. While online resources offer different kinds of options and flexibility from exhibitions or interpretive programs, these have hardly been explored beyond the basic mechanisms of returning lists of items using a search engine or offering online representations of exhibits. For some, these basic strategies are enough. A scholar searching for a particular work of art may be satisfied with a result list from a search. But for others, these strategies may only lead to other questions or they may offer answers that are not satisfying. A search on a particular school of art might return a whole list of items for the user to synthesize, but their concern might have been to have that synthesis presented along with the selection of items or even in lieu of it. They may want to consider disparate items that are neither presented as query results or offered as online exhibitions. They may have interest in approaching the museum information from a different point of view than the information creators might have considered. For the most part, museums are able to accommodate those needs - summary understandings of various schools of creation were what led cataloguers to identify objects as being related to a particular style or school; interesting relationships among objects that might not be noted in catalogue records (visual similarities, for instance) are known by museum staff and have been noted by scholars and visitors; new arrays of materials are readily possible in museums (though perhaps not so easily between museums). But, little work has been done in the area of making this kind of material available to audiences. More must be done.

Usability: What do users do?

In an attempt to assess the educational utility of the toolsets and resources provided by ArtsConnectEd, members of the IAIA team partnered with members of Dayton Hudson Corporation's usability testing laboratory. The purpose of this testing was to study the technical operation of the software, the ease of use of the interface and navigation, and the general usefulness of the available resources.

In preparation for this analysis, team members selected a number of teachers and students as well representatives of the general public to cover a range of potential first-time users. A series of user-specific scenarios were then written to serve as objectives during the testing. A testing workstation with a typical browser and modem connection was then configured within a video-monitored observation room.

Usability sessions consisted of the user being introduced to ArtsConnectEd by a lab facilitator. The user would then be presented with a series of scenarios, and proceed to locate and/or retrieve the requested information from within ArtsConnectEd. Users were asked to speak their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations aloud so that the assessment team, located behind a two-way mirror, could both audibly and visually observe the users process. A video recording synchronized to PC-based logging system was used to log all of the user actions as well as the comments of the observers throughout each user testing session.

Upon the completion of each user session, members of the usability assessment team would then review all of the problem areas identified in the session and categorize them according to type. The results of all sessions were tallied and trends identified after each session allowing the group to isolate recurring problems. Once all of the sessions had been completed, the team worked to identify solutions for each problem as well as to identify those team members responsible for ultimately resolving each issue.

As of this writing the IAIA team has conducted two separate usability assessments each resulting in substantial changes to overall design and operation of the ArtsConnectEd interface as well as the resources it contains. The first assessment, which was conducted prior to the program's public release, identified large technical and navigation problems. Once these issues were resolved, a second assessment was conducted allowing a more detailed look at the users impression of the site as a resource.

Overall, users in the second assessment found the revision of ArtsConnectEd to be intriguing, yet at the same time confusing and frustrating. While the details of all of these findings are too complex to describe here, two overarching problems were identified. First, most users had difficulty understanding the concept of an integrated information resource. The large number of mixed results users retrieved when performing a simple query was overwhelming for many of the users. These findings indicated that methods of structured categorical retrieval were necessary for assisting users in navigating ArtsConnectEd's wealth of resources. Secondly, the user's perceived value of a record is dependent upon the richness of the resources connected with it. Most users felt that collection records without images or extended narrative text were of little value.

As a result of the second usability assessment, the overall site was completely redesigned to better meet the identified needs of the users. The data and retrieval methodology was also redesigned to help provide users with the types of information they are looking for. The resulting redesign was publicly launched in the fall of 1999 and has been very well received. However, usability testing is an re-iterative process. To continue to build upon the successes of this latest redesign the IAIA team will need to continue assess and refine the design in future through continued usability testing.

Re-examining Resources: Museum Information

The shared values that underlie the work that has been done so far - that free access to information matters in a civil society, that museums play a significant and underdeveloped educational role, that museums are evolving in noteworthy ways - are not simply vague ideas, or assumptions accepted without question, or unattainable visions. They are a core aspect of the work that has been undertaken to date, which drive it in active and self-conscious ways. They need to continue to be articulated and explored, because they serve to organize the direction of the project as well as provide solid measures for evaluation of progress. The issues that surround the experience of museums and the way that museum information can be gathered and delivered continue to be a central aspect of this project.

How do museums work?

By comparison to other intellectual institutions, the information that museums manage is very complex. Traditionally, the core of a museum's holdings are its objects. Cataloguing data is gathered and management data is generated as research about objects continues or as objects are exhibited, conserved, or loaned. But beyond those basic facts, museums provide context for objects by exhibiting them together to express some central set of ideas, or by providing them with contextual labels, or by considering their historical or cultural importance, or by selecting them to be part of a collection (and not choosing others), or by the scholarship that is carried on within the museum, or by other means. Indeed, it is the context building that is one of the key elements that distinguishes a museum from a sales gallery or a second hand store. Providing access to catalogue information is one thing that networked solutions can offer, but museums are only beginning to explore the contextual possibilities offered by such solutions. This is an area of particular interest to the participating museums, and one that needs further examination and development.

What Role Do Standards Play?

Over the last fifteen years, museums have worked steadily at defining standards of all types. In most cases, these standards have been effective - if not for their original purposes, for serving as a forum for discussion of issues that might not have otherwise come up or as an occasion for working with some particular set of data. Throughout the IAIA Project, there has been a commitment to using standards wherever they could be identified and applied to the data, and much has been learned about the practical realities of applying standards as well as their utility. This investigation, whether formal or informal or both, needs to be continued through the life of the project, and it is important that project personnel are involved with those who are developing and recommending standards in the museum field and in related areas as well.

How can the Possibilities of Collaboration be Realized?

In the museum community, there has been considerable discussion of the advantages of collaboration, but the IAIA Project is the most ambitious ongoing project for the sharing of information between institutions. The initial experience with collaborating has been a good one, but there is no question that the fact of collaborating adds complexity and administrative difficulty while it creates richer information resources. Among many things that are apparent is the fact that collaboration has to be organized in such a way that everyone gains from the experience. This requires thought, strategy, and attention to management issues that might not normally be included as a part of projects. It also involves developing some tools that serve the needs of the collaborators.

The Nature of Online Communication

A final issue relating to the experience that is gained by using networked information has to do with coming to an understanding of how online communication works at all. That users are isolated from one another (though connected), anonymous (though identifiable in some sense), that time and space are largely removed from the control of the museum and put in the hands of the user, that the medium of the computer and screen and the tools for accessing content shape online communication is all known. What needs further exploration is how to take advantage of the strengths of online discourse (the fact that people far from a museum can access an online exhibit long after the actual exhibit has been closed) and how to ameliorate the weaknesses (the limitations of the screen and browser and the isolation).

Future Vision

Looking ahead to the future of the project, it is easy to overlook the tremendous steps forward that have been made in the initial stages. The successful integration of materials in many formats, the creation of some strategies for adding to digital content to make it more readily available, the experience of combining museum collections, the creation of a set of structures for storing and tools for accessing digital resources, and the initial experiences of making museum content available through a targeted interface are each significant achievements that go beyond what other museums have realized. The next steps build on that solid foundation, taking each of the components - digital resources, audience, integrated approaches, and the experience of museums - to another level. Reaching the first plateau has enabled formulating the questions and developing strategies for moving higher. The progress that has been achieved to date suggests that the next phase of the Project will begin to realize many of the shared goals that served as impetus for this work. This development will continue in four areas:


Museums provide a bridge between experience and intellect, object and idea, that is different from any other educational institutions in our culture. In spite of this central role, because they usually function as isolated organizations that are often even further separated by competing or uncoordinated components, museums have been slow to develop as information providers. Some museums have libraries that offer good access to a portion of the information holdings. Others have good curatorial resources. Particular museums are good for one type of information; others are good sources for other information. Frequently, real access to the information potential of museums is limited to a very small group of staff members and perhaps a few experts or researchers. Modern museums are scarcely one hundred years old, and they are still developing means of communication. The idea that exhibits as we know them today are an effective way for museums to express ideas is hardly more than forty years old. The work that has been done over the last thirty years in developing collections management systems or in making electronic catalogues is only beginning to be made useful and accessible through advances in technology. Many institutions have considered the idea of museums as complex information systems, but there is hardly any substantive work that has been done in understanding just what that means.

The joint project of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center has moved farther along the path of realizing the potential of delivering complex museum information to a wider public than any other museum project of its kind. The initial phases have laid a solid groundwork, given an opportunity to develop basic tools, and to scratch the surface of the rich potential. The next phases of the project promise to be even more productive, more exciting, and more effective at making the potentials of museums available to more than just the few who actually get to work with the objects and their catalogue information. At the core of this development, there is a continuing commitment to technology, but as the work of the project has shown so far, this commitment is based on a sound understanding of the ways that technology can help to realize the goals of museums in taking their place in our culture. The subsequent steps in this Project will continue to address the complex educational possibilities of museums in our culture.

About the Authors

Steve Dietz is Director of New Media Initiatives at Walker Art Center. Robin Dowden is Integrated Information Resources Manager at Walker Art Center. Scott Sayre is Director of Electronic Media at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.


This paper about ArtsConnectEd draws on the input and experiences of a team of people: Jim Blackaby (particularly an early white paper draft), Steve Dietz, Robin Dowden, Trudy Lane, Willie Lee, Tammy Sopinski, and Scot Sayre, among others.

Appendix: Web Sites

Integrated Arts Information Access



World Ceramics

Through Your Eyes

Art Museum Imaging Consortium (AMICO)

Consortium for the Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI)

Editorial history

Paper received 1 May 2000; accepted 10 May 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

ArtsConnectEd: Collaboration in the Integration and Access to Museum Resources by Robin Dowden, Scott Sayre, and Steve Dietz
First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June 2000),