Art UK: Rethinking Online Collections and Engagement

Most museums only display about 5 % of their collection at any given time, while the rest of the collection is locked up in environmentally controlled storage or on loan to another institution. One of the ways museums can share these hidden treasures is by creating a public digital archive. A museum’s digital archive is an online database that contains images and information about artworks within the museum’s collections, meaning that anyone with Internet access can look at incredible works of art at any time of the day. 

A digital archive is more than a tool to provide accessibility for art lovers who cannot physically visit a museum; it is also an educational tool for curators, arts educators, students, and art historians to aid their education and research efforts. Furthermore, some artifacts are too delicate to be displayed for public view, and a digital archive provides an alternative way to display fragile artworks or artifacts with artistic and cultural importance. 

Art UK, previously called the Public Catalogue Foundation, is a database that holds more than 200,000 paintings from the collections of public institutions that are not accessible to the general public, such as collections from civic buildings, national trusts, and galleries. Currently, Art UK only features oil paintings, but the database has plans to include watercolors, pastels, drawings, and prints in 2016, with sculptures on the way in 2017.

To navigate Art UK, one simply types in a search query like on any search engine. After that, users can refine their search results by selecting filters including: 

•    The region in which the artwork is held
•    Type of artwork
•    Artwork topics such as “war and conflict,” “sport and leisure,” or “Animal and Plants.”
•    Artistic style and movements

After selecting one of the artworks to view, the user is able to find basic information about the artwork, such as the title, artist’s name, date, medium, dimensions, where the artwork is housed, and rights of usage. A user can also easily access a selection of artworks by the same artist. But Art UK isn’t just a search engine used to find artworks in the United Kingdom; the database also offers several other features that supports its research and educational aspirations.

Personalized features: 
Users can easily register on Art UK with their full name and email address to get access to personalized features. Registered users can mark an artwork as their favorite, create albums that include different piece of artworks, or write their reflection and observation through the note feature about any piece of artwork in the database. 

Art Detective:
To take an active part in the Art UK initiative, registered users can start a discussion topic by submitting questions or comments about an artwork through the Art Detective feature
Art Detective is similar to an internet forum, in which discussion threads allow users from different backgrounds to hold interesting conversations around art. People can share their findings or ask about the subject and history of a specific painting, and there are always other art lovers eager to share their thoughts on the topics.

Another way to participate and contribute to Art UK is through the Tagger feature, which is also only accessible for registered users. The Tagger is like a game in which users tag what they see in an artwork while improving the search function for Art UK. When users access the Tagger page, they see the project progress of tagging all the artwork on the Art UK database, and a ranking chart for the top taggers, with a tagger level that changes with the amount of artworks the user has tagged. This gamification of tagging encourages non-art experts to observe and reflect on what they see in the artworks.

Artwork Shuffle:
Art UK also hosts an artwork discovery tool called Artwork Shuffle, which randomly generates a list of artworks from different partner UK institutions. This is a feature that can be accessed by non-registered users; anyone can shuffle multiple times to generate a new list of artworks or finding artworks by tag categories such as “cat,” “Sport,” and “Myth,” by clicking on “Discover all artworks.”  

Visit What’s On:
In addition to being a searchable database of artwork in the United Kingdom, Art UK also offers an arts event search engine powered by its partner, Culture24. Culture24 is an organization that supports the UK cultural sector in reaching online audiences through sharing news and events relating to the arts, science, and culture. Through Visit What’s On, users can find events and exhibitions that have just opened, are ending soon, or are happening in the upcoming weekend. This feature links the artwork online with what is happening offline, and encourages people to visit art institutions and have a direct experience with art. 

The Art UK digital archive is an amazing resource that is available to the public. Art UK is not just a digital collection of artworks; it is a network of partnerships with art institutions on a national level, a playground for both art experts and non-experts to share their stories and observations of art. It is a project that opens up public access to artworks in the United Kingdom through active participation, learning and enjoyment.  



Banner image by Gobzales Coques and Dirck van Delen, licensed under Creative Commons via Wiki Commons.