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November 2008: Steve Eases Online Searches of Museum Web Sites

November 1, 2008
Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project

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Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project logo

Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN
New Media Consortium (NMC), Austin, TX
University of Maryland, Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and College of Information Studies, College Park, MD


For museums seeking greater and more engaged audiences for their online collections, may offer some answers. The concept is simple: individuals contribute descriptions about the art (and other collection objects) on museum Web sites using the steve tagger, a free, open-source software tool developed by the project. That’s it. Museums say that the descriptions, also known as ‘tags,’ improve access to their online collections because tags make it easier for others to search for art. The tags also help museum educators and docents better understand how their visitors see and experience their collections. Taggers say that tagging art is fun, requires them to look closely at the art, and makes them feel connected to the museums and their collections. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has awarded three National Leadership Grants (NLG) to advance the steve project because it is an innovative, national project with many collaborators.

Steve is not an acronym or an individual, just a friendly-sounding name for an idea that bubbled up in 2004 discussions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Met staff wanted to bridge the "semantic gap" between patrons using search tools on its newly-redesigned Web site and the technical language used by the museum to document the digitized art works. Online visitors tend to search for art using representational descriptions, colors, and emotions. The Met determined that the best way to find terms that people would use for searches was to ask them for keywords. After experimenting with paper prototypes, the Met and other interested members of the museum community agreed that what they really needed was tagging software.

"Most museums don’t have the resources to develop software on their own," said Susan Chun, who helped originate and develop steve when she worked at the Met as General Manager for Collections Information Planning. "Steve is based on a philosophy of collaboration that assumes we do better as a group of organizations than on our own. The best tools, processes, and methods are the ones that we create together in a dialogue that’s thoughtful, inclusive, and intended for both large and small museums." Chun now heads her own consulting firm.

Started as a volunteer project in 2005, the Met and its museum collaborators developed steve tagger 1.0 software. In 2006, eight museums on the project team (including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) were supported by an NLG grant to further refine the steve software and to answer the research question, ‘Can social tagging and folksonomy improve access to art museum collections online? Folksonomy is the practice of collaboratively creating and managing tags to categorize content.

The answer is yes! A formal report will be issued later this year but preliminary results show that the majority of tags submitted by non-museum professionals were useful. During the study, 2,275 individuals participated in tagging 1,784 works of art. In doing so, they contributed 93,380 tags describing these works. When museum professionals were asked whether or not they felt that the tags submitted were useful for describing or finding those works, the results show that 88 percent of tags were thought to be useful.

"The public doesn’t describe works of art in the same way museums do," said Robert Stein, Chief Information Officer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Project Director of the IMLS grant. "The submitted tags were different than the information museums already have. In fact, 86 percent of all tags were not in the museums’ wall label text. And, as useful as they are, most tags can’t be mined from sources other than individual taggers. "We think tags can offer a nice browsing opportunity for folks not familiar with our collections," Stein said.

In the first NLG grant, Steve collaborators developed a set of software tools for the collection and analysis of user tags, studied institutional attitudes towards tagging among staff at the partner institutions, and examined online users’ behaviors when searching museum Web sites.

Improving the ability to search museum Web sites is increasingly important because of the explosion of online activity. In 2006, 42 million adults visited art museum Web sites and 78 million adults visited the Web sites of all types of museums, according to the InterConnections: The IMLS Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums, and the Internet (January 2008).

Once the steve team established that tagging is useful, the next question was how to get the technology into the hands of museum personnel. This problem will be addressed by a second NLG grant, Steve in Action: Social Tagging Tools and Methods Applied, which was recently awarded to the New Media Consortium (NMC) in Austin, TX. The three-year project will apply the research findings to make steve accessible to a wider variety of institutions and people. During the next year, steve researchers plan to work with at least 30 museums and cultural heritage institutions of all sizes and collection types to adopt steve. Together, they will explore how social tagging engages and rewards the visitor; what are the uses and benefits of social tagging for institutions and their visitors; and what kinds of support and resources are required by institutions hoping to institute social tagging practices.

Stein, Chun, and their steve collaborators hope that user-generated tags will eventually allow different kinds of collections to be linked together. For example, tags on a painting of a thunderstorm could link to scientific information on storm formation living on library or science museum Web sites. The tags would tie the collections together, which has enormous potential for educators and students, said Stein.

A third 2008 NLG grant, T3: Text, Tagging and Trust to Improve Image Access for Museums and Libraries, builds on previous steve research. The University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and College of Information Studies will partner with steve collaborators to explore technological ways to weight specific high-value tags so that they rise to the top. For example, a passionate and knowledgeable car enthusiast viewing an image of a ‘57 Chevy will contribute tags that curators might never know. T3 will try to answer the question, "how can you automate the process and pre-identify trustworthy contributors who provide ‘high value tags.’"

The software and research findings produced by the steve project are available to anyone with an interest, whether or not they formally represent a museum. For institutions considering trying steve, there are many ways to be involved, Stein noted.

"Not every museum will be comfortable displaying users’ tags online. But, even if museums don’t display tags, they can still provide useful information about what the viewers see and feel. In our museum, we are using tags in training our docents how to describe works of art," Stein said.

"Tagging reassures museum visitors that they are valuable to us. It matters to us what they think and we can be responsive to them," Chun said. "Our goal is to have push button installations so that small museums with no IT (information technology) department can use steve."

National Leadership Grants for Libraries