Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service

Computer scientist to boost interactivity of Spencer Museum of Art’s history and holdings

Tue, 05/30/2017

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science is exploring new ways to open the Spencer Museum of Art’s history and collections to the public through data visualization and storytelling.

James Miller has teamed up with museum staff as a faculty research fellow for the Integrated Arts Research Initiative (IARI), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. IARI aims “to engage researchers across the sciences and humanities in hybrid projects,” said Joey Orr, the museum’s curator for research who coordinates fellowships for IARI. “Previously, we have worked with a music composer and poet, so it was exciting to welcome Jim Miller from electrical engineering and computer science to work with the museum’s database manager on data visualization projects.”

Miller’s work strives to create stories through data visualization to make the museum’s collection more interactive to the public at large.

“We’re using database-driven visualization to tell the stories of the Spencer Museum of Art — from its original founding gift to all the items they’ve obtained since then,” Miller said. “The term we like to use is ‘storytelling.’ We’re trying to take large amounts of data and tell stories that relate the history and current impact of the Spencer.”

Miller’s chief collaborator is Robert Hickerson, the Spencer Museum’s database manager and archivist.

“Data visualization is a microscope through which we can closely examine the complex relationships of art and artists and how their work reflects the variety and values of cultures in which they created,” Hickerson said.

Miller said massive amounts of data about the Spencer’s collection could form stories driven by users searching online the museum’s more than 45,000 objects.

“It all kind of starts with what someone is interested in — what do they want to know about this collection?” said Miller. “They might say, ‘Show me all the paintings that were done in Kansas in the 1930s.’ Or, maybe they might wonder how World War I affected artists. So let’s look at objects made during the war and look for common themes about how people dealt with various aspects of the war.”

To this end, Miller and Hickerson created an Application Programming Interface (API) that can extract data from the museum’s database and make it available for many purposes. Externally, it will enable a wider range of access to the objects and information preserved in the museum’s collection and has the potential to build capacity for the museum over time.

Miller’s work dovetails with an IARI undergraduate fellowship by KU engineering student Mohammad Fathan, who used the API to develop a tool for museum staff that automates tasks related to exhibition planning.

Although his fellowship ended after the spring 2017 semester, Miller will continue working to expand the API through the summer and fall. He said he hopes to have more storytelling applications ready in time for the Spencer’s 100th anniversary celebrations in October. While Miller builds the new storytelling platform, he’s enjoying encounters with many of the thousands of art objects in the museum collection.

“One of our initial storytelling ideas relates to studying the impact of immigrants and the art they created after settling in the U.S.,” he said. “There are so many pieces in the collection by such artists, and it has been a fun exploratory project.”

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