Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons: Institutional and User Perspectives

Bronwen Colquhoun, UK


Flickr The Commons has been in operation for over four years and currently hosts the photographic collections of fifty-six cultural institutions from fourteen different countries worldwide. With the aim to show online users “hidden treasures in the world's public photography archives”, and make these collections “richer” through user input and knowledge contribution, The Commons proposes not only an alternative viewing environment from which to explore historic photographs, but also advocates an opportunity for users to contribute information and find new ways of creating meaning for photographs. But how do audiences create value and meaning for the photographs that are available within these online platforms? In particular, how does Flickr The Commons facilitate the development of these meanings? Cultural institutions can learn a great deal from the activity and behaviour of online communities of interest but in what ways can they use this information to further support these communities and make their collections more engaging and relevant for visitors and online users in the future? This paper will explore these questions by drawing on qualitative research of the Flickr The Commons activities of three participating cultural institutions and their users; the National Maritime Museum, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and the Library of Congress. Through highlighting examples from interviews and action research projects undertaken at each institution, this paper argues that Flickr The Commons facilitates the development of new meaning and content around photographs through the provision of functionalities that encourage personal exploration, knowledge-sharing and re-appropriation of photographic collections. As a result, The Commons provides an opportunity for cultural institutions to re-evaluate their photographic collections in accordance with the interests and activities of the communities that use and contribute to them.

Keywords: Flickr, social media, photography, knowledge, communities, collections

1. Introduction

This paper investigates the ways in which online users make sense of photographic collections on the image-sharing website Flickr The Commons through firstly analysing the extent to which the application facilitates knowledge construction, and secondly by identifying the key motivations that drive user activity. The public’s fascination with archival photographic material has recently been highlighted through the emergence and popularity of websites such as Flickr The Commons, History Pin, Retronaut, and Dear Photograph, the content of which focuses on concepts such as history, genealogy, ephemera, and documentation of the past.

Flickr was established in 2004 as an image-sharing website with two core aims: “to help people make their photos available to the people who matter to them,” and “to enable new ways of organizing photos and video” (Flickr, n.d., a). Flickr has a community of 51 million registered members, which makes up 20 million unique U.S. visitors (nearly 80 million worldwide) who spend an average of 2.7 minutes per visit on the site (Yahoo, n.d.). According to Yahoo (n.d.) approximately 4.5 million photographs are uploaded on Flickr daily.

The Commons was launched on January 16, 2008, as a pilot project between Flickr and the Library of Congress. It has been in operation for over four years and currently hosts the photographic collections of 56 cultural institutions from 14 different countries worldwide. The Commons was originally conceived by the Library of Congress with an idea to carry out an “experiment” about tagging and social tagging, influenced by previous research projects such as Steve.Museum ( Flickr was considered to be a suitable model for this purpose due to its interactive capabilities (Springer, 2012):

It had the functionality that we were looking for and it had a community that were very interested in photographs and very focused on photographs so it allowed us to think about the project more broadly.

Helena Zinkham (2012) from the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library explained that what started out as a structured project with the aim of generating metadata for photographic content progressed into a more “open-ended” venture in which staff were happy to just “see what happened.” As such, understanding the nature of this community and how it would respond to the Library’s content and needs was one of the Library’s main objectives for joining The Commons.

The website represents a small proportion of the photographic collections held by some of these institutions, which in many cases present users with a broad overview of the diversity and scope of the collections at large. Additionally, the “cherry-picking” (Coburn, 2012) of photographs by cultural institutions not only instigates a different kind of theorizing around photographic collections and their cultural and historical significance, but also affects how they are viewed, shared, and interpreted within an online, social context. The Commons exists within a framework that encourages and supports exchange between its members. As a social networking site, it accommodates various functionalities that support communication, participation, and knowledge sharing. These functionalities also offer users an opportunity to express their interests and engage with collections in a variety of different ways.

By drawing on visual analysis of user activity on The Commons and additional qualitative research undertaken at three case-study institutions, this paper investigates how Flickr members make sense of photographic collections online by exploring the kinds of activities that The Commons enables, and by identifying the underlying interests and motivations that drive these processes of engagement. Section Two outlines the methodology that underpins the research and provides a rationale for the approach taken. Section Three explores the ways in which The Commons facilitates the production of knowledge and meaning by analysing the social functionalities and components that comprise its framework. Section Four investigates how these functionalities initiate participatory activity from users and distinguishes the key interests and motivations that drive engagement.

2. Research methodology

The organisations currently participating in Flickr The Commons are diverse in a number of different ways, including fields of expertise, type of institution, type of photographic collection, and geographic location. The case studies featured within this paper comprise two British institutions: the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM); and an American institution, the Library of Congress (LOC). The criteria used to select the case study institutions included a variety of factors, most notably that all institutions should have extensive photographic collections, a variable experience of membership, and access to an exhibition space.

The LOC was the first institution to pilot the scheme and is the longest-serving institution on The Commons. On the other hand, TWAM is one of the most recent institutions to join and the most recent British institution. All case-study institutions offer diverse on-site facilities for the exhibition and use of their photographic collections. For example, the NMM opened a new digital, interactive gallery space called the Compass Lounge in October 2011 as part of its redevelopment strategy; the Compass Lounge exhibits digital content including photographs from the museum’s collection and other community-related projects. The LOC has a number of exhibition galleries within its three buildings, and TWAM runs twelve different museums and galleries across the Tyne and Wear region, the majority of which house exhibition spaces. Finally, each case study represents a different type of institution: a library, a museum, and an archive, reflecting the diversity of cultural institutions currently participating in The Commons.

The research adopted a variety of methods including visual analysis of user activity, semi-structured interviews with institutional staff, and action research that aimed to investigate the user perspective to a greater extent. Twelve interviews took place with staff members directly involved in The Commons projects. Their level of involvement varied from organising and implementing the projects to providing curatorial expertise, selecting content, and moderating and managing Flickr accounts. Additionally, three action research projects took place, all of which focused on the act of co-curation with an aim to identify the interests, motivations, and expertise of the Flickr community. Each project was carried out using different frameworks; however, all participants were Flickr members and photography enthusiasts. Participants were predominantly recruited through Flickr and, in some cases, other social media outlets and mailing lists managed by the case study institutions. Each project attracted different members of the Flickr community, which in most cases corresponded to the institution’s geographic location and audience:

“Curate the Collection” at the NMM (April–May 2012)

“Curate the Collection” was a set of three co-curation workshops that engaged The Commons community with the intention to understand the motivations, interests, and behaviour of its members. The workshops were conceived as a reciprocal approach, as they aimed both to produce knowledge and action directly useful to the community, and to empower that community through the process of constructing and using their own knowledge (Reason, 1994). The author and the National Maritime Museum’s Digital Participation officer facilitated the workshops, which were attended by eighteen active Flickr members (this decreased to ten for the second and third workshops). Participants were invited to co-curate a new set of photographs for the museum’s presence in The Commons from the collections that were already available online. The photographs selected by the group were also displayed in the museum’s Compass Lounge gallery from June to October 2012. The group worked collaboratively to select, curate, and present their chosen photographs, and this process included developing an interpretation strategy for the display.

“My LOC Favorites” at the LOC (June–August 2012)

“My LOC Favorites” was an online project organised in collaboration with staff from the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. Flickr users were invited to select their top ten favourite photographs from the Library’s collections on The Commons by using Flickr’s Gallery function. Participants were asked to provide a short paragraph to explain each of their choices in a text box next to their images. The most popular photographs formed a new set on the LOC’s Commons account (entitled “Your LOC Twenty-one Flickr users participated by creating galleries within their Flickr accounts. Participants represented a range of users and included a number of “power users” who were regular contributors to the Library’s Commons account. The project was carried out online over a two-month period, which presented fewer barriers for involvement. As such, participants originated from a number of geographic locations.

“Uncovering Archives Photography” at TWAM (November–January 2013)

“Uncovering Archives Photography” was a one-day co-curation workshop in which Flickr members were invited to select a series of photographs from previously undigitised prints and albums from the shipbuilding collections at TWAM. Participants were then invited to create their own photographs inspired by images from the collections, which were exhibited alongside the archival originals for a two-month period from January to March 2013. The archival photographs selected by the participants also formed a new set on TWAM’s Commons account. The author, TWAM’s ICT projects coordinator and a retired archivist who was also an ex-shipbuilder, having spent most of his early life working for the Swan Hunter Shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, facilitated the workshop. There were nine participants in total, all of whom were based within the northeast of England.

3. Generating meaning and value for historic photographic collections

Susan Pearce (1992: 55) believes that collections are an “extension of the self” and analyses their complexities by offering the following explanation for the basis upon which they are founded:

Collections spring from existing individual and social constructions, but they also underwrite and perpetuate constructs. Collections are endowed with a life to their own, which bears the most intimate relationship to that of their collector, so that the collector sees them, in the most literal sense, as parts of himself. But at the heart of this relationship is an ambiguity of control; sometimes the collector shapes the collections and sometimes it shapes him – another way of saying that objects are always both active and passive. (Pearce, 1992: 66)

Pearce continues by highlighting the complex relationship between objects and social ideas, noting that “social ideas cannot exist without physical content, but physical objects are meaningless without social content” (Pearce, 1992: 21). In other words, collections are physical representations of social constructs. Similarly, the objects themselves become meaningless without knowledge of the social ideas that underpin their cultural and historical significance.

In keeping with the idea of active and passive objects, and in addition to the social meanings and histories bestowed upon objects by the act of collecting, it can be argued that objects and collections themselves acquire new meanings as a result of the exhibition, display, and interpretation practices of cultural institutions. Christopher Whitehead has written widely on how institutions contribute to the construction of knowledge and disciplinarity, and identifies the museum as an “institutional and spatial site which strongly encourages certain kinds of theorizing” (Whitehead, 2009: 25). As such, museums are considered institutional agents that construct knowledge through the “orchestration of various interrelated media” (Whitehead, 2009: 26). Whitehead’s ideas around knowledge construction draw upon the work of Sharon Macdonald, who explains that museums act as “sites in which socially and culturally embedded theories are performed” (Macdonald, 1996: 3) through the selection and ordering of objects, and through the rituals, processes, and representations performed by individuals when viewing these objects. Macdonald (1996: 7) argues that museums not only embody certain theoretical ideas, but also play a role in their visual realisation though display practices.

Similarly, Carol Duncan’s writings on the art museum as ritual argue that art museums appear as “environments structured around specific ritual scenarios” (Duncan, 1995: 2). Duncan (1995:12) suggests that when visiting a museum, individuals enact a ritual in which “the museum’s sequenced spaces and arrangement of objects, its lighting and architectural details, provide both the stage set and the script.”

Historically, museums and cultural institutions have used different “technologies” within their practice that embody particular narratives and representations (Whitehead, 2009). These technologies include but are not limited to: the architectural and decorative manipulation of space; the selection, ordering, and placing of objects; and the placement and content of interpretive materials. The architecture of museum buildings has a large influence on how one perceives and experiences objects and the narratives they provoke (Duncan, 1995; Whitehead, 2009). Traditional and modern architecture denote distinctly different narratives and ways of seeing: “narration is in the nature of museum architecture—especially new museum architecture” (Whitehead. 2009: 27). For example, visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a distinctly different experience to visiting Tate Modern, predominantly due to the imposing architecture and the ways in which collections are presented as a result.

The selection, ordering, and placing of objects creates opportunities for constructing and organising knowledge in different ways. The curator plays a pivotal role in this process, which Whitehead (2009: 29) describes as a “cultural practice of inclusion and exclusion” whereby objects and artworks are selected in accordance with the value they represent of their “hierarchical structure.” Henning (2006: 18) also refers to the role of the curator and/or collector when noting that “the very act of turning something into a museum object makes it available for aesthetic contemplation.” Henning (2006: 68) also notes that in addition to curators, exhibition design animates objects and brings them to life through carefully constructed narratives. Finally, written and spoken interpretive materials traditionally present an academic, authoritative account, which in itself embodies theories relating to the value of the objects on display.

In a sense, similar technologies are inherent within traditional museum collections websites: the objects are hosted on a platform controlled wholly by the institution, and objects are ordered and presented using standardized classification procedures and, as such, appear within particular categories. Nonetheless, in recent years, museums and cultural institutions have begun to experiment with interactive ways of presenting their collections online, taking their cues from the increasing number of social media applications that exist on the Web. The key functionalities that underpin these websites focus on communication, participation, and knowledge sharing. The tools available to users to facilitate this behaviour (e.g., comment boxes, tagging and annotation, embedded sharing features) are becoming more commonplace within a variety of institutional websites.

The LOC began work on redeveloping their Prints and Photographs Online Catalog in June 2009, and much of the redesign was influenced by the core functionalities of Flickr, including the gallery view function and the search, description, and slideshow features (Zinkham, 2012). Similarly, the NMM consulted Flickr when redeveloping their collections website and, as a result, objects for which the museum holds the rights to are now available under a Creative Commons license (Romeo, 2012).

Michelle Henning (2007: 26) proposes the concept of “remediation” as a way of understanding the current shift in practice within cultural institutions. Remediation is the process through which museums are reinvented and reimagined through new technologies and media. Henning (2007:27) notes that media borrow from one another and incorporate one another, which is evident in the ways in which the LOC and the NMM’s online collections now operate. Such changes are a significant step for cultural institutions in making their collections more accessible and open to the public to use and share in a way that promotes engagement, interactivity, and knowledge exchange. Jeremy Michell, curator of Photographs and Ship Plan Collections at the NMM, suggests that users enjoy engaging with photographic collections on Flickr as opposed to museum collections websites because it promotes a different experience (Michell, 2012):

I think if you go to a museum website you’re sort of conditioned to think what a museum wants you to think. If you go to something like Flickr, where people are uploading photographs and they make comments about them or provide contextual information, it’s a much more fluid format and forum so you have no expectations except for whatever you want to take with you.

Such changes in practice are affecting the ways in which knowledge is constructed around objects, and by placing museum content on external websites such as Flickr, cultural institutions actively solicit contributions from different stakeholders within the knowledge construction process.

But in what ways does Flickr The Commons facilitate knowledge construction? And how is this process different to a cultural institution? Moreover, when collections are placed within an external environment, how are they viewed and perceived, and does the online, social environment of Flickr encourage a different kind of “theorizing potential” (Whitehead, 2009) to that of the museum? If so, how is this realised by users? The following section addresses these questions by identifying the “technologies” that contribute to knowledge construction on The Commons. These technologies comprise the different functionalities and processes through which collections are presented and new meanings produced.

Flickr The Commons: Emergent Practices, Emerging Meanings

The Commons provides an alternative way of viewing and experiencing historic photographic collections; the images themselves are liberated from the institutional boundaries within which they are normally located. Moreover, the photographs exist within a framework in which specific functionalities prompt particular modes of interaction and engagement. The Commons not only exists as an alternative Web platform for the public to view photographic collections, it also plays a role in revealing the significance of particular photographs according to public opinion. As such, it encourages users to reimagine and recontextualise photographs according to their own interests and agendas.

Content is initially selected for The Commons by the participating institutions, and users (typically) do not play a direct role within this process. From discussions with a number of institutions (LOC, National Archives, Smithsonian Institution, TWAM, and NMM), it became apparent that whilst they have loose strategies for selecting photographs, decisions are also based on what provokes interest from the Flickr community. In some cases, image selection is also determined by other factors; for example, the LOC restricts their selections to photographs that have been pre-digitized and are readily available on their collections website, providing links back to catalogue records (Springer et al., 2009: 8). TWAM adopts a trial-and-error approach, which is in part influenced by the nature and distribution of the photographic collection across their twelve sites:

We don’t really have photographic collections, we have sets of images that form part of a wider collection so we have to do a lot of digging around in the museums collections database and in the archives as well. (Coburn, 2012)

TWAM does not have specialist photography staff, and the few members involved in image selection lack the “vocabulary of what is a good image and what is a bad image” (Coburn, 2012). As such, staff select photographs based on their “immediate emotional resonance” (ibid.). Compared to more traditional curatorial approaches to content selection, this method may in fact encourage a greater level of creativity and exploration amongst Flickr users, as little contextual information accompanies images. Similarly, the NMM does not add much contextual information to its images, with the aim of fostering a greater level of participation from Flickr members (Romeo, 2012; Blaser, 2012).

Coburn (2012) suggests that social environments like The Commons play a key role in “deconstructing the idea of what an online collection is about.” Cultural institutions initially select content for The Commons, but after these decisions have been made they are no longer in control of how the photographs are experienced by users. Coburn (2012) points out that this encourages institutions to “think more conceptually and thematically” about objects and believes that museum websites would do well to learn from such applications, as they currently “don’t work hard enough to think creatively about the best pathways into the collections.”

The experience of viewing photographs on The Commons is very different to that of an institution but, in keeping with Henning’s ideas around remediation, it could be argued that some of the “technologies” outlined by Whitehead (2009) appear in different guises on Flickr. More specifically, a number of Flickr’s functionalities correspond to two technologies in particular: the selection, ordering, and placing of objects; and interpretive materials. One may argue that the technologies these functionalities represent contribute to the “deconstruction” of collections that Coburn speaks of and, in a sense, to the reconstruction of knowledge around those collections.

Selection, ordering, and placing of objects

Groups: The Groups function enables Flickr users to assemble, classify, and curate photographs according to specific themes and interests. Van Dijck (2011: 407) points out that “groups on Flickr are formed around social or thematic principles” whereby “people consciously form groups to share ideas or aesthetics.” This type of classification differs greatly to the standardized procedures practiced by cultural institutions and acts as a means of connecting like-minded individuals.

Galleries: Flickr members select and curate Galleries that reflect personal interests. The Galleries feature is restricted to nineteen images and provides another example of the classification features offered to Flickr users.

Favourites: The Favourites tool replicates the act of collecting outlined earlier by Pearce (1992). By adding photographs as Favourites, users build their own collections of photographs from those available across Flickr.

Interpretive materials

Tags: Tags provide institutions with an insight into the terminology used by their audience to classify and locate images, and are also a means of understanding how individuals interpret and understand photographs in different ways.

Comments: Comments generate dialogue between institutions and Flickr users, offering multiple levels of interpretation that have the potential to develop new contexts and narratives for photographs.

Notes: Notes are pinned directly onto photographs and can range from anecdotal information and opinions to factual content.

Sharing tools: Photographs can be shared on a variety of different social media websites including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Sharing tools also enable users to embed images within different online platforms, contributing to the varied ways in which photographs are recontextualised within the online environment.

One of the main distinctions between the “technologies” evident within physical and online environments is the socially and culturally embedded behaviour that emerges as a result. User activity that corresponds to the functionalities enabled by Flickr offers an insight into the specific interests and motivations driving Flickr users and the Flickr community at large. Additionally, such technologies are realised by a number of different actors, shifting the distribution of power and authorship to a less conventional model. Within The Commons, power relations are less distinct, and the functionalities outlined above empower users to develop a greater sense of ownership over the collections. This has a direct impact on how objects and collections are perceived or “theorized,” and how meaning is generated as a result.

4. The interests and motivations driving the generation of new meaning

The volume of photographs taken and shared by individuals on a daily basis means that photographic content can be used in a variety of different ways, by a variety of different people for a variety of different reasons. Michell (2012) summarizes this nicely when pointing out that:

Photographs can be taken for one reason but can be used for so many others (…) A photograph might be very well composed because the photographer is trying to tell a story, but the way it is interpreted is pretty much left to the people looking at the image.

Flickr is first and foremost a photographic community that exists in the form of a social networking site. As such, it exhibits specific functionalities that aim to build social bonds and develop a community of like-minded people. These functionalities enable users to express their interests in diverse ways, and the resulting contributions have the potential to place photographs within different contexts and narratives to the ones initially generated by cultural institutions.

As highlighted in previous research (Colquhoun & Galani, 2013), The Commons is considered a “community of interest”: a social network formed around a shared interest whose members take part to “exchange information, to obtain answers to personal questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, to share common passions or to play” (Henri & Pudelko, 2003: 478). Although not directly referring to the term, Van Dijck (2011: 406) describes such a community as “a social structure between actors, either individuals or organizations” that develops through “social bonds, which can be any kind of relationship, (kinship, social, professional, affective), a material exchange, a common behaviour, etc.” The Commons focuses on historic photographs as a result of the “no known copyright” restriction that is placed on images, in which cultural institutions conclude that a photograph is free of copyright restrictions (Flickr, n.d., b). This not only draws interest from photography enthusiasts, it also attracts individuals with historic, geographic, and archival knowledge and expertise.

In undertaking qualitative research with Flickr members at the aforementioned case-study institutions, three themes have emerged that go some way to explaining the shared interests that bind the Flickr community. These themes provide a basis for the ways in which Flickr members make sense of and create new meaning for photographic collections. Each theme is explained using examples taken from the action research projects, which themselves derive from the more commonplace activities carried out by users on The Commons. 

The Aesthetic and Technical Merit of Photographs and Photographers

The aesthetic and technical merit of photography is the key principle that fuels engagement on The Commons, itself reflective of the technical knowledge and skills exhibited by Flickr members. These qualities are also acknowledged by institutions in their initial selection of content; the LOC refers to recent activity documented in its Flickr stats when selecting new content in order to identify the kinds of images that are most popular with Flickr members (Zinkham, 2012).

The aesthetic and technical merit of photography was a key motivation for participants involved in all three action research projects. Throughout the course of “Curate the Collection” at the NMM, participants followed various strategies in selecting photographs for the exhibition. Whilst there was a diversity of interests within the group, the emphasis was placed on aesthetics for the final selections, confirming that these principles are at the core of the Flickr community. Similarly, when participants initially presented their individual choices to the group there was much repetition, suggesting that members are drawn to similar photographs as a result of their shared interest and knowledge of what constitutes a “good” image. One of the main criteria for selection was to choose visually striking and appealing images that would draw in the visitor and/or user:

First of all it was the images that struck me immediately or created a, not exactly the wow factor, but images that caught my eye and peaked my curiosity and had an impact; something that connected to the modern day and what’s going on, current affairs. (Participant 10, 2012)

Participants involved in the “My LOC Favorites” project had similar approaches, and the most popular photograph selected overall (appearing in five separate galleries) was entitled “Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station” by Jack Delano (highlighted in Figure 1).


Figure 1: “Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room at the Union Station” (Library of Congress)

This photograph is from the “Farm Security Administration (FSA)/Office of War Initiative (OWI) Favorites” set, which is one of the most popular and frequently viewed sets on The Commons (Zinkham, 2012). Likewise, photographs from the FSA/OWI Collection are the most regularly viewed by visitors to the Prints and Photographs Reading Room at the LOC. The explanations given by participants for selecting this photograph referred to technique and aesthetics, with one participant suggesting that his choice needed no further explanation. In other words, the image was self-explanatory: “Why this? Ain’t it obvious? No explanation needed” (BobMeade, 2012).

The same participant explained his approach to selecting images for the “My LOC Favorites” project, in which there were a number of motivations, the main focus being “the startling visual quality and/or aesthetics” (BobMeade, 2012). He began by consulting images already marked as Favourites in his Flickr account, of which LOC photographs featured heavily, and selected from this smaller group of images. By accumulating Favourites, he was actively creating a collection of images based around his own personal interests and remits, mirroring the ways in which collections are traditionally formulated within cultural institutions. As such, he had already identified his interests and classified photographs accordingly, creating a collection of images that was an extension of the self (Pearce, 1992:55).

The Relationship Between the Past and the Present

With the rise in popularity of archival photographs and the increased level of accessibility to such objects, it seems that the public is intrigued with the past as a way of understanding the present. This is not a new phenomenon in museology; it is what the entire discipline is based upon: “[Objects] have the power, in some sense, to carry the past into the present by virtue of the ‘real’ relationship to past event” (Pearce, 1992: 24). Van Dijck (2011: 409) supports this by stating:

… in the context of memory institutions, collective memory commonly refers to as a shared remembrance of past (public) events, enabled either by individuals sharing objects such as pictures or stories with others to enhance social cohesion in communities, or by institutional decisions (e.g. museums, archives) to expose such objects to the public eye.

Similarly, Henning (2006: 129) refers to the museum as a “memory machine” a “technical means by which societies remember, devices for organizing the past for the purposes of the present,” which strongly supports the identification of this second theme.

Drawing upon observations of user activity, there are a number of ways in which this theme is evident in The Commons. Comments provide a clear indication of one’s knowledge and interests, and some photographs attract a number of “history detectives” (Zinkham, 2012) who regularly carry out research into the collections on behalf of the institutions. A handful of users research photographs that are regularly uploaded to the “George Grantham Bain” set on The Commons, which was initially uploaded as an experiment to see how the Flickr community would respond to photographs that had varying degrees of contextual information. The LOC observed that the same Flickr members carry out research in response to new batches of photographs on a weekly basis, and they are very consistent in doing so. As such, over 4,600 catalogue records attribute the Flickr project as a source of information, the majority of which derive from the Bain Collection.

A number of these so-called “history detectives” participated in the “My LOC Favorites” project. Their galleries reflect their interest in historical research, learning about the past, and the surprises that emerge as a result. One participant made the following comment:

The Commons (and the LOC) is about the images — but, for me, it’s really about the discovery… it’s about the surprises… the limitless “ah-ha’s” that come with learning about the images. (Pixel Wrangler, 2012)

Another participant commented on the enjoyment she got out of researching photographs. She introduced her gallery with the following statement:

Ten photographs from the LoC collections on Flickr that have led to some intriguing detective work. Picking a “top” ten from so many pictures and so many hours of exploring for contexts is an impossible task. So this is rather a sprinkling of pictures I could remember well enough to find. (swanq, 2012)

The interest in one’s own history and the notion of memory was another theme that emerged from the “My LOC Favorites” project, and the following statement offers a more personal insight into how this was expressed:

The final three photographs I’ve selected from the Library of Congress Commons sets, all show areas that I have explored on various personal road trips through the US South-West… It is a hauntingly beautiful area of which I have many good memories, having travelled there a number of times with a now – sadly – late dear friend who I had known from my youth. (akaRazz, 2012)

A popular activity that has emerged as a result of mixing historic and contemporary images is “Then and Now” comparisons, in which users post their own versions of locations to demonstrate how a place may or may not have changed over time. This specific treatment of historic photographs has proven to be a common pastime amongst amateur photographers and has been adopted as a way of making sense of historic photographs, capturing their relationship to the present day and the changing environmental, social, and cultural landscape beyond The Commons. Flickr members may conduct this kind of activity in order to demonstrate how they relate to the photographic collections featured within The Commons, and to prompt others to contemplate the historical significance of these images.

Throughout the “Uncovering Archives Photography” project, the shared interest in “Then and Now” was a key motivation when it came to selecting photographs for The Commons. More specifically, one participant was interested in exploring the influence of the shipbuilding industry on the architecture and infrastructure of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the following images document how his interest was realised. Figure 2 is an image from the archival collections at TWAM and documents the Medway Floating Dock at the Swan Hunter Shipyard in Wallsend. Figure 3 was created in response to the archival image and explores the architectural influence of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry on modern structures within the city, specifically the Byker Bypass. Figure 4 superimposes the contemporary photograph onto the archival photograph, creating a juxtaposition reflective of the “Then and Now” comparisons created on Flickr.


Figure 2: Photograph of the Medway Floating Dock from the Swan Hunter Shipyard in Wallsend (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)


Figure 3: Photograph of the Byker Bypass taken in response to Figure 2 rolleimpp1 as part of the “Uncovering Archives Photography” project at TWAM


Figure 4: “Then and Now” image of the Medway Floating Dock by Flickr user rolleimpp1 from the “Uncovering Archives Photography” project at TWAM

The motivations for creating this image are explained by the participant in the following statement:

As we pass everyday structures we take little note until they are gone. These long gone structures got me thinking if they were still amongst us, dotted throughout the landscape, in some form or another. Represented here is the Medway floating dock, placed in a position that commuters to Newcastle often pass with little thought, superimposed on the Byker bypass. (rolleimpp1, 2012)

The De- and Recontextualization of Photographs

Images on The Commons are de- and recontextualised in a variety of ways, enabled by Flickr functionalities including the sharing and tagging tools. As such, images can have an interesting lifespan, and a number have appeared on a variety of websites, blogs, and forums, and within news and print media. Coburn (2012) notes that the most interesting part of this process is observing how “people are creating value and defining the context of the image.” TWAM’s images have been used in a variety of different contexts, which has helped develop a better understanding of how audiences respond differently to collections and how important it is for cultural institutions to provide these different methods of engagement: “It’s incredible that one image can have these rich layers of conversation. It’s a strong argument for having open access to your collections” (Coburn, 2012).

An example of how Flickr’s functionalities support the de- and recontextualization of photographs comes from the co-curation project at the NMM. Although the final selection of photographs was a collective endeavour, when it came to developing the interpretive strategy, the group struggled to find consensual, universal meanings for the images. Participants felt they could not provide individual responses to the images, as it contradicted the process through which they had worked as a group to select the images; nor could they agree on a common interpretation for each image. The suggestion was put forward to create tag clouds for the photographs, where each member of the group selected five words to describe each image. In doing so, participants recontextualized the photographs that were of relevance to them as individuals and photographers, but the resulting tag clouds were representative of the collective group. Figures 5 and 6 document one of the images selected for the exhibition, and the accompanying tag cloud:


Figure 5: “The Baron Aberdare Accident” (National Maritime Museum)


Figure 6: Tag cloud created in response to “The Baron Aberdare Accident” from the “Curate the Collection” project at the NMM

Another objective for using this method was to prompt the visitors of the display to consider the personal significance of the images rather than the historical significance:

I was really keen on not influencing the visitors, so not saying what the image was about and rather looking at it and thinking about what the image means to them. And there are some suggestive words there about what it means to other people and I think that’s where the strength of the exhibition lies—it’s normal people that are going to see it and it’s normal people that put the exhibition on and I think that will work really well. (Participant 3, 2012)

The tagging exercise reflected activity and behaviour commonly associated with Flickr: the tags reflecting descriptive, informative, and emotive terminologies. This strategy suggests that participants felt strongly about the personal connection to photographs, yet they did not want to jeopardise the voice of the collective. The tagging exercise empowered participants to develop their own meanings for the photographs guided by the strategies they had employed as a group to select, classify, and curate the final eight photographs.

Another example of recontextualisation is taken from the “Uncovering Archives Photography” project at TWAM, in which participants were invited to respond creatively to the archival shipbuilding photographs they selected for The Commons. The archival images shown in Figures 7 and 8 were selected by one participant and derive from a photographic album that had been compiled by a worker from the J.L. Thompson shipyard in Sunderland. The photographs included images of the Thompson’s football team, press and training images, and the presentation of retirement gifts to older workers.


Figure 7: Photograph documenting the presentation of gifts to retired workers from J.L. Thompson’s Shipyard (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)


Figure 8: Team photograph of workers from J.L. Thompson’s Shipyard (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)

The participant used a copy of one the images to create his own photograph (shown in Figure 9). His method and response involved de- and recontextualising the original photograph, generating new meaning as a result. Here he explains his motivations behind taking the image:

This is a response to an album of staff photos from JL Thompson’s shipyard. I found these intriguing, particularly the retirement gifts the men received. My aim was to return some of these elements back to where they originated. The photo was taken on the River Wear very close to where Thompson’s used to be, with the path in the picture reminiscent of a launch slipway. I modified the TV to allow one of my favourite images from the album to be physically added and lit from inside. It was shot on Ilford Delta 100 – no digital processing besides dust removal and levels/toning. (Andy Martin, 2012)


Figure 9: A photograph by Flickr user Andy Martin taken as part of the “Uncovering Archives Photography” workshop at TWAM

These examples demonstrate how The Commons prompts and, in many cases, makes visible the repurposing and recontextualisation of historic photographs by individuals. The actions undertaken by Flickr members and other online users to create meaning vary, yet each example of reuse and reappropriation confirms Michell’s notion that photographs possess multiple meanings and are made sense of in a variety of different ways.

5. Conclusion

This paper has outlined the ways in which Flickr users make sense of historic photographic collections on The Commons by exploring the interactive and participatory framework within which Flickr, as a social media website, operates. When analysing the more traditional “technologies” that contribute to the construction of knowledge within museums and cultural institutions, it becomes evident that some of Flickr’s core functionalities draw upon or “remediate” these technologies. The “Selection, Ordering, and Placing of Objects” and “Interpretive Materials” are manifested in different ways on Flickr as apposed to the physical museum environment, yet both manifestations share similar objectives that invoke users to enact specific cultural and behavioural processes or “rituals,” the result of which generates meaning (Duncan, 1995). Remediation holds that new media do not function independently of other media (Henning, 2007: 27), which is evident within the framework of The Commons, and the activities and behaviours it engenders.

The research highlights the various ways in which Flickr users make sense of photographic collections and the different responses that can be generated by a singular image. Although these responses may be executed in different ways, they are framed around three key themes. These themes are representative of the shared interests that bind the Flickr community and the core motivations for engagement and interaction on The Commons, realised through a variety of activities such as tagging, commenting, adding Favourites, sharing, reusing, and repurposing historic photographic collections. This research argues that the technologies that contribute to knowledge construction on The Commons substantiate the key interests and motivations that generate meaning around photographic collections. As such, collections are largely understood as a result of the participatory and interactive framework within which The Commons operates.

The Commons certainly has the potential to enable institutions to develop and understand their collections from the perspective of the public, but a number of constraints exist that often prevent these opportunities from taking place. In addition to operational barriers such as funding and resources, the challenge of authority and verification still plays a large role when introducing participatory processes (in particular those that generate knowledge) into the wider practices of cultural institutions. The relationship between experts and non-experts and the processes though which cultural institutions use and make sense of content effectively have yet to be resolved. However, The Commons does provide an interesting insight into the ways in which online users make sense of photographic collections, which may prompt a reevaluation of the ways in which collections can be best organised and presented in order to make them more relevant and meaningful in the future.


I would like to thank all of the individuals who participated in the Flickr projects at the Library of Congress, National Maritime Museum, and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. I would also like to thank the staff members from these institutions for contributing so much time and support to these projects, namely Helena Zinkham, Michelle Springer, Barbara Natanson, Phil Michel, Arden Alexander, Jane Findlay, Fiona Romeo, Lucinda Blaser, Lawrence Chiles, Jeremy Michell, John Coburn, Sarah Fellowes, and Colin Boyd. Additional thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for providing the funding to conduct and disseminate this research. 


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Cite as:
B. Colquhoun, Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons: Institutional and User Perspectives. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .

One thought on “Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons: Institutional and User Perspectives

  1. Really good read Bronwen. Personally I’d liked to have seen a bit more meat on the bone regarding ‘how’ photographs are used by people for different purposes… eg stepping off points for other visual exploration of design, structure, texture, colour, etc.

    Also, it’s interesting that people seem mostly to take pictures and videos of objects in museums. These clearly also spawn great response in re-contexturalising, meaning and interpretation. ALL generated material becomes ‘historic’ regardless of the age of the items captured to view.

    A brief look at how institutions like the National Maritime Museum display objects in their online collection, surely gives cause for concern that objects are not getting a fair deal. Museums often cite costs and bandwidth for not posting videos of 3D pieces but frankly in this day and age the argument is dubious. This tends to leave us with limited and sometimes poorly executed photographs, which do little justification to the actual objects. The quality of documented shots and good aesthetic decision of composition would seem to be a continuing issue 🙂

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