Visual Exploration of Australian Prints and Printmaking

Ben Ennis Butler, Australia


The Australian Prints and Printmaking website ( provides a gateway for information on printed images from Australia and Pacific region. The website contains rich data on more than 48,000 works; 20,000 artists, 8000 exhibitions, 3000 galleries and over 9000 associated references. The works are predominantly from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. Access to this vast collection has traditionally been through a search based interface.

This paper will present a set of recently launched experimental interfaces that encourage open-ended exploration within this collection. These novel web based tools aim to support exploration, discovery and interpretation in this culturally significant collection. They draw upon previous work with archival and museum collections and demonstrate alternatives to the dominant search-based paradigm of collection access. These tools encourage discovery by emphasising relationships within the collection and providing displays that are denser and richer than conventional web pages.

In setting out to create rich visual interfaces to a large digital collection, the project uncovers a number of challenges and considerations. It operates in a field between dynamic web design and online visualisation, where techniques and practices are still forming. A “data dense” display challenges conventions of API development, while delivering in the browser presents both opportunities and risks.

This work is part of a conceptual context that Mitchell Whitelaw characterises as ‘generous interfaces’. Whitelaw argues that ‘the task-based paradigm embedded in information retrieval is increasingly out of step with our ever-more-ubiquitous, casual, and everyday experiences of information systems’. This view is shared by Marian Dörk, who introduced the ‘Information Flaneur’ model as an alternative approach to task-based information seeking, one that leads to more positive information experiences. The ‘information flaneur’ is able to curiously and critically move through information landscapes and creatively construct meaning as they go. The leisurely curiosity of information seeking is increasingly important and we value play and pleasure in support of engagement and discovery.

Dörk, M., Carpendale, S., & Williamson, C. (2011). The Information Flaneur: A Fresh Look at Information Seeking. Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1215–1224). Presented at the CHI 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada: ACM.

Whitelaw, M. (2012). Towards Generous Interfaces for Archival Collections. Presented at the International Council on Archives, Brisbane. Retrieved from

Keywords: data visualisation, design, generous interfaces, collection access, information retrieval

1. Introduction

We are in the midst of an information-seeking revolution, where rapid technological developments are quickly changing how we experience information spaces. This paper will provide a brief historical account of how cultural institutions have made their digitised collections available on the Internet. It will consider alternatives to the classic information-seeking model based on keyword search, notably how Marian Dörk’s “information flaneur” and Marcia Bates’ berrypicking model of information retrieval enable the conceptualisation of alternative forms of information seeking. It will discuss the importance of the interface and outline how data visualisation techniques can deal with complexity within rich visual interfaces. Finally, it will introduce the concept of generosity in interface design, and provide a detailed examination of three experimental interfaces we have developed that aim to support exploration, discovery and interpretation within rich digital cultural heritage collections.

The work in this paper is part of a research project between the University of Canberra and the National Gallery of Australia. The research team is headed by Dr Mitchell Whitelaw, Associate Professor in Media Arts and Graphic Design and early leader in the field of cultural heritage visualisation. Other members are Dr Sam Hinton, Geoff Hinchcliffe and myself. I am a PhD student in the second year of my candidature.

The holdings of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra include a vast collection of prints from Australia and the Pacific region. This collection is made up of more than 54,000 works by over 20,000 artists, making it the most comprehensive collection of its type in the world. Online access to the collection is provided through the National Gallery of Australia’s website and the specialist Australian Prints and Printmaking ( website which, when established in 1997, had two main goals: to rethink how data relating to works of art could be catalogued and presented online; and how this information could be explored in innovative ways (Butler, 2012). As well as providing detailed information on the works and artists in the collection, the website provides rich data on related exhibitions, galleries and associated references. The exhaustive wealth of information contained on the site makes it an invaluable resource to researchers and members of the public.

Over the past decade the public has become accustomed to accessing such collections in new ways. We no longer need to physically visit a gallery, or pick up a book in order to view items from a collection. Instead we can turn to a Web browser, on any number of our connected devices, and immediately access information. But what if we don’t know what we are looking for? What if we simply want to look around the collection? In such cases we need to think about, and develop, new ways of accessing this rich cultural data in order to generate possibilities of acquiring new knowledge.

2. Online collections

As the Internet became ubiquitous, cultural institutions turned their attention to digitising their collections and making them available online. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, explains that the first generation websites were concerned with getting as many images of objects online as possible (Proctor, 2011). These websites were developed for professionals in their relevant fields, researchers who knew how the data was organised and how to query it effectively. They emulated the familiar card-based catalogue model of the past, where keywords dominated; however, relying solely on search as an information-seeking model can be troublesome. David Bearman and Jennifer Trant (1998) note that the search results should enable the user to take the next step in acquiring the information they need, yet Kevin Donovan (1997) explains that this is not always the case. He argues that search engines are powerful in the hands of those already armed with sufficient information to make them work; however, for those who do not already have this information, they are of little use – a point of view many academics agree with (e.g. Eaton & Zhao, 2001; McCrickard & Kehoe, 1997). Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo (2010) determined that the problem with search is that it is only capable of locating a specific piece of information that the user can identify precisely. It is a catch-22 situation, where a user can only search the collection effectively if they understand it, and the only way to gain an understanding is via search! De Caro et al. further explain that a user who is unfamiliar with a collection will engage in a process of trial and error as they attempt to narrow their results, a process that may quickly lead to them becoming lost in the data and feeling disappointed by the experience. (De Caro et al, 2010)

The debate surrounding the use of search as an access tool within the cultural heritage sector is not a new one. In 1997 Donovan rallied against the “frightful blank search field method of providing access to data” in his paper The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation, delivered at the Museums and the Web conference that year. He called for a more engaging approach to online collection access, a call Darren Peacock, Derek Ellis and John Doolan reflected on seven years later when they found that keyword based search still remained the dominant method of presenting collection data online, despite it being “totally inadequate as a tool for stimulating knowledge.” (Peacock et al, 2004) They explain that the focus of online collections should be on facilitating knowledge rather than just delivering information.

3. Information seeking

The aim of our work is to create rich exploratory interfaces. Magilo and Matlock (1998) found that the way people think about the Web has implications for the way they use and navigate it. For example, the metaphor “surfing the Web” suggests a casual, open-ended approach to information seeking; whereas “to google” is understood to explicitly refer to searching. If we want to encourage the user to “surf” the data of our cultural collections, to engage in open-ended exploration, it is essential to use appropriate language and create tools that will allow this to happen. We want the user to be able to look around, rather than find a specific piece of information, and to become engaged in the process.

The classic information retrieval model assumes that “the user has a static information need which remains unchanged during the seeking process.” (Backhausen, 2012) As Whitelaw (2012) notes, this model is “increasingly out of step with our ever-more-ubiquitous, casual and everyday experiences of information systems.” We need an alternative model that embraces everyday information seeking experiences. Dörk proposes the concept of the “information flaneur” as one such alternative.

The information flaneur is a “curious, creative and critical persona,” based on the flaneur of Paris in the 1840s so famously identified by Baudelaire. It is a useful metaphor that is reflected in our current online experiences:

the flaneur does not methodically navigate the streets, nor does he scrutinise everything that crosses his path. He is the embodiment of exploration and serendipity… he appears to have no goal; rather, experiencing city life is his primary aim. (Dörk et al., 2011)

Dörk et al. (2012) explain that the information flaneur does not represent all forms of information seeking but a particular class of practices, goals and motivations that involve exploration, reflection, and imagination. He conceives of the flaneur as one who benefits from the experience they have with the information around them.

Another alternative is Bates’ berrypicking model. Outlined in 1989, it challenges the traditional information retrieval model by outlining a non-linear approach to information seeking. It differs from the classical information retrieval model in four key ways: the nature of the query is an evolving one, rather than single and unchanging; the nature of the search process is such that it follows a berrypicking pattern, instead of leading to a single best retrieved set; the search techniques change throughout; and the sources searched change in both form and content. (Bates, 1989) It is an interesting model to consider in this context because despite being more than 20 years old, it reflects current information retrieval patterns. Berrypicking sees the user employing, and adapting, a number of strategies as they seek information online. Bates argues that this model is much closer to the real behaviour of information seekers because it is ongoing and transformative in comparison to the static, linear model of traditional information retrieval.

Importantly, the berrypicking model evolves as the user gains a greater understanding of the topic and what interests them. (Bates, 1989) This is a particularly valuable concept when considering that new forms of information seeking, such as exploratory or serendipitous browsing, are not constant; instead, they evolve as users learn more about the topics. The information flaneur and berrypicking models offer alternative conceptual frameworks which in practice are already strongly reflected in the ways we seek information online.

4. The interface

The importance of the interface in our digital environment cannot be overestimated. Whitelaw argues that interfaces matter now more than ever, because increasingly a user’s primary experience of a collection (of artworks for instance) is in its digital form. (Whitelaw, 2012) As Oomen, Baltussen and van Erp (2012) have remarked: just pointing to a database with records no longer suffices. Instead the interface plays a crucial role, not just as an access tool, but also as a way of supporting how we see and understand the artwork itself. James Davies explains:

Online the interface in effect plays a similar role to the frame, the glass, the label, the map, the wall and so in in the gallery. These can either support or distract from an artwork, and many of our existing collection websites do not support the display of artwork very well because we only consider these digital reproductions as mere references to the real thing. (Davies in Proctor, 2011)

When viewed online, each work becomes a self-contained object that can only be interpreted by the information that accompanies it. This is an historical issue, because as Joanna Sassoon (2006) notes, when digitising material in the past the focus was on content, not context. Donovan (1997) agrees, “people do not care so much if you have a certain painting… they are fascinated by all the context, the history, associated with it.” Therefore if the experience a user has with a collection is primarily online, it is necessary to develop interfaces that support the display of the artworks whilst maintaining context and creating high quality connections.

Our research team at the University of Canberra aims to do this by developing rich interfaces that embrace data visualisation techniques and encourage exploration and discovery of the extensive holdings in cultural heritage collections.

Data visualisation has its roots in cartography, scientific diagrams, charts and graphs. In 2007 Andrew Vande Moere identified a shift from the traditional visualisations of the past, to visualisations of abstract data. It has become a field of contemporary cultural research, with academics such as Lev Manovich (2007) seeing visualisation as a way of “generating new approaches for studying cultural history” and Daniel Keim (2001) asserting that “visual data exploration” provides an effective way to understand and gain insights from large datasets.

Ben Shneiderman described the Visual Information Seeking mantra in 1996, as a useful starting point for “designing advanced [interactive] graphical user interfaces.” (Shneiderman, 1996) The mantra is outlined as “overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand.” It describes the process users engage in when seeking information in interactive environments. In other words, start with an overview of the entire collection; zoom in on items of interest while filtering out unwanted items; select an item and receive further information about it. The visual information seeking mantra is considered a “notable theoretical development” in the field of information visualisation (Craft & Cairns, 2005) and it underpins our team’s current research. A visualisation that starts with an overview has proven to be an effective method for exploring large data sets (Keller & Tergan, 2005) because it allows the user to appreciate the size and diversity of a collection immediately. (Hornbæk & Hertzum, 2011) However, simply showing everything can be overwhelming, so the construction of an overview itself is a compelling design challenge.

A key consideration in any visualisation is how to deal with complexity. Oliveira and Levkowitz (2003) explain that interactivity within the visualisation provides the user with mechanisms for handling complexity that exists within the data. Our strategy is to provide tools that enable the user to interact with the data visualisation in a playful way and to engage with the complexity of the data set. (Ennis Butler, Hinton & Whitelaw, 2011) A user should be encouraged to explore the data, to filter and focus on elements they find interesting, as it is this process of engagement and interaction that forms a significant part of the visual information seeking process.

Generous Interfaces

The work we have developed forms part of a conceptual framework that Whitelaw (2012) characterises as “generous interfaces”. He proposes ‘generosity’ as a guiding principle when designing digital collection interfaces. As Whitelaw explains:

Our digital collections are certainly large, abundant and ample; and the charters of our cultural institutions place a high value on sharing these riches liberally with the public. Generosity seems to be very much in line with the aims of our cultural collections. (Whitelaw, 2012)

A generous interface offers an alternative approach to collection access, where it may simply encourage open-ended exploration or provide an overview of the digitised collection. Either way, the aim of a generous interface is to volunteer the information to the user, rather than forcing them to seek it. Whitelaw outlines a number of principles to consider when creating generous interfaces for cultural collections: show first, don’t ask; provide rich overviews; provide samples; provide context; and share high quality primary content. I will elaborate on these with examples from our work shortly.

First, though, I will discuss what we consider to be some outstanding examples (not a comprehensive survey) of generous web interfaces developed for the cultural heritage sector.

An early leader was ArtScope (, produced in 2009 by Stamen Design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ArtScope is a completely immersive browser based experience and is accessible as the primary access point to SFMOMA’s collection. Users are able to view a bird’s-eye overview of more than 6000 works in the collection and engage in Sheneiderman’s visual information seeking mantra as they literally zoom in on works they like.

Discovering Mildenhall’s Canberra ( is a similar immersive browser based interface. Developed in 2012 by Icelab as a joint project between the National Archives of Australia and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, it provides access to over 7,000 historic photos in an interface that encourages exploration and discovery. Upon accessing the website, a user is immediately presented with a high quality sample of photographs from the collection. This random sample provides a small insight into the collection without requiring the user to make any preliminary decisions. Individual photo pages include further information, locations maps, tags and ‘rephotographed’ pictures.

Walker Art Center’s Collection site ( is refreshingly different. It steps away from search and immediately presents the user with a page of high quality work images. The interface is simple and non-obtrusive, allowing the user to focus solely on the works themselves. On individual work pages the image is scaled to fit your browser window, resulting in a significantly larger work image than a user would normally encounter.

National institutions in Canberra have been leaders in visualisation. Examples where generosity is apparent include Paul Hagon’s visualisation of magazine covers from The Australian Women’s Weekly collection at the National Library of Australia ( produced in 2011; Hinton and Whitelaw’s commonsExplorer ( from 2010; the National Museum of Australia’s Irish in Australia Wall, developed by Tim Sherratt; and more recently Whitelaw’s Trove Mosaic and Manly Images (, both from 2012.

5. Experimental interfaces

As part of research supported by the National Gallery of Australia and the University of Canberra, Mitchell Whitelaw and I have developed three experimental interfaces that seek to embrace ideas about generosity. They aim to encourage open-ended exploration and discovery within the Australian Prints and Printmaking collection. They are novel Web-based tools that borrow ideas from online visualisation and dynamic Web design. They reflect an emerging trend towards richer and more generous collection interfaces, in a field where techniques and practices are still evolving. As prototypes they are intended to reveal differing aspects of the collection, whilst testing various visualisation techniques and the limits to what is possible in the Web browser. The discussion that follows considers these three interfaces and how they relate to principles of generosity.

All Artists


Figure 1: All Artists interface

The All Artists interface (Figure 1) provides the user with a rich overview of the collection. This is our attempt at showing everything there is and allowing the user to make their own decisions about what to view. The focus of this visualisation is on the creators involved in a work: they could be artists, printers, clients, publishers and the like. Each is represented by a small rectangular box containing their name, date of birth, details about when they were active and the number of works by them in the collection; a colour border represents their gender and the width of the box is determined by their work count. If a user clicks on the box containing the creator’s details, a new container opens within the interface that provides images of their works, details about their roles and any collaborators. A user is able to open multiple creator containers at once, which enables comparison between artists and their works, without having to move to a new window. For example, a user can compare the lithographs of Deutsch & Ferguson from 1859 to works produced by LITHOS Press in 1985 concurrently.

In order to deal with the complexities of this dataset, a number of filters are provided. Underneath the title of each filter is a horizontal bar that acts as a histogram. These are dynamic and update as the user selects different options; for example, the initial overview shows that there are 4,783 artists in the collection, 482 of whom have the role of printer. By selecting only the female printers, the visualisation quickly changes to show the 112 female printers. At this point, the filters have updated to show that 30 printers have 1-5 works in the collection whereas only 4 have more than 100 works. At any time it remains possible to view full details of the actual works. This approach means that a user can quickly narrow down the results displayed on the screen and only show what is relevant to their needs.

This interface employs a number of classic visualisation techniques: colour coding to represent gender, and the width of the box to reflect the number of works by individual artists. This enables the user to scan through the display quickly, see the distribution of different genders and gain an immediate understanding of how works are spread throughout the collection. For example, of the 3,735 artists, most have one two five works while only 82 have more than 100 works.

We consider the All Artists interface to encapsulate our ideas about exploratory interfaces. It relies on rich metadata to create an immersive experience of the collection in a previously unseen way, a way that would not be possible without the consideration of alternative forms of information seeking. The interface is intended to encourage the user to engage in a process of open-ended exploration and discovery.

Works and Networks


Figure 2: Works and Networks interface

The Works and Networks interface (Figure 2) starts with a sample of a single artist, and invites you to explore from there. It can be launched in two ways: independently or from the All Artists or Decade Summary interfaces. If it is launched independently, the initial focus is on a print workshop (the places where the prints were created), rather than a single artist. This sample was selected because print workshops tend to have a large number of relationships, through related artists, printers, clients and so on. If it is launched through one of the other interfaces, then the focus will remain on that artist.

The design of the interface allows a large amount of information to be shown in a clear and concise manner. The screen is split into three panes: on the left is information about the artist and a list of their collaborators; the middle shows all of the artist’s works, the title and the date made; and on the right a larger image of a work is displayed. This interface presents the “zoomed in” view that complements the overviews provided by All Artists and the Decade Summary.

The list of collaborators provides key functionality to this interface, giving the user an opportunity to see who worked together and what they produced. Because this is a collection of prints, there is often not a sole artist, so hovering over a name highlights the linked works and related artists. This reveals all kinds of relationships that might otherwise remain hidden. For example, the artist Basil Hall is listed as a printer on the work Loose Connection by Helen Geier. However this work has an additional printer and other creators including a designer, a photographer, a print workshop and a book-binder; by hovering over these names in the left hand pane we can start to form an understanding of Hall’s relationships with different creators. This interface allows the user to quite literally wander around the collection, gaining an understanding of its complexity and the relationships within it.

Decade Summary


Figure 3: Decade Summary interface

The primary focus of the Decade Summary (Figure 3) is on the works themselves. We have attempted to represent the collection in a compact way, and thus there are two main components: on the left is a horizontal bar graph showing the distribution of works by decade; in the right pane is a grid of cropped thumbnails of the artworks. The graph is segmented by the key printmaking processes represented in the collection: intaglio, stencil, monoprint, planographic, relief, electrostatic, photographic, pigment transfer, computer generated and paperwork; each allowing the user to see how the distribution occurs and changes over each decade. For instance, it reveals the popularity of stencil printing (screenprints) in the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of the computer-generated print in the 1990s. Hovering over a segment causes the related segments to change colour and clicking on the segment will load the corresponding works into the right pane.

The thumbnail pane provides an immediate visual representation of the type of works from the selected decade. The cropping of the thumbnails provides a hint of colour or texture, encouraging the user to interact with the interface to see more. Hovering over the thumbnail reveals an uncropped image and associated details, while selecting it will load a larger image. The Decade Summary shows that it is possible to provide a compact view of the entire collection from a single interface. It aims to encourage the user to play with the data, by providing glimpses of colour in the cropped thumbnails, to using the graph as an interactive navigational device.

6. Principles for Generous Interfaces

As I mentioned previously, Whitelaw outlined five guiding principles to consider when creating generous interfaces. These are reflected in our work and outlined in further detail below.

Show first, don’t ask

Rather than requiring the user to enter a query to get started, we show them the information straight away. Whether this is through an overview (as in All Artists and the Decade Summary) or a sample (demonstrated in Works and Networks and Discovering Mildenhall’s Canberra), a generous interface should volunteer rich information to the user without forcing them to ask for it. The design challenge that arises here is choosing what to show.

Provide rich overviews

The overview is key to Shneiderman’s visual information seeking mantra, and two of our visualisations (All Artists and the Decade Summary) embrace it. We have found that an initial overview not only helps to orientate the user with the data but is also a useful navigational device; however, providing a rich overview leads to a number of challenges and questions. Is it possible (or useful) to show an overview of the entire collection? How do you create an effective overview? Can you provide multiple overviews of a single collection? Creating an overview is not straightforward but requires a number of design choices to be made.

Provide Samples

It is often difficult to display an entire collection, therefore providing a sample can overcome this issue. A sample of a collection, as demonstrated in the Works and Networks interface and in the thumbnail grid in the Decade Summary, provides clues to the user and encourages exploration. Samples can reveal evocative details of a work that textual metadata cannot.

Provide Context

Generous interfaces can resolve the issues surrounding the lack of context that Davies (in Proctor, 2011), Sassoon (2006) and Donovan (1997) are concerned about. Whitelaw (2012) explains that the ability to provide context will support the user’s interpretation of the artwork and thus it is an important consideration in our research work. We hope that we can show relationships within the data in a way that builds an understanding and invites exploration. Facilitating knowledge, rather than just delivering information. In Works and Networks a user can easily view the changes in style by Jorg Schmeisser over his career, by opening a larger work in the right hand pane and comparing it to earlier works in the middle pane. In All Artists, users are able to view the works produced by an artist, or multiple artists, from within the single interface.

Share high quality primary content

In our work, we have made a concerted effort to display large high quality images and always provide access back to the original record on the Australian Prints and Printmaking website.

7. Future work

Whilst we believe that the generous interfaces we have developed will be effective in encouraging exploration and discovery within this rich cultural collection, further work will be required to establish this hypothesis. We intend to take a web 2.0 “live beta” approach where, upon launch, we gather feedback from the audience. We will complement this feedback with formal user evaluation. One of the challenges we are facing is how to test the effectiveness of the interface if the goal is simply to engage in open-ended exploration. As such, we are currently considering what evaluation techniques would be the most appropriate to use. Having said that, initial anecdotal feedback from users outside the development group has been positive. For example, the ability to compare works by multiple artists within the All Artists interface was described as a revelation.

We intend to continue developing new interfaces for the collection and investigating how they can be adapted for different visual mediums.

8. Conclusion

Whitelaw and I have developed three interfaces that present what we hope are dense and engaging representations of the Australian Prints and Printmaking collection. These interfaces step away from the traditional search-based information retrieval paradigm by embracing new models of information seeking and new concepts relating to the flaneur and berrypicking. They incorporate ideas of generosity and play and encourage the user to engage in Shneiderman’s visual information seeking mantra as they explore the digital collection. These interfaces allow the user to wander around the collection, revealing relationships and building interpretations. By introducing the concept of generosity, we have shown that there is an alternative to search, where it is possible develop interfaces that encourage exploration and discovery.


The Australian Prints and Printmaking interfaces discussed in this paper were developed as part of a research project funded by the Gordon Darling Print Fund, National Gallery of Australia and the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. I give my thanks to my supervisor Mitchell Whitelaw and colleagues Sam Hinton and Geoff Hinchcliffe at the University of Canberra, and Tim Sherratt for their assistance.


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Cite as:
B. Ennis Butler, Visual Exploration of Australian Prints and Printmaking. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 28, 2013. Consulted .

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