The Voyage of the Medusa – Presenting Collection Stories Through Events

Marieke van Erp, The Netherlands

Easy digital access to collection data is becoming more and more important in the museum world; both for museum professionals and for the public. We present a case-study in automatically finding related collection data and presenting it in a meaningful way. Our case-study revolves around the voyage of the Medusa, a Dutch steam-frigate that was involved in the Shimonoseki War in 1863. We first show how the networked and enriched representation of museum collection data enables easy retrieval of objects and information related to the Medusa. Then we present an event-based approach for visualising this type of data and an accompanying demo that gives an insight in the trajectory of the Medusa aimed at the public.

Our gold-standard of relevant events and objects related to the Medusa was compiled manually by a historian in training from the Medusa’s captain’s reports [1] and the Rijksmuseum collection. This resulted in 49 events in which the Medusa played some role and 211 objects from the Rijksmuseum collection. Compiling this information took ±200 person hours. We investigated how automatic methods can alleviate this task and test our approach against the manually compiled gold standard. Our results show that this is not an easy task, but it is possible to extract meaningful events and related objects automatically.

Knowing about relationships between objects and events opens up interesting ways of visualising them as the Only Connect exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2011 showed [2]. As the nature of our objects and events is multidimensional (it contains actors, as well as locations and times) we can use biographical links, maps and timelines to present the Voyage of the Medusa, any other subset of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam collection, or any other museum collection. Although it is tempting to try to make as many relationships between objects and events visible, our user studies with history students and secondary school pupils have shown that it is easy to overwhelm a user when s/he is first presented with an event-driven browser. We have therefore chosen to limit the links to other relevant objects and events to only geographical through time and by personal networks. A new round of testing with users will clarify whether these indeed aid in understanding the background of the events and objects better. The underlying technologies ensure that it is fairly easy to load in new datasets to create theme-specific online exhibitions and we aim to create a touch table installation of the Voyage of the Medusa to showcase its potential inside a gallery to bring the collection story to life.