The Beauty of Data

July 22, 2014
The Beautiful Data workshop was held at Arts @ 29 Garden, Harvard University, June 16–27.

The world’s leading museum technologists, art historians, curators, and scholars recently gathered for the two-week Beautiful Data workshop, hosted by Harvard’s metaLAB. Attendees delved into the ethical, practical, curatorial, and intellectual challenges of working with data generated by, and across, their respective institutions.

Supported by the Getty Foundation’s Digital Art History initiative, the workshop brought together representatives from global institutions as varied as London’s Tate Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

The Harvard Art Museums’ own Jeff Steward, director of digital infrastructure and emerging technology, was on hand to introduce workshop participants to the museums’ data set. He also offered insight into ways that institutions can use, and tease out, rich bits of information hidden in their own data.

“Many people traditionally define a museum as an institution that houses artistic works,” Steward said. “But as we build rich catalogs of data, that data itself becomes an object—and a very important one. It can reveal aspects about the institution, such as its culture and how it collects or thinks about art. The data helps define and explain a museum.”

The workshop encouraged participants to work together on hands-on projects, culminating in final presentations. These collaborations weren’t necessarily digital; rather, they ranged from a sweeping mural on the life of museums and their collections, to an ephemera-based presentation on the meaning of curation in contemporary culture, to a digital visualization of the spectrum of colors represented in the entirety of one museum’s collection.

Don Undeen, senior manager of Media Lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he attended the workshop to learn about new ways that technology and information can be put into dialogue with art. “Technology has always been a crucial part of art,” he said. “It changes and shapes it. Figuring out the possibilities of data, and encouraging the types of interaction and exploration it allows, is key to showing that technology and art aren’t separate, but instead work together to create art and culture.”

Check back for an upcoming Index story in which Jeff Steward will further explore the provocative ideas presented at the Beautiful Data workshop.

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