How does crowdsourcing work? Who gets involved and why? Can non-experts provide useful and high quality tags for important art works?  These are some of the questions at the heart of a recent research project A Museum without Walls, which examined the crowdsourcing platform Your Paintings Tagger, an initiative to encourage the public to contribute descriptive tags for the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation digital art collection Your Paintings.  We were able to demonstrate the process and the purpose of ‘tagging’ art at the  Ashmolean‘s LiveFriday event on 15th May 2015, when the museum and the university was opened up to the public for a night of experiments, demonstrations, theatrical performances, creative workshops and exciting talks.

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We took along a copy of one of the Ashmolean’s treasures, the Portrait of a young Man by Alessandro Allori and asked visitors to supply tags to the painting, to enable us both to show how tagging works (lots of people supplying the same or similar words for things, allowing us to search the collection by these familiar and frequently used terms) and to explain some of the benefits of tagging both to institutions and digital projects like Your Paintings, and to ‘taggers’.  During the Museum without Walls project, we found that the Tagger was being used in a rang of ways that benefited taggers, for example by educators to improve students’ language skills, as a form of ‘virtual volunteering’ offering a valuable and flexible means of contributing to a worthwhile cause, and as a distraction from difficulties such as caring for sick relatives and giving up smoking.  The Live Tagging demonstration at LiveFriday enabled us to share the results of this research and to encourage visitors to have a go.  You can have a go at tagging here.

Here is Allori’s Portrait of a young Man as it appears on Your Paintings:

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All of the tags that you can see below the painting have been supplied by the public through the Your Paintings Tagger platform. At the LiveFriday event, we asked members of the public to do exactly what they would do in the Tagger platform. However, instead of neatly entering tags into a text box, we asked the public to create tags on sticky labels and to apply them directly to the painting. The result was a colourful and fascinating kaleidoscope:

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The public at the LiveFriday event supplied a huge number of tags, including some very funny, playful tags.  They also supplied exactly the same, or closely related, high quality descriptive tags to those in the Your Paintings database. The key aspects of the painting were all highlighted, using the same, or very similar language as the official database. The LiveFriday visitors contributed lots of additional tags, largely related to the gaze and expression of the Young Man, and around the classical references in the painting, offering a real insight in the areas and themes of the painting that are engaged with during the process of tagging. It was also fascinating to observe the conversations and disagreements around the tagging, and to see enacted the impulse to correct and tidy, which we know from the Museum without Walls study is one of the motivations behind public contributions to the Tagger.

Thank you to all of those who came along to LiveFriday and contributed tags.


Note: This post gives the views of the author(s), and not necessarily the position of the Oxford Internet Institute.