About this website
Hello, and welcome to the MoMA Exhibition Spelunker. We're Good, Form & Spectacle, a small but mighty design company in London, and creators of the website. We were pleased as punch to get an email from MoMA asking if we'd like to make a project around their newly released Exhibition Data.
At G,F&S, we're in the habit of making what we call "spelunkers" for large cultural collections, like twoway.st about the British Museum or the alpha explorer we made for the Wellcome Library. The question we ask is, what might you show visitors in a digital context if you take away the search box? How do you show the structure of the collection, and help people traverse it in a way that interests them? What clues and other breadcrumbs can you leave for people to let them make their own deductions about the nature of the collection?
History of the Museum itself, and its people
The MoMA exhibition data we're working with isn't particularly about collection objects. It's about what was exhibited at MoMA and when, and importantly, who was involved in putting the even together. That's quite a different story, and one that isn't told very much by museums, especially not in the aggregate.
We found ourselves interested to show the ebb and flow of the various departments at the museum, and to see if we could help reveal who some of the key MoMA staff may have been. It's pretty clear, for example, that the first Director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. was hugely influential at MoMA, and worked there for almost 40 years in lots of different roles. It's no wonder he is
We also looked into Wikidata for images of artists, thanks to MoMA's use of Wikidata/VIAF/ULAN identifiers. It makes a nice change to see photos of the people making the things, and not just the things they make. :)
Using the specific, small, contextual visualisations we've made also lets you quickly spot simple facts around the data, but can also raise questions like:
- Why wasn't there a Director of MoMA around 1944-1948?
- Or, why did the Department of Drawings and Prints seem to split into two departments in 1969-70, and then pop back into being in 2013?
- Why was there a lull in the number of exhibitions in the year of 1958?
Really though, answers to these questions, and actually this entire MoMA Exhibition Spelunker live in the MoMA Archives. They've digitised and made available a ton of resources alongside each exhibition. It's not just the data you're browsing here, but also catalogues, press releases, works checklists and the installation shots, all available to you in the Exhibition History area on moma.org.
What did the critics think? We asked The New York Times Archive
As well as slurping in portraits of artists from Wikidata, we were able to look into The New York Times Archives to dig out reviews of quite a few of the exhibitions, which you can see at the bottom of exhibition pages, like New Rugs by American Artists in 1942, which connected to an NYT review titled Study of Art of Camouflage for the Public Is Presented at a Modern Museum Exhibit; Traveling Display Aims To Give Public Insight Into the Methods of Pictorial Deception. (Thank you to the MoMA crew for getting the legwork done on connecting exhibitions to articles.)
Things that were hard (or impossible)
Immediately upon beginning the work, we wanted to try to show the actual art. This is harder than it sounds. Not only because a lot of the works are by living artists, and/or in copyright, but they are largely also not held by MoMA. Even if they were, it proved tricky to get a simple list of all the works in any one exhibition. (That information exists, but not in a form we could use for the spelunker, at least not yet!)
Apart from that, all the data was prepared really well, documented even more well, and made available for anyone to play with under a CC0 license. It's brilliant to see more metadata being released like this. Brilliant!
We hope you enjoy exploring the history of exhibitions and people at The Museum of Modern Art in this way. We've really enjoyed making it, and learning about the museum as we did. Thanks very much to our contact, Jackie Thomas, and the Archives team at MoMA for answering all our questions.
We also wrote a little more about the project on the Good, Form & Spectacle Work Diary, if you'd like to read about what it was like to make.