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The Visible Archive is a research project on the visualization of the huge museum collection currently held by the National Archives of Australia.

As archives are increasingly digitised, so their collections become available as rich, and very large, datasets (the Archives, for instance, contain more than 18.2 million images). Individual records in these datasets are readily accessible through traditional search interfaces. However, it is more difficult to gain any wider sense of these cultural datasets due to their sheer scale. Conventional text-based displays are unable to offer us any overall impression of the millions of items contained in modern museum collections.

Here, Mitchell Whitelaw has developed two distinctive visualizations. The "Series Browser" breaks up the collection in Agencies and Series. An agency corresponds to the organization responsible for some or all of the functions or legislation documented in records. Given that there are some 9,000 Agencies involved, the visualization uses their ID codes to color the squares: low Agency numbers have low hue values (red), while high Agency numbers have high hue values (blue to purple). The area of the inner (brighter) square is proportional to the numbers of items, while the area of the outer (duller) band is proportional to shelf meters used. The result is that Series that are physically small, but contain many items, appear with very thin borders. It also shows how that using Agencies offer a useful way to break the huge collection up into manageable-sized subsets: the vast majority of agencies record to fewer than 100 of the 57.5 thousand series.

The "A1 Explorer" interface is based on a word frequency cloud-based on item titles, showing co-occurrences between related terms. A histogram shows the number of items with start dates in each year that are related to the selected keywords, while users can also select and request a visual record of any of the museum items in the collection. "What this shows is that given the opportunity, interactive visualization can provide not only insights into the structure and content of an archival collection; it can also provide an interface to the (digitised) collection itself."

One can download both the A1 Explorer applet (1.8Mb executable) as well as the Series Browser (5Mb) for free and for Mac, Windows and Linux.

You can also watch the detailed documentary videos below.

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1 COMMENT

Dear Mitchell

There's a bit of me that looks at this and goes "How on earth will I use this?" but there's another bit of me that thinks "I don't care that I don't understand it, I think it looks great and it's just a matter of time before I get it!" Well done. I have no idea how this was done but I am impressed !

Alex

PS OOh just saw "Where form follows data" which reminds me of an art assignment I did in 1976 in Grade 10 about "form follows function" - love it!

Sat 14 Nov 2009 at 8:51 PM
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