Announcing Explore the Collections


Digital Media
January 29, 2021

Former director Sir Roy Strong famously called the V&A ‘an extremely capacious handbag’. When you consider our collections span 5000 years of human creativity, and include several million objects, archives and library items, you begin to understand what he meant. Several decades on, we are now wrestling the contents of that handbag into a new digital form, helping to share them online.

Handbag, 1890s, with a pair of white leather gloves, about 1900. Museum no.
T.216-1983 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Though our collections have lived online for several decades now – in Search the Collections, Search the Archives and From the Collections (on the main website) – these different sites are separate. As I’ve written about before, we see an amazing opportunity to replace these silos by bringing together V&A objects with stories about those objects in a new experience: Explore the Collections. This is set to launch in early February.

Why are we doing this?

We’ve noticed that many, if not most, museum and gallery collections are held separately to their main website. Why? Because it’s quite a difficult task to unite object, library and archive data with editorial content. It’s difficult from a user experience perspective. It’s difficult from a data perspective. And it’s difficult in terms of content strategy. But that hasn’t deterred us. We relished the challenge, as we genuinely believe there is a huge value for our users in bringing together stories and object records (from our collections database) into one place.

Our vision is that Explore the Collections will inspire people to develop their own creativity – with the opportunity to understand and research over one million eclectic objects. We believe that in bringing editorial content together with object data we will be a step further towards a genuinely seamless experience that offers up all we know about our objects in one place. It helps us address what we call the William Morris challenge – where currently all the knowledge and information we hold about the renowned Victorian designer is held in nine different systems, all using different data standards. We are taking a big step towards uniting all we know and hold about particular objects, themes and genres.

Starting small

Though the V&A’s holdings number more than 2.3 million objects, archives and library items, we’re focusing first on just the objects. We follow Agile methodology, which means we’ll be launching a smaller version (with just museum objects) so that we’re able to get it into the hands of our users sooner. The bulk of our digital content is about objects, so it made sense to start here, to test some of our thinking, and to see what value begins to emerge – for our users as well as for the organisation. We’re now looking at how to incorporate our archives and library items into Explore the Collections.

So, having released an internal alpha version – which involved the redesign of object pages and a lightweight search functionality – we are now ready to launch a public beta early next month. The beta has involved replacing the whole of Search the Collections (object pages, search functionality and landing page) and incorporating editorial content on to the new object pages. Eventually, that will grow into the fully fledged Explore the Collections later this year, which will see us bringing together the V&A’s objects, editorial content and a suite of new pages that will show the many themes, techniques, genres, places and people that link our collections together.

To that end, we’ve developed a new feature called ‘You May Also Like’, which helps people serendipitously discover other objects by presenting a smorgasbord of linked objects. We also have a better display of links to faceted terms from our controlled vocabulary, to help offer more onward journeys from the new object pages.

Our user research revealed that people wanted more and bigger pictures. So, we’ve improved the object imagery by making it more prominent on the page. And we’ve also used this opportunity to include information about how you can use and license images, should you want to.

In other words, we’ve worked hard to improve discoverability, making it easier for people to find the objects they’re looking for, but also offering them new ways to explore other related themes and content. Our design lead, Jack Craig, will be writing about this in more detail soon.

What’s different?

It was clear that, while we were not going to make changes for change’s sake, there were several improvements that would really help enhance the experience for our users.

Search was a fundamental aspect of Search the Collections (the clue’s in the name!), and it continues to be for Explore the Collections. We’ve developed new search features that help people sift through our objects in smarter, more efficient ways.

We’ve also explored how best to join up all our collections data with editorial content – so you can get the bigger picture when exploring an object or theme. We also know that lots of users exited the old object pages (on collections.vam.ac.uk), without realising that there was other, related, content on the main website (vam.ac.uk). So, we’ve found ways to extend those journeys and make them more useful by connecting object pages with other objects and content.

Tell us what you think

We’d like to get your feedback. So do take a look in a couple of weeks’ time at the new Explore the Collections and tell us what you think. We’ll be running a survey in the first few weeks after launch (which you can find by clicking the beta button) and we hope that your feedback can help us make our collections even more accessible than before.

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