BoW Nomination: Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Many museums have a digitized collection. Some museums have their collection available online. Even fewer museums have three collections online complete with exhibition and loan history, artist/maker biographies, high-resolution digital images, enhanced curatorial descriptions, provenance history, scans of historical documents, and conservation information. Reynolda House Museum of American Art does.

Reynolda House launched its new website, what it called its Digital Wing, in September 2013, on the heels of completing a three-year cataloging project of its collections. The new site features opportunities for dynamic content, interaction with an online audience, and enhanced features for visitors, all anchored by a depth of information never before available on the Museum’s three collections – American art, historic house, and estate archives. The Museum received funding from both the NEA and IMLS to digitize the collections and make them available online.

What makes Reynolda House unique is the combination of its collections that represent the history of the estate and the Reynolds family, the distinct furnishings of the period, and American art masterpieces. Museum staff sought to create a custom interface that would both showcase each individual collection and provide opportunities for exploring the collections together – much like an in-person visit to Reynolda House. Reynolda House worked closely with Interactive Knowledge for more than eighteen months in a two-phase design and development process to envision the site and build an interface that would provide multiple entry points to the Museum’s collections.

The result is an online collections resource rich with images and information ideal for researchers as well as the casual visitor seeking additional details on an individual object. The content for each object was carefully researched, written, and edited by a small curatorial team that prioritized consistency in tone and depth. Information includes description, artist biography, published references & bibliography, provenance, exhibition history, and signed, period, culture fields displayed in an accordion-style interface to control the length of the page, keeping the image of the object available for viewing while reading the content.
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Exploration of the online collections can happen in numerous ways: browsing by curated online galleries, search across all three collections, search in an individual collection, search within a collection, and search by keyword.

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Visitors can select from three image viewing options when browsing their search results: list, thumbnail, or lightbox.
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When viewing an individual object, new, high-resolution, multiple-angle images can be navigated to zoom into the tiniest details.
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New objects, galleries, or updated content in collections records are reflected online almost immediately; a nightly update process developed by Interactive Knowledge in collaboration with The Museum System (TMS) ensures content is always current.

In a time where museums have been consistently moving towards increased transparency and ethical responsibility in terms of how objects are acquired and how accessible the objects’ histories are, Reynolda House has shared all of that information – and more. The Museum was also transparent in the process of digitizing itself. Collections staff maintained a blog sharing discoveries along the way during the cataloging process and presented lessons learned at the Southeastern Museums Conference fall conference in 2013.

The new represents a transformation for Reynolda House and a model for other museums. Prior to 2013, not only did the Museum lack an online database for the public, but it lacked a shared format and process internally for accessing its collections. The Museum is deserving of this honor for its strategic approach to online collections, for its commitment to providing a depth of information on its collections, and for the clean design and navigation in accessing the collections.