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AHRC-Smithsonian Fellowships: Using Smithsonian's data to create a new interactive timeline

The Cooper Hewitt
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum 

With the AHRC-Smithsonian Fellowships in Digital Scholarship call currently open, we spoke to a PhD student who’s already had the chance of a placement at the Smithsonian, and who is encouraging others to take up this opportunity after her ‘wonderful’ experience. 

“The International Placement Scheme was a wonderful opportunity for me,” says Olivia Vane, who is currently doing a PhD at the Royal College of Art.

She is researching design engineering and exploring how we ‘make sense’ of history, using interactive diagrams. Olivia spent five months on her research placement with the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, and during this time she was embedded within the museum's digital and publishing team.

Olivia was in the first year of her PhD when she was made aware of the IPS scheme and as her research was being funded by the London Doctoral Design Centre (an AHRC-funded doctoral training centre) she was eligible to apply.

“I saw the Smithsonian was one of the partners and I was aware of how much great digital work the Cooper-Hewitt Museum had done,” says Olivia.

“So I decided to apply! I was accepted for the scheme in 2017 and delighted to be part of it.”

 “I had my own desk, which was nice!” she says. “And I was given a lot of freedom to explore what they were doing.

Olivia Fletcher Vane
Olivia Vane in the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithonian Design Museum gardens  

“I had gone out knowing I was going to be working with their collections data to create a prototype data visualisation project, and I was excited to see what would emerge from my time at the Smithsonian.

“I was able to do a lot of reading, but also attend meetings and meet key people.”

Olivia began working with the Smithsonian's data to create an interactive timeline tool. She noticed that within the collection data there had been a series of 'tags' applied to objects, which were fairly informal descriptions.

“I was interested to see if I could use this data to build a picture of the trends in these descriptions over time. Because I was right at the heart of the museum I was able to quickly and easily find out how, and why, these tags were applied, and what the thinking was behind them.”

In addition, Olivia was able to use her contacts at the museum to get feedback on her ideas and find out whether or not the prototype she was developing might have a public facing use.

“I was able to attend curatorial meetings and have one-on-one meetings with curators to talk things through,” she says.

The museum also helped Olivia set up in the galleries to conduct user testing with visitors.

“It was really wonderful, not only to be able to work closely with staff, but also to be able to do such rich user testing and collate much more feedback data than I had ever done previously,” says Olivia.

“I also had the chance to film what I was doing and I had never been able to do that before, so that was an interesting learning experience.”

the digital timeline
Building the digital timeline  

Since she has returned to the UK, Olivia has further developed her project based on the user feedback she gathered.

“An interesting new aspect that I am exploring is looking at the colour of objects,” she says.

Olivia's prototype is now on display at the Smithsonian, which she describes as a “great output of the project”.

“Overall I learned so much about how to collaborate with a cultural institution and how a designer can contribute their work,” she says.

“But on a personal level it was also a lot of fun. There was so much happening while I was there – exhibitions, events, social occasions.

“It was really lovely to be able to take advantage of the museum's rich programme – and it's such a wonderful location in New York City with a beautiful garden.

“I feel very lucky.”

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