• The V&A Spelunker

    6 January 2015

    At the end of 2014, I spent a short while working with George Oates of Good, Form & Spectacle on what we’ve called the V&A Spelunker.

    We sat down to explore a dataset of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s entire collection. The very first stages of that exploration were just getting the data into a malleable form – first into our own database, and then onto web pages as what got called Big Dumb Lists.

    From there, though, we started to twist the collection around and explore it from all angles – letting you pivot the collection around objects form a single place, or made of a single material.

    That means you can look at all the Jumpers in the collection, or everything from Staffordshire (mainly ceramics, as you might expect), or everything by Sir John Soane.

    And of course, it’s all very, very clickable; we’ve spent lots of time just exploring and excitingly sending each other links with the latest esoteric or interesting thing we’ve found.

    George has written more on the V&A’s Digital Media blog. She describes what came to happen as we explored:

    In some ways, the spelunker isn’t particularly about the objects in the collection — although they’re lovely and interesting — it now seems much more about the shape of the catalogue itself. You eventually end up looking at individual things, but, the experience is mainly about tumbling across connections and fossicking about in dark corners.

    Exploring that idea of the shape of the catalogue further, we built a visual exploration of the dataset, to see if particular stories about the shape of the catalogue might leap out when we stacked a few things up together – namely, setting when objects were acquired against when they are from, and how complete their data is. You quickly begin to see objects acquired at the same time, or from the same collection.

    This is very much a sketch that we’ve made public – it is not optimised in so many ways. But it’s a useful piece of thinking and as George says, is already teasing out more questions than answers – and that absolutely felt worth sharing.

    Do read George’s post. I’m going to be writing a bit more on the Good, Form & Spectacle Work Diary about the process of building the Spelunker later this week. It’s the sort of material exploration I really enjoy, and it’s interesting to see the avenues for further ideas opening up every time you tilt the data around a little.