The Tate Collection on GitHub

OpenGLAM alerted me via Twitter that the entire digital collection of the Tate is available on GitHub. I haven’t heard of any other institution who makes their collection available through this platform. It does kind of give a lot away, but then again, that’s the whole point of open data.

Why not Linked Data, asks a fellow Tweeter and Tate’s web architect Rich Barrett-Small justifies their move to GitHub with it being the most time- and cost-effective solution to get the data out there – for now.

Yes, SPARQL endpoints are the weapon of choice these days, but what’s wrong with using GitHub? It’s an incredibly versatile platform by far not limited to programmers, but equally useful for thesis writing or democracy.

What’s great about using GitHub, as opposed to APIs, is that it doesn’t only give you access to the data, it gives you the data. Maybe I’m old school, but I do like having real files on my hard drive, as opposed to it all being locked off in a cloud. And it’s still possible to keep the data updated, by syncing it with the original repository.

But enough about pros and cons of technical details, let’s have a look at what Tate offers.

The dataset contains the complete records of all the artists and artworks in the collection, excluding images, which still need to be accessed online. The dataset comes in two flavours: two CSV files containing the artists and artworks and a gazillion of text files containing all the records in JSON format. The JSON data is richer, because it allows to store the kind of data a table is unable to hold – most notably – a list of subjects associated with the record organised in a range of topics (“people”, “natural phenomena”, “emotions, concepts and ideas”, etc.).

The dataset is very rich and still of a manageable size, so I will definitely do something with it. As a first step, I wanted to get an overview of the distribution of the collection in time. Most of the collection is from around 1800 and a considerable part of it is from 1960 and later.

I wanted to get a picture of the most important artists in the collection and their position in time. So I made a sketch in d3 which plots the artists as circles along a time axis and sizes them proportionally to the amount of works they have in the collection. This was the result:

One big balloon and a lot of awful tiny dots. I did not put a timescale but the balloon was positioned around 1800. So it turns out that not only is a large chunk of the collection from the same time, it also is by the same man: William Turner! (well that didn’t really come as a surprise).

I imported the CSV data into an SQL table, so I could easily extract all that is Turner and all that is not Turner from the collection. Below is Excel’s rendition of the result. Everything that’s Turner is in red, everything that’s not Turner is blue.

Of course this screams for a pie chart. It turns out, the majority of Tate’s collection is Turner:

I decided that’s enough about Turner for now and removed all that’s Turner from the data. I wanted to look at the collection without this extreme case. Now at least my bubble visualisation had some depth.

Here they all are. Every bubble represents an artist, horizontally positioned based on year of birth and sized proportionally to the amount of works they have in the collection. They are vertically spread out depending on how many artists are born in the same year, but the positioning does not carry any information. The top artists (excluding Turner) now are:

Name Born # works
Jones, George 1786 1046
Moore, Henry, OM, CH 1898 623
Daniell, William 1760 612
Beuys, Joseph 1921 578
British (?) School 388
Paolozzi, Sir Eduardo 1924 385
Flaxman, John 1755 287
Phillips, Esq Tom 1937 274
Warhol, Andy 1928 272
Constable, John 1776 249

I plugged the artwork data into the same visualisation, but plotting every artwork at the same size. The resulting picture looked as expected, except for a strange peak in the year 1814. Has the Tate purchased an anomaly large amount of paintings from 1814?

This vertical stripe of data remained even after I removed all the mistakes I encountered on my side (misinterpreted dates, plotting missing dates, etc.), so I wondered where this comes from. I had to get back at the raw data to find an answer. It turns out all these paintings are by William Daniell and in fact their date isn’t known. So why did they appear in 1814?

The Tate collection, as most others, use two fields for storing the date: one as text and one as number (year). The text field would be usually displayed when accessing the collection as it can contain more fine grained information than just a number (e.g. ‘ca. 1814’, ‘around 1800’ etc.). But when this data is visualised, the dates need to be present in a machine readable format. I have encountered a few cases where the descriptive dates and the numerical dates do not match. Often it is because there as an error in the automatic conversion from the ‘human’ to the ‘machine’ date.

I’m not sure why in this case the date appears as 1814. It might be a compromise because, of course, the date is not completely unknown if, such as in this case, the lifetime of its painter is known (1769‑1837). So 1814 might just be a likely date, but there is no way of recording likelihood.

As a last tryout I combined the two bubble diagrams and tried connecting the artworks to their creator. A black line links the artist to the artwork. Again, Turner is left out of this picture (sorry).

I expected all artworks to be connected to an artwork but it seems that most records remain unconnected. This may very likely be a mistake on my side, I’ll have to look into this.

That’s all for now, but I hope to be able to play around more with the Tate collection very soon.

17 thoughts on “The Tate Collection on GitHub

  1. Richard Barrett-Small

    I enjoyed this very much indeed, Florian. Thank you. It’s thrilling to see our data get used so effectively and so soon after release.

    I should say here that we were inspired by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum who put their data out on Github over 18 months before we at Tate did https://github.com/cooperhewitt/collection. There are some great design icons in their collection.

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  2. Seb Chan

    Florian – that’s awesome. And thanks Rich for the HT/plug. You both might be interested in Aaron Cope’s Event Horizons experimental mode in our collection – http://labs.cooperhewitt.org/2013/a-timeline-of-event-horizons/.

    But more importantly, we’d love to see what you’d do with the Cooper-Hewitt Github metadata – although we know the dates are messy as hell!

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  3. Mia

    Nice work! You might be interested to know about a whole bunch of museum, library and archive APIs – I’ve been collecting a list at http://museum-api.pbworks.com/w/page/21933420/Museum%C2%A0APIs and I’ve added your blog post to ‘Cool stuff made with cultural heritage APIs’ at http://museum-api.pbworks.com/w/page/21933412/Cool%20stuff%20made%20with%20cultural%20heritage%20APIs

    Cheers, Mia

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  4. Owen Stephens

    I think the ‘Turner’ spike in the data is actual down to problems with the data rather than a real reflection of Turner’s output (there are almost 40,000 works with JMW Turner listed as the creator in artwork_data.csv – clearly incorrect as even at one a day he’d have to have been producing works solidly for over 100 years!)

    Looking more closely at the data you can see that while JMW Turner is listed as the artist, often the actual work has been created by someone with a relationship to Turner, or based on Turner’s work, rather than being created by Turner himself.

    And this highlights another nice part of releasing the data on Github – I can raise an issue on this (which I did https://github.com/tategallery/collection/issues/13) – and if I know how to fix it I can do a pull request to get data corrected (which I did for some other aspects of the data).

    You mention doing some data cleaning and correction etc. in the course of creating the visualisations here – it would be great if this was shared back to the Tate so they could improve their data and we could all benefit 🙂

    | Reply
    • Richard Barrett-Small

      I posted this response on Github but I will cross-post here for expediency. Hope it helps!

      Thanks for the feedback! This indicates a need for an “artist role” column in the artwork CSV, which I will work up.

      I’ve queried our database, which indicates that there are indeed around 40,000 artworks attributed to or by Turner. There are 1,471 artworks where Turner is listed as the artist but there is a qualifying role such as “pupil of” or “after”.

      The reason for the vast quantity of Turner works is that we have catalogued every page of the sketchbooks we hold as individual artworks. There aren’t 40,000 finished oil paintings on canvas by Turner in the collection but there are 40,000 “artworks”, if you will.

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  7. J. Decker

    I am very new to this form of data presentation on github, having come across this site only recently. It seems that the Excel data presented above of artists and their works, where Turner is in red and non-Turner is blue, could be presented in the same order on the pie chart directly below (with Turner in red and non-Turner in blue).

    Otherwise this is fascinating to read and digest. As an art historian, I am particularly interested in your work with this data. Best wishes!

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  13. Hannah B

    Hi, im setting up a blog and I found the data pattern of your first graph (the bubble graph) really interesting to use as part of a website header, is this your own content or did you get it from somewhere else? I would like to use it and give it credit on my page.

    I would be very interested to hear back

    Thanks a lot!

    | Reply
    • Florian

      Hi Hannah! Thanks for your comment. Yes it is my own work and please feel free to use it under a CC BY-NC-ND license.

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