New Window Opened onto Vast
Anthropological Collections

May 10th, 2018 | Updates

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology announces the launch of the Hearst Museum Portal: an engaging way to explore its enormous and diverse collections. Fully 100% of the Hearst Museum’s cataloged holdings are now available for discovery via the Portal, which is refreshed daily to capture newly added photos and object details. With accessibility a guiding principle of the Museum’s work, we invite you to try the Portal for yourself at https://portal.hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu

Founded in 1901 by Phoebe A. Hearst, the Museum’s collections span the globe and document almost two million years of human development and innovation. Hearst envisioned the Museum as a “great educator” dedicated to “the dissemination of knowledge among the many, giving the people of California every educational advantage.” Starting from Hearst’s own donation of objects, and her funding of expeditions to Egypt, Peru, Italy, California, and the Southwest to collect objects, photographs, and audio recordings, the Museum’s collection now totals over 3.8 million items, making it one of the largest anthropological museums in the United States.

Perhaps what makes these magnificent data-rich collections so important, however, is the abundance of supporting documentation recorded for the more than 749,000 catalog records under which these items are tracked. Highlights include Native Californian, Alaskan, ancient Egyptian, African, Mexican and Central American, Etruscan, ancient Andean, Oceanian, and Tibetan artifacts and one of the most comprehensive collections of Native American baskets in the world.

Led by Michael Black, Head of Research and Information at the Hearst Museum, and John Lowe, CollectionSpace Service Lead in UC Berkeley’s Research, Teaching, and Learning (RTL), the Portal project team enjoyed broad support from the user community, Museum staff, development and operations teams at RTL. Portal design was guided in its early stages by consulting with undergraduates, researchers, faculty, and other community members, some of whom have personal or cultural connections to specific objects. Each stakeholder group had valuable insights and guidance to offer. For example, in conversation with student users a common theme emerged of designing the Portal to offer a clean, simple-to-use interface that allows users to easily refine, browse, and display search results.

“I definitely wanted to be able to explore the collections visually,” said Alex Perkins, an anthropology major at Cal who contributed to the project. “There are so many objects with fascinating photographs and being able to easily access those was one of the big things I hoped to see in the new Portal.”

The Hearst Museum Portal is specifically designed to serve one of the Museum’s most important audiences: those individuals and communities who trace their ancestry to the societies represented in the Museum’s diverse collections. Native Californian community researchers, educators, traditional spiritual leaders, repatriation coordinators, tribal government officials, and artists are among the most frequent visitors to the Museum’s storage facilities. The Portal is specifically designed to support and facilitate that work. “We are pleased to serve as a resource for Native California across a variety of research areas,” says Jordan Jacobs, the Museum’s Head of Cultural Policy and Repatriation. “The Portal will greatly expand that access.”

With guidance from the Museum’s Native American Advisory Council (NAAC), images of certain object types—human remains, known funerary objects, and specific cultural objects, called “charm stones”—have been restricted. Kesner Flores, the NAAC’s Vice Chairperson, views this development as a part of the Museum’s larger effort to collaborate with descendant communities. “The Museum has listened to our input and we have shaped the policies that will help guide them into the future.” Instead of a photo for these types of objects, casual users of the Hearst Museum Portal will see a static placeholder image, inviting them to contact the Museum to arrange for approved, specialized access.

“The Research IT Museum Informatics Program is pleased to be a partner in opening up these amazing collections to the world” says Jenn Stringer, Chief Academic Technology Officer and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. “This is a great example of how technology can be a strategic enabler of our campus mission.”

Using the intuitive and attractive Blacklight interface, and powered by Apache’s blazingly fast  open source search engine, Solr, the Hearst Museum Portal is a simple, sophisticated tool, more akin to Amazon or Google than to traditional museum search engines. In line with the Museum’s vision of serving as a place “where cultures connect,” the Hearst team view the Portal’s release as contributing to the toolbox of resources on offer to its stakeholders.