All the world’s Van Goghs online

Step by step, digital agencies are making the world around us a little cleverer. This ‘smartification’ goes beyond bits and bites… It involves facilitating people and their needs. So how does this work? ‘The Smartifiers’ is a series of case studies in which Dutch Digital Agencies members illustrate what smartification looks like in practice. 

Researching the works of Vincent van Gogh can be a time-consuming task. The information is scattered among individual museums, research agencies and auction houses worldwide, and much of the material is yet to be made available online. An innovative platform with knowledge and research related to the oeuvre of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was needed. Darja Scheffers, founder of PUURPXL, and Imre Gmelig Meijling, commercial director of LimoenGroen, share how Van Gogh Worldwide was established as a Linked Open Data platform. The result is Van Gogh Worldwide, an accessible, user-friendly platform that provides information on over 1000 paintings, drawings and sketches made by Van Gogh.

It all started with a straightforward email from the RKD – the Dutch Institute for Art History to digital agency LimoenGroen. “Do you have any experience with linked open data?” A simple question with major consequences, as it turned out. “The issue on which the question was based was far more complex,” says Imre Gmelig Meijling, commercial director at LimoenGroen: “How do we link, present and share knowledge and research related to the work of Vincent van Gogh?” The matter had been occupying the minds of the founding partners of the project – the RKD, the Van Gogh Museum and Kröller-Müller Museum – for some time. They had been trying to make the oeuvre of Van Gogh more easily accessible for years.

One thing was certain: a state-of-the-art digital platform was required to compile the historical and technical information about Vincent van Gogh’s art. And that just happened to be the expertise of digital agencies PUURPXL and LimoenGroen. PUURPXL has been developing and designing digital experiences to the satisfaction of users and with excellent results for years, while LimoenGroen creates sustainable websites that can be used for at least five years and efficiently grow in tandem with any online ambitions.

Working with top tasks

But how does one start such a huge trajectory that involves so many different parties; besides the aforementioned, they included museums, private individuals and research institutions as well. To Imre and Darja it was clear that end users should be the starting point. This initially involved scientists. We needed a single environment where all the available information related to Van Gogh’s works could be brought together. Other relevant users include interested students, exhibition curators, auction houses and the public at large.

Darja: “Ensuring that the platform matched all these differing needs made it essential to constantly validate whether the trajectory we were on remained in line with the users’ top tasks. In this framework, a working group with scientists – the main target group – was established in consultation with the clients. Scientists and experts who consult the website came there for a specific purpose. We wanted to know what exactly they were looking for and which tasks they needed to perform on the website. Working with top tasks is a method developed by Gerry McGovern to determine the main tasks of the visitors to a specific site and ensure the flow is adjusted accordingly.”

Inclusive design

From a user-centric perspective, scientists were also closely involved in the development and testing of the first demo versions of the platform. “This soon showed that what we had conceptualised was actually effective in practice. After performing a usability test among users, we made a number of improvements before launching the site. This included the addition of search suggestions to make the search process more efficient and faster, and adapting the presentation of the filters and placing them higher on the page. These sessions also included a special focus on inclusive design. Imre: “We believe it is important that websites are easy to use for everyone. Whether people are using a large monitor, visiting the site via their mobile while on public transport or colour-blind, everyone should have a pleasant experience. We integrated this principle in the website, too.”

Technical challenge

The result is an accessible and user-friendly platform that provides information on over 1000 paintings, drawings and sketches by Van Gogh. They range from object, origin and exhibition information to literature and technical data on materials. The technical information includes various photo images of an artwork. There are also links to the letters written by Van Gogh to allow visitors to read how the artist described the works himself. Finally, Van Gogh Worldwide provides literature information about research into the artworks.

“All data comes directly from the source – the institutions themselves.”

Darja Scheffers, founder PUURPXL

Although the front end may look simple, the back end is everything but. Imre: “Presenting the many datasets in this project isn’t easy. The unique aspect of Van Gogh Worldwide is that the data has not all been entered into the site but published as linked data from the so-called source systems. For linked open data (LOD), information is provided in such a way that it is much easier, and sometimes even automatic, to link to other data. It doesn’t require a CMS. You just push a button on the website and the database is searched in real time. The data comes directly from the source, i.e., the institutions themselves. This means that the information is always reliable and up-to-date. Some of the institutions supply the linked data themselves which can then be linked directly to the platform. For museums who have yet to reach that stage, Spinque agency added software at the front of the platform. This ‘antechamber’ converts the data from these museums to linked data before it enters the site.”

If the ‘technology’ was a serious challenge in this project, so too was the meticulous stakeholder management required. Darja: “We held sessions with some 35 people from different organisations and it was important that we got everyone on the same track as fast as possible. Thankfully, we had an excellent programme manager representing the clients who had lots of experience in the museum industry and was able to help make the right choices.” Another important factor was presenting and testing the demos. “Once people see where you’re headed they automatically become enthusiastic. It makes the concept more concrete rather than just a plan on paper.”

End users as starting point

To overcome these challenges, PUURPXL and LimoenGroen acted as ambassadors for the end users. Imre: “The more parties involved, the greater the number of opinions. Focusing on the needs of the end user empowers you and prevents many a long debate. The main issue to take into account when a discussion goes on too long is whether it is contributing to a better user experience for the target group. This approach helps put less relevant matters aside and keep the project up to speed.”

And that speed is still necessary as works from collections abroad are being added to the platform as we speak. In total, some 2,000 works by Van Gogh are known to exist and the goal is to include them all on the platform. And that would be a splendid result! “Van Gogh Worldwide is fulfilling the international demand for research data to be made accessible via a single platform. And the number of recurring visitors already doubled in the first month, ranging from Japan to Saudi Arabia and beyond. International museums have indicated their wish to take part and started discussions. Moreover, the project has resulted in a digital transformation of the way people cooperate and handle data in this sector, which is something of which we can be very proud.”

Like to know more?

Check out the site of Puurpxl or contact Darja Scheffers.
Check out the site of LimoenGroen or contact Imre Gmelig Meijling.

Read the other Smartifiers cases

“The Smartifiers” (or De Verslimmers) is a series about the way in which Dutch digital agencies keep making the world around us a little smarter. All articles in the series have also appeared on Emerce.
The Smartifiers cases (English)
The Smartifiers part 1: Stories inspire Chicago residents to think about infrastructure (CLEVER°FRANKE)
The Smartifiers part 7: How Mibo revitalised the after-work Friday drinks online (Q42)
The Smartifiers part 9: Happi app gives patients greater control over their illness (E-sites)
The Smartifiers part 10: All the world’s Van Goghs online