Placing photographs of more than 20,000 items from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s artifact collection onto the museum’s website was a lot of work for Seth Johnson.
“I wrote a bunch of that code late at night in my pajamas,” said the technology technician for the center’s IT Department.
The results are impressive. Visitors to the website can browse everything from old Buffalo Bill Wild West Show posters to a beautifully decorated buckskin shirt that belonged to Sioux chief Red Cloud.
“The trucker hat is my favorite object,” Johnson said of a blue cap with the front beaded in an Indian motif. “That mesh back keeps you cool but that authoritative foam front says you mean business. The fact that someone took the time to bead it is amazing.”
You are the curator
Visitors to the website can even make their own collection of artifacts with a simple click of the mouse and then share the collection through other social media like Facebook. The site allows the curator to write an exhibit introduction and notes on each object. Comments and questions can also be posted about any of the objects in the collection.
“Any visitor to the page can, in essence, curate their own collection of priceless stuff,” Johnson said. “Once you save it, it’s visible to the whole world and you can share it with social media outlets.
“The idea was to bring a level of interactivity that didn’t exist before,” he added.
Johnson developed the idea with other members of the IT staff — John Gallagher, IT manager, and Lloyd Johnson, web developer — after examining websites at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of London. Even though those museums likely had entire teams just to work on their website, he found them lacking in interactivity with visitors.
“This is a foundation,” he said. “Every object that has a photograph is represented here. And it will grow and grow.”
Another cool feature of the website is that once a visitor accesses an artifact, they can zoom in to see greater detail. This feature allows viewers to examine the screws used to fasten a moose antler chair together, or the small hunter waving from camp at two others atop a hill in the foreground of a painting.
“What (the program) does is cut the source image up into hundreds of slices,” Johnson said. “Some firearms have ridiculously high resolution image files.”
Firearm aficionados have been some of the first to visit the website, since the center’s Cody Firearms Museum has one of the best collections in the world. One of the oddities Johnson discovered among those artifacts is a rifle with a sculpted President Abraham Lincoln head for a hammer.
Information below the photo of the Lincoln bust states that it adorns a breech-loading percussion rifle made around 1863 and designed by Hiram Berdan. “One of the most unusual firearms to have been made during the Civil War, this rifle’s hammer is sculpted into a portrait bust of President Abraham Lincoln. The Cody Firearms Museum’s collections boast the only known example.”
The Paul Dyck collection of more than 450 American Indian artifacts can never be displayed at one time in the museum, but all of them can be found online. Which prompts the question: Doesn’t providing so much information for free online reduce the number of people who may visit the facility?
“We used the example of I’ve never been full after watching a cooking show,” Johnson said. “Some people were never going to visit, so now they at least have an opportunity to see what’s here.”
He also noted that online viewing and viewing objects in person are separate types of experiences. If anything, Johnson said being able to view things online may encourage more people to visit.
For those who do visit and have a smart phone with a QR app (those funny looking square boxes found on products), the center has created a treasure hunt-type of activity that rewards those who scan all of the assigned items. Those items that are scanned can also be shared with friends via social media.
“We want to emphasize that this is fun and simple,” Johnson said. “It’s a no-strings-attached game you can play while you’re here. And it’s kind of a way to bring it home with you. You can stash it on your Facebook page and share it with your friends.”
Some codes take the user to online object records, others connect to blog posts or videos.
In just the first weekend of its launch, Johnson said the center’s IT staff was surprised by how popular the activity was – hundreds of scans.
Like all technology, though, by the time Johnson and the rest of the IT staff finished the work, it was already generations behind newer technology. The center hopes to keep updating, he said, with one of the next possibilities being an indoor map of the center that could show you where you are in relation to what you’d like to see. With such technology, time-strapped visitors could key in on just the exhibits they want to see in the expansive building.
“We’re always looking for ways to make it the best experience it can be,” Johnson said, “no matter how much time you have.”