April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Demonstrations: Description

Seeing Tibetan Art

Shelley Mannion, Switzerland

Seeing Tibetan Art is among the earliest independent implementations of the steve tagger ( , an open source tool for museums wishing to crowdsource the cataloguing of their online collections. This application played the central role in an 18-month community tagging research effort by the Rubin Museum of Art. To better understand how native viewers perceive the complex imagery in Tibetan thangka paintings, the museum invited young people from geographically disparate Tibetan diasporas in New York City and Switzerland to tag its artworks online.

More than 100 individuals, both Tibetans and Westerners (who functioned as a control for the Tibetans' responses) tagged six images from the Rubin collection. Results from the Swiss groups, which were presented at last year's Museums and the Web ( showed considerably different viewing patterns between young Tibetans and their Western counterparts. More recent findings from December 2008 revealed that New York Tibetans were considerably more knowledgeable than Swiss Tibetans about the subjects depicted in the works. Even so, both Tibetan groups submitted far fewer tags than Westerners, indicating both their reluctance to guess for fear of making mistakes, and the culturally constrained ways they relate to traditional images.

During the course of the research, only study participants could access the steve installation. This demonstration offers the first public opportunity to explore the highly customized interface used to display and tag the artworks. Its unique features include:

  1. Specially-designed 'skin' which drastically altered and improved the look of steve’s generic templates
  2. Bilingual English and German interface for multilanguage, multicultural tag collection
  3. Integration with a third-party web service which allowed the use and easy maintenance of an expanded demographic questionnaire
  4. Modified tagging workflow tailored to fit the project's research goals

Seeing Tibetan Art offers a small-scale, but successful model of how steve's tagging tools can be used to encourage participation from native communities. Particularly for museums who want to explore the potential of community tagging as a way to bring new voices and alternative vocabularies within gallery walls, it represents a useful guide. In addition to showing the customized software, this demonstration will review the technical challenges in implementing steve, and hopefully, spark meaningful discussion about future of community tagging.

Demonstration: Demonstrations 2 [Close Up]

Keywords: social tagging, community tagging, native communities, tibetan buddhist art, rubin musem of art, viewer perception, participation