Susanna Dale, a Consultant in our UK Marketing, Sales and Service practice gives her personal review of the Your Paintings Tagger project

Your Paintings is a joint initiative between the BBC, The Public Catalogue Foundation (PCO) and participating collections and museums from across the UK. PCO is a registered charity, started in 2002, with the noble aim of making the nation’s public artworks accessible to everyone by putting them all online on the Your Paintings website. The Tagger project aims to make this resource even more accessible. By tagging each painting, instead of just searching for paintings with basic information, such as title, artist, and execution date, users will be able to do a detailed search on elements such as type of painting, the subjects portrayed in the paintings and the styles and movements represented. Each of the 200,000 paintings will be tagged many times by different members of the public and then algorithms will calculate which tags are likely to be the most accurate.

My tagging experience began with me watching the short video on tagging. It was clear without being condescending and reassured me that I did not have to be an art expert to participate: great! Upon commencing tagging, I was designated a “green tagger” which instantly made me feel part of the community of taggers and that my contribution was going to count. This sense of identity was further galvanised with a short text explaining the marked use of “my colour” (green) in a Corot landscape painting. The exercise began easily. I was asked to tag my first painting with things and ideas of which it made me think. Next, I was asked about people, places and events which may, or may not feature in the painting. This element will hopefully demonstrate the power of the crowd by identifying people, places, or events which were previously unknown in some of these paintings.

After I’d completed five paintings, I was promoted to a “yellow tagger.” And once again, as part of my initiation into this new population, I was educated on the yellow pigment and how Van Gogh, had employed it in his famous Sunflowers. As a “yellow tagger” I undertook additional responsibilities, with multiple-choice questions on: the “type” of painting (e.g. portrait, landscape); and the “subject” (e.g. animals and plants, ideas and emotions). After tagging ten more paintings, I was thanked for my participation and my first tagging session was complete. There was the option to start another session straight away but I liked the sense of satisfaction gained from completing a specified number of paintings.

For me, Your Paintings Tagger rewards the user in a variety of different ways to that of a ‘real’ gallery visit;

  • you are required examine a limited number of paintings closely, allowing you to appreciate each painting more. I often find when visiting a gallery, I feel obligated to view all of the paintings but due to the quantity, I often just glance at most of them.
  • the paintings that you study may not be the type you would normally seek out during a gallery visit. But, this serves to broaden your knowledge and appreciation of different art types and artists.
  • satisfaction in being part of a community project. I increased my awareness of the range of paintings which the nation actually possesses and I felt an earned sense of ownership towards these paintings. This in turn, makes me more likely to go out and visit public galleries and see these paintings first hand (although galleries are not usually able to display all of their collection at any one time, due to limited space: another advantage of the Your Paintings project).

For me, crowdsourcing as the method to catalogue the 200,000 oil, acrylic and tempera paintings owned by the nation has a number of benefits in addition to creating a real sense of ownership in the project.

  • Cost reduction through the collective and voluntary effort of the public, such as wikipedia, the endeavour is much less costly than it would have been if teams of experts were employed.
  • Insight into the public’s opinions and preferences which can be used in the future to improve the art viewing experience.
  • Reduced timeframe for completing this catalogue is only 18 months; there would have to have been a very large number of experts employed in order to equal this timeframe, had crowdsourcing not been adopted as the approach.

In addition, there may well be art experts who are part of the “crowd” and their talent would not have been tapped, had the project been carried out in isolation. However, the obvious shortcoming of the crowd is that most of the opinions will be those of “non-expert” and thus their will be variety in the quality of responses. However, this variety is limited by the use of multiple-choice answers; and standardised by the use of algorithms to calculate which tags are likely to be the most accurate.

In summary, I think the use of crowdsourcing to catalogue the nation’s oil paintings is an innovative approach which will benefit not only members of the public wishing to search the works in the future but also participators in the project today. I’d eagerly encourage you to give it a go!