Instagram and Slack have APIs – and now so do we. Over the past couple of years a team at Te Papa have been mining the deepest recesses of our collections metadata in order to offer it to you for creative use.
What does this mean? Here, Digital Channels Manager Adrian Kingston introduces our Collections API.
Last year we launched our latest version of Collections Online, the website that provides access to search or browse our collection data and media.
Collections Online has information on more than 800,000 artworks, objects, and specimens from Te Papa’s collections – from dinosaur teeth to contemporary art, buzzy bee to Xena. Collection areas cover Taonga Maori, Pacific Cultures, History, Photography Art, Botany, and Zoology. These items are complemented by over 200,000 images, with over 60,000 available for high resolution download. There’s also a wealth of information on related people, places, topics, species, and research from Te Papa.
We mentioned in the launch blog post that we would release a core piece of the new Collections Online technology, the Collections API, for others to use. It’s taken longer than we would have liked, but we’re now able to do so.
What is an API?
API is the acronym for Application Programming Interface. An API is set of tools that allow one computer or application to talk with another computer or application. APIs power the web, and more. Every time you use Facebook or use an app on your smartphone you’re using an API. Another heavily used API is Google Maps – their API allows you to access maps via multiple sources such as an app on your phone, or maps.google.com, or embedded in a restaurant’s page.
APIs are an increasingly important way for museums to provide audiences with access to science, culture, and heritage. They enable new learning, research, and viewing opportunities by making the vast amounts of information around their collections available for people to use.
Other museums that provide access to their collections through APIs include the Tate, British Museum, various Smithsonian institutions, Museums Victoria, and Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Why make it available?
By making our API available to others, the wider community (you) can build cool things that use Te Papa’s collection data and media. Or if you don’t have the coding skills, you’ll at least be able to see the new ways others have created access to the collections. We’ll share them here when we can.
Part of our mandate as the national museum is to provide access to our collections – and that includes whatever data and media we can make available. We don’t have infinite resources, money, or ideas, so we can’t make everything that people want. By making the API available, and removing as many barriers as we can, we enable other people to make whatever they want with our collections.
What kind of things can be made from it?
We use the API to provide structured data from our collections database to our websites and experiences. For example, our collections website, Collections Online, and Art Wall in Toi Art are powered by our Collections API, pulling information from our database and making it available to these experiences.
We’ve also made a couple of new prototypes to demonstrate the types of things that can be built using our API to provide new ways of experiencing the nation’s collections. They are both early versions, so aren’t complete, but they should give an idea of the kinds of things that can be built using the data, images, and APIs.
Arotahi | Focus – a ‘slowing viewing’ experience
Use the slow movement of the images as a meditative experience, or a new way to appreciate the detail of some the collections’ images. Try it on your phone with headphones, or with a group on a big screen.
Tuhi – draw and search
Tuhi is a tool that lets you draw on the screen to search the collections, instead of using a traditional text search. Tuhi uses a combination of machine learning (looking at the drawing being done by the user to figure out the right word) and the Collections API to search the collection for the appropriate result, and you’ll learn a few words of te reo Māori at the same time. A collaboration between Te Papa and Springload. A work in progress!
What am I allowed to do with the data and images?
So, how do I use it?
We have placed a requirement for a key to access the API because we want to work with people, and also see how people are using it. Alternatively, you can use a guest key if you just want to browse, but these keys do expire after a while. It should be enough if you just want to have a look around and see how the data is structured, and the types of queries and responses you can make.
We’re hoping to see some interesting reuses of the data and media, and we’re interested to see what you make, so please let us know! Also we know the way we’ve set it up isn’t perfect for everyone, but we’ve had good enough feedback from people who have used it that we think it’s best to get it out and see what other think. The API key allocation process is pretty new, so there may be a few kinks, please just let us know. We welcome any feedback.
Finally, thanks to Fiona Moorhead, Douglas Campbell, Victoria Leachman, and Lorne Currie from Te Papa, and Frederik Leonhardt and Sam Bonner from Catalyst IT for all the work that’s gone into making the API a reality.