We often talk about the power APIs have to open new revenue streams or bring indirect operational benefits to a business. Another reason to embrace APIs falls under the category of open data. In recent years, many art museums have turned to APIs to unlock the secrets of their archives.

The Smithsonian, Rijksmuseum, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Chicago Art Institute are among the many museums now utilizing web APIs to port their vast collections beyond the physical realm, into digital spaces for the world to enjoy and appreciate.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, known colloquially as “The Met,” is also one of these museums experimenting with APIs. The largest art museum in the U.S., The Met boasts over 1.5 million art objects, housing everything from modern art to mummy sarcophagi, Greek busts, helmets, Islamic portraits, and other art objects. Sharing knowledge of their broad collection is part of their mission, and they created an Open Access program that aligns with this mission.

I recently met with Maria Kessler, Senior Program Manager of Digital Partnerships at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to discuss its Met Collection API and overall digital strategy. By opening up with APIs, the museum can inspire new ways of accessing its collection, “connecting people to art in different ways, and connecting people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas,” says Kessler.

Museum APIs for Open Access

Cataloging millions of art objects is tedious, but it generates a bounty of metadata and digital images. As a data-minded person will realize, museums are sitting on a treasure trove of information. Digitizing and opening such data could help curators, data scientists, AI researchers, students, and laypeople foster new cultural experiences.

In early 2017, The Met implemented a new policy called Open Access that aimed to make all public-domain works available per Creative Commons Zero (CC0). “As much of our collection as possible – what is deemed to be in the public domain – is dedicated to Open Access,” affirms Kessler. In late 2018, the Museum launched a web API to programmatically access the Museum’s dense archives, in part thanks to its forward-thinking director. A year and a half later, the API was publicly available.

But what is an API? An Application Programming Interface (API) is a standard way applications share data. APIs are great for talking to databases on remote servers to return specific information, enabling application developers to create new experiences. Without such machine-machine accessibility, a museum’s data wouldn’t really be open at all.

This is how it was before The Met built their API, notes Kessler. At that time, you could download The Met’s entire Open Access archive as a single CSV file. While this bulk download was technically open for all, the data was clunky, useful for data science folks, but not for application makers, and certainly not for all end-users. To make the collection more accessible, The Met developers built a REST-style API with JSON-formatted data.

Accessibility, Kessler describes, is why the Museum opted for a completely open API with no security at all. Commercial APIs usually require API keys to tie the requesting party to the request. However, The Met API does not require a typical authentication scheme. Anyone can make requests to URLs (even from a web-browser) to retrieve the API’s nicely structured JSON responses.

A 100% open API supports The Met’s mission. Thus, trading security implications for usability is worth it. Furthermore, since it is read-only, Kessler reports no negative concerns.

Museum APIs Encourage Art and Science to Innovate

Opening a museum’s digitized archives via APIs brings endless potential to innovate. For one, museum APIs enable application developers to create new visitor experiences. Developers can create new search tools to explore the museum, design tours of custom collections, or generate immersive virtual reality environments. Nowadays, online alternatives are more important than ever, meaning anyone can enjoy the museum content regardless of social distance.

Museum APIs also enable a new paradigm for artwork AI. Data scientists are already training new Artificial Intelligence (AI) models to decipher trends in artwork. Tapping into broad data sets like The Met’s is helpful for machine learning models that, for example, generate new connections between disparate art objects. Kessler described a recent Kaggle competition using The Met’s API, which encouraged developers to create AI models to analyze fine-grain attributes of an art object and predict its period and geographical origin. In turn, such AI could help also categorize museum collections.

Museum data accessibility is also inspiring new student projects. At The Met, students from the Parsons School of Design Data Visualization program were given API access and encouraged to design visualizations. Students made collections of clocks, Catholic rosary representations, qualitative graphs, and other fascinating creations.

“The Met works with a lot of student organizations in general because of our organization’s educational mission – we love working with each other,” expresses Kessler. “We can see how students are using the collection and how they plan to use it. It taught us a lot.”

Third-party perspectives also offer a valuable means to collect feedback on the quirks of the museum’s data. For example, one student who was interested in female artists as part of their project inspired the museum to add a female tag where known within the API. This direct, data-driven perspective “opens up a whole new area,” says Kessler.

Museum APIs can encourage exciting collaborations between disciplines. For example, The Met recently partnered with Microsoft and MIT to host an AI-themed hackathon where developers used The Met API “to imagine and develop scalable new ways for global audiences to discover, learn, and create.”

“This is what the Renaissance was all about,” says Kessler. “Art and science were not different; they were one and the same.”

Collaboration is vital in the museum world. Though each museum has its own home-grown data system, standardization through APIs may encourage more partnerships with other museums and cultural institutions across the globe. This idea is nothing new; simply look to projects like The Linked Open Data Cloud or Wikidata as evidence.

Playing With The Met’s API

So what does a museum API actually look like? As mentioned above, The Met’s API is completely barrier-free. To test it out, you can use cURL in your terminal or Postman to make HTTP GET calls. Or, simply insert queries into a web browser.

The API is simply designed, organized into four main endpoints. Object returns data on a specific art object, Objects returns a list of art objects, Departments returns department information, and Search can query the entire archive by keyword.

By Search Query

First, let’s use a search term to explore the archives. The Met has a vast Egyptian Art collection. Say we wanted to view all artifacts related to Ukhhotep, an ancient Egyptian chief treasurer. This request returns all related objectIDs for Ukhhotep:

https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/public/collection/v1/search?q=Ukhhotep

This search returns a JSON-formatted response displaying many IDs:

{
    "total": 19,
    "objectIDs": [
        545439,
        544284,
        546312,
        590845,
        558145,
        558168,
        558169,
        544260,
        546304,
        546303,
        ...
    ]
}

By Object ID

With an artifact’s unique Object ID in hand, you can return metadata and pictures of a specific art object. For example, this query will request art object number 546303, the ID of the funerary coffin found in the Tomb of Ukhhotep:

https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/public/collection/v1/objects/546303

The response includes helpful structured data, like the name, the year it was added to the collection, date of origin, the department, and links to photographs taken from multiple angles. It may look like dull text to the untrained eye, but with a little imagination, open data like this can truly enter the creative palette. Here is a snippet of the response:

{
    "objectID": 546303,
    "isHighlight": false,
    "accessionNumber": "12.182.132a, b",
    "accessionYear": "1912",
    "isPublicDomain": true,
    "primaryImage": "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/original/12.182.132a-c_0032.jpg",
    "primaryImageSmall": "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/web-large/12.182.132a-c_0032.jpg",
    "additionalImages": [
        "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/original/12.182.132a_b_0039.jpg",
        "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/original/12.182.132a_0033.jpg",
        "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/original/DP259291.jpg",
        "https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/eg/original/DP259298.jpg",
...
}

The primary image for The Met’s art object ID 546303, the funerary coffin found in the Tomb of Ukhhotep.

The Met collection is a testament to world culture, now accessible to the world. Perusing the collection with the API, you can discover its paintings, vases, statues, clocks, astrolabes, and medieval armor that represent the diversity of human civilizations.

“Throughout time, every place and geography, you see the artisans at work, you see the detail, the care that people brought to each object,” says Kessler. “Each art object tells a story of its culture, and what was happening in its time.”

The API is updated nightly, so the database always represents the latest collection. To explore documentation for The Met API and make calls yourself, visit their GitHub here.

APIs Bring Many Benefits to Museums

Opening museums up with APIs is a big win. They support open-source efforts. They advance an institution’s dedication to art history and education. They innovate engagement modes with the collection. They also open new collaboration opportunities.

“More has come back to us: creativity, innovation, partnerships, willingness to do things, and experimentation,” expresses Kessler. “That’s what’s happened because of the API.” Since its inception, the Museum has connected and inspired many through its new interface. “We’ve seen nothing but benefits.”

Kessler sees the future of museum API initiatives as positively bright. She sees The Met engaging in the community and academic discussion of the role of emerging technology (such as machine learning) and art. She anticipates open data initiatives at other museums to continue to grow, opening new pathways for art history and dialogue.

One drawback of a completely 100% open API is a lack of developer-user communication. Since The Met currently doesn’t monitor requests, it has no feedback loop established with developer consumers. While API authentication would require another step, it would tie API consumers to accounts and offer insight into data usage, which could improve the interface.

Museum APIs could inspire a new generation of Renaissance people, like Leonardo da Vinci, logical scientists imbued with a sense of artistic purpose. The Met is one of many art museums accepting this challenge, honoring a mission to be “of the world, about the world, and for the world,” says Kessler.

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a tech journalist and API specialist, focusing on API economy research and marketing strategy for developer programs. He is the Editor in Chief for Nordic APIs. He leads content direction and oversees the publishing schedule for the Nordic APIs blog. Bill personally reviews all submissions for the blog and is always on the hunt for API stories; you can pitch your article ideas on our Create With Us page. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his personal website.