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When big data meets art appreciation

Jeff Steward, director of Harvard Art Museums’ Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology, in front of “Suns Explorer” in the Lightbox Gallery.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

If you ask Jeff Steward where a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh hangs in the Harvard Art Museums, he can rattle the details off to you right then.

“Situated on the first floor in gallery 1220, up in the upper left corner toward Quincy Street — if you really want to go see it in person,” he said recently, eyes on his laptop screen and fingers tapping at the keyboard.

Steward directs the museum’s Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology department, which is in part responsible for managing the collection’s online database. A computer science-minded person — “I am just attracted to the bits, the ones and the zeroes” — he decided one day to use his extraordinary familiarity with the museum and its database to turn the digital collection into a single work of art.


The result is “Suns Explorer,” a digital project that analyzes colors in the artworks by presenting them in sets of concentric circles. On view in the museum’s Lightbox Gallery starting April 18, “Suns Explorer” serves to spark imagination and engage visitors in conversations, Steward said. The hope is that, after seeing it, visitors might approach pieces in the collection with a more critical eye, paying closer attention to color characteristics — ranging from overall schemes to specific saturations. How do these choices reflect the artist’s purpose in creating the piece?

“The objects themselves are much more than the physical thing you see when you’re here,” Steward said. “It’s the data, it’s the stories, it’s all those things layered on top of what we deem the object that make it what it is.”

“Suns Explorer” creates circles made of multicolored rings from the collection’s color data, drawing from the roughly 1,500 works on view as well as the 226,000 accessible online. The exact hues are taken from the raw data — hex codes, or the six-digit numbers used to represent a color — of each artwork’s page on the museum’s database, and the widths of the rings are determined by the percentage of each hue in the work itself. Such a visualization allows huge swaths of data to be turned into a presentation that’s easily accessible for museum visitors.


With Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” painted in 1888, the thickest ring is a cool green due to the expanse of the background, with a brownish ring drawing from the color of the subject’s clothing. The self-portrait’s labeled circle is just one of the thousands “Suns Explorer” pulls data from. Each second, or perhaps quicker, a new circle will appear in the center of the nine-panel screen and travel in a random direction. Eventually, the circles begin to overlap.

During the Cambridge Science Festival, held April 14-23, members of the DIET team will teach basic data visualization strategies to the public. Steward’s workshop, led alongside technology fellow Gavi Levy Haskell, is already booked full.

“We really just have these interfaces to intrigue people and draw them in in different ways,” Steward said. “It’s not that complicated, when you get down to it. We have data, we have color information, the color that’s in the images of the artworks themselves. Let’s do something with it.”

Located on the fifth floor and
enclosed in glass walls, the Lightbox Gallery showcases digital projects and often highlights the intersection of traditional art and innovative technology. A common misconception about the space, according to Rabb Curatorial Fellow Chris Molinski, is that its data visualizations replace the museumgoing experience. Instead, the Lightbox’s purpose is more supplemental.


“What I love in particular about Jeff’s project is that it immediately challenges that assumption and confronts the viewer with something that is recognizably different than seeing the object in person and demands that you go visit the original thing,” Molinski said.

Haskell added that experiencing color data in this manner adds another layer to the experience of seeing an object in person, encouraging “a certain amount of critical grappling.” After seeing Van Gogh’s self-portrait, a visitor might wonder why it is that he chose green as the predominant hue.

“It makes you think about what you might be looking at or what you might be able to go to the museum and look at in a different way,” Haskell said. “It makes you confront what’s going on with [the artwork], rather than just giving this immediate visual impression.”

Included alongside “Suns Explorer” in the Lightbox will be Haskell’s “sonification” of the project, designed for the visually impaired or simply curious to explore the color information through sound. As images appear on a screen, a sound emits from the machine. The pitch of each sound is scaled to colors — low notes signify warm, earthy tones while higher notes represent cooler ones — and the volume reflects a color’s saturation. A sound’s echo correlates with the size of the represented object.

“It’s all kind of building on Jeff’s work, putting all the data out there. . . . It’s data about art that has an unusual amount of poignance and an unusually visceral quality to it,” Haskell said.


Steward added, “We’ve had lots of conversations about an art museum being such a visual place. How do we appeal to those other senses? There’s so much else going on.”

The raw data used in “Suns Explorer” is accessible to all through the Harvard Art Museums’ application programming interface, or an online service that allows developers to create their own visualizations based on the collection data. Paired with Haskell’s sonification, the installation speaks to the museum’s goal of democratizing the process of engaging with art.

“Making the data accessible, making the images accessible, providing the source code for these objects so people can go off and explore on their own is just that — leveling the playing field,” Steward said. “There are authoritative voices here and there, but it shouldn’t drown out other voices. Art is highly subjective, so let’s engage and have different conversations around objects in collections.”

“Suns Explorer,” April 18-23 and May 6-June 30, Lightbox Gallery, Harvard Art Museums. For more information visit www.harvardart

Sonia Rao can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@misssoniarao.