1,318 exhibitions in 38 years

This is a blog post by aaron.cope that was published on October 17, 2018 .

Update: After this blog post first went live we discovered that some of the exhibition records we published were in fact “bunk”. Museums and their databases are no more immune from these sorts of hiccups than any other organization. It’s unfortunate but it happens sometimes. The reason we’re mentioning it here is that depending on when you read this blog post the number of exhibitions list on the “exhibitions by year” page might be lower than the 1,318 exhibitions mentioned in the title. At the rate we produce exhibitions, though, it won’t be for long. Think of it as an opportunity to see our awesome “this record has been deprecated” page!


Since 1980 SFO Museum has produced 1,318 exhibitions (an average of 34 per year) and today we are publishing them all on our website and as an openly-licensed public dataset. The first thing many people will notice and rightly ask is: Where are all the objects that were part of those exhibitions? The simple answer is that they are not part of the Mills Field website yet but will be, soon.

In this way the exhibitions data is similar to the first release of the (SFO) architecture data – a kind of “cardboard cutout” data that gives you the shape of the elephant but not the details; something that can be improved on as we did with the architecture data.

Even though the data may be “shallow” in its depth, right now, it is rich in breadth. You can view:

This is a screenshot of the webpage for the Down-Home Music: The Story of Arhoolie Records exhibition that opened last month.

It’s not much yet but it’s something that people can share and it’s something that starts to contextualize an exhibition with the history of the airport. For example, here’s the webpage for the D-12 Wall Case gallery that “Arhoolie” (as it’s called around the office) is on display in.

One of our hopes with this website is to help people see all the work that the museum has done in the past.

A person who visits Terminal 2 for first time, in 2018, and sees the Arhoolie show should also be able to see that this same gallery has exhibited 19th century hand-carved beckoning cats and ouija boards and maps from the David Rumsey collection and any of the fourteen other exhibitions that have been shown since 2011.

The D-12 gallery is one of two galleries that most people associate with SFO Museum. The other is the F-02 North Connector in Terminal 3 which has shown 79 exhibitions since opening in 1981. “F-02” is so much associated with SFO Museum that many people and some websites, like OpenStreetMap think it is the museum. But 79 exhibitions is less than 10% of all the exhibitions we’ve ever produced!

We’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: In many ways the airport itself is the museum and our goal in publishing all the exhibitions, in all our work, is to help people start to see that.

In addition to adding exhibitions, we’ve enabled rudimentary search functionality for the website. When we say “rudimentary” though we mean it. It’s still pretty easy to trip up still but it’s a start. We don’t have any results for “kittens” but we do have results for queries like “cats” or “boeing” or “mills field” or even “football”.

Careful readers may notice that the screenshot above and the page for the 2015-16 exhibition The Nation’s Game: A History of the National Football League (as of this writing) are not quite the same. Think of it as a teaser for what comes next.

The goal of this website is to share the arc of our direction and so our preference is to push a lot of small releases and improvements out the door as we work on them rather than long silences punctured by so-called “big reveals”. The exhibitions data and search, both, will improve over time but whereas neither existed yesterday these little “somethings” feel like an improvement over “nothing”.

For a good discussion of search and museum websites I’d recommend Sam Brenner’s Reconsidering searching and browsing on the Cooper Hewitt’s Collections website and Nate Solas’ Hiding Our Collections in Plain Site: Interface Strategies for “Findability” both delivered at the Museums and the Web conference in 2015 and 2010 respectively.

The next and final section in this blog post is for developers so if you’re not interested in developer-y things you can stop here. You might be interested instead in the random exhibition link we created which allows you to dive in, at some random point in time, and see all the stuff we’ve done in the last 38 years. Enjoy!

As with all our data releases we’ve posted the exhibition data, modeled as Who’s On First documents (exhibitions are considered to be “installations” in the nomenclature of Who’s On First placetypes) and with pointers to their relevant historical gallery and architectural features, on the sfomuseum-data GitHub account:

This data is the same data that is used by this website. This data is not the museum’s “source of truth” but a derivative product that is created from our internal collections management system, a workflow that we’ll talk about in a separate blog post. It is important to us that we use the same data we’re asking other people to use for our own purposes to help prove (or disprove) that it is both robust and flexible enough to do something interesting with.

It is important to us to prove that it is possible and manageable to “recast” the same data in any number of databases or application frameworks and still produce meaningful results. This is as much about trying to produce something of quality for others to consume as it is about long-term sustainability of our own efforts.

This work is meant to test these ideas.