British Museum blog

Introducing our new, fully-operational, beta collection search

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

'Town and Country' dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

In a recent post, I wrote about the launch of our new collection search beta. Well, we’ve now gone a bit further, and released an overhaul of the ‘advanced search’ functionality.

At heart, it works the same as before – users begin their search by selecting the ‘controlled terms’ that are used by our curators and cataloguers when creating the records, and retrieve all objects in the database that have been tagged with that term, or set of terms in combination. So, for example, you can find groups of objects for any combinations of terms – all the prints made in Japan between AD 1800 and 1835 perhaps, or all objects from London, Exeter and Glasgow made of bronze and so on.

Most of the lists of terms are also structured in hierarchies – for example, Paris is under France – so a search for objects from France retrieves all objects tagged with France, and any objects tagged with one of the many place names that are nested under France. In addition, we allow people to filter on the different ‘associations’ after they have made a search, for example, they can choose whether or not to include objects based on whether they are made by, attributed to, a depiction of, an artist.

In the current collection search interface (launched 2007), the user had to follow quite a process to build up their search terms and get to a page of results, and the interface wasn’t very intuitive. Only a small proportion of people used the advanced search, and most people we talked to said it wasn’t obvious how to use it.

There are two main changes that we have made to improve it. Firstly, we are using “auto-complete” – so that as you write the first few letters of your search term, a set of possible complete terms is shown based on the terms that we have in the database, along with some description so you can be sure it is the term you intended (for example, dates to help distinguish several artists with the same surname).

Secondly, we have kept the search criteria and the results showing on the same page. The user doesn’t have to travel back and forth between different pages to update their search.

We’re very aware that we have been looking at this for quite a while, and it is about time it was let loose and tested in the wild. We are really interested in any comments or questions that you have on how it works – whether you are a regular user, or using it for the first time. We hope to release this as the main interface to the collection database in the Spring.

Please add a comment below, or email us at and include COL Beta in the subject line.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Lisa says:

    This is fantastic news for researchers and writers. Thank you!


  2. jeffhatt says:

    I’ve used the search facility for the last few months researching Iron Age bucket mounts, the Hounslow Hoard, monumental brass letters, et al, and with surprisingly good results just recently! My only reservation is that links often lead to nowhere but by backwinding it’s all available one way or the other. The three Welwyn burial heads appeared as if by magic just at the weekend — I’d tried for ages to get info on them but failed before.

    My hearty thanks to Julia Farley who on request made pictures of the Alchurch bucket mounts, sent me the lot and then published them on the database for all to see. For research purposes such detail as they revealed was absolutely invaluable and really answered every question I could possibly ask — where the beautiful studio pictures of the same objects were just that — lovely — but uninformative.

    This is going to be a great resource, please keep up the good work!

    Jeff Hatt


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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

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