Title:Seeing Tibetan Art through Social Tags
Authors:Shelley Mannion
Publication:MW2008: Museums and the Web 2008

Most current efforts in social tagging by museums focus on how to improve public access to on-line collections. Indeed, tags do supplement existing documentation by providing an alternative vocabulary to describe works of art. But what can tags tell us about how images are perceived? Are the same images perceived differently by viewers from diverse cultures? Taking its cue from the steve project's ( research agenda, an ongoing study funded by the Rubin Museum of Art explores what tags reveal about the ways native communities respond to their own cultural iconography. Begun in March 2007, the study is collecting tags on Tibetan artworks from Tibetans and Westerners in Switzerland and New York on a customized steve installation (

Preliminary findings based on the Swiss data reveal: 1) different tagging and viewing patterns among Tibetans and Westerners; 2) complex and often awkward feelings young Tibetans experience when viewing traditional artworks; 3) clearly discernible levels of cultural pervasiveness of traditional images; and 4) shared misunderstandings about specific types of images.

One of the first formal studies in the domain of social tagging, and perhaps the first to gather tags from a diaspora community, this project employs a mixed-methods approach that combines tags with ethnographic interviews and observations. It offers valuable insights for museums in three areas: 1) how Tibetan art is perceived by Tibetan and Western viewers; 2) analytical approaches that can help contextualize social tags; and 3) ideas and suggestions on designing tagging systems for native communities.