‘HackTheHearst’ to expand public discovery of ancient treasures

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, may be home to treasures that are thousands of years old, and a museum hackathon that kicks off Sept. 10 aims to make the stellar collection more relevant and accessible than ever.

HackTheHearst is expected to produce new tools, including apps, that will enable easier, open-source exploration of the museum’s digitized collections data and images.

“It would take centuries to physically exhibit everything in our collections, given the size of our sole exhibition space,” said Michael Black, head of research and information systems at the Hearst Museum. The museum’s approximately 3 million artifacts come from around the world, with especially strong collections from North America, ancient Egypt, Africa, the ancient Mediterranean, Oceania, South and Central America, and Asia.

Students were recently working to digitize a large set of Hearst Museum artifacts.  Photo by Michael Black.

Students were recently working to digitize a large set of Hearst Museum artifacts (Photo courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology).

As a result of the hackathon, said Black, elementary school kids might not have to spend hours on a bus trekking to the UC Berkeley museum for a tour, or rummaging through an old-fashioned education kit that has been offered for years, but instead access much of the collection at their computer keyboards.

“We’re not Ivory Tower experts who want to keep information to ourselves,” Black said. “Our job is to share this data with the public, and to serve as a clearinghouse for new information about the objects in our collections.”

Not just for computer geeks

The competition is open to anyone interested in giving it a go – Silicon Valley computer programmers, high school students, architects, designers, museum studies students, and more. Not your conventional, mad-rush hackathon, it will start Wednesday, Sept. 10 and participants will have access to the Hearst Museum collections data for several days until the winning apps are announced on Sunday, Sept. 21.

Museum officials are asking hackers to develop apps or user interfaces that facilitate interaction with digitized collection data by the public, especially students from kindergarten through college, researchers, Indian tribes and other heritage communities.

HackTheHearst participants will work with a dataset of object-centric metadata for more than 700,000 catalog records dealing with everything from Mexican Saltillo serapes and ancient Egyptian artwork to Native American basketry. Some 196,920 objects in the museum’s collections have been digitally imaged so far.

The competition will begin with an introduction to the Hearst Museum from 4:30-9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 10, that will include presentations by experts on collection-use needs of university researchers, students and tribes, a look at the dataset and an introduction of the mentors from across the campus and elsewhere who will be available to advise the hackers. Teams will form then and will be able to work from the Hearst or from home.

Hackers also can attend an optional Thursday, Sept. 18 discussion about museums and their role in the humanities, digital tools and resources – an area of research, teaching and creation that is concerned with the intersection of computing and the humanities disciplines – organized by the Bay Area Digital Humanities meetup group. The program will feature presentations on several recent museum-focused projects.

Customized prizes

HackTheHearst winners will be recognized for their contribution to the public service mission of the Hearst Museum, and receive some cool prizes, too.

“One big thing we’re offering are unique, private, museum-themed experiences,” said Black. “For instance, participants are helping give the world virtual access to our collections, so we thought it would be nice to give the winning team personalized access to the physical artifacts that are of most interest to them, in collections storage areas that are normally inaccessible to the public.”

And in addition to customized, expert-led collections tours, other prizes include private lessons with experts on cuneiform writing, hieroglyphics, flint knapping and other collections-related topics.  The cuneiform lesson, “The First Day in Babylonian School,” will be led by Laurie Pearce of UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department. The winner will be supplied with clay tablets and taught to write basic cuneiform, and be given a private tour of the museum’s cuneiform tablet collection.

To sign up for the hackathon, click here.

Among the event sponsors are EMC Corp., UC Berkeley’s Digital Humanities program, Research IT at UC Berkeley, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), and CollectionSpace, a collection management system for museums.


  • A HackTheHearst FAQ: http://hackthehearst.berkeley.edu/faq.html
  • Take a look at some of the Hearst Museum’s digitized collections: http://pahma.berkeley.edu/delphi/