17 million reasons to love ‘LUX,’ Yale’s new collections search tool
Yale University’s museums, libraries, and archives contain vast troves of cultural and scientific heritage that fire curiosity and fuel research worldwide. Now there’s a simple new way to make astonishing connections among millions of objects.
Starting today, anyone can explore the university’s unparalleled holdings online through LUX: Yale Collections Discovery — a groundbreaking discovery and research platform that provides single-point access to more than 17 million items, including defining specimens of dinosaur fossils, illuminated medieval manuscripts, paintings by Vincent van Gogh and J. M. W. Turner, and the archives of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, and other renowned literary figures.
Free and easy to use, the platform — a powerful kind of database that maps relationships — helps users find clear pathways through the collections and uncover links between objects that might otherwise seem unconnected, such as a fish fossil and an 18th-century sketch of a young woman. Previously there was no easy way to search multiple collections at once or discern associations among the objects within them.
Developed by Yale over the past five years, LUX encompasses the collections of the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum, and Yale University Library, which includes the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, and specialized collections devoted to the arts, music, film, history of medicine, and religion. The Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of the arts and humanities, funded key aspects of the project and was instrumental in its completion.
“LUX is designed to open the breadth of Yale’s cultural and natural history collections, connecting our wide range of extraordinary objects, specimens, and works from across our libraries, archives, and museums,” said Susan Gibbons, vice provost for collections and scholarly communication. “We are committed to fostering curiosity and illuminating the hidden threads within the collections at Yale, from rare books and manuscripts to sculptures and fossils, to highlight unexpected avenues for collaboration and new research opportunities.”
Through the platform, she said, “we hope to build on Yale’s mission to improve our world for future generations through the pursuit of innovation in research, scholarship, and education.”
Holdings relating to Benjamin Silliman, a pioneering Yale professor whose teaching in the early 1800s established scientific education at the university, offer a case study in the kinds of unexpected connections researchers can uncover through LUX:
A fossilized fish skeleton collected by Silliman in Italy is housed in the Yale Peabody Museum. An 1857 letter he wrote to philanthropist George Peabody, who would provide the funding for establishing the Peabody Museum, is housed in Silliman’s archives at the Yale University Library. The scientist’s wife, Harriet Trumbull, was the subject of a graphite and watercolor sketch now owned by the Yale University Art Gallery. Her uncle, the artist John Trumbull, was mentored by the artist Benjamin West and helped complete his painting of the Battle of La Hogue, which is housed at the Yale Center for British Art. A search of “Benjamin Silliman” in the LUX search bar unearthed all these items and tied them together.
In short, LUX enables researchers and other inquiring minds to use simple language to discover — and easily sort — art, cultural, and scientific heritage objects, and to explore the connections among them and with people, places, and events, without prior knowledge that those ties exist.
“The power of LUX comes from its ability to allow users to uncover hidden relationships between objects, from shared concepts to famous figures in Yale’s collections,” Robert Sanderson, Yale’s senior director for digital cultural heritage, said. “This groundbreaking tool brings together all the university’s collections through modern technology that will enrich discovery opportunities for users, making it easier for them to find what they’re looking for and explore new objects.
“We think LUX is game-changing for the cultural heritage domain,” he added. “No other institution has a system with this level of capability.”
LUX is designed to allow individuals with little experience searching databases (this type is known as a “knowledge graph”) to conduct fine-grained intellectual explorations.
For instance, a search for “John Trumbull” (the artist who rendered many of revolutionary America’s defining moments and established the Yale University Art Gallery in 1832) pulls up, from across Yale’s different collections, 680 objects he created or owned or are otherwise related to him, including his acclaimed painting “The Declaration of Independence,” which he worked on for more than three decades. Tabs located above the primary search field direct the user to “works,” “people and groups,” “places,” “concepts,” and “events” relating to Trumbull, each revealing new avenues to explore.
A series of filters listed on the left of the screen allows users to refine searches by, for example, sorting exclusively for objects for which there are already digital images. (Yale is a global leader in digitizing museum and library collections. Extensive portions of the holdings at the art gallery, YCBA, and Peabody are fully digitized, as are a significant number of objects in the Beinecke Library and other Yale Library collections.)
An advanced search function for targeted queries allows users to go deeper. The record pages for individual objects contain basic information, such as when and where an object was produced, the materials used to create it, and its physical size, among other metadata. The pages also include relevant information drawn from non-Yale institutions and databases, such as the Library of Congress, with links to those sources at the lower right of the screen.
Ayesha Ramachandran, associate professor of comparative literature in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has experimented with LUX, and calls it a “terrific tool” for teaching and conducting research.
“I was struck by the way LUX is constructed to be a tool of exploration and not just a database,” Ramachandran said. “It is extremely intuitive and conceptually organized to allow you to drill down to learn more about the object of your search.”
To begin exploring Yale’s collection through LUX, visit lux.collections.yale.edu.