Local Government Magazine
Information Technology

Art for all

Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery

When Whanganui District Council’s Sarjeant Gallery had to shift to smaller temporary premises, its team was concerned no one would miss out on seeing the many artworks it holds. The project was the runner-up in the recent ALGIM Best Digital Service Awards.

The problem

The Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui is a regional gallery with a small team and no web development or IT staff. Following the closure in 2014 of the gallery’s earthquake-prone Category I listed heritage building, gallery operations were relocated to temporary premises, Sarjeant on the Quay, to allow for earthquake strengthening and redevelopment.

The temporary premises have a significantly smaller exhibition space. This reduces opportunities for members of the public to view the collection and makes it crucial to offer public access online. The public had expressed they would like to access more of the collection than the current temporary premises allow.

The gallery aimed to create a resource that would provide engaging ways for visitors to browse through the collection, without assuming they had any prior knowledge, and to introduce innovative features, make the site as accessible as possible, and meet current technical best practice.

The timeframe

This initiative spanned three months: from August to November 2017. The budget was $20,000, and the remainder of the development costs were absorbed by supplier Vernon Systems. As part of the agreement, Vernon Systems uses the site to promote the product worldwide, giving the gallery international exposure. In the context of local and international museum online projects, the gallery’s achievement reflects an innovative, cost-effective outcome.

How did you go about it?

The project was accomplished by collaborating closely with Vernon Systems, making the full collection data set available, and working together to test new features. Savings were achieved through strategic employment of open source solutions to optimise use of existing data, as well as automatic analysis of the data, which lessened the need for gallery staff to input data manually.

This allowed gallery efforts to be directed towards gaining copyright permissions to increase the number of images displayed.

Technology used

• Key fields of basic collection metadata are combined to create natural sounding sentences;

• Google Vision’s API generates auto subject keyword tags;

• Facility to browse by colour using an open source colour extractor to automatically extract up to five of the most dominant colours in the image;

• Searches automatically filtered by image orientation, i.e. landscape and portrait formats;

• Built as a stand-alone microsite making it simpler to develop and manage on an ongoing basis.

• Built on top of an API providing future options for data re-use and new interfaces;

• Create Once, Publish Everywhere concept embraced;

• Artist records linked to Wikipedia and Te Ara (Encyclopaedia of NZ);

• API is used to share records with cultural heritage aggregator, Digital NZ, providing another location for audiences to discover the collection;

• Works in the public domain are clearly marked allowing visitors easy identification of images for re-use;

• WCAG 2.0 AA standard compliant for web accessibility;

• Tested using Wave browser plugin and WebAIM’s contrast checker;

• Advanced search page available for researchers;

• Responsive templates for mobile, tablet and desktop screens;

• Standard HTML metadata tags and Open Graph metadata tags used to help search engines index the site and improve sharing on social media;

• Social media sharing buttons in detailed views streamline sharing;

• Search filters simplify browsing data subsets;

• Apache Lucene used to retrieve search facets and provide live counts of records matching each of the displayed categories, ensuring there are no dead ends in the site.

The gallery aimed to create a resource that would provide engaging ways for visitors to browse through the collection.

External suppliers

Vernon Systems, Auckland.

End results

This project has been recognised by the museum and gallery industry at both national and international levels:

• Won the Best New Digital Collection/Exhibition Award at NZ National Digital Forum Nov 2017;

• The team was selected to present a paper at North American Museums & The Web conference, Vancouver May 2018;

• Also selected to present a paper at upcoming NZ National Digital Forum November 2019.

The gallery is thrilled with the overwhelming and positive responses received from visitors to the site. From informal discussions with visitors and review of Google Analytics visitor statistics, the feature that people most enjoy is searching by colour. Visitors love the ease of use, dynamic filter options and the serendipitous discoveries they make.

Interesting connections are emerging between works from different artists and periods based on the colours, shapes and image orientations detected by the computer vision
tools employed.

• Access is now provided to view artworks (digitally) that would previously have been unavailable;

• Front-of-house staff are better equipped to respond to public enquiries, particularly on weekends when no curatorial staff are available, by accessing the online portal;

• Visitors frequently expect that a specific work will be on display when they arrive, which is not often possible due to the reduced temporary exhibition space, and staff are now able to give them a viewing of the work online resulting in a more positive visitor experience;

• An online kiosk in the gallery space enables visitors to explore the collection or view additional information on artworks currently on display;

• Improved access for other galleries seeking to borrow artworks for upcoming temporary exhibitions;

• Free promotion of exhibitions and works currently on display.


The significant benefit for both parties from working in partnership with the supplier Vernon Systems.

The value of experimentation during development, and being willing to abandon ideas when they prove not to be effective.

How significant savings can be achieved by working cleverly and choosing to use existing Open Source tools.

How important access to the collection is to the public, particularly while the gallery is operating out of a smaller temporary site.

The significance of making provision for play (e.g. searching the collection via colour) resulting in a more dynamic and engaging public experience.

The benefits of sharing data, both with the supplier and with other sources, such as partnership with Digital NZ, which broadens public access and aligns our data with related records from other sites.   

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