London’s Science Museum, founded in 1851, houses a number of historical innovations, including the oldest surviving steam locomotive, and a replica of Babbage’s Difference Engine. Now, with the rollout of a new API to provide access to information about some of its exhibits, the museum itself has become an example of technological innovation.
The Science Museum is currently running an exhibit called “Cosmos & Culture: how astronomy has shaped our world“. In order to help promote the exhibit, the museum has created an online mashup contest. Developers are invited to use the new Cosmic Collections API to access information about objects on display, with a chance to win one of two £1000 prizes.
The Cosmos and Culture competition wiki explains what the Science Museum hopes to accomplish by providing a public API to access information about exhibits:
The data relating to the remarkable objects on display has been made open to the public so that competition entrants can ‘mash it up’, combining it with external resources and software to create new interfaces. This is a bold experiment for the Science Museum – we’re releasing our data and what happens next is completely up to you. Your challenge is to create brand new web interfaces for the objects – to shine a new light onto them and bring the stories behind them to life.
Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, discussed how the Cosmos and Culture competition could help muster up feedback from developers:
I also wanted to use the competition as an open beta test for our API – would our data make sense to non-museum people? Is it re-usable in its current structure? What kinds of functions would API users find useful?… I’m also really excited about the chance to let people loose and see what they come up with. The Cosmic Collections competition seemed like the perfect opportunity – there are so many different objects from cultures across the world and throughout time.
The Science Museum’s Cosmic Collections API features a RESTful interface, and returns data as XML. The API, which can be accessed using GET requests, is able to either return a list of all items in the Cosmic Collection, or provide specific information about a particular item in the collection.
The Cosmos and Culture project may prove to be an informative example for other museums to follow when exploring ways to interact with online visitors. We asked Ridge about her choice of data formats in designing the Cosmic Collections API:
I’ve also been considering Linked Data, microformats, RDFa – there are lots of different ways to get our data out there, and our experiences with this project will influence what we do next. I’m slowly working to improve the way our collections are presented online, and integrating machine-readable data with the public-facing pages is part of that.
The Cosmos and Culture competition is open to entries until midnight (London time) on November 28, 2009. More information about the contest can be found here, and there is a Science Museum Developer Google group as well. For some inspiration in creating your own mashups for the contest, take a look at our collection of dozens of science mashups and science-related APIs.