Seeing Images

Metadata and Mediation in the Digital Archive




Image, Mediation, Metadata, Media history, Online image collections


In the cultural heritage digital archive, descriptive metadata makes images (re)searchable. Text-based searches seek terms that match metadata terms or terms referring to aspects of images that have previously been considered essential to select and describe in metadata terms. Such considerations are bound up with historically changing institutional agendas, ideas about user preferences, and implementation of metadata standards. This study approaches image accessibility from a different perspective. It aims to investigate how the infrastructure of the digital archive, comprising metadata and interface, intervenes with, circumscribes as well as enables, the images’ visibility and knowledge-producing capacity. The starting points are: first, that images in digital archives, exemplified by the online image collections in Alvin and DigitaltMuseum, are mediated, mediating, and “mixed” media objects that simultaneously represent the past and the present; second, that the digital archive in a media history of images functions as both a tool and an object of research. Using the platforms as tools of research, this study is based on test searches that aim to find viable search strategies for mixed media objects. The chosen search terms represent media-historically significant and common traits such as images that are combined with text and images that represent and/or mediate other images. The study discloses that the platforms give both false negatives and false positives. They do not support searches that focus media terms and relations between media elements. These problems are further related both to heterogenous metadata practices and to the simultaneously restricted and broad image concept behind them. As objects of research, both platforms are considered in relation to a future construction of a media history of images, where the digital archive is a particular node. The study demonstrates how the “hypermedial” environment associated with new media is prefigured by media interrelations in analog images – or images that are accessible as mediated through the archive’s interface and as policed by the archive’s metadata structure.

Author Biographies

Sonya Petersson, Stockholm University

Sonya Petersson received her PhD in art history from Stockholm University in 2014. Since then she has conducted the post-doctoral project Graphic Illustration: Picture, Concept, and Combined Mediality from the Point of View of Mechanical Reproduction (2016–19). Her research interests include print media culture, word and image studies, and media history. She is presently (2020) enrolled in the Metadata Culture research group at Stockholm University.

Anna Dahlgren, Department of Culture and Aesthetics

Anna Dahlgren has written extensively on photography, image cultures, the digital turn, archives, and museum practices. She is PI of The Politics of Metadata focusing metadata practices and cultural heritage institutions’ image collections online and author of Travelling Images: Looking Across the Borderlands of Art, Media and Visual Culture (2018) and guest editor for the J. of Digital Culture & Society.


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How to Cite

Petersson, S. and Dahlgren, A. . (2022) “Seeing Images: Metadata and Mediation in the Digital Archive”, Culture Unbound, 13(2), pp. 104–132. doi: 10.3384/cu.3562.