Reviewed April 2019
Matthew Garklavs, Electronic Resources Librarian
Pratt Institute Libraries
Crotos is a free and open source Wikidata-based search engine that displays visual artworks. Since its release in 2015, the collection has grown from about 29,000 images to nearly 150,000, consisting mainly of work held in museums, libraries, or on public display (e.g. statues in parks or plazas). In addition to Wikidata, Crotos also relies on Wikimedia Commons files to aggregate content, making it firmly grounded in an ethos of collaboration, transparency, and accessibility.
Crotos is equipped with several filters and image management tools that users of Artstor will be familiar with. It also interoperates with two separate modules, called Cosmos and Callisto, which provide more enhanced navigational features. Cosmos allows the user to browse the entire collection by type, creator, movement, genre, subject heading, exhibition, collection, and what the artwork is based on or what it depicts. Callisto geolocates each artwork on an interactive map. This feature enables the user to explore items by the geographical place the work is depicting, the collection where the work is held, or the physical location of the artwork itself (which mainly applies to architecture and public art). Callisto would be particularly useful for studying art in the context of particular places or for providing patrons with information about local museums.
While Crotos lacks any tools to customize collections or curate images, users can engage directly with the content by contributing or editing data via Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons. There is also room for collaboration on the code, since it is open-source and hosted on GitHub. For instance, Crotos utilizes an image cropper API supported by the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). Developers could further optimize the site by implementing additional APIs from the IIIF or other open source initiatives. In some ways, this underlying framework is the most exciting aspect of Crotos. Crotos exemplifies how linked open data and open collections can be harnessed to display images of artworks in new and interesting ways. If enough people participate in this project and actively contribute, then Crotos can potentially offer its users a creative and international community.
One should not mistake Crotos as the free, open-source alternative to tools like Artstor. It is also far less polished and user-friendly than the new Google Arts & Culture platform. Compared to these resources, Crotos lacks so much of the functionality that scholars, educators, and students expect to have when they study and curate images of art. Without a protocol for authentication or a tool to generate citations, it is difficult for users to document their findings in Crotos or utilize its content for academic assignments. From a programming perspective the project is even more problematic. In a talk at Wiki Con in 2017, Crotos’ creator, who goes by the alias “Shonagon”, acknowledged that the project lacks a dedicated developer and is not scalable to new technology. These are fundamental flaws for an endeavor of this magnitude and may make the tool obsolete in the near future.
In the meantime, Crotos could make some small stylistic changes. A good place to start would be with branding. For instance, Callisto (the interactive map feature) is an impressive tool that with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, its function is completely obscured by the its cryptic name. Using simple terminology and including some instructional information about how these tools work would significantly improve user experience.
On the surface, Crotos seems like a hard sell to users. Its shortcomings in functionality and design become even more apparent when compared to other visual art search engines. That said, as a proof of concept Crotos demonstrates the potential of open data in the study of visual arts. Art librarians should be involved in this endeavor and work with developers to improve it. There are also valid reasons why one might be inclined to use Crotos over other resources: most significantly, it provides a way to search visual artworks for free in multiple languages without the risk of compromising a user’s privacy. The same cannot be said for Artstor, nor for Google Arts & Culture. In this respect, Crotos merits our attention and consideration.