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Hammer Channel

An open-source video platform for the Hammer Museum

Los Angeles, United States

  • An online destination worthy of the Hammer’s outstanding events program
  • On-brand, accessible and integrated with the museum’s wider digital presence
  • Released under an open-source license to inspire and empower others

The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles has a unique calendar of public programs. Prominent artists, film directors, actors, commentators and experts come to the Hammer to share their insights. Up to now, the content has mainly been accessible to people who can attend the talks in person or watch the live streams.

With the launch of Hammer Channel the videos now have, for the first time, a comprehensive online home where they can be explored, enjoyed, and shared by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

An open-source project built by Cogapp, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Hammer Channel launched in May 2021. It is home to over 1,000 recordings of programs, performances, and artist interviews from the last decade and beyond, with more being added all the time.

Audiences will find full, searchable transcripts for every video, and a clipping tool that allows them to capture and share their favourite moments.

“I am so blown away. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just so amazing, you have every feature from my wildest dreams that I never thought we could actually get in there… It’s a miracle!”
Claudia Bestor, Director of Public Programs
Event photography showing the variety of talks and performances to be found in Hammer Channel
Example of the variety of talks and performances to be found in Hammer Channel

Building a better online world for audiences

Most of the videos in Hammer Channel are recordings of public programs held at the Hammer since 2005. These comprise a broad range of screenings, lectures and conversations featuring renowned artists, authors, musicians, scholars, and experts from a variety of fields.

The archive also includes video interviews with contemporary artists who have been exhibited at the museum.

Compiling this wide-ranging collection together for the first time, Hammer Channel is a destination for primary resources relating to modern and contemporary art history, as well as politics, social justice, architecture, ecology, economics, and the cultural history of Los Angeles.

Screenshot of the theme explorer on the site showcasing examples of themes to explore
Examples of themes to explore

The conversations and topics recorded in the videos capture the zeitgeist of their moment, and will serve as a document of their time to future viewers.

Featuring many well-known names, artists and thinkers, from Lupita Nyong’o to Leonard Nimoy, Betye Saar to Neil deGrasse Tyson, audiences will discover familiar and new faces and ideas in the archives.

A destination for art and ideas

Our website design presents the broad range of topics discussed in the videos at first glance along the ‘topic trail’ pinned to the bottom of the homepage. You can read the design story of the topic trail on our blog.

Enabling visitors to scan and jump to topics that interest them provides a quick way in for those who know what they are looking for. For browsing visitors, the featured videos section at the top of the homepage includes videos chosen by the museum based on relevance to current affairs and themes. Below that, each topic has a carousel of its most recent videos. Suggested tags on the search panel also provide another way in for users who are browsing, rather than researching.

Screenshots of Hammer Channel on a mobile device
Hammer Channel on mobile

Once a visitor arrives on a video page, they are greeted with an intuitive player with all the familiar functions you would expect, including closed captions. In a responsive side-by-side layout, the viewer can read about the content and the speakers without interrupting playback. A fully-searchable transcript is displayed, which highlights the current section as the video progresses.

Lots of the videos are extensive, filmed live programs, around 90 minutes long. The clipping tool gives viewers the chance to share a specific section of the video by selecting a start time and an end time. A unique link is generated which takes the recipient straight to the chosen starting point.

The full collection can be sorted by date and filtered by a browseable list of topics, tags, people and playlists.

The site is built in accordance with accessibility guidance from WCAG 2.0 and Section 508.

Building a better online world for the Hammer

Balancing the organisation’s mission online

Perhaps uniquely for a contemporary art museum, the Hammer gives their public programs equal institutional priority with their art collection and exhibitions.

“The Hammer Museum believes in the promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world.”

Hammer Channel is a critical tool to deliver this institutional vision. The public programs, discussions and artists interviews in Hammer Channel are the ideas that sit alongside the museum’s art (its exhibitions and collections). It’s fundamental.

In the same way a collections management system provides a canonical source of information for the Hammer’s art, we can think of the new digital asset management system (DAMS), Asset Bank, and the public presentation layer, Hammer Channel, as the equivalent for the Hammer’s ideas.

A Hammer Channel promotional image

Displaying this archive online provides an accessible, public home for all the museum’s video content, also giving all staff access to the comprehensive collection without the need for logins or authorisation.

Securing the Hammer’s history

Using Asset Bank DAMS, the museum can see and manage all their video files and metadata in one place for the first time. Because the video archive regularly harvests data from the DAMS, any updates made there are automatically reflected on the website.

As a part of this project, we worked with the museum to compile a definitive master inventory of all the Hammer’s video content. The video files and metadata were distributed between the Hammer's website, YouTube, Vimeo, Livestream and legacy hard drives. A robust video production process has been successfully implemented at the museum over the past few years, but the ongoing accessibility, storage and presentation of the videos had been less regimented. With the new archive, finding and retrieving a video is just one search away.

Screenshot of Hammer Channel search results page
Hammer Channel search results page

The master inventory was a key part of the pre-production process – checking for completeness, metadata consistency and addition of creative content such as descriptions and tags.

By compiling and tidying the data in a central Google Sheet, many contributors could work concurrently to prepare the data for import into Asset Bank. The process also included the upload of each video to Trint, a transcript service.

Moving our industry forward

An open-source approach to inspire and empower others

Cogapp architected an open-source system and website for Hammer Channel. This project can be used as the basis for other institutions to implement a similar platform.

The Mellon Foundation grant funding specifically advocates for an open source system to advance video presentation in the field. As a result, Hammer Channel proves a new model for museums who want to organise, catalogue, and provide public access to large bodies of video content.

This opportunity to adopt a ‘bring-your-own DAMS’ solution and publish an on-brand video archive allows museums to retain control over how their video content is presented to the world online. It offers independence from third-party video publishing platforms and enables flexibility in terms of integration with an institution’s wider digital platforms and organisational strategy.

For Hammer Channel, our assessment of DAMS systems resulted in a recommendation to use Asset Bank, created by Bright. The system is user friendly and the Bright team have been a proactive partner throughout the project, coordinating metadata and media bulk imports and providing user training.

Other institutions could use any DAMS system to store their videos and still gain value from reusing the open-source code from Hammer Channel.

All the code for the data pipeline and web application can be found on GitHub. To recreate a similar version of the system, all you need is to adjust the data adapter to your database (that could be a DAMS, or even just a spreadsheet).

The system

Technically, Hammer Channel comprises the following components:

  • Asset Bank DAMS
  • Harvester
  • Datastore/Search Engine (Elasticsearch)
  • Laravel API
  • Web application
Diagram of the Hammer Channel technical architecture
The technical architecture of Hammer Channel

Asset Bank is a cloud-based DAMS. Content is added and managed via a web interface, as well as bulk uploads as necessary. Asset Bank exposes data to authorised users programmatically via an API.

The Asset Bank harvester we have developed is configured to extract metadata for approved video assets, process and enhance that metadata, then adapts it for output. Harvesters can be created to speak to any other DAMS API.

The harvester extracts data on a daily schedule. We enhance the data by adding transcriptions from Trint transcription service. The harvester sends processed data to an Elasticsearch index.

The Elasticsearch Datastore acts as a hub of video-related data. It provides information about videos that power playlists, search, transcripts, closed captions and related content via a Laravel API. It also provides URLs for video playback from AWS storage.

Finally, the front-end application serves the content to users and provides services such as thumbnail generation.

Creating an environment where everyone can do their best work

Cogapp and the Hammer Museum have been working together continuously for the past two years. Hammer Channel is the culmination of a deeply collaborative and transparent partnership between the two organisations. With inspiring content, a clear vision and open communication, designing and building Hammer Channel has been a joy.

Photograph of Neil sitting at a table by a pool in Los Angeles, he's prepping for the Discovery workshops
Neil prepping for the Discovery workshops in L.A.

We kicked off the project in LA, with stakeholder workshops at the museum. We worked with representatives from all relevant departments to capture the biggest opportunities and challenges likely to arise, as well as the hopes and wishes everyone had for the video archive. This allowed us, together, to brainstorm a project vision statement for this yet unnamed project to put all of Hammer’s video content online in one canonical home.

Our partnership and project processes thrived thanks in large part to the expertise and autonomy of the product owners at the museum, Philip Leers and Susan Edwards. We kept the Cogapp team small and consistent, meaning the core group day-to-day on both continents totalled only four to six people.

“You guys were amazing to work with. Susan and I loved the experience. It helped internally with us to be inspired to work efficiently and collaboratively… you delivered everything that we wanted and more than we expected.”
Philip Leers, Project Manager for Digital Initiatives

This allowed us to each build expertise in the end-to-end solution, and to develop a deep understanding of what was required, and desired, by the team at the Hammer.

Photograph of Neil sketching out the system architecture back in Brighton
Sketching out the system architecture back in Brighton

The technical architecture and design of Hammer Channel were developed in parallel. To utilise an eight-hour time difference between the project teams, we leaned heavily on asynchronous communications.

We used Pivotal Tracker, a shared project management tool, to track all work in flight and to build the project backlog.

We used Google Suite to collaborate on project documentation and compile video inventories and metadata from multiple sources.

We used video to present design concepts, exploration and iterations. So, instead of gathering in person or meeting on Zoom for design presentations, and asking the museum team for feedback on the spot, we recorded informal run throughs of our design work. We would send the video over at the end of our UK working day, and come back online in the morning to a full set of written feedback from the Hammer team. The Hammer team had time to digest and reflect on the ideas and proposals we were presenting before providing their feedback, and the Cogapp team got swift, regular, traceable feedback. Win win!

You can read more about the design process in Gavin’s blog post, here.

Photograph of pages featuring images of early prototype screens up on the wall in our project room
Early prototype screens up on the wall in our project room

These techniques also served our internal teams well as the UK and California went into lockdown midway through the project, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

As well as these ongoing asynchronous comms methods, we had our Sprint Demo every two weeks with a wider set of stakeholders from the museum. This session was always held live over Zoom. The regular demos ensured buy-in throughout the project from stakeholders not involved in day-to-day production.

Screenshot of people attending the final stakeholder delivery demo on Zoom
The final stakeholder delivery demo on Zoom

The project reached a pinnacle with a final delivery demo to all the stakeholders involved from across the museum. It was a time to reflect on the journey we had taken and the exciting opportunities still to come, at launch and beyond, with Hammer Channel continuing to grow and evolve.

The launch of Hammer Channel is a huge milestone for the Museum and for Cogapp; and we’re excited to already be planning our next projects together.

Hammer Channel

channel.hammer.ucla.edu

Open-source project

Find out more

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