The sting in the tail of all the work art institutions have been doing to digitise their collections is that the more stuff you have, the harder it is to find any single thing.
To my mind, collection sites have two core needs:
This is for the people who know what they want, and want to get to it fast. Academic and professional image researchers may benefit from advanced search options. Experienced searchers might use filters, or other tools that allow them to expand and limit their searches easily (say by date, region, maker, materials, subject matter). It's also good to cater for people who get their search terms nearly-but-not-quite right (collin mcahon) with fuzzy search or suggested search options.
One of my favourite solutions to the search-right-now demand is the IMA's mega-menus: from absolutely any page on the site you can start a new collection search, but because the tool is tucked away in the site navigation, it doesn't have to be visually present on every page.
This blog post by the IMA's Charlie Moad explains the tools that have been put in place for collection searchers
This is for the people who want to know what you have, but don't know where to start. A search box is scary if your question is "what is there?".
Yesterday LACMA's Tom Drury blogged about findings from a survey of website visitors. People said they LACMA should let images rule the website (rather than the more proasaic info, like opening hours, that LACMA expected).
As a result, LACMA have introduced two new collection display techniques.
First up, collection splash pages - like this one for photography - provide entry points to works, blog posts, exhibitions and events related to different collection areas.
Second, a new collection homepage (in Flash) based on the idea of remixing. Clicking on an item in a tag cloud opens up three works grouped according to a word or short phrase.
The initial sets are been curated by staff, although visitors have been invited to email suggested sets in. Although the first thought I had was that this should work more like Flickr's galleries - with people being able to sign up and create their own groups for sharing or personal reference - on reflection I actually like the very lightweight implementation.