The visible museum
Towards integration of managing, presenting and exchanging information
Museon, The Hague
The Memoria project, subtitled 'Helping Memory Institutions Meet the Future', takes place within Innovation & SME's program of the European Community. The project investigates how existing technological solutions can be adjusted and implemented in order to meet the needs especially of minor memory institutions, enabling them to keep track with the quick changes that take place within their sector as part of the regional cultural and economic development. Within the concept of the project the re-use of information from cultural heritage repositories fulfils a central role.
The problem of fragmentation
The use of digital applications in cultural heritage institutions, particularly museums, is quite fragmented. Often they use collection management systems. Especially for tracing objects and providing access to administrative and content related information about the collections, they mainly serve a project internal aim. At the same time for many museums the provision of access to their digitised collections by the public is considered as an ultimate goal. Attempts to reach this aim lead to a growing amount of online collection databases and even more databases that can be consulted by the public on the museum's premises. One may wonder whether the large public - in contrast to the professional, expert or collector - needs access to thousands of records related to flint stone tools, Japanese netsuke, Ottoman prints or photographs of wind mills, while one can also wonder whether the accessibility of the collection is not even reduced by such huge numbers of records - but these questions are outside the scope of this paper. In any case most collection management systems do not include the possibility to present collection information on the museum's premises or via the web. At the best an additional module can be acquired "from the shelf" that enables a web application to communicate with the collection management system, but quite often a dedicated application has to be build especially for the museum against high costs, by consequence unaffordable for most institutions. Not seldom the public collection presentation system is based on a conversion of data from the local database and therefore difficult to keep up-to-date; changes in the museum internal database are not automatically reflected in the public database. If museums intend to co-operate or want to make available their collections via a portal the situation even can get more complicated. In case distributed search is supported the only problem will probably be related to the contents: the differences in object registration between different institutions will get visible, which may be confusing for the user, especially if the terminology is not standardised. If distributed search is not supported the situation gets worse, since information has to be exported on a regular basis from the local system and be uploaded to the central server. Quite a good chance that compatibility problems do not make this process very straightforward.
Providing access to digital collections however should be more than just providing access to collection information that until now mainly served a museum internal aim. For internal use a mere physical description of the object, together with some keywords, some telegram style notes and some administrative information may be sufficient. Users from outside the institution, usually much less gifted with sufficient background information about the collections, will expect more explanation when browsing through a collection database. They may need more detailed information about the symbolism used on a painting, about the context of use of an object from an ethnology collection or about the position of a specimen in a natural history collection amidst other specimens. They shortly need dedicated object presentations. For a museum this requires huge amounts of work, but it is nevertheless done quite often. For exhibitions, educational events, paper catalogues, magazines etc. this type of presentation texts are created, often even in different languages and for different target groups. The problem however is that quite often this type of information cannot be stored in the existing collection management systems, especially not in case of multilingual object information and if different presentations are created for different target groups. By consequence the direct link to all other information about the objects is lost, which makes it much more complicated to re-use. When preparing exhibitions, educational activities or digital applications, how often is it forgotten that some useful work already has been done in the past?
With the digital applications we touch one of the other ideals of the modern museum: having thematic multimedia applications available at their premises or via the world wide web, as a kind of billboard attracting visitors to their website and hopefully to their museum. These applications, informative or educational of nature, often make use of information that can be found in the object databases, however without a direct link being available. Also for these applications data entry usually has to be redone, while for updating the information the memory institutions are largely dependent on the persons or companies that were responsible for the creation of the applications. Tailored as they are to the needs of a specific institution, these applications are quite expensive and therefore - as is often the case in the cultural heritage world - only available for the wealthier institutions.
But even with this observation the impression of information that is fragmented and scattered is not yet complete. Flyers, brochures, museum web sites and portals contain information about the museum and its activities. All media refer to the same information but unfortunately not to the same data source; for every medium the data entry has to be redone, and keeping the information up-to-date has proven to be a time consuming and hardly efficient process. Not rarely the process of keeping information up-to-date appears to be lagging very much behind.
How information gets lost
There is one type of information created in memory institutions that we did not yet touch upon: information related to business processes. This may be collection, institution or activity related. What exactly are the procedures for object entry, loans, insurance etc.? What is the exact expertise of staff members, which temporary staff, volunteers or trainees were employed and what exactly were there tasks? Which documents are available related to the institution's mission, history, policy etc. Which exhibitions have been organised and when, which objects were part of these exhibition, who was responsible for the design, which activities were organised related to this exhibition? Which ideas for exhibitions have been defined but never been effectuated? What were the precise reasons for this? Which events were organised, when, who was involved, which factors explained their failure or success? Which valuators, restorers, shipping companies, insurance company etc. does the institution deal with and what were the previous experiences with those? It is no habit within museums to keep track of this type of information; generally it is deemed sufficient if it is kept somewhere in a staff member's mind or in a paper folder in a desk. But time proves that these types of information slowly disappear from the institutions. Staff members move or simply forget, responsibilities move to other persons, paper files get lost between other paper files. Today's agenda prevails, while quite often problems could have much easier be tackled or plans prepared if the institution had kept track with its former knowledge, shortly if a knowledge management system had been in place.
Public access to the memory institutions' collection information is considered to be an aspect of a more general presence of the institution on the world wide web. Having a website tends to be a must for even the smallest institutions. Like one can question the use of providing unbridled access to collection information, one could also question whether mere presence on the web will contribute to the visibility of an institution. Admitted, someone interested in wind mills will probably encounter the website of the wind mill museum and someone interested in the history of dredging will not miss the website of the dredging museum, but most websites will drown in the ever growing number of websites. Co-operation between institutions could however provide a remedy against this tendency. Memory institutions operating in a specific domain could position themselves among other institutions working in the same domain by the creation of affinity portals, attractive to web travellers that share the same interests. This would make possible some kind of collective branding, which would be an advantage for both the museums as the end users. The museum would need to pay less attention to its visibility on the web. Regarding the information that it offers, it would be easier to avoid duplication of the work done by other institutions and focus more on being supplementary to the museums that are part of the same portal and less on being competitive. For the end users the information would be easier to find, more familiar, attractive and of higher quality.
Memory institutions could also be presented as part of a region in regional portals, contributing to the overall attractiveness of that region to potential tourists and thus attracting also more visitors to the museum itself, probably more than had been the case with only the website of the individual museum. The presence of a certain small museum will probably not be the reason for a tourist to visit the region, but the attractiveness of the region may be a reason to visit institutions that contribute to the region's attractiveness.
Surfing on the world wide web we can see examples of this kind of portal sites, but even for the details on the museums they are strongly dependent on the central editor and the only real contribution of the individual museums to the application is mostly an indirect one, via the link to their websites, although in some cases museums have direct access to their own information on the portal site. To have information actualised museums usually are dependant on email messages or on a dedicated remote data entry screen, but a direct link to a central data source is missing. By consequence the involvement of museums with these sites is rather small and without this real involvement it appears difficult to keep the information really up-to-date.
In collection management systems, the curator's head, terminals on the premises of memory institutions, museum websites, portal websites, paper catalogues, boiler plate texts etc., everywhere information is stored. A central repository for all information that is being produced within an institution however is missing. This makes it difficult to trace, keep up to date or re-use. From the viewpoint of the museum, where labour is usually scarce, this can be seen as highly inefficient and a waste of time.
A very first step towards integration is being made by suppliers of collection management systems, who created already web access to their systems or are working on it. Therefore adding a functionality to search through the collection database via software that is integrated in the collection management system seems realistic for many institutions, even for smaller ones. However, for the sake of efficiency, usability of the information for the end-user and to enable also smaller institutions to hook up with the new possibilities that emerge within this information age, merely providing access to collection databases is not sufficient. A higher degree of integration of collection management, knowledge management and presentation information is needed. Keywords in the ongoing development of information systems for memory institutions should be: re-use of information, efficiency, flexibility and co-operation. Unfortunately there are no models on the market that can be implemented as such, there are no examples and best practices to follow.
OpenHeritage, a project in the European Framework V program, took place within this niche. Integration of software components and providing the tools to promote the regional cultural heritage were the main themes of the project that ended in March 2003. Within the project a collection and content management system was developed with dedicated presentation functionality, including a tool for the creation of narratives. This system is able to feed the website of an individual museum with information about its collections and activities and with collection related narratives. It can communicate with a web portal and a media brokering service, that both are also developed within the scope of the OpenHeritage project. In the web portal information from cultural heritage repositories is integrated with tourist information, thus providing tourists with an instrument for planning their journey. The media brokering service aims at generating new sources of income for museums by selling the rights to use images of objects in their collection, video clips and even small dedicated software programs. The system allows cultural heritage institutions to store and re-use all information that they produce, without being forced to redo the data entry.
OpenHeritage resulted in prototypes of the different system components. They have been subjected extensively to user evaluation, that set the direction for their further enhancement. The model that OpenHeritage provides has however never been tested in a real market situation, and this is exactly where the Memoria project takes up the results. Within the framework of the project two test beds are created, one in Wales (UK) and one in the Mugello region in Tuscany, Italy, involving a number of small and very small museums. Different software components coming from the OpenHeritage project, will be installed:
- OpenMuseum: a collection management, content production and presentation system. It facilitates the production of presentation information and can contain multilingual and multipurpose contents. Since it is known from experience that migration to another collection management system is considered as a nightmare for most museum staff dependent on these systems, the content production and presentation part of the system will also be available as a plugin to existing collection management systems.
- OpenMuseum Base, that enables institutions to manage centrally multimedia workstations on the museum's premises.
- OpenPortal, that makes possible to create a portal website as a collaborative of institutions working together in a certain region, thus strengthening its cultural heritage profile.
To these OpenHeritage software components, that will further be enhanced within the Memoria project, a knowledge management component as a support to museum internal processes will be added.
In this way it will be possible to investigate the pro's and con's of a model like this and possible bottlenecks and pitfalls. It defines a number of best practices, that may serve as an example for other institutions and regions. Memoria, shortly, offers the possibility to fine-tune an emerging model for more efficient use of information in memory institutions and enhancement of their visibility in this digital age.
The Memoria project has partners in Italy, UK, Spain and The Netherlands. They range from software developers to regional development agencies, research institutions and organisations working in the field of the cultural heritage. The partners are:
Space S.p.A. (I), a multimedia engineering company
Comunit Montana del Mugello (I), an institution created between Tuscan mountain towns to assess the local heritage; in particular it manages a network of Mugello museumsCouncil of Museums in Wales (UK)University of Glamorgan (UK)System Simulation Ltd. (UK), a software engineering company established in LondonCentro di Ingegneria Economica e Sociale (I), a research centre promoted by the Unical (University of Calabria) Museon (NL), a museum in The HagueRobotiker (E), consultancy and technology transfer foundation.