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The Nation's Collections: are we virtually there? Kevin Gosling, with a summary of the technical issues by Tony Gill

MDA lnfonnntion is published by the Museum Documentation Association

The Nation's Collections: are -we virtually there? Kevin Gosling, with a summary of the technical issues by Tony Gill It is praposed to call a meeting of

the Curators ofa few provincial Museums ... to discuss the possibility of obtaining... A compendious index of the contents of all provincial Museums and collections... H.M. PLATNAUER February 29th, 1888 (quoted in Roberts, 1992: 2} The Department [of National Heritage] will draw up a strategy for improving access to cultural assets through information technology. (DNH, 1996: 3) More than a century after Platnauer called that meeting, a 'compendious index' of our museum collections still seems a long way off. Or does it? According to the most recent survey, there are over 9 million object records held on computer in museums around the UK. (see p. 6) True, they are stored on all manner of hardware and software; the information they contain is structured in many different ways, even within individual museums; and finding the keywords that will lead to the information required is often a hit and miss affair. Yet there are growing signs that such inconsistencies are less of an obstacle to informationsharing between museums than was feared even a few years ago. The goal of sharing information about museum collections, and of making it accessible, is still with us. Indeed, it has recently appeared on DNH'~ agenda, while projects such as SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network) have secured unprecedented levels of funding. (p. 6) The goalposts, moreover, have shifted: instead of

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a single, centralised 'national database' it is possible to imagine a network of electronic resources distributed in museums around the country. To the user, such a patchwork of catalogue databases and related information would be accessible via a single gateway and could be thought of as a single resource covering the Nation's Collections. Between October 1995 and February 1996, MDA held a series of four seminars under the heading The Nation's Collections: are we virtually there? This title was meant to pose two questions. Firstly, have the many decades of effort spent in documenting our collections brought us anywhere close to a 'compendious index' of them? Secondly, do we all agree that the distributed database model, creating a virtual'national database' rather than a centrallyheld one, is the way forward? U the answer to both those questions is yes, what action is needed to clear the remaining hurdles and make this century-old dream a reality? It was also suggested that there is a

strategic need to think in terms of the Nation's Collections as a whole. The museum profession is currently debating strategies for resourcing the objects we have now - and for collecting in the longer term. MDA believes that information-sharing on a national level is essential if museums are to face up to these challenges. This issue of MDA Information

summarises the four Nation 's Collections seminars. The first, held at the Homiman Museum on 18 October 1995, reviewed the progress towards a national

database since Platnauer's call in 1888 (p. 2) and considered why that original goal seemed so elusive. Was it, perhaps, that the benefits of information-sharing were not sufficient to make it a priority? U so, is that still the case, or are there real strategic benefits at stake? (p. 3-5) Taking stock of developments to date, what has been achieved so far? (p. 6) One issue which recurred throughout the series was the lack of marketing research into the potential users of museum information and their needs. (p. 7) The second seminar, held on 7 November 1995 during MDA's Edinburgh conference, examined the technical feasibility of sharing information between museums and evaluated the various technical options. (p. 8-9) The third, in Cambridge on 6 December 1995, reconsidered the problems for information retrieval caused by the inconsistent use of terminology. (p. 10-11). Finally, a session held at the Museums & Galleries Commission on 21 February 1996 attempted to outline a framework for action. (p. 11} As it turned out, many issues kept surfacing during all four seminars, so this paper is mote of a general overview than a summary of each one in tum. Note At the time of writing Kevin Goslin g was MDA's Regional Outreach Manager for the East. He is now a consultant for the museum planning consultancy, LORD Cultural Resources. Tony GiU, who was MD A's Technical Outreach Manager, is now Project Leader for the ADAM Project, Surrey Institute of Art & Design.


Towards a 'national database' • A national index of museum collections is not a new idea... The need today has never been greater. However intimidating the sheer volume of the work may appear, unless a plan is formulated speedily for the compilation of such an index, national specialist indexes will come to fruition. If, however, a standardised system of indexing museum collections can be agreed by a body of expert opinion, then not only can a national index be started but curators wishing to recatalogue their collections can do so to the standard. A copy of such an index could then form part of the national record. The success of any scheme will rely much on the co-operation of the curator and it should be concerned primarily with the indexing of museum collections to provide a cheap and efficient index at source as well as for national purposes and not a complex research tool for specialists ... (Lewis, 1%5, quoted in Roberts, 1992: 5) • In the 1960s, the view was that computers offered a means of preparing national catalogues, to which all museums might contribute and themselves have access. In effect, it was argued that museums should computerise and then pool their item records. In the UK these ideas were related in a thought-provoking paper which hinted at the value of a computing system and called for the use of the then new technology as the basis for a national index (Lewis, 1%5). In the USA, similar considerations led to the establishment of the Museum Computer Network, a co-operative venture by a group of museums (predominantly art museums) from the


eastern States. Similarly, in France, Italy and Canada, plans were laid for the development of national computerbased catalogues.

searched collectively through common indexes and retrieval facilities ... (The UK Museum

In the UK and USA, financial and political constraints precluded any significant development of national catalogues. Elsewhere, particularly in Canada and France, the museum structure resulted in work towards national catalogues which were, to a large extent, isolated from the dayto-day problems of the museums themselves.

• At the most basic level of knowledge representation we find data values such as '5th Century, BC' or 'Athens, Greece'. Data value standards specify the terminology or format of data that may be recorded in a given data category or field. Above the data value level are data contents such as 'Date of Creation' or 'Place of excavation'. Data content standards specify all the categories of information expected or allowed on a system. Data content is organised in data structures. Data structure standards specify the ways that groups of data categories or fields will be linked and how those linkages will be formally expressed. Finally, data structures are processed according to rules and methods of information systems. Information systems standards regulate how software and hardware operate.

In the UK, a significant attempt was made instead to encourage the development of computing systems which museums could acquire for independent use on local mainframe computers. These systems placed a considerable emphasis on item documentation. (Roberts, 1984: 137)

• The UK Museum Databases Project (UKMDP) is a joint initiative of the Museum Documentation Association and Chadwyck-Healey Ltd to collect, publish and distribute computer databases from individual museums and groups of museums. The first products will be union databases from groups of museums on individual subjects. Later products may include other union databases on a regional basis, together with vocabulary lists, bibliographic databases and collection research databases. The underlying databases and derived indexes will be updated on a planned cycle as new information or additional databases become available. Initially the data will be published on computer output microfiche (COM), to be followed by publication on CD-ROM. Individual databases will be able to be

Datilbases Project: Pilot Datilbase, 1989: 3)

In efforts to make information interchangeable between cultural heritage information systems and between our systems and others with which they may interact we, as a professional community, have been actively involved in standardisation efforts on all four of these levels. In the rapidly evolving networked information environment in which we must participate, some of these efforts will be more valuable than others and some serious lacunas in our efforts to date will become painfully obvious. In addition, some of the approaches we have employed in implementing these standards will be seen to be counter-productive or unnecessary. (Bearman, 1994:93)

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The strategic benefits: Things 'R' Us? One could ask why museums don't bother with standards when libraries have used them for years and can now pool and exchange information freely. There is an obvious answer: museums have never had enough to gain from doing so. (Light, 1992: 29) What characterises, indeed defines, museums is that they hold collections of real things. Yet on average, only 20% of those collections is on public display at any one time. (Lord et al., 1989: 18-20) In the face of growing scrutiny, museums will increasingly have to justify the existence of the rest. Encouraging the public to use- and hence value- collections as a whole is therefore an important strategic goal if we are to maintain the political will to fund their ongoing curation. The true value of the information superhighway to museums is not that it offers yet another medium for presenting the cream of our collections exciting though that is - but that it could open up unprecedented access to all of them. In the late 1980s, various heritage-based visitor attractions were criticised for presenting a superficial view of the past. (Hewison, 1987) Whatever the merits of individual examples, the true superficiality of heritage centres lies in the fact that they can provide many of the outward benefits of traditional museums such as attracting tourists, providing educational resources and contributing to a sense of place - without the additional overhead of curating a collection behind the scenes. For their part, many traditional museums have abandoned the 'serried ranks' look and now use many of the same display techniques as heritage and science centres, often with fewer real objects on view than before. While these innovations have shaken off the dusty image of old, and made museums more popular

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than ever, those who visit and fund them could be forgiven for considering reserve collections a low priority, if they consider them at all. Out of sight, out of mind? U collections as a whole are not

used and not valued by museum users, it is not surprising that funding for collections care is getting harder to find, particularly in non-national museums. Worse still, the 'strong presumption' against disposal (Museums Association, 1995: 2.7) is not universally shared, even amongst curators. Indeed, one can see the stirrings of a tendency in some museums to regard at least parts of their collections as liabilities rather than assets. Not a few long-established museums are 'rationalising' their collections, while some just starting up seem keen: not to collect at all but rather to borrow items for specific exhibitions. The Audit Commission has urged local authorities to review their museum services and to think carefully about the relevance of their collections to current objectives:

Work with the collection is not only essential to visitor and other services but can also be viewed as a service in its own right -preservation of objects for current and future generations at a cost which the local authority is prepared to bear. The scope and nature of the collection will help determine the range of the other services provided and the markets at which they are aimed. Some authorities may, however, need to alter the balance and focus of their collections to bring them into line with service priorities and the needs of target audiences. (Audit Commission, 1991: 29-30)

Although data on usage is sparse, it seems abundantly clear that collections data is under-utilised, particularly by external enquirers. Whilst current levels of public usage might suggest a lack of interest, it is more likely to reflect a lack of awareness of a resource which is at present often inaccessible to the public anyway. It seems certain that there is an enormous latent interest in collection data which will be awakened once information systems are in place and the public encouraged to use them. This optimism seems to be borne out by research carried out by the National Museums of Scotland (see p. 7). Moreover, the recent marketing research report on museums, By Popular Demand, suggested that one market segment with considerable growth potential is people with a special interest: precisely the sort of museum users who would appreciate our reserve collections as well as the edited highlights on display. (Davies, 1994: 60-61)

Allowing on-line access to all the information the museum has about its objects would enhance the service provided to such users. Museum galleries are usually designed to appeal to the general visitor, since the proportion of visitors with expert knowledge of the subject matter will normally be small and the exhibition team has to work within physical constraints, as do the writers and editors of printed museum publications. Electronic museum resources, however, offer the potential to allow access to raw data of limited appeal as well as highly edited information for a broader audience.

How might museums stimulate a better perception of their role as repositories of real things? Could better access to information about collections provide a much-needed bridge between front-of-house public services and behindthe-scenes collection management? As Stuart Holm (1993: 50-51) has noted,


The strategic benefits: managing collections growth As well as justifying the continued funding of their existing collections through better public access, it is now widely accepted that UK museums need to develop national strategies for future collecting. Any such strategies will depend on the availability and accessibility of detailed collections information.

Most curators would see it as a duty to acquire appropriate new material to add to their existing collections. Museum collections, they would argue, represent an important source of evidence for researchers in many disciplines and museums can no more call a halt to their collecting activities than libraries or archives. All museums registered by the Museums & Galleries Commission have written collecting policies and most collect very sparingly and responsibly, yet collect they do. The 1989 study, The Cost of Collecting, found that the average annual growth rate of collections in the museums surveyed was 1.5%. (Lord et al., 1989: 22) While that may not sound like cause for alarm, consider the long term arithmetic: at an annual growth rate of 1.5% the size of the Nation's Collections will double within 47 years. A century hence it will have increased by almost 450%. It is scarcely conceivable that even such a modest growth rate is sustainable either from public funds or generated income. If by some chance it is, then the museum profession as a whole will need to make sure that those objects lucky enough to be acquired for posterity are the right ones, particularly in the case of near-contemporary mass-produced artefacts. How many vacuum cleaners are there in your social history collection? Do plenty of examples of certain models lurk in stores around the


country, while others are entirely lacking? While only the dedicated hooverologist may mourn such ad hoc arrangements in years to come, there is a serious point: if museums have any aspirations to form rational and representative collections across the whole range of natural objects and human artefacts, a more co-ordinated approach is needed to the task, even at present growth rates. Perhaps a more likely scenario is that future decades will see limits put on collection growth- if not the reduction of existing collections, either proactively to offset future collecting or in response to funding crises. In the nineteenth century the collections of many private individuals and learned societies were passed on to universities and local authorities when the cost of keeping them grew too great. Today, it is some of those very bodies which find it hardest to justify funding the collections they have inherited. The question of what will happen when such institutions can no longer afford to maintain their collections is beyond the scope of the present seminars, but the solution to the problem will certainly involve national or regional decisions based on detailed collections data. It would be extremely useful- and far more cost~ective in the long run - if curators were able to gain on-line access to such information in order to work together on appropriate strategies sooner rather than later.

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Other benefits

at least some of them off the beaten track.

Several other benefits of making museum information available on-line were discussed, including the potential of 'virtual visiting' to encourage real visiting. This issue has caused some debate within the profession: will promoting on-line access to collections information (particularly using high-quality images) lead to falling numbers of actual visitors? Should museums concentrate rather on improving physical access to their collections? Will opening up collections databases lead to museums being swamped with enquiries?

There could be direct financial benefits too, especially for museums with collections of marketable images. There might also be indirect financial benefits, arising from the fact that documenting collections can increasingly be presented as providing innovative forms of public access, rather than the dull chore of old. It is a lot easier to raise funds for front-of-house public services than behind-the-scenes collection management.

All the signs are, however, that on-line access to collections information would encourage actual visiting. In effect, such information would act as a form of extended advertising for participating museums. It has already been noted that the market segment with the biggest growth potential is people with a special interest. Sometimes this interest can be quite obscure (seep. 7). It is possible to foresee such users wanting to search the Nation's Collections network of databases for examples of whatever it may be, finding them in previously unheard of museums and subsequently visiting in person. One obvious venue for interactive screens offering this kind of information would be Tourist Information Centres. U on the Internet, of course, such information would also be available world-wide at no extra cost and could only boost what is already one of our major industries: heritage-based tourism. The Museums Association notes that tourism generates ÂŁ24 billion each year for the UK- with 60% of foreign tourists citing museums and heritage as their main reason for coming. (Museums Association, 1996: 9) While it might not affed the overall number of overseas visitors to the UK, on-line collections data could well tempt

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There could be political benefits for the whole museum community too, not just from being seen to encourage the widest possible access to their collections, but also by embracing current developments in IT. Indeed, museums are often used by the IT industry to showcase new products, a tribute which can only help reinforce the perception that museums are important cultural institutions with a broad popular appeal. Another interesting potential benefit is an increased level of two-way communication between museums and users, including academic institutions, which would rmprove collections research. It is often the case that museum users -whether professional or amateur - have expertise in aspects of the collections which exceeds that of the curator. Networked access to collections databases would open up the possibility of remote users helping to throw light on museum objects.


Where are we now? Scottish museums hold just over fourteen million objects. We are fortunate that this number is not too large, and the distribution is such, that building a national database is feasible. In fact the target date for completion is now the year 2001, thanks to the SCRAN project. (Morrison, 1995: 44) In Scotland, progress towards a national database is well unde.r way. This has in large part been helped by a strategy of helping smaller museums to focus on inventory-level data capt_ure using MIS, the simple (and free) software developed by Ian Morrison of the National Museums of Scotland. The same institution has also carried out a pilot evaluation of the demand for collections data on the Western Isles and, more recently, become a major partner in the SCRAN project (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network), a ÂŁ15m initiative supported by the Millennium Fund. As Ian Morrison has pointed out, the one thing that is certain about data-sharing initiatives is that machine-readable data is needed. During the course of the Nation's Collections series, MDA undertook a survey of computers in museums. (Gill & Dawson, 1996) Only 257 replies were received from 2000 questionnaires mailed out (and one or two large, computerised museums were conspicuously absent), but nevertheless some nine million records on computer were reported. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72% of these records are held in just 18 institutions. (The list of institutions reporting more than 100,000 records includes a range of national museums, university museums, local authority services and independent museums.) The majority of the other respondents (most of whom reported fewer than 10,000 records) use software based on the MDA Data Standard (MODES, MODESPlus or Catalist). A significant number use MIS, the


Museum Inventory System mentioned above. Data mapping between a relatively small number of systems is, therefore, a realistic possibility as a step towards searching through many millions of records held in museums around the country. It is impossible to state with any

kind of certainty how many objects there are in UK museum collections, and therefore what percentage of the total has been computerised. Ian Morrison estimates that in Scotland the figure may be around 14 million individual items. (pers. comm.) For the UK as a whole, one estimate is of at least 100 million items, 'of which the great majority are held by the national, local authority and university museums and a large proportion is natural science material.' (Roberts, 1985: 16) The Museums & Galleries Commission has called for each museum to have a basic inventory of its collections by the year 2000. While there is almost universal agreement that this is a desirable goal, there is no consensus about what constitutes an inventory-level record. This reflects the fact that the level of information appropriate for, say, bulk archaeological material differs from that needed for, say, fine art. Collection-level data can be extremely useful, as the various surveys of natural history collections published under the auspices of FENSCORE (Federation for Natural Sciences Collections Research) demonstrate. (e.g. Hancock & Pettitt, 1979) Surveys of other collections have been carried out on a subjectspecific or regional basis, and the results of these could form part of a network of information about the Nation's Collections. Various seminar participants reported on the current state of the documentation they were familiar with. In Hampshire, for example, countywide c<H>peration has worked well and there is a single database covering 50,000 objects from 18 museums. In Suffolk too,

small independent museums have inventoried their collections to create a county database. This, however, is under-used at present and it is hoped to make it more accessible by making it available on-line. In-house projects to tackle documentation backlogs are underway in museums ranging from the Science Museum to the volunteer-run Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Many existing records, however, are perhaps not as useful as they could be. It was pointed out that the text content of most museum records is not good enough for them to be used unedited in, for example, multimedia packages. It can also be difficult for enquirers to get answers to their questions. At MDA's Edinburgh conference in November 1995, Edmund Southworth gave a thoughtprovoking paper (Southworth, 1995: 61-69) in which he explained what happened when he contacted a number of museums to ask them whether they had any narwhal tusks, or anything depicting unicorns, and whether this information might be available on-line (seep. 11). His conclusion from this experiment was that: The priority must be for museums

to concentrate their resaurces on impraving the quality of records and carrying out internal audit and inventory so that any information they do pravide in a formal informatian service is complete and accurate. The fundamental questions of 'what have you got, where is it and can I see it?' are still difficult enaugh to answer in-house -let alone on-line. (op. cit.: 68) Although many involved in museum documentation will surely agree with such a note of caution, is it possible to look ahead a few years to a time when this enquiry could not only be answered better in-house, but also on-line? What needs to happen in order to make such a thing possible?

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r 1

Marketing issues

want by answering one simple question:

The participants at all four seminars were unanimous on one point: not enough is known about the demand for collections information, nor about what forms such information should take in order to meet the needs of the diverse range of potential users. The pooling of existing research and the funding of further work in this area were seen as top priorities.

If this page were your gateway to

There seems to be widespread agreement that museums want to make information about their collections available to the widest possible public. Indeed, many have long done so in print, producing popular books as well as more scholarly catalogues. It is likely, therefore, that museums will want to offer a range of electronic resources targeted at several different audiences. The trick will be to create records in ways which minimise the editing required each time their data is recycled. As a pilot experiment, a page was briefly put up on MDA's Web site asking the following: The Nation's Collections on-line: what would you want to search for? The UK has over 1500 museums, large and small, covering every conceivable subject. Between them they have millions of objects, only a fraction of which can be on display at any one time. But you will soon be able to get virtual access to many of them on the Internet. Museums around the country are getting ready to make their collections available to you on-line. Our recent survey suggests that there are over 9 million records in museum databases already. You can't access many of them just yet, but you can help us to help museums provide the information you

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infoTmiltion about all the objects in all the UK's museums, what would you search for? The responses, unsurprisingly, varied from general to very specific potential enquiries: • writers' birthplace museums • Canadian war dead • museums which have musical instruments, particularly nonWestern • Masonic memorabilia • Bow porcelain • typewriters • flat irons • dapple grey rocking horses The challenge is to create a network of electronic resources capable of delivering appropriate answers to these and other requests for information. This does not mean, of course, that every last flat iron and dapple grey rocking horse has to be catalogued in exhaustive detail as an urgent priority; but as and when information about individual objects is recorded in machine-readable form, it may as well be made available on-line since somebody, somewhere will be glad of it. There was some discussion as to whether on-line collections information would have to feature mainly 'edited highlights' for the 'general public', with images and supporting text, or whether there was a demand for 'raw' specialist information. But 'specialists' and the 'general public' are not mutually exclusive audiences, as recent research has reminded us. Based on figures from the United States, Professor Susan Pearce suggests that up to one third of the UK adult population actively collects something. (Pearce, 1995: vii) There must be many more who have a detailed knowledge of things they would collect if they could. The dapple grey rocking horse enthusiast, for example,

probably knows a lot more about them than the average curator and would probably make a special effort to visit any museum which had one. An interesting pilot project to gauge the level of general public interest in museum records was carried out on the Western Isles by the National Museums of Scotland (Morrison, 1994), which has also published a study into the types of questions asked of museums (McCorry&: Morrison, 1995). The latter concluded:

The most often required piece of inf0171Ultion is a record of what the object is, hardly a surprise, although the level at which this needs to be done varies and more than one level of inf0171Ultion may need to be accommodated. Next, a long way after that, are place names. These may be where the object was made or found, or where it was used. Names, of makers, owners and... others come next, so close that the difference is probably not significant. The names may be of individuals or organisations. (op. cit.: 7) While we need further marketing research, there would seem on the face of it to be several potential audiences for museum information: • day-trippers and tourists in search of places to visit • schools and parents wanting educational resources • people who visit real museums and also like net surfing • people with a special interest (whether amateur or professional) in search of information about relevant items in museum collections


Technical issues

a single query, and from a single client application.

Tony Gill summarises the technical options for sharing information about the Nation's Collections

The issue of communications infrastructure was discussed: would the Internet be the most appropriate transmission medium, or would some form of private networks offer better functionality? While the Internet can be unreliable, poses security problems and does not currently have enough bandwidth to cope with huge amounts of multimedia data, it does have tens of millions of users world-wide. Using private networks might be considered a costly case of 're-inventing the wheel', although users such as picture libraries who will want fast, reliable access to high quality images might pursue a two-tier approach by making use of private networks in addition to the Internet. Another appealing factor in the Internet's favour is that many museums are already connected to SuperJANET, which is relatively reliable and has a potentially high bandwidth between its users, whilst also being an integral part of the Internet.

Many previous data-sharing initiatives have envisaged a centralised 'national database', but this model has been largely superseded by the concept of a distributed database environment. The Technical Options seminar in the Nation's Collections series assessed the technical feasibility of the distributed data model and considered the options for data storage, information retrieval and infrastructure. Three conclusions were clear:

• The technology required for a network of distributed databases is already available. • No single technical solution will meet the needs of the diverse range of potential users, and hybrid approaches will therefore be required at every stage. • Further research into the information needs of likely users must be carried out before any system implementation begins. One of the main problems with the old model of a single 'national database' was that such a database would be a huge responsibility to assemble and maintain. Instead, the way forward is almost certainly to create a network of databases and other electronic resources, each of which is maintained locally around the country. This need not mean that every single museum must be directly linked: networks of smaller museums can maintain locally-centralised databases at county or district level. Although the data would, in such a model, be spread around the country, it would be highly desirable for a user to be able to search across all the databases with


The standardisation of data structures was considered, particularly the question of how prescriptive any data-sharing initiative could (or should) be. Standardised data structures would be easier to search and maintain once set up, but it was clear that in practice they differ widely between museums and will continue to do so. There seems to be two possible strategies which would allow searching across such diverse data structures: • The conversion of original, non-standardised data 'on-thefly' by some automated translation or filtering process to a standard structure. • The generation of new databases which would conform to some level of standardisation and would remain independent of, but take their data from, the existing databases.

For either strategy (but particularly for 'on-the-fly' conversion) it would be useful to have a common interchange standard comparable to the MARC bibliographic data standard. This could be based on SPEcrRUM, which has identified 'units of information' independent of any specific system, but is not yet rigorous enough in terms of formal data modelling methodologies. Another approach which would be less prescriptive would be to use the ANSI Z39.50 standard, a mechanism which allows searching across databases with dissimilar data structures providing they are Z39.50-compliant. Alternatively, records in non-standardised databases (or even free-text documents) could be marked with 'tags' denoting appropriate SPECTRUM 'units of information' usingSGML. If an interchange standard along

the lines of those described above were d eveloped, it would not matter what type of database system(s) the contributing museums used. Various pilot projects (such as CIMI, RAMA, AQUARELLE and EUSE) are already experimenting with data-sharing between different types of database. it has to be admitted, though, that software vendors are still having problems getting SQL (supposedly a standard language for interrogating databases) to work reliably across multiple database management software products. Discussion about the information retrieval requirements for a distributed collections database highlighted the fact that more research is needed into potential users and the information they are likely to want to retrieve. It was agreed, however, that the finer details of the technical tools needed - such as the use of natural language processing to allow questions to be asked in everyday language, and semantic networks to expand searches automatically to include related

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terms - should be left to the wider community of networked database users world-wide to establish. While many museums will probably want to make much of the~ collections information freely available as an extension of their public services, the potential exists to charge for access. The technical solutions for doing this are again best left to the wider IT industry. Two options can be anticipated:

l .•

• the 'pay-per-page' approach, which will soon be possible on the WWW using secure transactions and electronic cash; • the subscription approach, possibly with various levels of access at various prices (the model adopted by CHIN). Safeguarding against the theft or misuse of intellectual property is clearly a major concern once data is put on-line. Fortunately, a number of technology-based solutions already exist, including data encryption, licensing and the electronic 'watermarking' of images, which allows breaches of copyright to be detected. An alternative approach to deter commercial piracy is to make images available at a low resolution and provide simple and reasonably-priced licensing schemes for highe.r resolutions to be obtained. Looking to the future, the long-term survival of the 'information superhighway' in one form or another seems assured. Museums need to make sure that they are prepared to take an active role in this new environment, and that their valuable information resources are as 'futureproof' as possible by conforming to mainstream IT industry standards.

Glossary RAMA ANSI Z39.50 ANSI Z39.50-1992, American

National Standard Information Retrieval Application Service Definition and Protocol Specification for Open Systems Interconnection, American National Standards Institute 1992. AQUARELLE A European project for sharing networked cultural heritage information. For more information see the project WWW pages at bandwidth A term used to describe the total capacity of a circuit. CHIN The Canadian Heritage Information Network, which offers WWW access to databases covering museum collections and ancient monument records. For more information see CHIN's WWW pages at http://www CIMI Computer Interchange of Museum Information. For more information see CIMI's WWW pages at client application Program running on a personal computer that passes a database query to a larger computer, also known as server.

Remote Access to Museum Archives. For more information see the project's WWW pages at /present/rama.htm SGML Standard Generalised Markup Language. A text mark-up language that allows a document's structure to be separated from it's physical appearance. HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), the language used to produce resources for the World Wide Web, is the best-known application of SGML. SPECTRUM

SPECTRUM: The UK Museum Documentation Standard, MDA 1994. SQL

Standard (or Simple) Query LAnguage, the de facto standard for interrogating databases. SuperJANET The technically-superior descendent of JANET, the Joint Academic NETwork, which links all UK higher education institutions.

www The World Wide Web: a huge pool of information organised as pages that can contain text, images, sound, ~ation, videos, virtual reality envJionments and software applications. Hyperlinks are created between web pages to form a vast global network of linked information resources.

ELISE Electronic Library Image Service for Europe. For more information see the project's WWW pages at did/mit/elise Internet A world-wide network of networks, many freely accessible to anyone. MARC Machine Readable Catalogue, US Library of Congress 1968.

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Lost for words? Assuming that significant numbers of object records and related data were available on-line, would users of such a resource be able to navigate their way to the information they wanted? Discussion at all four seminars suggested that the inconsistent use of terminology, especially for object names, was a major hurdle to retrieving information (even within a single institution, let alone across a distributed network). But do developments in 'intelligent searching' promise easier retrieval of records despite these inconsistencies?

The museum information consultant, David Bearman, has suggested that the rapidly changing networked information environment in which museums must now operate will reve.a l serious gaps in our standardisation efforts. (see p.2) The lack of interchangeability at the level of data values - i.e. the terms used for object names, place names, p ersonal names, etc - is potentially the most serious. Its impact can be illustrated by quoting from Edmund Southworth's narwhal hom enquiry (see p . 6):

... I am trying to assemble material relating to narwhals and, of course, to the Unicorn which is a much more exciting explanation for the horn. 1 would like to check through your documentation to see if you have items of relevance in your collection. ... Tl1e keywords I would like to search on are... 'narwhal', 'tusk', 'horn', 'unicorn'. Related terms might be 'Arctic whale', 'carved', 'Romanesque', 'Medieval', 'Virgin ', 'ivory', etc... (Southworth, 1995: 69) Imagine that this enquiry were to be repeated at some future date across a network of distributed databases, which were otherwise interchangeable at the levels of data contents, data structures and


information systems as defined by Bearman. Even to search just for information about 'narwhals', the enquirer would also have to enter the search term 'Arctic whales' (the alternative common name), and probably the La tin name 'Monodon monoceros' too in order not to miss potentially relevant records. While one might argue that it is fair enough to expect such an enquirer to search using all possible keywords, in practice it would be impossible even for subject specialists to second-guess how data might have been entered. What search term would you, for example, use to find information about the painter of the Mona Lisa? The Union List of Artist Names lists nearly forty different ways to refer to 'Leonardo da Vinci', including: DaVinci da Vinci, Leonardo L. D' Vinci L. da Vince L. da Vinci L. Davinci, etc (AHIP, 1994a). Much effort has gone into developing standards for what has become known as terminology control. With varying degrees of success, attempts have been made to encourage cataloguers and enquirers to use 'preferred' terms (such as 'Leonardo da Vinci') and to avoid 'non-preferred' terms (such as all the other spellings of that name). In many documentation systems it has also been necessary to develop hierarchies of terms so that, for example, 'simple object names' (such as 'watch') do not get mixed up with 'full object names' ('wristwatch', 'pocket watch', etc) or broader classified headings (such as 'timepiece' or 'personal accessory'). Various terminology sources have been developed to encourage consistency of use, ranging from straightforward lists such as 'simple object name' lists to hierarchical thesauri covering many thousands of terms.

Many curators, however, instinctively feel that 'controlling' the terms they use when cataloguing objects is undesirable. Nuances of meaning are undoubtedly lost by calling a spade a 'spade' when, for example, a dialect term might be more appropriate. In part such resistance stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of many existing term sources, which are intended to be arbitrary tools to help indexing and retrieval rather than definitive taxonomies and typologies. Fortunately, advances in information retrieval technology promise to make the use of 'preferred' terms less critical to information retrieval. Electronic thesauri could be used in searches to tell the computer that, for example, a record about a painting by 'L. D'Vinci' should be retrieved in response to a query about 'Leonardo da Vinci'. Such thesauri would also ensure that a record about, say, a 'Morris chair' would be retrieved in response to a query about 'furniture' even if the latter term did not appear anywhere in the record. However, a case study in thesaurus implementation at one national museum highlighted the problem of curators' needs and expectations not being met, despite the fact that the thesaurus in question, the Getty's Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), contains over 90,000 terms. (AHIP, 1994b) It is inevitable that users will come across gaps in any thesaurus. The solution is not to write off the whole thesaurus but to contribute to its ongoing development by collaborating on improvements. It was reported that the Science Museum has 30,000 candidate terms to be added to its thesaurus, which is based on the British Standard Institution's Root Thesaurus. (BSI, 1985) The British Museum is actively developing thesauri, while the RAF Museum has spent two years researching a proposed thesaurus which would improve the retrieval of its collections records.

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The extent to which these national museums, and other major institutions such as some of the Larger county museum services and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, are involved in terminology development is encouraging. MDA's 1995 survey on computer use in museums (see p 6) revealed that many of these organisations are among the biggest holders of computerised collections data. One strategy for future thesaurus development might therefore be to create links between the in-house thesauri of these major players, and between all these and larger thesauri such as the AAT and BSi Root Thesaurus. It seems likely that such large thesauri would cover almost all the terms needed by most smaller museums, and that ultimately any networked museum database could be searched using them.


There is, however, no one, simple option for the way ahead on terminology standards and it was agreed that a survey on current usage and developments would be a useful starting point. It is also important to find out what work is being carried out in other sectors, such as libraries, and in other countries to avoid duplication of effort. MDA agreed to undertake such a survey and publish the results together with a descriptive bibliography. (A survey questionnaire was sent out with the Spring 1996 issue of MDA's newsletter, OUTlook). Many of the issues discussed at this seminar will be considered in the light of the survey results at MDA's forthcoming terminology workshop (in Oxford, 11-13 September 1996). The problem is often not that terminology sources for particular collection types do not exist, but rather that they are difficult and expensive to obtain. Making thesauri cheaply - or even freely - available on-line would make them more accessible to those museums linked to the Internet.

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Action plan The main aim of the Nation's Collections series of seminars was to outline a plan of action for taking information-sharing between museums forward. It was possible to identify some critical milestones which will have to be reached before much further progress can be achieved, and these are summarised below. It was impossible, however, to map out the whole journey. Not only can no-one predict the final destination, but there is no final destination in the sense that Platnauer perhaps envisaged with his call for a 'compendious index' - imagining, no doubt, a definitive reference work for curators and academics. We must now imagine a network of distributed data, ranging from collection-level surveys to the most basic of inventory-level object records (however that is interpreted) to multimedia presentations of selected material. Some 9 million object records, and a growing amount of interpretative material, already exist electronically. A recurring theme of the seminars was that we do not know enough about who might want such data, nor in what form. And while it is theoretically possible to make whatever information is wanted about the Nation's Collections accessible on-line via a single gateway, we still await a working prototype which overcomes all the practical difficulties. Perhaps the most pressing priority, therefore, is to demonstrate the potential of the data and the technology that already exists.

Priorities for action • Collate existing research into the users of museum information and their needs, and to undertake new marketing research. • Assign to an appropriate body a watching brief for monitoring information about current developments, both in the cultural sector and the wider IT community. • Create a single gateway to information in distributed museum databases, offering server space to museums. • Develop the interchange standard necessary to allow searching across a diverse range of distributed databases and other resources. • Link and make use of existing electronic thesauri to improve information retrieval. • Participate in existing pilot projects and initiate others to demonstrate the potential of providing on-line access to information-sharing initiatives, including, for example: distributed databases of information about specific types of collection (such as the collections-level surveys of natural history material compiled by FENSCORE). distributed databases of information about collections in specific counties. an on-line directory of UK museums, summarising their collections and featuring images of key exhibits, with links to their own on-line resources. on-line multimedia resources for schools, with links to relevant material in local museums. • and, not least, continue to support the Museum & Galleries Commission's target of a basic inventory of every museum collection by the year 2000.


Bibliography AHIP (1994a) ULAN: ART (the Authority Reference Tool version of the Union List of Artist Names) . Santa Monica: Getty Art History Information Program. AHIP (1994b) Art and Architecture Thesaurus (Second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Audit Commission (1991) The

road to Wigan Pier? Managing local authority museums and art galleries. London: HMSO. Bearman, D. (1994) 'Strategies for Cultural Heritage Information Standards in a Networked World'

Archives & Museum Informatics Vol.8 #2: 93-106. BSI (1985) BSI Root Thesaurus (Second edition). London: British Standards Institution. Davies, S. (1994) By Popular

Demand: a strategic analysis of the market potential for museums and art galleries in the UK. London:

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management in UK museums. London: HMSO. McCorry, H. & Morrison, I. (1995)

Report on the catechism project. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland. Morrison, I. (1994) 'Towards a national database of museum collections in Scotland'. Managing Information January 1994, 35-38. Morrison, I. (1995) 'Museum information for documentation' in Fahy, A. and Sudbury, W.

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Collections and Collectors in North West England (Botany, Geology and Zoology). Manchester: Manchester Museum. Hewison, R (1987) The Heritage Industry. London: Methuen. Holm, S. (1993) Let's set the record straight: a report on the state of documentation in t11e museums of the West Midlands, with suggestions for tackling some of the problems encountered. Birmingham: West Midlands Area Museum Service.


museums and the Internet. Cambridge: MDA.

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Department of National Heritage (1996) Treasures in Trust: A Review of Museum Policy. London: DNH.

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National Strategy for Museums: the Museum Association's recommendations for government action. London: MA. Pearce, S. (1995) On Collecting. London: Routledge. Roberts, D.A. (:.984) 'The development of computer-based documentation' in Thompson, J.M.A Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to Museum Practice (First edition). London: Butterworths. Roberts, D.A. (1985) Planning the documentation of museum collections. Duxford: MDA.

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Profile for Kevin Gosling

Gosling, K and T Gill ‘The Nation’s Collections: are we virtually there?’ in MDA Information, vol 2.  

Gosling, K and T Gill ‘The Nation’s Collections: are we virtually there?’ in MDA Information, vol 2.  


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