Archive for the 'Museums' Category

Analysis Methodology for Museum Data

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 by Günter

In a previous post, I’ve shared some background about the data analysis phase of our Museum Data Exchange Mellon grant, and posted some of the questions our museum participants wanted to have answered. In the meantime, we have created a spreadsheet [pdf] which captures our ideas to date of what questions we may want to ask of the 850K CDWA Lite XML records from 9 museums. Note that the methodology captured by this spreadsheet lays out a landscape of possibilities – it is not a definitive checklist of all the questions we will answer as part of this project. Only as we get deeper into the analysis will we know which questions are actually tractable with the tools we have at hand. I’d appreciate any thoughts on additional lines of inquiry we could pursue with our analysis, or other observations!

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Museum Data Exchange: Tools for Sharing

Monday, April 13th, 2009 by Günter

As all good things in life, this took a little longer to see the light of day than I had thought it would, which means I am doubly delighted to announce: we have now officially released the suite of tools generated through the Mellon-funded Museum Data Exchange project. You’ll find a lot of informative detail in this announcement. Here’s what it all boils down to: Museums now have access to COBOAT and OAICatMuseum 1.0 software.

  • COBOAT is a metadata publishing tool developed by Cognitive Applications Inc. (Cogapp) that transfers information between databases (such as collections management systems) and different formats. As configured for this project, COBOAT allows museums to extract standards-based records in the Categories for the Descriptions of Works of Art (CDWA) Lite XML data format out of Gallery Systems TMS, a leading collection management system. Configuration files allow COBOAT to be adjusted for extraction from different vendor-based or homegrown database systems, or locally divergent implementations of the same collections management system. COBOAT software is now available on the OCLC Web site under a fee-free license for the purposes of publishing a CDWA Lite repository of collections information at

  • OAICatMuseum 1.0 is an Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) data content provider supporting CDWA Lite XML. It allows museums to share the data extracted with COBOAT using OAI-PMH. OAICatMuseum was developed by OCLC Research and is available under an open source license online at

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    Museum Data Exchange: Asking the right questions

    Friday, March 20th, 2009 by Günter

    The logistical details of publishing the tools we have produced as part of the Museum Data Exchange Mellon grant continue to unfold in a slower fashion than I had hoped, but I am now fairly confident that you will find applications for download announced at some point next week – more when it actually happens!

    In the meantime, the focus of our activity with the museum partners has moved from creating tools to analyzing the data they’ve shared while using them. We now have data from six institutions who have allowed us to harvest CDWA Lite XML records created with and shared through a combination of COBOAT and OAICatMuseum 1.0 (again, more as we release the tools), plus records from three additional museums who had other means of creating and sharing CDWA Lite XML at their disposal. A total of about 850K records are now sitting behind a firewall on an OCLC Research server, awaiting data analysis.

    Our next big question is: how can we evaluate the data the museums have shared? While it uses the same data structure (CDWA Lite XML), all participants are aware that rules to populate that data structure with data content may vary considerably from institution to institution. Cataloging Cultural Objects is becoming a household name, but a good bit of the data shared probably predates the emergence of this data content standard, let alone its local implementation. What are the right questions to ask which would give the participating museums a sense of how well their records play with each other, both in terms of the institutional dataset as well as the aggregate resource?

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    UK National Museums get creative

    Wednesday, March 4th, 2009 by Günter

    Creative Spaces, a UK project formerly known as the National Museums Online Learning Project, just launched as a Beta, and is being hotly debated among museum professionals in a number of forums (the Museum Computer Group list and Mike Ellis’s blog seem to be current focal points of the debate). I found a lot of the commentary insightful and telling.

    First, some brief words about what Creative Spaces wants to be – from the homepage: “Creative Spaces connects you with nine UK national museums and galleries allowing you to explore their collections, find like-minded people and create your own content.” (Also see a recent BBC story for more background.) It should also be noted that the “you,” the key audience, seems to be what we’d call K-12 in the US – high-school teachers and students. The current Creative Spaces contain a mechanism for cross-searching the 9 museum collections (apparently using OpenSearch), a way to assemble your own sub-collection (“Notebooks”), a way to create your own sub-communities around topics of interest (“Start a Group”) and some videos of people talking about museum stuff (called “Watch a Video”). Outside of the site itself reside so-called “WebQuests,” which are guided exercise allowing students to answer questions using museum content, such as “Discover how Darwin came up with his ideas on evolution” or “Become a clothes designer and create a new outfit for an explorer.”

    As any beta would, it has a number of hiccups, which some folks have started tracking at Get Satisfaction. One of the most common criticism of Creative Spaces detractors at the moment seems to be that it doesn’t do a good job communicating who will use it, and why. (I think what I’ve outlined above may be the partial answer to that question, but the site itself doesn’t make that answer very self-evident.)

    What interests me about this debate: for all its ragged edges, it starts to delineate the challenge of aggregating museum content, and making the aggregation a compelling destination.


    Content– is the content compelling enough to allow the intended user base to find something they’d like to interact with? Does it approximate a collective collection which can answer questions in a similar “good-enough” way Google Images can? – In this instance, scoping the audience to teachers and students, as well as giving them a structure to guide their use of the resource through the WebQuests seems to mitigate this question. Creative Spaces won’t be the place to find stuff on any artist that pops into your head, but the content should work beautifully to support inquiry structured by curriculum through WebQuests.

    Pull – can the aggregation as a social space expect to reach and keep the attention of a sufficiently large audience to have made the investment worthwhile? Or should existing social spaces where people already interact with lots of different content be leveraged as the platform? – While I always like the idea of using existing social networks, and will advocate for it any ol’ day, I’ll add the caveat here that the devil really is in the detail. As much as I love Flickr and the Commons, they won’t take museum content other than photographs. I have a hard time seeing how you’d structure anything but casual interactions with millions of digital images on FaceBook. I wonder what Wikipedians would say if they saw pages for millions of artworks go up. The platform dictates the type of content and the functionality, and there has to be a very carefully crafted fit.

    Functionality – if people come, will they find that what they can do with the content is compelling enough to make them want to invest an online identity into this space? Or will they come, be mildly intrigued, and move on? – I don’t think we know nearly enough about how people do want to associate with museum content in a social space. Mike Ellis points to the newly launched Brooklyn Museum collection pages as a good example of how this sort of thing might be done right. Once the Creative Spaces experience has matured, it will hopefully also provide us with more insights into this question.

    At the end of the day, it’ll come down to stats – how many people will create accounts on Creative Spaces, and actively use them over time? And can that number be reconciled with the investment by all parties involved?

    I am wholeheartedly rooting for Creative Spaces, and I hope the team will share the lessons they’ve learned along the way, including the painful ones. All of the above questions actually have more compelling answers the more institutions are involved – the more content, the more users; the more users, the more rational to invest in the right types of functionality. Right now, museums by and large are starting this process on their own – my website, my collection, my social community. I think we’ll find out that people simply aren’t interested in affiliating with every single one of the 2,500 museums in the UK, or the 17,500 museums in the US for that matter– but a significant enough number may very well be interested in affiliating with a space where lots of museum content flows together.

    “Things don’t really get moving until a page is turned.”

    Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Jennifer

    I’ve slipped the draft of my survey of user studies into a drawer, walked away from my desk, and crossed the Bay to CODEX, a veritable orgy of international arts of the book.

    This morning at the Berkeley Art Museum Emily McVarish shared her latest book, The Square, with over 250 artists, collectors, museum curators and librarians. She described the square as a public space riddled with hand-held technology. Has the city square – the grid of daily life – been replaced by the screen? Figures – derived from video clips of people walking streets talking on cellphones – move through the pages (squarish) of McVarish’s new book.

    Are both the book and the city commons “breaking down into heterogeneous intangibles?” she wondered.

    I was in the audience with a clump of RLG colleagues from Yale, Stanford and LC. They teased me, “Did they let you out?” I asked, “Aren’t artists’ books at the nexus of libraries, manuscripts and museums?” Librarians, archivists, collectors, curators and creators all recognize this paradox, since they collect the same stuff for difference contexts.

    Thinking about McVarish’s work, I hesitate to present here a crude SAT-test syllogism: the synthesis of book and art is analogous to the relationship of page and screen. Earl Collier, on the CODEX board, silently waved his notebook, pencil, and PDA phone. “I like ‘em both,” he said.

    The CODEX bookfair, afternoons during the symposium, is astounding. This beauty, creativity and global material culture can embody antithesis to LAM silos. At least until you start cataloging…

    The People and the Commons

    Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 by Günter

    The Flickr Commons is a remarkable project in many ways, and we’ve certainly followed its birth and progress closely on hangingtogether (see here, here, here, here and here.) Just in case you need a reminder of why the Commons is remarkable, I ask you to consider the following numbers from the LC Flickr Pilot Project report [pdf], where you can find even more compelling statistics.

  • As of October 23, 2008, there have been 10.4 million views of the photos on Flickr.
    79% of the 4,615 photos have been made a “favorite” (i.e., are incorporated into personal Flickr collections).
  • Over 15,000 Flickr members have chosen to make the Library of Congress a “contact,” creating a photostream of Library images on their own accounts.
  • 67,176 tags were added by 2,518 unique Flickr accounts.
  • 4,548 of the 4,615 photos have at least one community-provided tag.
  • Average monthly visits to all PPOC [Prints & Photographs Online Catalog] Web pages rose 20% over the five month period of January-May 2008, compared to the same period in 2007.
  • The report recommended that “this experiment in Web 2.0 cease to be characterized as a pilot and evolve to an expanded involvement in this growing community.” That was October 30th 2008. In December, Yahoo and Flickr laid off George Oates, the heart and soul of the Commons. In all of my interactions with Commons participants, it has always been quite clear to me how much they cherish their relationship with George, and what a pivotal role she has played in making the Commons a success. For a moment there, I feared that one of my favorite projects of 2008 might grind to a premature and unfortunate halt.

    And then another remarkable thing happened. Within days of the news that George wouldn’t be around to steer the Commons anymore, the Flickr community decided to highlight the importance of the Commons to them and their interests through the creation of a Flickr Commons Group. I didn’t find any reference to George’s departure in my cursory reading of posts on the group page – maybe I am embuing its arrival with a meaning that didn’t exist to its founders, but even as a coincidence, the way the community is now claiming and celebrating these collections is remarkable.

    My colleague Eric Childress just pointed out that there is now also a blog called Indicommons, which intentionally extends the Flickr group’s ability to sift through the amazing treasure-trove of Commons images, and comment on them. For a timely example, look at the entry which brings together all the inauguration-related images from the Commons.

    The Flickr Commons group and Indicommons was created by individuals outside of contributing institutions, but all of the contributors have been invited to use these venues as a platform to communicate with their most fervent users, and they all seem to have joined in. Some of the folks on Indicommons have even partnered with Commons institutions to create additional tools for the Flickr Commons (see the batch date changer for contributors, and these Power Feeds for Commons aficionados.)

    I guess it’s a brand-new day. This certainly isn’t your mother’s cultural heritage community anymore. And this isn’t your mother’s audience anymore, either. If you’d like to hear an interview on BBC with Anna Graf, one of the movers-and-shakers behind the Group and Indicommons, check here [mp3]. As much as George was the heart and soul of the Commons, the greatest tribute to her achievement may be that the future of the Commons rests with the People, and the People are doing their part to carry it forward.

    Kudos to all of those who took the initiative to create the Group and Indicommons!

    What’s up with museum data exchange?

    Monday, January 12th, 2009 by Günter

    I’ve recently received an e-mail from a researcher in Lugano, Switzerland who is asking about an update on our Museum Data Exchange Mellon grant. This request made me realize that I haven’t blogged much about this project, I believe in part because the next big milestone always seemed right around the corner, and I was just going to wait for that… So here we are, 11 months after my inaugural project blog.

    A brief reminder about the grant: Mellon generously funded us to create a mechanism for museums to extract CDWA Lite XML data out of their collections management systems and share it via OAI-PMH. We’ll put the toolset through its paces by harvesting data from all participants. The resulting research aggregation (read: just records, no images, not for public access) will be analyzed, and the results of this exercise should help museums evaluated their current cataloging practices vis-à-vis sharing data.

    At this point, there are a couple of next big milestone just around the corner, so yet again, I almost didn’t blog.

    We’re currently harvesting data from eight participating museums (see roster below). We expect that the resulting aggregation of records will be well over 750k records. At least half of the participants are giving us 100% of their records, with the remaining institutions making sizeable chunks of data available. Among our partners I’d particular like to highlight the National Gallery of Canada, which recently joined the project, and will contribute to the research aggregation. Gayle Silverman from Willoughby was instrumental in making this connection. She saw an opportunity for Willoughby to test the nascent built-in CDWA Lite / OAI-PMH capability of MimsyXG, while the National Gallery was thrilled about the prospect of receiving help from their CMS vendor to turn on this new feature. And I saw an opportunity to add a Canadian partner to the project. Win-win-win all around.

    Once we’re certain that the applications we’ve created as part of the grant hold up to the stress of this real-life test, we will make them available as a free download for any museums wanting to exchange CDWA Lite data. Our tools include a CDWA Lite enabled version of CogApp’s COBOAT publishing system, as well as a revamped version of OCLC’s OAICatMuseum (a previous version is available here). We’ve already bent the rules a little bit for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and allowed them access to a beta-version of these applications, which they are using to transfer data to their acclaimed ArtsConnectEd portal under an IMLS grant.

    Many of our participating museums are GallerySystems clients, and as part of the grant, we have tested the suite of software exclusively with TMS. However, CogApp assures me that they have used COBOAT against many other types of collections management systems in the past, and hopefully, once the application is available, others will find that tweaking the COBOAT configuration files to make the application work with their CMS of choice is reasonably painless. Robb Detlefs of GallerySystems recently asked whether he could try to make our system work with Embark, so that might become the first non-TMS application of the tool set.

    I hope this post gets everybody up-to-date, at least in the broad strokes. I’ll try to be better about sharing from here on out…

    Participating institutions:
    Harvard University Art Museums
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    National Gallery of Art
    Princeton University Art Museum
    Yale University Art Gallery
    Cleveland Museum of Art (research aggregation only)
    National Gallery of Canada (research aggregation only)
    Victoria & Albert Museum (research aggregation only)

    A web-based Collections Management System

    Monday, October 27th, 2008 by Günter

    I recently stumbled upon an announcement for NZMuseums, a website run by National Services Te Paerangi, itself a department of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. NZMuseums brings together collections information from museums across New Zealand. As of today, the system knows 383 museums, and contains digitized objects (albeit sometimes only a handful) for 54 collections. It boast a clean interface, and allows you to tag items – you can add and remove tags, and they immediately become available (or unavailable) for searching.

    While all that is nice and good (it’s actually more than nice and good!), what really caught my attention is the system’s architecture: in order for the often very small museums to be able to contribute, NZMuseums partnered with Vernon Systems to deploy their brand-new eHive system. In essence, eHive is the first web-based collections management system I am aware of (and you should feel free to contradict me if I’m wrong).

    In a recent podcast interview [mp3] I did with Ken Hamma, he singled out the cost of ownership of technology as a key issue for museums, and he mentioned open source and web-based systems as a possible way forward. His math:

    “A museum thinks about having a collections-management systems. It goes out and licenses one from between $600 and $120,000, pays 11, 12, 13 percent maintenance year after year. But, that’s only the beginning of the costs. Once you’ve got that thing, you need to be able to support it on servers. You need to be able to provide access. You need a network.”

    The price point for eHive (numbers taken from the eHive factsheet[pdf]): it starts with “free” for 100MB of storage and 200 images, and tops out at $800 per year for 25GB and 50k images. No surprise that this was a good fit for NZMuseums and its quest to bring the many small museums of New Zealand online.

    RLG Partners Among Early Grid Services Adopters

    Thursday, October 9th, 2008 by Roy

    At the prompting of my colleague Constance Malpas, I pulled the list of current users of OCLC Grid Services [PDF] to see how many RLG Partner institutions have already signed up. I found 15 — some of whom are already heavy users such as the University of Michigan.

    I was gratified to see a mix of institution types, with the Getty Research Institute and the American Museum of Natural History joining libraries like Yale University, NYU, and New York Public. By my rough calculation (hey, I wasn’t a math major so no guarantees) over 15% of those signed up are RLG Partner institutions. Considering that RLG Partners comprise significantly less than 15% of OCLC members I think it’s a pretty good showing.

    I also want to point out that those institutions who jump in early (that would be now) can help shape the services we deploy and how. From that perspective the significant percentage of RLG Partner institutions means they will have a disproportionate say in how things develop. That’s just as well, since they are also the institutions most likely to have the developer bandwidth to integrate these services into their local service array.

    For more information, as well as link to the form to fill out to get a key for your institution, see the WorldCat Developer’s Network.

    The future of museums – the massively multiplayer forecast

    Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 by Günter

    I’ve just received an announcement from AAM about a Massively Multiplayer Forecasting Game they’ll use to shape our thinking about the museum of the future. (If you’re a member of AAM, no doubt you’ve received this message as well.) Here’s a copy-and-paste from the announcement:

    Players are encouraged to “imagine out loud” how their families, their local communities, their professions, or their extended social networks might respond to the game scenarios. They build websites from the future, keep blogs from the future, upload podcasts from the future, make videos from the future, develop research wikis from the future, and host discussion forums from the future. In short, they persuasively record, discuss, and debate the details of how they imagine their own personal futures might play out within the game parameters. In Superstruct, we’ll show you the world as it might look in 2019—and you’ll show us what it’s like to live there.

    And here’s what the announcement says about some of the scenarios the game will present players with:

    It’s 2019. Your museum is contacted by the Department of Homeland Security and informed that an international group touring your museum was exposed, on their flight to the U.S., to the latest deadly strain of Respiratory Distress Syndrome. You are instructed to lock down the museum and shelter staff and visitors in place while government authorities determine whether anyone is infected. Are you prepared to deal with this? Other snapshots from 2019: Is your museum ready to help your community cope with an influx of climate refugees? How will your operations change in the face of soaring energy prices or collapse of the food production and distribution system? Your museum depends on its website to deliver information and attract visitors, but your content has been corrupted repeatedly in the past few months by hackers attempting to undermine the credibility of your museum. How do you adapt?

    I’m struck by the fact that these scenarios are completely focused on quasi-catastrophic threats from the outside. I’m personally more worried about the threats to the future of museums from the inside, so to speak. I hope they’ll add this scenario as well:

    “It’s 2019, and your museum’s digitization initiatives are still paralyzed by copyright concerns, the tantalizing vision of a revenue stream from licensing digital images, and the notion that providing online access to digital images of its collection equals an unbearable loss of control. Your visitorship is dwindling – since they can’t find much of your content online, people have stopped believing that there’s much worth seeing on your walls. How do you adapt?”

    The latest indicator that this scenario is becoming less likely: the Smithsonian just announced that they’ll put the 137 million-object collection of their two dozen (give or take) collecting units online. Kudos to our SI colleagues and their new Secretary G. Wayne Clough!