A web-based Collections Management System

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.

6 Comments on “A web-based Collections Management System”

  1. Another interesting tool is CollectConcept, a web based collection management system which supports several museum standards. It offers OAI-PMH interface and delivers object data in several formats: dublin core, museumdat as well as Spectrum XML.

  2. Thanks for your thoughful comments, Seth and Paul. I am personally inclined to think that we’ll see a lot more web-based services in the future precisely because of the economies of scale Paul and Ken Hamma are talking about. One the other hand, I do agree that there’s still a lot we don’t know in terms of the dependencies we all enter into when we build critical functions on top of web-based services. This is not just a question for externally hosted museum collections management systems, but also for any type of webservice your local application depends on. (Imagine Google Maps going out of business – how many mash-ups would turn into trainwrecks?). While we’ll have to learn more about how to evaluate and mitigate those risks, web-based services have too many benefits not to become a very attractive solution for a good slice of the marketplace.

  3. Our company (Vernon Systems) has been developing eHive as a hosted CMS. National Services Te Paerangi, a department within NZ’s national museum Te Papa, works with museums, galleries and iwi to enhance the museum services within New Zealand. They chose eHive as the foundation for their redeveloped NZMuseums website.

    Vernon Systems has been developing museum software since 1985, so has a proven record in the museum sector. eHive also has an Escrow agreement in place where the source code for the product is turned over to the end users if we do not continue to develop the product.

    There are other web based collection management systems around, but we had two specific goals for our new system that make it different than other systems we’ve seen. Firstly, we’re aiming at small or geographically dispersed museums. Secondly, all data is stored within one system, with each museum having a private account and then publishing specific records to the general public and optionally additional communities within eHive.

    I agree with Seth that there are museums that will want the data to be on their own server. We had an independent research company run focus groups with small museums in three regions. We found that many had no permanent staff and had difficulty running their own CMS system because of harware costs or insufficient IT resources to install and maintain software. Many of the 50 museums on the new NZMuseums site fit into this category, so eHive provides a way to get a web presence without having to maintain a site.

    A public website is always going to incur some ongoing costs such as internet traffic and site maintenance. By storing the content for all of the museums on the same cluster of servers we get economies of scale. We’re able provide a better hardware infrastructure than most museums would buy just for themselves, with multiple servers for load balancing and redundancy.

    NZMuseums is a good example of the community element in eHive. Each museum has marked which records they want to be part of the NZMuseums community. The NZMuseums website then shows only the eHive content from this community. We’ve had interest from a couple of other New Zealand projects that would like to re-use different subsets of the data, so this could be achieved by created new communities for each of these projects.

    eHive has not yet been launched (we are a month away from completing the first release), but we will be building a data dump option for museums to pull out all of their data whenever they wish to, as well as support for industry standards such as OAI-PHM and Dublin Core.

  4. While we (the developers of OpenCollection) don’t offer a hosted solution there are no technical or license restrictions that would prevent someone else from doing so. (There has been interest in doing so from a couple of commercial concerns but it’s not clear to us how serious they are).

    I know that hosted/outsourced solutions are fashionable but the long-term sustainability of the hosted model does worry me. Given the vicissitudes of museum funding how is the long-term stability of a hosted solution not backed with an open-ended funding commitment (not just user fees) guaranteed? Hosting is a tough business. What happens if the solutions provider goes under or decides to discontinue the product because it ceases to be profitable? Do museums really want to be putting costly digitization and documentation output into a box they have little control over?

    I have heard suggestions that additional revenue streams (ie. GoogleAds) could be developed to subsidize such a service and ensure sustainability. I can imagine some of the institutions we have collaborated with going along with this, but for most advertising (or any other loss of control over presentation) would be extremely problematic.

    I understand that the NZ program has government backing which goes a long way towards addressing some of these worries. But such an initiative seems unlikely in the US and Europe, especially given the new economic realities.

  5. I don’t know which came first, but Open Collection http://www.opencollection.org also runs in a web server environment. But at the moment I don’t think Whirl-I-Gig is running a hosted solution.

    What I’m waiting to see is whether something akin to the Koha/LibLime model will emerge for the museum market.

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