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Towards a shared Danish infrastructure for collection management and presentation

HENRIK JARL HANSEN, SENIOR EXECUTIVE ADVISER AND PROJECT MANAGER OF SHARED MUSEUM IT, THE DANISH AGENCY FOR CULTURE
CHRISTIAN ERTMANN-CHRISTIANSEN, HEAD OF DEPARTMENT, THE ROYAL LIBRARY OF DENMARK


In Denmark, work is being done to build a shared system for the registration of Danish museum collections. At the core of the project lies the need for a well-functioning and updated infrastructure which will make it easy and simple to create overviews across Danish museum collections, and to reuse data in the institutions themselves as well as in the context of Europeana. But, as related by Henrik and Christian, the process towards greater simplicity and usability is often a complex one.



Infrastructure is not necessarily the most enticing of keywords, but it is essential to this article, which focuses on a new collection management system for Danish museums. Like any other infrastructure project, the objective is to improve things, and the point of departure is the status quo. And for this project, which has the working title “Shared Museum IT” (“Fælles museum-it” or FMIT) the status quo constitutes a strength and a disadvantage at the same time. The project is complex in scope and it is only possible to provide a general introduction here.


The Task

The Shared Museum IT project was launched in 2011 by the Danish Ministry of Culture with the Danish Agency for Culture as co-ordinator. The starting point for the project was recommendations made by a consulting firm and a working group comprising members from several museums.*1

The objective can be described in the following terms: By the time the new, shared collection registration system is in active use in 2016, we will have seen a consolidation and modernisation of the central registers and of the state-operated museums’ registration systems. The basis for this will be a new, shared conceptual reference model and data model, and a new, shared database complete with a range of applications and interfaces with relevant services. The museums will have been directly involved in the modernisation and consolidation efforts.

Among other things, the new infrastructure will facilitate a national overview of the collections of art and cultural artefacts housed at Danish museums; an overview that is much clearer and more complete than is possible today. The new structure will also support digital working processes, reusing data within the institutions’ own IT solutions, and facilitate reporting to the European cultural portal Europeana. This will mean that the solution will be in accordance with e.g. the European Commission Recommendation on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation, the Danish Ministry of Culture’s digitisation strategy, and the Danish eGovernment Strategy.*2


Status

At the time of writing (late 2013), the first project stage is approaching its completion. What lies ahead is the actual development of the new system. It is too soon to describe what elements it will comprise and which technologies will be used. However, the point of departure is to continue the Agency’s policy of using open source and service-oriented IT architecture.

As regards the user interface, we plan to use a number of profiles, adapting them to various types of museums and collections. This will ensure that users primarily see fields and data that are relevant to their immediate needs.

Of course, such individual adaptation challenges the opportunities for carrying out full searches across all registered materials. These two issues must be balanced as work progresses.


Taking the existing set-up as the starting point

The museums must carry out their task of collecting and preserving our cultural heritage while also working to continually define their role and justification in contemporary society. The role as stewards of digitised and digital cultural heritage presents certain challenges in itself. The quantities of data to be handled are very large and wide-ranging in scope. This challenge is made substantially greater by the demand for having a shared collection registration system bridge the gap between existing systems while also supporting new opportunities.

The new Shared Museum IT system must be able to hold all data from the various collection registration systems currently used by the museums, whether that content is digital art or soil samples from an archaeological dig.

The systems currently in use are the Danish Agency for Culture’s widely used Regin system (for cultural history and art), the National Museum of Denmark’s GenReg system, which exists in several different versions associated with particular fields of collecting, and SMK’s CollectionSpace, an open source system which the museum co-develops in collaboration with an international consortium.*3 These are supplemented by the archaeological museums’ MUD system and by The Museum System, which a few Danish art museums use. Finally, a number of additional systems are each only used by a single museum.

The traditions underpinning the institution’s registration work also vary considerably. Art museums base their registrations on the artwork, the National Museum of Denmark on each individual object, whereas the Regin system is based on the individual museum case.

For these reasons, creating a shared conceptual reference model capable of accommodating the existing data has been a complex task. The process was carried out in close co-operation with the museums, and the work has not yet been fully completed. The new, shared model is based on the existing models and inspired by international standards such as SPECTRUM and CIDOC CRM.*4


Collaboration as new norm

When the Danish Museum Act was amended in 1982, two central registers were established: The Central Register for Cultural History and Art Index Denmark. The two registers were housed at the main museums within their respective fields: The National Museum of Denmark and Statens Museum for Kunst. All state-operated and state-recognised museums were officially charged with the duty to register all items with these registers. Other systems have entered the scene since then. In the mid-1980s, The Danish Museum Council (now defunct) adopted the so-called Danish Museum Documentation Standard and developed the registration system Danish Museum Index. That standard would later become an important part of the present-day Regin launched by the Heritage Agency of Denmark around the beginning of the new millennium. Concurrently with this, the National Museum of Denmark developed the GenReg system in connection with a major remodelling of the museum that necessitated a temporary removal of many artefacts and exhibits.

Steps have been taken to converge and consolidate the various registers and records on numerous occasions, but the present initiative is the first that is well on its way to succeed. A change in attitude seems to have taken place during the process. Co-operation is increasingly regarded as an important aspect of the museums’ digital work. Such co-operation makes us better equipped to handle the challenges presented by fragile digital data, rapidly growing quantities of media files, and an increasing number of proprietary file formats. Museum professionals have a perfectly natural desire to focus on communication and reuse of information instead of worrying about the day-to-day survival of data in the digital minefield.

This back history is also interesting because it was instrumental in shaping and defining the quality of much of the data that is digitally recorded today. Much of this data has been converted from analogue sources, including the so-called blue registration cards that were widely used from the mid-1960s onwards, particularly at museums of cultural history. Of course, data has also been entered directly into databases as the present-day registration systems became available.

Data quality within the existing records is quite varied. Some records are fully adequate, while others are sporadic and of varying quality. This means that the museums face a major task: Upgrading their basic data in order to make them suitable for general availability, presentation, education, and international exposure.

That task will not be carried out automatically in connection with the Shared Museum IT project. The project focuses specifically on establishing a shared infrastructure whose primary elements consist of a database that includes a media archive (Digital Asset Management System or DAMS) and a storage solution. It will also incorporate interfaces that allow for the subsequent addition of specialised modules and, very importantly, easy import and export of data.*5


Crowdsourcing and collaboration

Crowdsourcing may be one of the options used by museums to upgrade their existing records. No Danish museums use the method at present, but quite a few are planning to do so.

The Shared Museum IT system will support crowdsourcing. The plan is for Shared Museum IT to be able to encompass data enrichment from scholars as well as the general public for any museum that wishes to avail itself of this opportunity. Investigating the concept of crowdsourcing falls outside the scope of this article; suffice it to say that it is currently being used to great effect by others. For example, the Royal Library in Copenhagen has experienced great interest and commitment from users in connection with the project “Denmark seen from above” (Danmark set fra luften)*6 and the method is in widespread use internationally.

Collaboration is a crucial factor for the Shared Museum IT project, and the museums have shown great interest and been very willing to take part in preparing the conceptual reference model and in workshops, whether the subject of those workshops was storage, media archives, or the project’s business case. Collaboration has also helped determine the project’s level of ambition as regards the use of technology and other important aspects.


Sharing quality

The Shared Museum IT project is now facing the actual development process. That process will gradually reveal exactly which elements the system will comprise and how the interaction between user interfaces, database, storage, and media archive will be resolved in practice. This is also where we must ensure that data can flow freely into any special solutions created by the museums or third parties for dissemination and education projects, etc.

Any shortcomings in the underlying data will be revealed by this point. Even the best of infrastructures cannot disguise poor quality data, but it can make it easier to upgrade that data. The old “garbage in, garbage out” adage from the infancy of the computer era still holds true today, and sharing high-quality data offers much greater opportunities for everyone.


NOTES

*1  Shared Museum IT. Analysis of the central registers of museums and proposal for a national IT-infrastructure, Devoteam, unpublished report, 2011. The consultant in the development project is COWI.

*2  Commission Recommendation of 27 October 2011 on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation, Danish version published in Den Europæiske Unions Tidende, L 283/39, 29.10.2011; Digitisation Stategy 2012-2015, 2012, The Danish Ministry of Culture, p. 13; The Digital Path to Future Welfare. The eGovernment Strategy, 2011-2015, 2011

*3  www.collectionspace.org

*4  SPECTRUM – The UK Museum Documentation Standard, Version 3.1, Collections Trust, 2007; CIDOC, The CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model, most recent update 18 January 2013, accessed 24 July 2013, www.cidoc-crm.org

*5 The data conversion process still lies ahead of us, so we do not yet know whether we will succeed in getting all data firmly in place at the first attempt. The task will certainly be considerable. The plan is to have all data from the museums that currently use Regin converted and ready by the time of the launch of the FMIT system in 2016. The National Museum of Denmark has also expressed a desire to be part of the project from early in the process.

*6  The Royal Library, Denmark seen from above, accessed 24 July 2013, http://www.kb.dk/danmarksetfraluften/

Updated: 26.aug.2014
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