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Museum Data

by on May 17, 2012

My presentation for Brown’s Day of Data:

I want to talk about museum data.

Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum has about 1 million objects. Each of them has a description, a story, a location, several histories. That makes for not only a lot of data, but, I’d suggest, a particularly interesting kind of data.

Why interesting? It’s like library data, but more diverse and harder to describe. No two objects are exactly the same. Museum artifacts are complex three dimensional things with complicated histories and meanings. Museums have spent decades creating complex thesauri to name and describe objects, but it’s like trying to describe the entire world. Frankly, it hasn’t worked very well.

We use museum data to keep track of things – where things are –  but more importantly, to accomplish what we call intellectual control. What are these things? For these Cashinaua artifacts, we have extensive interviews with the makers. We have the field notes of the anthropologist who collected them. We have photographs, and descriptions.

The reason for this, of course, is to be able to locate artifacts – not just physically, in the museum, but just as important, to be able to locate them in the multidimensional space of culture. We want to be able to search for them, view them, find information about them, make interesting links between them, tell stories with them.

More than that, we want to be able connect them – reconnect them, really – to the rest of the world. Other museums have similar, or related, collections. How can we use our data to make connections with those collections? How can we virtually repatriate Native American artifacts like these moccasins with the communities that made them? There a long and not very successful history of sharing data between museums – Brown’s Museum Loan Network built a shared database in the earl 1990s, for example. Today, linked open data suggests ways to make interchange easier. That’s the frontier for museum data.

The goal of the Haffenreffer Museum is to make our artifacts available for research, teaching, and learning. We’ve set up CultureLab in Manning Hall to do that. But a key to making artifacts available is making information about those artifacts available. We’re still a long way from that, but we know that it’s what we need to do next. We’ve got a lot that’s worth sharing. We want the world to use our collections, and to make that possible, we need to address the challenges of museum data.

Thank you.

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