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What is this ‘Linked Data’ thing all about?

By Richard Light

PenClipartVectors via pixabay (CC0)You may have come across an enthusiast (like me!) who tells you that you should be publishing your museum collection as Linked Data. Your reaction may well have been to shrug, say “I don’t know what it is and I don’t know how to do this”, and get back to cataloguing your collection and recording your collections management work. At this stage in the game, that would probably be a wise choice.
This post tries to explain “what Linked Data is” from a cultural heritage point of view, what the possibilities are, and why it is currently really hard to do it.

The Web as a distributed database

We all know how the Web works. You find a page containing information that interests you: this usually involves using a well-known search engine. This initial page of search results contains lots of links to relevant pages, and you simply click on the links that look relevant to go to those pages. On each new page there are more links to follow. If you’re really lucky you can end up going round in circles. This is ‘browsing the Web’. It’s fine as far as it goes, for looking up and reading information, one page at a time.
However, if you want to treat these pages as data (for example, to add background information into an object catalogue record), you will find they are quite limited. You can copy and paste some (or all!) of a web page into one of your records, but you will find that you either end up with annoying HTML markup in your data along with the text, or that the markup disappears and all the text is kludged together. Either way, you can’t expect to extract data from web pages in a format which is compatible with your collections management system.
Linked Data works in the same way as web pages. The key difference is that each ‘page’ is actually a (sort of) database entry, containing structured data. You can browse from one Linked Data page to another, just as you browse web pages. The Linked Data web is, in effect, a loosely joined-up database that spans the entire Internet.

Using URLs to identify concepts

Linked Data, from our perspective, is something we could use to describe the entities that make up the cultural heritage world. These include people, places, events … and objects. A key feature of the Linked Data approach is that each concept has its own unique identifier. This is a URL, which follows exactly the same rules as the URLs which identify web pages. So this is a Linked Data identifier for a person from the Getty’s ULAN (Unified List of Artist Names) thesaurus:
Pop that URL into your browser, and you will see a slightly strange web page, which lists the facts known about this person. The page heading makes it clear that this person is John Gerald Platt – something that isn’t clear from the URL.
So far, not very exciting – but this is where the Linked Data magic comes in. Ask for the same URL in a different way, and you get real data back. I’ll gloss over the exact way you do this1 and the technical details of the data2 , and give you a sense of how it looks. This is a fragment of the XML version of John Gerald’s data:

This fragment lists the biographical data that is available. The key point is that each biographical statement has its own Linked Data URL, for example, which you can look up:

This biographical fragment contains some real data: two dates and a summary description. There are also URLs for John Gerald’s gender and place of birth, which you could track down and extract data from. You’ll notice that these URLs come from different Getty thesauri: the gender URL comes from the AAT (Art and Architecture Thesaurus) and the place of birth from the TGN (Thesaurus of Geographic Names). This is a good way to do Linked Data: use existing frameworks to express the concepts you want to make statements about, rather than inventing new ones.
The really nice thing about using someone else’s Linked Data URLs in your records is that they give you additional data ‘for free’. For example, if you use a geographical resource like Geonames3 you get access to geolocation data for each place, which means you can publish distribution maps full of little pins at the cost of a little programming.

Publishing your collection as Linked Data

So let’s return to my original suggestion: that you publish information about your collection objects as Linked Data. There are two good reasons to do this: you stake a claim to your own material in the Linked Data world; and you provide an API for others to use when they want to access your data. I’ve had a go at doing this for U.K. museums, and a couple of them have taken up the opportunity4.

However, as I flagged up at the start, there are also good reasons not to publish your collection as Linked Data. Three which spring to mind: I’ll bet your collections management system lacks any support to help you add Linked Data URLs to your catalogue records; your web publishing software environment lacks any means of using Linked Data to add value to your web presence; and (perhaps most importantly) we currently lack Linked Data frameworks for the concepts we really want to share information about: people, places and events.

I’ll talk about these topics in more detail in a future post: in the meantime I look forward to responding to your comments and questions.

Richard Light is a U.K.-based information scientist and software developer who has been involved in museum information systems for nearly all his career. He helped computerize the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge back in the days of punched paper tape and mainframes, and then worked on data standards and systems with the Museum Documentation Association (now Collections Trust). Since 1991 he has been an independent cultural heritage consultant, specializing in markup languages and Linked Data. He is the Chair of Free UK Genealogy5 and is a regular attendee at CIDOC6 meetings: something all museum documentation folk should do!


Mercury – A Tale of the Importance of Good Documentation

It’s a strange thing. The topic of hazardous materials in collections pops up every once in a while but as human beings we tend to forget about it because we consider that – of course – we know these hazards are there, but, then again, we are rather sure we know our own collection well and that if we act according to our safety precautions we are safe.
When mercury was found in the air in one of our storage areas during a pollutant analysis, I was shocked and surprised. Of course I knew we had mercury in our collection. We own a considerable number of thermometers and mercury switches. But until this day I considered our handling instructions and other precautions safe enough. This mercury was all contained, right? Yes, it was. But we never had thought of other sources, open sources that were hidden in our collection.

Discovering open sources of mercury & lessons learned

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

As we started to research our objects through the lens of “mercury” we discovered that, in fact, there were a couple of objects we never thought of. It turned out that there was an automatic organ which operated with contacts that dipped into mercury in some ceramic containers. In our medical history collection we had devices for counting thrombocytes in blood samples that operated with open mercury. However small, given that mercury evaporates at room temperature, even small outlets are an issue! There were barometers and even chronometers with open mercury sources. It was quite an effort to find out which sources we had. Even more to either remove or contain the mercury and seal and label the contaminated objects properly.
We learned quite a few lessons along the way:

  • Never assume you know everything about your collection
  • Never assume your policies and procedures cover every aspect
  • Never assume that you are safe, keep an eye on recent research

But maybe the most important lesson was about the importance of good documentation. And we learned it the hard way.

All expert knowledge at hand, but still…

Looking back, if someone had thoroughly researched the working principles of said objects, he or she would have discovered that they needed mercury to work. We don’t know if someone knew this when the objects were acquired. At least whoever did it, didn’t mention that they contained mercury in the documentation and the catalog entry.

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

It’s the disconnected working processes that are the real health hazard here! When we look at the classical museum setting there are different people with different knowledge involved in the documentation process. People whose skillsets are perfect matches but all their knowledge is useless if it isn’t interlinked in the workflow:
The curator might know best that mercury was necessary to make an object work, but might not be aware that mercury is a problem. The conservator has, due to his or her education, deep knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not see the object before it is stored if it is in good condition. Even if he or she checks its condition before it goes off to storage, the mercury might be hidden inside, so the conservator isn’t aware of the danger. The collections manager has some knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not be able to spot the danger if it isn’t widely known to his/her profession (like arsenic in taxidermied specimen is). The database manager has the knowledge about how to make dangerous substances retrievable in the database and maybe even know how to label them properly, but again, as he or she doesn’t have knowledge about the object, he or she doesn’t know there’s a problem.
Although all the experts work for the same institution, if they don’t assess the object together and bring their knowledge together, they are likely to overlook a danger and impose a health risk on colleagues, future researchers and visitors.

The importance of knowledge in cataloging

It is also obvious how dangerous it is when whoever is doing the catalog entry doesn’t have indeep knowledge about the objects. There is a tendency in museums to think that cataloging is a task that can be done by “whoever”. Knowledge isn’t important, every intern can key in a short description and some measurements, right? Of course we all know that’s nonsense, but arguing against it is tough. It’s hard to communicate what damage it does if dates, measurements and categorizations aren’t correct. With hazardous materials the danger should be obvious: someone doing the catalog entry who hasn’t enough knowledge to understand the working principles is likely to overlook the danger and therefore imposes a life threat to his or her colleagues and visitors.
If the curator can’t do the catalog entry him-/herself for a good reason (And: no, being too lazy/old/busy to learn how to do it isn’t a good reason, at least in my book!) he or she has to share his/her knowledge about the object with whoever does the catalog entry.

How to do it better

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

There are a few things that can be done to avoid unpleasant surprises:

  1. When an object is acquired, consult with everyone involved in the process. All the expert knowledge at one table will help to discover as many potential hazards as possible.
  2. If you are a one woman/man museum, make sure to reach out to experts in your area, your regional museum association or international experts via listservs and online groups to learn about the possible dangers your new acquisition contains.
  3. If the hazard is new, define safety precautions in handling and storage. If the hazard is long known, make sure your handling and storage precautions are still up to date with current research.
  4. In the database: make sure the hazardous material is named. In an ideal setting you do have a thesaurus of dangerous substances to pick from which are linked to safety precautions and correct labeling.
  5. In the database: make sure an object that contains dangerous substances is clearly distinguishable from other objects so everybody is aware that there might be special handling and storage precautions.
  6. In the storage: label dangerous substances according to international standards.
  7. In the storage: store hazardous materials according to the safety precautions. This might involve special containers or rooms with a ventilation system and handling instructions clearly visible on the container.

Live long and prosper!
Angela Kipp


Holy Crap – Something’s in There!

Objects Containing Ingredients in Collections

Recently I stumbled upon this article on Piero Manzoni’s work “Artist’s Shit”:

It reminded me of a problem that hits every collections manager at least once in his or her career. The object that contains something. Not always the content is as debatable as canned crap, but from arsenic to zwieback there is an endless list of ingredients that can give you headaches for various reason. Now, what does the responsible collections manager do in those cases? It sure doesn’t come as a surprise that he or she is asking a variety of questions before he or she decides what to do.

Does it fit into the collection?

The can reads “no shit” in German, thus avoiding copyright infringement. “Kein Scheiß” in Germany means both  “no shit” and “I am not kidding you”.

The can reads “no shit” in German, thus avoiding copyright infringement. “Kein Scheiß” in Germany means both “no shit” and “I am not kidding you”.

This is – or should be – of course the first question with every object that is presented to a collecting institution like a museum. The question here is whether the object supports the mission and fits into the collections policy. But isn’t this the same thing? As far as we all know a collections policy should always elaborate on an institution’s mission statement. Yes, but a collections policy might limit what you collect anyway.

Your mission might say that you are collecting Italian art from 1960 to 1970, so Piero Manzoni’s work might well fit in there. But your collections policy might limit this down to paintings and works on paper for the reason that your storage is only suitable for these materials and you don’t have the capacity to store sculptures or other three dimensional objects. In this case, a can of artist’s you-know-what is luckily none of your business.


What’s important? The container, its ingredient or both?

If you come so far that the object fits into your collection, the next question is if this holds true for all of it.

If you are a museum for industrial design chances are you want to preserve the container. If the can held meat extract instead of this artist’s… product… you would probably have no problem with carefully opening and emptying the can in the least invasive form possible to preserve the original design of the container.

If you are a museum whose mission is to educate people about feces (nope, I so totally didn’t make this up: ) and therefore you preserve that stuff, you might likely be more interested in preserving the ingredient than the container. In real collections life, this often means that you have to remove the content from the original container to store it in a more appropriate container for long-term preservation. Now, I haven’t done any research on this concerning human feces, but my gut feeling tells me that a tin can is probably not the best container for their long-term storage.

Then, there are the cases where both, ingredient and container are worth preserving. I think we are safe to say that this is the case with “Artist’s Shit”. The age long questioning if Piero Manzoni really did it, if the can really contains what is said on its label is a strong evidence. A container just saying “Artist’s Shit” but obviously being empty would be somehow pointless. So would be preserving Mr. Manzoni’s feces, I guess. Although I’m not completely sure about this. Some future art historian might be interested in having it analyzed in a lab to find out about the artist’s lifestyle habits. After further consideration: it MIGHT be worth preserving it, as long as it fits into your collections policy and you solved the issue of long-term preservation.

But in this case, both, content and container form the artwork, so we certainly want to preserve both. And for that matter, we can’t separate the container from its ingredient, even if feces might demand other storage conditions than tin cans. We would alter the original condition of the artwork, which we strive to avoid as museum professionals. As a side note: countless collections managers have missed the chance to become artists themselves by leaving Manzoni’s work untouched – someone did open a can and it is now an artwork itself:

Is it hazardous?

It’s one of the key questions for every collections manager. The question goes different ways: is it harmful for itself and the other collections items and is it harmful for those working with the collection? On a sad note, I never, ever encountered a collections manager who is asking these questions in a different sequence, although, really, we should!

The question if it is harmful for itself is one that also plays a role when deciding on whether or not separating the ingredient from the container. Some things can destroy themselves if locked in an air-tight container. I’m sure every museum with a collection of celluloid items has a story about it. Concerning feces I would consider this risk rather low. However, I’m not an expert.

Whether or not the object is a threat to the rest of the collection is a key question before accepting an object. As there is quite a bandwidth of dangers that range from highly dangerous to mostly harmless under most conditions this kind of risk analysis can keep a collections manager up all night.

In the case of Manzoni’s artwork… well, there is a certain possibility that the feces inside (if they are inside) start fermenting, especially if it is too hot in the storage. There is a certain likeliness of the artwork becoming a fragmentation bomb under these circumstances. This could be avoided when stored properly.

The hazard for people handling it goes into the same direction. However, the risk is not so high that it would justify denying the acquisition (like it would probably be if someone offers the museum some live chemical agent). There should be a written procedure for the handling, for example containing that staff should check the can regularly for swelling. It should also be noted that there is a potential biohazard as we don’t know if there are real feces inside and we can’t be completely sure that Manzoni was in the best of health when he… safety first, right?

Summing up

After the collection manager knows

  • if the object fits into the collection,
  • if the content and its container are worth preserving,
  • if they can be separated of have to stay together unaltered, and
  • if they are hazardous and what these hazards are,

the collections manager will

  • advise on whether or not to acquire the object,
  • store the container and its ingredients in the most appropriate way,
  • label hazardous objects if necessary, and
  • write handling procedures for future colleagues.

I desperately tried to find a closing sentence for this article that is not a bad pun or for other reasons inappropriate. I failed. So I just write: Stay safe!



How Should Museums Equip Themselves For Rapid Response Collecting?

by Kathleen Lawther

by Liz Lemon via flickr (CC0)Following the Women’s March on Washington and the marches which took place around the world in solidarity on Saturday 21st January, I began to see posts popping up on Twitter and from the Museums Association in the UK highlighting the fact that museums wanted to collect protest signs, pink pussy hats and other artefacts relating to the marches. It’s great that museums want to document this moment and this movement, but I wonder if by the time museums have put out the message that they were collecting, it is already too late? Do people commonly bring their signs home with them? I didn’t personally attend a women’s march on the 21st but I have been to demonstrations before and I certainly didn’t lug any cumbersome signs home with me at the end of the day. They are not objects which are meant to last longer than a day or serve a purpose other than getting a specific message across at the specific time. This does not mean museums should not be collecting them, museums have always collected and preserved things which their makers never intended to last. But it does make the business of physically collecting them that much harder.

By Mobilus In Mobili via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)One of my concerns about museums putting a call out for signs after the fact is that the available signs are limited not only by the amount of people who will have bothered to take their signs home with them after the march, but by the amount of these people who will see these call outs and volunteer to donate their signs. This reduces the amount of available material to a tiny proportion of the millions of signs created for the day. It is therefore unlikely that museums will be able to pick and choose acquisitions which reflect the diversity of signs on the marches, from funny, light-hearted but pointed attacks on the new administration to signs highlighting the importance of intersectionality and making links to other movements such as black lives matter and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights. You cannot encapsulate the breadth of these events in a pink pussy hat. Again, collecting specific items which stand for themes and events and using them to reflect on those themes is part of the everyday work in museums, but doing so at speed makes the process much harder. Social media also means that the people all over the world have already seen and shared images of the most thought-provoking, powerful and funny signs from the day, so if a museum is only able to collect a couple of items that don’t measure up to what has already been shared from the marches, people will know that what has been collected is not a true reflection of the protest.

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0What is the solution to this? To be able to collect the best and most relevant objects from a protest, museum staff would need to be there at the event, either physically taking in objects on the spot, or at least handing out flyers with contact details and information about how to donate. Both of these approaches have their practical problems. To take in items there and then, museum staff would need to have entry forms on them, take the time to explain the donation procedure to protesters, and get them to sign the forms, all of which is taking up time in the day of someone who is there to take action, not record that action for posterity. By just handing out information, you place the burden on donors to take their sign home, keep it safe, and then bring it to the museum on a later date. A further option could be an alternative entry form designed for rapid response collecting, something quicker and easier to administer on the spot, which would allow museums to take in items with the minimum of fuss for donors and collectors, while upholding good documentation practice.

by  AnubisAbyss via flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) That is just the practical side of things. First a museum has to make a decision that an upcoming event will be significant enough to warrant on the spot collecting. It’s easy to say in hindsight that the Women’s March was significant and that items from the march should be preserved. But in the current climate protests are happening all the time, in quick reaction to new events. On 28th January people flooded the terminals of several US airports in protest at the executive order banning refugees, the following day spontaneous protests also happened in US cities. How can a museum as an institution react quick enough to be on the ground collecting at protests that erupt in multiple locations on a Saturday night? An individual member of staff could, perhaps, but would they be able to represent their museum in these circumstances without approval from their institution?

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0The other question this raises for me is whether it is ethical for a museum, or the representative of a museum, to attend a protest just to collect donations? A relevant parallel might be that of journalists and photographers, who attend protests as observers and recorders. In reacting to current events museums may have to act more like journalists, covering events with a detached eye. But museum staff and established museum practices for collecting are not prepared for this type of fieldwork. The protesters being asked to donate may be sceptical of museum workers being there in this context, especially if they believe the museum to be at odds with their cause, or taking a neutral and unhelpful stance on whatever they are protesting. There is something uncomfortable for me in the idea of a museum taking up space, and taking up people’s energy and time at a protest if the museum is ultimately only there to serve its own interests. Perhaps this will change in time if museums do take up a more active social role, as opposed to their more traditional role of collecting and recording.

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0The answers to at least some of these questions come down to individual museums having a clear mission and a collecting policy which supports it, as well as robust collections management and documentation processes which can meet the needs of rapid response collecting. Museums have traditionally been reactive and they need to find ways to be more proactive. This might mean the staff who are usually responsible for approving new acquisitions taking the time to look ahead to upcoming local events which have the potential to produce interesting ephemera or other objects worth collecting, and assigning someone to go out and actively seek donations. It definitely means museums putting targeted policies and processes, like an on the spot temporary entry form, in place now if they want to be equipped to act quickly to what is happening around them. Like so many things it comes down to good collections management: museums really knowing their collections, and knowing what they want their collections to achieve.

Kathleen Lawther is keeper of local history & archives at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery in South East England, and a freelance museum consultant with an interest in collections management, learning and engagement and the places where they intersect. She has worked in a range of organisations in the U.K. from small local authority museums to a national museum. She writes a personal blog about current issues in museums as


The Mountains And The Shrubbery – A Reflection on ICOM Milano 2016

shrubbery2When I was traveling back from the ICOM conference in Milan to Germany through the majestic landscape of the Alps I made an observation: While I was able to admire the calm beauty of the mountains with mansions and small farm houses I was unable to capture this silent beauty on camera. My camera, doing what it is specialized to do, captured everything that was there, including the shrubbery close to the train tracks that at times blocked the view of the landscape. I must admit that I wasn’t really aware of this shrubbery before I tried to capture the mountain view on camera.

It occurred to me that this observation in many ways reflected some of my thoughts and concerns with the large ICOM conference in Milano. There were over 40 specialized working groups, including my own, CIDOC. There were the specialists for textile collections, the specialists for glass museums, the specialists for money museums,… I know this specialization is really helpful to discuss the special issues that arise with special collections and special tasks in the museum and I love those conferences where I meet fellow specialists to swap ideas and horror stories. However, in the context of this meeting, it felt odd. Here, where all the specialists were together, there would have been room to discuss across professions about the big picture, about issues and challenges that might need a broader approach across professions. Instead, each specialized group clogged together to do their own thing. Each kept focusing on the shrubbery before their eyes instead of seeing the mountains.

Maybe it bothered me because the CIDOC group is the one that was initialized in the 1950’s to care for everything concerning information in museums. So, a rather broad approach was intended, which resounds well with the fact that documentalists and registrars are often the information hub in their institutions. Improving work-flow and gathering, structuring and providing all kinds of knowledge is natural to us. However, there we are, sitting and discussing specialized documentation frameworks and definitions while next door specialists in collections management, education or small museum administration struggle with issues we don’t know of – and where we might have ideas on how to help. On the other hand, the fresh pairs of eyes from colleagues outside our own profession could help us see if we still have the right focus on what we do or if we are missing important developments. As specialists we, like the camera, are probably focusing automatically on the shrubbery right before our eyes. However, unlike the camera, as human beings we are able to refocus on things that are farther away – but we might need someone who points us to the mountains and all the other details that are in the distance.


I wish we could have more discussions at these conferences about the most pressing issues of each profession. I know that some working groups with closely related topics are already doing this, but I’m thinking of a broader collaboration. I was glad to have the chance to talk with quite a few colleagues outside my own profession (I was especially glad to meet Linda Norris from the Uncataloged Museum in person!) and so many issues needing a common approach arose that I will touch just a few to provoke your own thoughts:

When educators are thinking about how to tell difficult stories let us think about how we can retrieve information to help them in our databases. If museums are places that focused for too long on just a small well-off part of society, chances are that our documentation is equally biased – we need help to develop methodologies to improve it. If part of our history is vanishing because we only have it on magnetic tape let us think about how we can save it – not as a task for specialized conservators but as a common task for all to think about which information should be saved first and how we can make sure that we focus on long-term stability in saving our data in the future. If Social Media has become an important branch of interaction with our communities – how can we document and use this input and how can we provide information in a way that our community can find and use it?

Let us think about how we can foster more exchange across professions – at the large conferences as well as in our own institutions.



Collections Put to The Test – New German Resource on Audits

Audits in collections – the opportunity to make a clean sweep, to correct old sins in documentation and look for the condition of our treasures. But where to begin and how to keep the project going? Lina Lassak did her bachelor thesis on this topic. And because there is no recent German resource about it, she made a handbook out of it, which she made available for free on Zenodo, a platform for publishing scientific texts I asked her about the development of this project:

handbuchThe origins where my field-related internship in the fifth semester, which I did in the winter 2014/15 at the Ägyptische Museum Berlin (Egyptian Museum of Berlin). This internship is integral part of the Museumskunde (museum studies) course plan to graduate as a bachelor at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin (university of applied sciences in technology and economy). During this time I learned how audits are done by the staff at the Egyptian Museum. During my studies I already realized how much fun I had working with a database and in a museum storage area and that’s probably why the audit suited me especially fine. I helped taking photos and measurements as well as cross-checking data with the old paperwork. While I did some research for my internship report I realized that there was no recent literature on this topic. So the topic of my bachelor thesis was set.

While I researched for my thesis I continued helping with the audit at the Ägyptische Museum and found two guidelines for the process: There was Hans-H. Clemens: “Inventur im Museum. Rekonstruktion und Modernisierung traditioneller Sammlungsverwaltung – ein Praxisleitfaden” (Inventory in the museum. Reconstruction and modernisation of traditional collections management – a guideline for the practice) and then there was “Spectrum 3.1 Sonderheft 5″ (Spectrum 3.1 Special Issue 5” by the Institut für Museumsforschung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Institute for Museum Research of the Berlin State Museums – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). But the first one is a bit outdated because it barely mentions digitization and the second just describes the process. What I also discovered was that there was a whole bunch of different terms for the same process and that nearly every state in Germany had some kind of directive for audits in place, but staffers didn’t know exactly how to put it into practice.

After graduating as a bachelor both supervisors of my thesis, Prof. Dr. Kähler and Dr. Zorn, suggested to develop a handbook out of it. That is what I did in the past year, supported by Dr. Zorn, and now I was able to publish it on Zenodo.

This handbook is no directive on how to do a proper audit, but a basic guide that helps to develop a handbook for the own audition project, tailored to the needs of each individual collection, as well as for the actual audit. That’s why it doesn’t focus only on archaeological objects but also includes examples of other artifacts. MuseumPlus is used as the example for the Collections Management System, but the data fields should be easy to transfer to every other system. The Ägyptische Museum is used as a detailed example because that’s where my experience comes from and because the colleagues there have developed and modified their own handbook for years. The steps can be transferred to all kinds of collections. I am trying to provide some assistance and help feeling confident when using a software.

Lina Lassak


CIDOC 2016 – Documentation is About People

As I was sorting my notes from the CIDOC conference in Milano1 I discovered that, unlike my notes from other conferences, it was hard to separate the sessions from one another and to separate my personal conversations with colleagues from the presentations and discussions at the conference. So, I gave up on summarizing the different sessions I attended and took a look at the big picture. Was there a leading theme, something that played a part in all sessions and discussions? Well, yes, there was, and, a little bit to my surprise it wasn’t something like “we need to contextualize our data more” or “we need better standards” or “we need to do more marketing for our profession”. The leading theme – at least for me – was: “Good documentation starts with people doing it and is only good if it is useful for people.”

Colleagues enjoying the opening ceremony of ICOM 2016 Milano at Castello Sforzesco.

Colleagues enjoying the opening ceremony of ICOM 2016 Milano at Castello Sforzesco.

Take the presentation of Alexandre Matos about implementing standards in some museums in São Paulo: the translation of the SPECTRUM standard into Portuguese, the localization of it for the local needs and the implementation of some of the standards in three museums was made possible by people doing it – included, and maybe the most important of all, by people in the State Secretary who were convinced that having standards in museum documentation is a good and necessary thing. How many good projects towards professionalization in our sector are blocked because officials don’t deem them necessary?

It’s the same with other projects like developing a combined and enhanced textile thesaurus out of the diverse ones that already exist at the HTW in Berlin, or the “International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF)” ( developed in Yale to support the work of researchers, or the experiences from automating processes in a museum library in Zambia. It all comes down to people who take the initiative to improve existing processes or to develop new ones – and not simply for the joy of doing it, but with their audiences and colleagues in mind.

Presentation ”Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is - and why it is important“ (photo via @CIDOCevents)

Presentation ”Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is – and why it is important“ (photo via @CIDOCevents)

As a collections manager among documentalists I halfway expected that I would feel strange. After all, while I use our database often, my job is more about taking an object out of the location it tells me than about thinking about thesauri and definitions. But I discovered that the topics discussed where highly relevant to my own work. Maybe it struck me most in the presentation “Mind the gaps: missing connections in museum documentation” given by Michael Jones. He described the issue that in research there are often missing links because you either search for something in the archives or in the object database or in the picture archive, but you don’t find the relations between the items found. So, while you might find the diary of an expedition in the archives, you might miss that there are specimen found during this expedition in the storage area and pictures of the crew in the picture archive. It struck me, because it’s one thing we do often in our own database in the TECHNOSEUM. Whenever I find a connection between two artifacts I will document this connection in our database. When we have archival material about an object or it is mentioned in a book it is often already referenced in the object catalog entry. If an object was shown in a special exhibition, you will find the label text in our database. I always took this high amount of interlinking done for granted, nothing I gave a second thought. It was only here, at the CIDOC conference, that I learned that this isn’t something that goes without saying. And again, the reason that it is available are people. People working in documentation at the TECHNOSEUM who chose a database software that was able to provide such linking between different categories of material and who created field sets and implemented processes that make it easy for everybody to make such connections.

A project that immediately grabbed my attention and fascinated me was the “Encyclopaedia of Museum Practice” ( ) that was initialized by Jonathan Whitson-Cloud. It is a project aimed at developing a multilingual wiki on museum terminology so everybody working in the field all over the world can look up terms and understand what they mean. We had a fruitful discussion about the project and some hands-on tries on the software. I shared some of the experiences we had at Registrar Trek with working multilingual. Again, this project is highly dependent on people just taking a heart and start adding terms and providing translations, so here I want to encourage you, the reader, to create a user account and start filling the “Encyclopaedia” with content!

Marzia Loddo and I at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci"

Marzia Loddo and I at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”

Maybe what I will remember most about the trip to Milan is the people I met and the conversations I had. And again, the topics of documentation played a role. When you are meeting with an art historian like Rupert Shepherd at the “Porta Nuova” in Milan you might learn that for a renaissance researcher this place is somewhere else than for the common tourist collections manager. Yes, terminology is important but we managed to find each other and fellow documentalist Susanne Nickel to enjoy a good Italian dinner together! Of course, there’s nothing better than swapping documentation horror stories with fellow documentalists and I did so with many colleagues I had never met so far or knew only via the internet – and with people I haven’t seen for quite a while. It’s funny that you might work next town for years but you need to go to Italy to see each other and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine together. And I learned that nothing stops a Registrar Trekker! Marzia Loddo, one of our Italian translators, and I managed to meet each other although a couple of incidents including a broken washing machine tried to hinder us!

It was great fun, thank you Milan and maybe we meet each other while working on the “Encyclopaedia”?

Best wishes

This post is also available in Polish, translated by Marcin Mondzelewski, the translation originally appeared on the blog of the Polish Museum Registrar Association

  1. You might like to take a look at the hashtag #CIDOC2016 on twitter to find what people found noteworthy while attending the conference.

Increasing Accessibility for Visitors Who Are Visually Impaired: Simple Solutions for Small Museums

by Janice Klein and Chuck Dean on April 05, 2016, originally published on the AASLH Blog

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided museums and museum associations the opportunity to review and reflect on the ways in which visitors with disabilities can be provided with improved access to museums. Recent professional development workshops, webinars and magazine articles have shown how a number of museums have created programs that provide imaginative new ways for their visitors with disabilities to experience museums. Unfortunately, many of these ideas provide access to only one exhibit or require extensive time or money to implement.

 Chuck Dean demonstrates the use of the KNFB Reader app on his iPhone at the Scottsdale Historical Society Museum.

Chuck Dean demonstrates the use of the KNFB Reader app on his iPhone at the Scottsdale Historical Society Museum.

This article focuses on visitors with visual disabilities for two main reasons. First, there are more than 800 diseases of the eye and they present themselves differently in different people. Some people who are visually impaired can read large text or Braille; some can’t read either. Some see better in bright light, and for some bright light totally obscures or fractures what they see. Basically there is no “one thing” that works for everyone.

Secondly, the development of smart phone apps has revolutionized the way that people who are visually impaired go about their daily lives, from travel using individualized GPS directions to access to a wide range of published materials via screen-reader and OCR apps. 1 Museums are just beginning to explore how they can use these relatively inexpensive technological advances to make themselves more accessible.

The very best way for people who are visually impaired to experience a museum is a docent tour. Of course that can be difficult for most museums to provide for every exhibit space throughout the entire building. There are, however, three very simple things that all museums can do to make their exhibits more accessible to visitors who are visually impaired:

  1. Put your label text (and any other written materials you have, like gallery guides) on your website in a format that can be downloaded. You’ve written it all out anyhow. People who are visually impaired can access that information in the way they find most useful. They can print it out at home as large text or Braille and take that with them on their visit to your museum. At the museum they can read it directly off the website with their smart phone using a screen-reader app.
  2. Use QR codes as part of your exhibit label to provide links to the information on your website. While QR codes haven’t been as successful for marketing as people hoped (to put it mildly), they are perfect for this purpose. In fact, in our opinion if museums were to do one thing to be more accessible, it would be to add QR codes to labels. A visitor with a smart phone can scan the code and hear the text (again using a screen-reader app). There are also smart phone apps that will scan the label itself and read it to the user. Some will even tell the user when the phone is “square” to the label and translate into one of over 200 languages. (BTW make sure your security guards know to allow visitors to “take pictures” of the label for this purpose).
  3. To make your labels and QR codes really useful, be consistent about where you place them (e.g., lower right corner of the case; 3 feet high and one foot to the right of the painting) so that they are easy to find. Using a separate standard sized frame for the QR codes would also be helpful. Ideally, all museums would agree on the same location for QR codes, but at least you can tell your visitors where to find yours.

None of these solutions is difficult or expensive, but would make all the difference in your museum being accessible.

About the Authors

Janice Klein is the Executive Director of the Museum Association of Arizona. She has worked in the museum field for more than 30 years and has served as Chair of AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee and on the AASLH Small Museum Committee.

Chuck Dean worked as a tool and die maker until he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease (juvenile macular degeneration) in his early 30’s. Since becoming legally blind he has managed his own business as a licensed massage therapist. He is an avid technology-user and has been using smart phone apps to assist in his travels (and museum going) for more than 10 years. He is a regular contributor to the Apple Vis Website and ViPhone Discussion list.

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.

  1. *Standard screen-reader apps are TalkBack on Android phones and VoiceOver on all Apple products. OCR apps include ABBYYTextGrabber and KNFB Reader.

Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is – and why it’s important

Co-authored with Rupert Shepherd, a talk delivered on 4 July 2016 at the 2016 CIDOC conference, held within ICOM Milano 2016.

Spreading the word title slide

Title slide from ‘Spreading the word’

Rupert: In December 2013 I visited a major museum in London. There, I saw a box for donations which gave a choice: did I want my money to be used for conservation, or education? But why couldn’t I choose documentation? As we all know, a museum cannot function without it.

But documentation, like other aspects of collections management, usually takes place behind the scenes, hidden from the public. So I came up with a simple idea: that people working in documentation should try and tweet, every day, what they were doing and, crucially, why it was important, using a specific hashtag: #MuseumDocumentation.

Since then, the hashtag has taken off: in one month recently, it saw more than 500 tweets from over 200 contributors, reaching more than 150,000 accounts in a single week. People have used it in many different ways. Some have been reminding us of the importance of good documentation as a whole.

Others have been doing that classic Twitter thing, and tweeting about what they’re doing.

The hashtag has been used to send out requests for help; or to announce events for documentalists – on Twitter or in the physical world.

We use it to share good practice or documentation skill, and to share things that might have been done better.

And of course, it’s been used to tell some of the stories that we find every day in museums’ documentation.

Sharing things that spark our interest, the #MuseumDocumentation hashtag has given me a feeling of community, shared effort, and mutual support. But has it influenced the museum sector more widely? Here I’m less certain. In March this year, a group of national organisations representing museums in the UK ran a survey. One question listed 16 different kinds of work that museum staff could be doing – and documentation didn’t feature at all; neither did collections management.

2016 UK musuem workforce survey screengrab

Screengrab of question 11 from 2016 UK museum workforce survey run in March 2016 by Arts Council England, Museums and Galleries Scotland, The Museums Association, and The Association of Independent Museums

Of course, conservation and education were there: nothing seemed to have changed since I saw that collecting box in December 2013.

Angela: When I saw this survey, I was stumped. Since we started Registrar Trek in 2013 a handful of authors and a whole bunch of translators from around the world have tried to make the work of registrars and collections managers more visible to the public. Seeing neither collections management nor documentation on that survey was sobering, and I worried that we’d been doing something wrong.

On reflection, I think that we didn’t do enough. Decision makers and the public have still not recognized that our work is important.

But couldn’t we just put our job title in the ‘other’ field and go back to the stores? Why don’t we forget about the social media stuff and mind our own business?

Because this would be a very dangerous thing to do. The internet and social media have changed the world. Today, if you don’t speak about what you do, no one believes it’s important! In the days before Twitter, when the train was late we complained to our fellow travellers. Today, you will tweet the train company to tell them that their service is rubbish, and hopefully they will tweet you back with apologies and information.

There is active communication going on, and even if the explanation for the delay sounds flimsy, you can see that work’s being done behind the scenes. If they don’t get back to you, well, you assume that there isn’t anybody working, apparently not even the train driver.

This is why it is so dangerous that our professions didn’t appear in the survey. As well as the public, they are hidden from museums’ most senior managers, governing bodies, and funders. At best, the people who decide on where the money goes don’t know about the documentation work that is being done in a museum; and at worst, they may think it is not important.

Rupert: So, what can we do to make our voices heard? One way is to keep using the #MuseumDocumentation hashtag, but try more often to follow my original intentions and say why our work is important. This isn’t always easy: it can be quite difficult finding a new way of saying for the tenth time why tidying a spreadsheet for import into a database is important.

So even I’ve not been managing a daily tweet about what I’ve been doing.

Angela: But it’s still worthwhile in more ways than one. Using this hashtag challenges you to think about what you did all day.

Nika Novak cataloguing at the TECHNOSEUM

Nika Novak cataloguing an item in the TECHNOSEUM’s newly-acquired broadcasting collection in 2015. TECHNOSEUM, Foto Hans Bleh

Documentation: cataloguing, maintaining database, writing a report template to generate display labels from the database, streamlining a procedure, tidying a spreadsheet for data import, updating an authority list, writing training materials…

Angela Kipp scanning a barcode at the TECHNOSEUM

Angela Kipp scanning a barcode whilst recording a radio’s change in location at the TECHNOSEUM. TECHNOSEUM, Foto Hans Bleh

Collections management: packing, tidying, preparing a loan, reporting an accident, checking moth traps, ordering archival material, updating location entries, correcting measurements in the database, defining the location name for a new shelf…

Most of the time, collections managers and documentalists are so caught up in multiple tasks that at the end of the day it’s really hard to say what you did, and you might even feel that you got nothing done. But when you think about it, you did a lot of things that were important, interesting, challenging or simply funny. Now your challenge is to say this in just 140 characters, 20 already taken by the hashtag. It might seem impossible at first, but with a little practice it’s quite fun. Take a look at the hashtag on Twitter to see how other colleagues have done it.

If this feels like too much, then, at least to begin with, anything tweeted using the hashtag will help.

But let’s think more broadly: as documentalists, registrars or collections managers we are working in a goldmine – of good content. Whenever I go through our database, I encounter things that ‘wow’ me: things I didn’t know, or interesting stories. For example: did you know that there exists an electrical household appliance for heating your beer to your preferred drinking temperature? Or that the TECHNOSEUM has 473 soldering irons which helped win a world record? And when it comes to cat content, rest assured that we’ve got that one covered…

A tin for gramophne needles, decorated with a picture of a cat playing with the needles

A tin for storing gramophone needles, advertising the Herold brand of needle, Nuremberg, Nürnberger-Schwabacher Nadelfabrik GmBH, 1920-1925, museum number EVZ:1989/0804-001. TECHNOSEUM, Mannheim, via the TECHNOSEUM online catalogue.

It’s time to share that gold. If your institution has a social media manager, show them those interesting things: remember that they are not as close to the objects and the documentation as you are, so won’t find those facts on their own! You will enrich the content the museum shares with the public, and show your colleagues that if they need interesting facts, stories or pictures, it’s best to contact your documentalist or collections manager. You will have raised the profile of museum documentation.

Rupert: If there is no social media manager or press officer, well, it’s time for you to share those things yourself. The Horniman Museum’s Tumblr account was placed in the hands of documentation and collections assistants – and won a Museums and the Web ‘Best of the Web’ award in 2014.

The Social Media Best of the Web Award won by the Collections People Stories review team on the mantelpiece at the SCC

The Social Media Best of the Web Award won by the Collections People Stories review team for their In the Horniman Tumblr blog, on the mantelpiece at the Horniman’s Study Collections Centre. Horniman Museum, London.


  • Tweet under the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation what you did and why it is important
  • If you see a tweet that was made possible because of documentation, retweet it and comment with the hashtag

  • Write a story or an article about what you did or what you discovered for Registrar Trek or a similar blog
  • Use a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, Instagram or whatever you like best to make your work more visible

Who knows – you might be asked to put on a display about your work.

Norsk Folkemuseum collections management display

A collections management display at the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, in October 2018. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Norwich Castle Museum's documentation display

A documentation display at Norwich Castle Museum, photographed in January 2016. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Norwich Castle Museum's MODES display

A MODES display at Norwich Castle Museum, photographed in January 2016. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Certainly, the more documentalists and collections managers are visible on the internet, the harder it will become to forget about our professions!


A thing that can do things – Taking a look at the Arduino from the perspective of a collections specialist

An Arduino with a LAN shield - a thing that can do MANY things

An Arduino with a LAN shield – a thing that can do MANY things

Being the collections manager for a Science and Technology Museum has a whole range of downsides. For example, you never, ever get big industrial storage halls so tight that dust and pests aren’t an issue, people think you are crazy when you insist on various security systems and archival packaging for “old junk” and one of your duties is to explain that, no, you don’t sell spare parts for vintage cars or old radios. But sometimes it has its advantages, for example that you are much closer to all those techy, nerdy things that happen “out there” (Because, yes, there IS a world outside of the museum, I know people who have been there).
One day a colleague showed me a little blue thing that was blinking frantically.

“What’s that?” I asked.
“An Arduino”, he replied.
“What’s an Arduino?”
“It’s an amazing little thing! It’s a thing that can do things. It can do everything!”

Basically, when he showed it to me all it could do was blink a little red LED. But as I was digging deeper I discovered that there is a whole community of makers out there who do amazing projects with that little thing. You can really do everything, from reading sensor data to steering an electric motor and everything in between. When I saw that someone had realized a game of Tetris inside of a pumpkin ( I was sold. I needed such a thing.

Actually, if you look sharp at the picture on the post for our second Registrar Trek Birthday 2015 you get the idea when I first made contact with this thing...

Actually, if you look sharp at the picture on the post for our second Registrar Trek Birthday 2015 you get the idea when I first made contact with this thing…

Granted, the moments when a registrar or collections manager is in urgent need of a tetris in a pumpkin are rather rare. But for a whole range of tasks it would be useful and – compared to a computer game in a pumpkin – not too hard to put into action.

How about an alarm when it’s much too bright in a gallery and someone should close those curtains? Or a data logger that writes temperature and humidity in your off-site storage to a SD card? If there is LAN or even WiFi available, it’s starting to get really interesting as you can monitor the climate via the internet and even get alerts on twitter or in your mail when someone turns on the light or a climate value exceeds a certain level.

The big advantage of the arduino is that you can do those projects yourself and at a reasonable price. It requires that you familiarize with the topic, but, compared to former times, you don’t have to be an expert in electronics to do it. The few necessary components are available via the internet and thanks to a large, world-wide community that is committed to the spirit of Open Source you find a solution or even complete code to nearly every problem which you can adapt to your own situation with a little thinking and a few changes.

The first thing that can do things that actually DOES things for the TECHNOSEUM: A data logger that records the climate in a certain area of our museum.

The first thing that can do things that actually DOES things for the TECHNOSEUM: A data logger that records the climate in a certain area of our museum.

Recently I have experimented a lot with this “thing that can do things”, so I plan to use this blog to present some of my projects that have to do with museum work every now and then for you to have a look and maybe try yourself. Our readers who are not so much into technology will hopefully forgive me. One or the other might even feel inspired to have a closer look into the world of microcontrollers…

For a start I suggest the starter kits who contain not only an arduino but a whole bunch of useful accessories like resistors, sensors and LEDs so you can experiment right there and then. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing one little component when you start learning and who has a fully equipped electronics workshop at home? Usually those kits come with some instructions for simple experiments (if they don’t, you can find plenty of them on youtube) that I highly recommend to conduct. Along with a general understanding of the topic you explore what can be done, may it be a tetris in a pumpkin or a data logger.

And there is one thing I can promise: when you manage that a little red LED is blinking exactly how you planned it for the first time, you get a feeling like you just discovered new territory…

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.