Museum Documentation – Moving from the Closed, to the Open World

open world

The Open World

As cultural heritage organisations increase their engagement with the Web and the ‘open’ digital world it is becoming increasingly important that they don’t simply apply the same methods and practice that they currently continue to use in their internal and closed world. This is particularly important for the documentation of cultural objects which must radically change if museums are to become valued open world digital organisations.

Current collection management systems are based on standards and techniques designed for a closed world environment. They record information in ways that, when combined with the knowledge of internal curators and experts, are useful for internal purposes. However, the technical transfer or publishing of this data to the Web effectively creates a flat linear resource which is separated from this internal knowledge, significantly limiting its uses and value.

Using knowledge representation methods that attempt to transfer some of the missing context and semantics enhances the data considerably but these methods (Semantic Web ontologies) could provide a far better representation if the original method of documentation  was not so affected by the closed world mindset. However, in terms of existing documentation this is the legacy that we have, and no-one involved in the past in defining collection digitisation anticipated or understood the potential that open world environments might provide for collection data. Revisiting that documentation raises a number of issues.

In new digitisation projects, however, these closed world mindsets no longer have to be applied. Yet in the same way that much of the cultural heritage world has so far failed to realise the potential of the Web beyond electronic publishing for human consumption and replicating the same things they did with hard copy publishing, we also seem intent on continuing with the same type of closed world documentation even though we know that open world requirements and benefits are different. Even for special projects we assume that we need to use the same approach and documentation standards (albeit with different tools) that we are using with our internal collection system – a misplaced assumption about making new digitisation conform to legacy data and systems.

This is a big mistake. When we look at new digitisation we need to use approaches that enhance the possibilities of the data, not give it the same ‘closed world’ limitations. We need new approaches to documentation that are not based on the premise of creating an internal inventory catalogue, but rather ones that directly embed more of the experts knowledge (curators, archivists, librarians, academics) into the data and therefore provide a richer source for knowledge representation methods that can benefit a wider range of users – including cultural institutions themselves.

Museum curators need to understand these new possibilities, take the initiative and insist that documentation and technical departments that are still working with legacy closed world standards and approaches do not continue to limit the possibilities of new data. Ultimately, the way that we document objects in museums needs to change to reflect the fact that we no longer digitise simply to keep an internal record, but instead to provide a valuable, rich and engaging resource for a range of different uses. Without recognising these necessary changes we risk having a far larger legacy of data that we will inevitably need to re-visit.

Dominic Oldman




How should we treat data? Like we were Humanists

broken relationships


It strikes me how we (digital humanists) have a very different relationship with structured data compared to the one we have with text and literature. This seems to me to be reflected in the way that we treat data. While many different initiatives around the world attempt to bring data from cultural organisations together, we seem intent on accepting a narrow view about the possibilities of data, computers and the interaction of people, and as a result are happy to ignore the possibilities and benefits of capturing the context (and meaning) attached to data by the experts (people) who produced it and who continually update and develop it. If humanist researchers digitise a book to learn more about it, isn’t the objective to discover more, to discover the hidden relationships and meanings and make connections with other evidence that we have? Do we seek to exclude the elements of it that would give us this insight and throw them away? If not, then why do we accept this situation with cultural data?

Many cultural information systems were designed as closed systems to be used internally in union with the knowledge of the institution and its experts. The original data schemas were often produced to create a functional inventory or reference, and as an internal system they offer a valuable resource – but they are used in combination with other internal knowledge about the data (a knowledge built up over time). If you separate data from its institutional knowledge and context then you lose this essential part of the overall ‘information system’. This is why, when we represent data it should not be just a technical process. It should involve and add institutional knowledge to ensure that the data carries with it as much of this additional and valuable local meaning as possible. Data providers, the institutions themselves, could be providing data that is far more expressive and far more likely to help people (researchers, teachers, ‘the public’ and the institutions themselves) understand their relationship with the past – the type of representations that we take for granted when working on digital literature projects.

“…what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.”   Max Sebald (The Rings of Saturn)

Let’s not make data meaningless and technical, devoid of memory and perspective. Let’s treat it in such a way that it can also evoke meaningful and long lasting memories, and let’s allow it to make connections between different memories (perhaps ones separated by time and place) many of which have been long since forgotten and locked away in our knowledge/memory silos. Let’s use data to produce powerful narratives about history – like we do with literature. Let’s treat data like we were humanists.

For a more formal version of this blog see: 


*By Kathy Kimpel (Flickr: IMG_0327) [CC-BY-2.0 (]