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