Guest post: Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?

Posted on March 26, 2012

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One of the things I love most about spending time at the Powerhouse Museum is the conversations that occur. Last week, the Registrar for Collection Management Systems, Lynne McNairn, and I had an interesting discussion about CMS’ and their ease of use. In response to that conversation, she has written this post with some of her thoughts.

Lynne McNairn


Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?
Lynne McNairn
Registrar, Collection Management Systems

This post is partly written in response to recent posts about museums making the digital shift, and partly some observations from working in a museum.

One of the major tools in museums is the Collection Management System (CMS). These systems are very much about the object as a single item– they come from tradition of small white cards in wooden cabinets. But what could happen if a CMS was more like Facebook?

One problem faced by CMS administrators (I’ve spent many years plugging away at this) is that many people – particularly content providers such as curators – hate using the CMS. At the Powerhouse our CMS feeds directly to the Web as our Collection Search 2.53. When this was implemented (now 8 years ago), I thought it would be the answer to this problem. Surely when content providers could see their work posted online they would now be delighted to use the database! Sadly, although Collection Search has had an enormous positive influence on documentation at the museum, it is still the case that a great deal of useful and interesting collection research and documentation is undertaken that never reaches any sort of central repository and ends up being lost to the organisation.

What is it, then, that curators do with their documentation? I’m of course making sweeping generalisations but a look at an average curator’s PC will reveal many Word files and good number of PowerPoint presentations, as well as an overburdened Inbox. These files contain articles, publication manuscripts, exhibition ideas and the talks they give to groups.

So are there lessons in the huge popularity and ease of use of Facebook, which could make CMS a better tool for the work of interpreting museum collections?

There is no getting around the need for a detailed set of fields that record the acquisition, administrative and storage locations of an object, in order to manage the individual objects in the physical collection – but where does the interpretation of the collection fit?

Here is one idea for a ‘Facebook’ style CMS.

  • Each object gets its own profile (a subset of the fields we have in a CMS).
  • Users have options similar to  “Create photo album” (remember all those PowerPoint presentations). This feature could prompt users for some overall contextual information such as Title, Date Range, and Places etc, and ask them to state “What this presentation is about?”
  • The photos (or videos and other content) are loaded and the user adds the captions. At this point (as in Facebook), the user can tag the photo with any other relevant object profile. This content would not need to be restricted to “official” images of an object. It could include ‘happy snaps’ which a curator may have taken with a donor or maker etc as well as related material which supports the story being told.
  • Much like Facebook, this ‘photo album’ could then appear on the profile page of all the objects that have tagged.
  • The public could also be given access to comment and even create their own slide shows using our objects.

This idea could obviously be developed further. However, I think that for museums to really make the ‘digitisation shift’ there need to be new tools that make it easy for non-technical users to do their traditional work of interpreting and presenting the collection. Facebook has made it so easy for non-technical users of all types connect to their social networks. How could a museum CMS built on the same principles allow for easier capturing and linking together of museum objects and their interpretations?

museumgeek thoughts: Lynne’s post makes me wonder if there are any museum CMS’ that take this kind of social and non-technical approach to capturing collection information? Do you think this approach would work to better capture all that fabulous interpretative information that gets lost when individual curators leave an organisation?