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

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?

11 thoughts on “Guest post: Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?

  1. I work for a pulp mill and the CMS system in use there, is a complete waste of time. It would be nice if I when I was looking for the parts for some random piece of equipment, or tools I need, or a picture of it and some parts that are associated (just to know if I was looking in the right direction) were on there as a loosely worded search. If I don’t know EXACTLY what it’s filed under, I have to take a wild guess or make fifteen trips from the equipment to the warehouse.

  2. That’s an interesting observation, theadroitarborist. I’ve actually been wondering about whether the whole Google+ circles idea could have useful application too, by making it easier for a collection object to be pulled into multiple personalised circles. Rather than needing to find an object by knowing its strict classification, individual curators/staff etc could pull objects into multiple different designations/relationships, based on their own needs and thought patterns. While the object could still have a primary classification according to the institution’s existing schema, it could be woven into different stories and given different meanings by being put into different circles. Such circles could be private to the individual using them, or made public, and objects could be dragged into as many as were suitable. And therefore even if an institution’s existing classification schema was one based on materiality (for instance), the object could be grouped based on use, on inclusion in a particular exhibition, a curator’s favourite objects or any other designation.

  3. Hi there Suse and Lynne,

    Have you taken a look at eHive, an online collection management system created by the makers of Vernon? It is an online service that allows for “clicky” entry of object information, and the information goes directly to the web, so users get instant “web satisfaction”. I’m not sure how administratively sound eHive is – there are many important factors of collection management systems such as management of object locations, security, condition, loans, etc…. but I think eHive is worth a look!

    Karen Biddle
    Registrar Collection Database Administration
    Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

  4. I understand the latest Sharepoint is a bit facebook-like in its user interface and functionality, which could work for your idea here. The recordkeeping aspect happens automatically, ‘behind the scenes’ so that staff don’t have have to worry. It could be a start for internal use if it incorporated a corporate recordkeeping system (to catch all those emails and word docs full of research, making sure that once a curator leaves, their research and project documentation doesn’t) and the CMS. Staff can then create personalised pages, gathering together documents or object rego’s as they choose then create pages for work groups, teams or projects as well. Although these are observations that I’ve heard about Sharepoint, not having used it myself. And it might not provide the public access & interaction component (as yet).

  5. Sounds like a UX problem to me. Why are curators using Word instead of the CMS? Because they understand it. It’s a document that you type text into and save. There are no form fields that you have to tab around. There are no unintuitive date formats requiring entry. There are none of the usual problems that arise when you introduce users to structured data entry.

    It’s that term, “data-entry”, that’s the real problem. Everyone hates doing it. Structured data is significantly more useful than a Word document (or a blog post, or whatever), but it requires just enough effort to produce that most people don’t bother. And frankly, why should they? We have computers precisely so they can take care of this kind of stuff for us. Why should I be forced to divide up my content into machine-knowable chunks when I have a machine right here that should theoretically be able to do that for me?

    It’s much easier for me to write a document, free-form, and then edit it a few times to get the desired end result. The UI of most CMS software doesn’t really afford this kind of behavior. You have to create your content, edit it, prep it for entry into discrete data fields and then actually enter it into the system.

    I’m reminded of an address book application that was written a long time ago by Simson Garfinkel. It was written for NEXT systems and was briefly ported to OS X after Apple bought NEXT and turned NEXTstep into Cocoa. The real genius of the app was that you just typed the address book entry into a text field, the same way you would in any paper-based daytimer. The app then used some simple-but-elegant AI routines to analyze the text and turn into a structured data object. The user wasn’t typing in first name, last name, phone number, and address fields. They just wrote the entry out in plain English and the software understood how to interpret that.

    This to me seems like a solution that could work. It would be a lot harder with our collection data than it is with address book entries, and we might have to really think about what our collections data needs to look like and include before we pursue something like this. But I just don’t think social rewards are going to motivate users to use a CMS that requires significantly more work to use than just editing a .doc file would. It’s not that users don’t feel rewarded for using the CMS or even that they don’t understand the value of the CMS. It’s just asking them to put a lot of effort into a system whose major rewards don’t impact them directly except possibly in the very long term.

  6. Hi Matt,
    I agree with everything you’ve said here! The thing that I find amazing about Facebook is not so much the social media thing but the incredible range of people that use it. The other day I was in a St Vinnies charity shop and overheard the shop volunteers, ranging in age from 50 to (at least) 70, discussing their Facebook posts! It’s very easy and rewarding to use.

    A CMS will always need to have a whole lot tedious fields that people like me can use but could we have a Web interface with just a small subset of fields that allows us to put just a little structure around all the interesting stuff that happens in Museums. At the moment we do a better job with dull (for the general public) admin information – acquisitions, loans etc than we do capturing the value in collections – ie what they tell us about ourselves.

  7. There is so much potential for much better museum systems – unfortunately it is a fairly small market, which probably slows up development time somewhat. In resposne to Suse’s comments re classification – Powerhouse documentation staff have been busy for many years promoting thesaurus based indexing rather than classification sysems such as Chenhall. Thesaurus systems allow endless multiple entry points into object names, object groupings, subjects and themes. Thankfully, we haven’t had to fit objects into a narrow box for about tthe last thirty years! I always have difficulty understanding why museums still use classification systems (except for natural history – but even then, there is great potential for multiple entry points and creative indexing!)

  8. another point of view: maybe the CMS isn’t the problem….maybe the problem is that what a curator is and does has changed….and along with it multiple new skill sets are needed.

  9. Another perspective:

    Maybe the problem isn’ the CMS….maybe the problem is the user.

    Curators (and more importantly museum studies courses) need to recognise that the goals have changed. The job requires multiple new skill sets. It is almost like a carpenter that uses a hammer to put together a house instead of a nail gun.

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