Monday, June 24, 2013

How many objects is enough? Digital assets and scale.

The Europeana project is a tremendous undertaking allowing access to “millions of items from a range of Europe's leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums.” The collections are language interdependent – since the portal is available in all eu languages, with on-the fly translation. To accomplish this project there has been a massive amount of work on rights, standards, and data normalization. The site presents access to a shared cultural heritage, serving both political and social purposes.

But how does scale affect the presentation and use of digital content? Working on a collection of 700+ objects for the Mount Vernon midden project I have to wonder at the pros and cons of such vastly different projects. It seems almost silly to compare them  - and obviously there are many, many aspects to the Europeana project - but as a visitor to the sites, how do they serve their audiences?
I know the curatorial work that has gone in to the Mount Vernon midden project. Recognizing that it’s an archaeological assemblage, where context is always primary, the objects there have to been seen within the larger framework: the reciprocal links from objects to themes, and items; the linked excavation layers; the linked related primary documents; the historical and archaeological background. If these items were aggregated to a common site much would be lost. It’s the context that informs the objects, giving meaning within the framework of the whole carefully constructed site.

A key part of the Europeana site is the development of a common standard allowing sharing and collaboration. But what is lost when we reduce objects to a common core? I’m still working through the CIDOC CRM standard, (understanding it to be more concerned with relationships than fields). Oldman lucidly argues in his recent blog (Oldman & Doerr, 2013)/, that aggregation through core fields is a misplaced goal. He sees a better approach in a richer CRM standard, publishable through aggregation format, noting in broad terms the loss of context and meaning as objects are moved away from their curatorial origins. [Readers interested in questions of scale in digital media will find a more thorough and informed exploration in Oldman's blogs!]

The Europeana API potentially allows museums to link back to the Europeana collections, though I didn’t see this implemented. If I’m looking at a beautiful agateware teapot in the Fitzwilliam museum, I’d like the option to see similar examples. It seems there still a way to go in the implementation of the tools.  For the Europeana exhibits, though the content and presentation was great, what I wanted was a way to expand the content. Perhaps I missed the feature but why, with millions of objects available, am I limited within the exhibit to those selected for me? I understand providing a narrative, but can’t a layered experience be provided that allows visitors to go further into the collections, to add their own objects? 

The Europeana project is a tremendous undertaking, and the use of common standards leads to long-term benefits for sharing and collaboration. But when we visit a museum there’s a conscious and unconscious preparation. "Normally the physical museum serves as a context, where various properties of buildings, rooms, exhibitions and other features are border resources.” (Nilsson 1997). Digital content experienced through a web browser starts as a reductive experience. It’s important, I think, to compensate for this loss with as richly contextualized environment as possible.

Links and citations:

Europeana - Homepage. (2013). Retrieved June 24, 2013, from
Nilsson, T. (1997). The interface of a museum: Text, context and hypertext in a performance setting. In ICHIM 97: international conference on hypermedia and interactivity in museums (pp. 146-153).
Oldman, D., & Doerr, M. (2013). The Costs of Cultural Heritage Data Services: The CIDOC CRM or Aggregator formats? Retrieved from

Monday, June 17, 2013

New blog. New purpose

The Stories Past blog has languished over the last few years. This has largely been because I’ve been working part-time outside of the company as a research assistant at the University of Tennessee, serving as the PI on the new web catalog for the National Park Service. It has been a great project; we’ve redesigned the website and worked with parks to add content. The site currently boasts over 2 million objects and site traffic has increased tenfold.

National Park Service Web Catalog

Stories Past has continued to work with different clients, including the Mount Vernon Midden site. In contrast to the NPS site this project has just 700 objects, each very well described, with accompanying images, and presented in a rich thematic context. The site also integrates two documentary databases relating the archaeology objects to the documentary record.

Mount Vernon midden site
Personally I have undertaken a new venture as well. I’m part way through a Master’s of Information Science program at the University of Tennessee. It has exposed me to a much wider range of materials,  and allowed me to read and research topics outside of immediate project needs.

I’m currently researching and exploring issues of online collections encompassing archival, museum and archaeological materials. I started my career as a teacher and my interest is in how these now digital assets can serve the many “public” audiences. My private aim for this blog is that will serve as my “deadline” – a weekly post on the issues with which I’ve been wrestling. Hopefully it can serve a wider purpose as well, discussing issues and providing examples of some great sites and links to resources.

The next blog will be considering scale. Are we best served by aggregated collections of millions of objects from multiple institutions? Or is a better model well-described (and exposed) collections presented within the rich thematic context?