Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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OPAC2.0 – new context features – collections, ‘parts’, and narratives

January 7th, 2008 by Seb Chan

As promised some of the new features of our collection database have started to go live.

We have been spending a lot of time working through a range of legacy issues to do with how collection data is structured in our collection management system and how this affects the options for its more flexible use on the web. Part of the problem lies in the way in which museum professionals classify, and another part in how these classification practices become hard-coded into collection management software.

A very big problem for us has been ‘parts’ and ‘collections’ and how they have been historically catalogued. An example is our Hedda Morrison collection of photographs. In our collection management system this set of 349 photographs has an object number (92/1414) with associated structured data. Then, each of the 349 photographs has their own object number (92/1414-1 through to 92/1414/349) related to that of the parent with a lesser set of structured data – because it is assumed that it inherits some data from its parent.

Now this works perfectly if the user views (and reads) the parent object (trunk) first and then digs down to the part objects (branch) and their associated data (leaves). But in the new world of search it is far more likely that a user will start at a leaf not only because they are more plentifully represented in the search results which flattens the tree structure, but also because it is actually what they are looking for (a photo of an “Itinerant barber” for example).

So finally we have started to reveal these parent/child relationships on object pages. Now looking at the collection record for the aforementioned “Itinerant barber” we reveal that it belongs to a parent object.

You will also notice that for some objects (the barber photo is one) we also reveal that it belong to a ‘collection’. These are even broader groupings of objects that cross into the forest of other object trees. The barber photograph belongs to the ‘Hedda Morrison Collection’ which also contains her camera, passport, papercuts, Chinese belt toggles and much more. Again by revealing this relationship we open up new pathways for users to traverse the collection.

Here’s the Jenny Kee Collection – a collection and archive of the work of a famous Australian designer.

All this work is a prelude to a much larger feature that will go live very soon – narratives. (Although I think we will call them ‘themes’ on the site). Narratives will operate in a similar manner but allow for much more free association between objects. Narratives will also contain their own text and images so that they operate a little like object groupings. We might have one on 20th Century Australian Design written by a curator, or one on Flying Machines written by one of education staff. There will probably come a time when users will be able to submit their own object clusters.

One of the computing curators, Stephen Jones, came up with the notion of ‘heterarchical narratives’ (possibly after a quick lunchtime re-reading of Deleuze). This is a good way of describing the way in which they will act as fluid nodes for contextual collection information. Not only are they much more fluid in terms of navigation, they are also much looser in terms of internal structures of control in terms of knowledge production. Anyone with access to the collection management system can create a new node and associate collection objects with their node – this opens up plenty of opportunity for cross-disciplinary narratives, and cross-organisational collaboration.

Tags: 6 Comments

  • lyndak

    Hi Seb, just wondering who generates the narratives??

  • Hi Lynda

    Currently the narratives are being written by curators however it is intended that education staff will be able to add them too shortly, and eventually the general public as well.

    The narratives are done using Emu so there needs to be some degree of Emu training as well as appropriate client licensing. We then pull in the associations from the Emu database. We use Emu so that the narrative associations are stored permanently with their object record and so that eventually all other collection related material can be managed through it – book chapters, educational materials etc (basically anything that refers to collection objects).

    For general public narratives we will use a system similar to our tagging setup that exists independent of Emu. But of course the best of these could be imported into Emu for permanence.

    We should go live with some narratives later this week unless something crashes or goes awry and the development schedule gets bumped back a bit.

    Seb

  • lyndak

    Thanks, just two more questions.
    First, are the narratives purely text-based or will there be a facility for sound/video files to be uploaded?
    Second, did you have to do any modifications to Emu to accomodate these?

  • Lynda

    Narratives can be as rich as objects and have multiple associated image, video and other multimedia files. Some which we will be launching soon will have downloadable PDF kits with them as well.

    This is all possible because the rich data is also stored, or at least indexed, by Emu. We are using Emu as our DAMS/IMS at least in part.

    Seb

  • I should also point out that we are not limiting ourselves to the data structure of Emu. Theoretically what we are doing is possible with ANY other collection management system, DAMS or IMS – as long as the structured data is available as a feed or through an API.

    As I wrote in the initial post, it is about considering collection data from the perspective of the general user and highly variable personal contexts of use, rather than the (artifically constructed) singular context of a ‘researcher’.

    This is rhizomatic collection architecture (after Deleuze).

  • Collections now have their own ‘tab’.