Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Introducing the alpha of the Museum Metadata Exchange

April 8th, 2011 by Seb Chan

The Museum Metadata Exchange (MME) is a project that started mid last year (2010) as a collaboration between the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD) and Museums Australia (MA). Funded by the Australian National Data Services (ANDS), the project is key infrastructure to deliver museum collection-level descriptive (CLD) metadata to the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC).

That’s acronym city. So here’s the human-readable version.

The MME takes a different approach to collections. Instead of focussing at the object or item level, it moves up a notch to ‘collection level’. This has the benefit of providing an overview, a meaning and a scope that can be hard to ‘see’ at object level – especially if you were, say, looking for which museums had shoes made in the 1950s and worn in Australia. The other benefit of collection level descriptions is that the objects grouped in this way don’t necessarily need to be online or digitised (yet) in order to be discovered.

The project is funded by ANDS in order to ensure that these descriptors of museum collections are added to the Research Data Commons to be used and explored by academic researchers. In many ways this makes a lot of sense – academic researchers are far more likely than general web users to need to come and see the ‘real’ objects and make long term connections with staff at the host museum to conduct their research. And so, by exposing collection level descriptions especially for ‘yet to be digitised’ collections, the project is pulling back the curtain on those hidden gems held by museums across Australia. In fact, several of the staff working goon the project who deal with objects everyday were regularly surprised by what they were finding in other people’s collections – “oh I had no idea that they had some of those too!”.

Collection level descriptions have provenance and descriptive metadata along with semi-structured subject keywords, temporal, spatial and relational metadata. (Here’s a list of 66 Powerhouse collections and a single record on our rather excellent Electronic Music Collection.)

The first public iteration pulls together nearly 700 collections from 16 museums across Australia and future iterations will add more – primarily major regional collections, I would expect.

But . . .

The site itself is really a simple public front-end for a data transformation service. It isn’t supposed to be the primary place for anyone, not even researchers, to search or browse these collection level descriptions. It is a transformation and transport mechanism that acts as broker between the individual museums and the Research Data Commons. To this end anyone can download the XML feed of the collection level data from the site – this is the same data that gets passed on to the Commons.

Of course, we’ve tried to ‘pretty-up’ the rawness of the site a bit. The first iteration has lovely identity work done by emerging Newcastle-based designer Heath Killen. But the search is very rudimentary and there is currently no way to pivot by keywords or do the temporal or spatial searching – this sort of functionality is supposed to be handled by the various academic interfaces for the data once it reaches the Research Data Commons. We will add this to the MME site itself over time.

Go and have a bit of an explore – the best way of understanding the project is by taking a look at the sort of data that is already in it. If you’d like some more detailed background information the project also has a < a href="http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/museumexchange/">microsite for contributing institutions.

Oh, and, we’re expecting to release the Powerhouse Object Name Thesaurus (already downloadable as a PDF) as a data service shortly as part of this project too. This thesaurus has been used by the project to start to normalise the data to a degree and it is expected that by making the thesaurus available as a data service, that there will be both read and write opportunities . . . .

Tags: 5 Comments

  • G√ľnter

    Seb, I’m looking forward to discussing this project with Luke and Dan next week when they’re coming to DC for a visit. The concept of collection-level description by and large tends to be foreign to large swaths of the museum community, whereas of course it’s a major strategy in archives. MARC collection-level records (or rudimentary EAD finding aids) can let the public know that an archive has a large collection of something, even if it hasn’t been described at a deeper level, let alone digitized. I was involved in an effort in the natural history community to create a standard for collection level descriptions (http://www.tdwg.org/activities/ncd/), and at the Smithsonian, the Field Book Project has incorporated the standard into their approach (http://libreas.eu/ausgabe18/texte/08sheffield.htm#5). Don’t know of too many other projects using collection level descriptions for museum content…

  • Lynne

    Hi Gunter – I’m one the data co-ordinators on this project. It’s true that Musum’s have not documented at collection level in a formal way but I’ve found they like the idea and get it pretty quickly when I’ve talked to them about the project. One issue for some people is that the collections can be grouped anyway that’s useful and don’t have to the result of a single acquisition process (as is usually the case with archives). Most people however really like this idea. Still getting them to write it down is another issue…

  • Lifeasdaddy

    What about Trove, perhaps Australia’s most powerful online cultural portal?

    When I look at Trove and how it consolidates pretty much a unified catalogue of books and such items in Australia’s libraries as well as other cultural artifacts (think photographs and sound recordings) I wonder if CLD could be usefully included on Trove. I wonder if there are cost savings for my fellow tax payers too in preventing duplication of effort.

    Can CLD metadata use be easily bolted onto Trove?

    Is a meshing of MME and Trove already envisaged?

  • @245a3d9ce98675ce5d3a192b48adcf0b:disqus Trove integration is happening – and you’ll be finding that most museums will have object level records linked through Trove over the next 5 years as well. That said, there’s a degree to which the public does need a variety of differently designed interfaces – especially for 3D objects – the extended metadata of the Australia Dress Register is a good example of this.

  • Thanks for responding. That sounds like some good solutions are on the way.