Collection databases Conceptual

Metadata as ‘cultural source code’

A quick thought.

Last week I wrote about collection data being ‘cultural source code’ in the context of the upload of the Cooper-Hewitt collection to GitHub.

As I wrote over there,

Philosophically, too, the public release of collection metadata asserts, clearly, that such metadata is the raw material on which interpretation through exhibitions, catalogues, public programmes, and experiences are built. On its own, unrefined, it is of minimal ‘value’ except as a tool for discovery. It also helps remind us that collection metadata is not the collection itself.

If you look at the software development world, you’ll see plenty of examples of tools for ‘collaborative coding’ and some very robust platforms for supporting communities of practice like Stack Overflow.

Yet where are their equivalents in collection management? Or in our exhibition and publishing management systems?

(I’ll be cross-posting a few ideas over the next little while as I try to figure out ‘what goes where’. But if you haven’t already signed up to the Cooper-Hewitt Labs blog, here’s another reminder to do so).

2 replies on “Metadata as ‘cultural source code’”

We have actually looked at building something like this – it wouldn’t take a lot of work on top of our existing platform. But from the feedback we’ve had, many of the museums we have worked with aren’t interested in openly collaborating on or about the data. This is for a couple of reasons:

1. With collaboration, it is perhaps harder to establish validity of data and ‘certifiable’ reputation of the person it is coming from. Code can be tested and as such the source from which the source code comes is irrelevant, hence the success of platforms like Stackoverflow.

2. Some museums still believe that people should walk through the door to learn more about its treasures. This is perhaps about educating them, if of course, we make the argument that sharing and collaborating on data will mean more exposure for the collection will increase visitor footfall in the long run.

Hi Seb
As I mention to you occassionally,  I feel you greatly undervalue the value of ‘raw’, empirical, basic metadata especially when you perhaps somewhat exploitatively suggest that this basic metadata is just a ‘tool’  and of  ‘minimal’  value on its own.  
Curators, makers, donors and benefactors spend years building collections, ensuring at risk, and sometimes undervalued material is preserved for an anticipated future local, regional, national or even international cultural significance.
Often considerable effort and work is involved in securing and preserving even the most basic information – yet I’d argue that it remains ‘vital’ metadata. For example capturing the name of a poster designer may later shed light on his migration history, his political leanings, his involvement in key social events etc – though this may not be known at the time the poster was acquired – just sensed. Captured metadata becomes the primary source material associated with the object/s – providing  ongoing clues for future research and knowledge, and a launch pad for building  links, stories, connections and juxtapositions.
It is this very basic metadata that also provides the  clues needed to build and sustain contemporary relevance over time,  regardless of the object’s origin or age. Without this basic metadata, there is no starting point. For example with a fashion photograph – capture the model’s name, the location of the shot, the fashion worn by the model, the photographer’s name, and the date of the shot – and a whole bunch of stories, links and connections can emerge over time.
As a curator, I’m proud that I have been able to provide as much ‘basic’ object information as I have over the years as it has provided bloggers and researchers alike with vital source material. I’d argue that the basic metadata remains intrinsic to the value of the object  – and sometimes of greater value and significance to secondary interpretations or posts.
As my colleagues move towards retirement many feeling guity
that they haven’t had the time or resources to catalogue all the
objects they’ve acquired. I recently said to one of these colleagues:
“If you finish it all (which you can’t) what will be left for all those
who come after you to do?  Why rob future generations of all that
interesting work? ”
I guess this is where the work, programs, networks and activities you’re building fit into the scheme of things, Seb?
Keep up the good work. Cheers
AMVdV, Curator, Powerhouse Museum.

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