of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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Museum Informatics: Sociotechnical Information Infrastructures in Museums

by Paul F. Marty

As a doctoral student in the University of Illinois' Graduate School of Library and Information Science, I have spent the past three years researching social informatics in the museum environment, which is commonly referred to as museum informatics. In particular, my work has centered on investigating sociotechnical systems for collaboration within museum environments. I am currently pursuing an ethnographic study of the museum professionals at the University of Illinois' Spurlock Museum. In this study, I am examining how the museum staff members have been influenced by the integration of new information systems into their environment.

 I want to begin by highlighting five different areas of museum informatics that could be of particular interest to researchers in the field of LIS and that could benefit from a more socially oriented mode of investigation:

    Knowledge studies in museums (traditional museum classification systems, the representation of objects in museum environments, epistemological issues, etc.);

    Information organization and access for digital museum collections (user-centered systems design, international metadata and standards initiatives, etc.);

    Online access to shared artifact data (computer-mediated communication in museum-museum interactions, encouraging museums to share data on a global level, etc.);

    Dynamic virtual museum environments (adapting access to different user needs, interactive educational programs, virtual museums based on informed user feedback studies, user profiling in the online retrieval of digital artifact data, etc.); and

    Information infrastructures in museum environments (sociotechnical systems for collaboration among museum professionals, computer-supported cooperative work within the museum, etc.).

To provide some concrete examples, I turn now to the museum in which my own work is set.

 The Spurlock Museum (www.spurlock.uiuc.edu) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign is a museum of world history and culture, holding in its collections approximately 45,000 artifacts from diverse cultures and varied historical time periods, ranging from modern America to ancient Mesopotamia. In 1996, the museum began a five-year process to move its collections from its previous home in a 100-year-old, 15,000 sq. ft. attic to a brand new 53,000 sq. ft. modern museum facility. Since they had no prior experience with moving an entire museum, the Spurlock staff was forced to develop a new information infrastructure to support the social and technical tasks at hand.

 This information infrastructure had to support three distinct yet interrelated activities: the complete inventory of the museum's collections, the design of galleries and exhibits for the new facility, and the packing, shipping and installation of the museum's entire artifact holdings. Ideally, these three tasks would have been performed sequentially. First, staff members would have inventoried the museum's 45,000 artifacts, entering data (classifications, measurements, material analyses, cultural designations, artifact histories, condition records, research notes, etc.) into the museum's information systems. Second, the museum's curators and exhibit designers would have used this data to design exhibits for the new facility, clearly designating those artifacts selected for display. Only then, would the museum's staff members have begun the intricate process of packing artifacts in preparation for the move. Thus, they could easily have ensured that like artifacts were consistently packed with like artifacts; for example, that all artifacts slated for display in a given exhibit or all artifacts of a given material type were packed together.

 However, the pressures of time and money did not allow museum staff members to proceed at such a leisurely pace. Instead, they found themselves in a position where they were forced to take inventory, design exhibits and pack the museum's collections simultaneously and as quickly as possible. This raised a very interesting question: with all of these overlapping processes happening at the same time, how could the museum staff keep complications, i.e., problems that would necessitate extra work at some point in the future, to a minimum? For instance, how could they avoid packing 20 artifacts into a given box and later discovering that

  • one artifact was to go on display in the African Gallery;
  • one was to go on display in the Asian Gallery;
  • one needed conservation work and was to be sent to the museum's conservator;
  • one needed to be renumbered and was to go to the museum's registrar; and
  • all the rest of the 20 were to go into storage at different locations in the storage facility?

To manage and minimize these complexities, we had to design and develop new information systems for the Spurlock Museum.

As director of information technology at the Spurlock Museum, I have been responsible for creating and managing these information systems. I have been able to observe the impact these systems have had on the work practices of the museum professionals at the Spurlock. As information systems were developed to support the collaborative activities of the museum's social environment, the nature of those activities was simultaneously redefined in light of the museum's new technological capabilities, in turn requiring the information systems to be redesigned and encouraging new forms of collaboration among museum staff members. Thus, the museum engineered its new work practices and new information systems simultaneously so that they mutually fed back upon and influenced one another, creating in the process a brand-new sociotechnical information infrastructure.

I will now examine three brief examples of this new infrastructure at work, focusing in particular on ways in which the museum's information systems help manage the inherent complexities of the process of moving a museum.

External Experts: Vital Assistants in the Inventory Process

The act of inventorying every artifact in the museum's collection was naturally an essential prerequisite for the move; without an accurate inventory, curators designing exhibits might not know what artifacts were available for display or artifacts might be packed without anyone knowing what exactly was in each box.

Obtaining an accurate inventory was especially crucial for two recently acquired collections, a collection of Lakota Sioux artifacts and a collection of Amazonian Ecuador ceramics. The acquisition of these two large collections meant that museum staff members had to process and identify over 5000 new and relatively unfamiliar artifacts as quickly as possible. Until this information was available, it would not be possible to proceed with the design of the Americas Gallery for the new facility.

Since museum staff members had very little previous experience with the artifacts contained in these new collections, they decided to form relationships with experts both on campus and across the country. Preliminary data, including quick classifications, descriptions and images, were entered into the museum's database systems and then made available online. External experts were then able to examine these collections remotely, e-mailing comments directly to the museum's registrar. This feedback was used to improve the museum's own internal records and assist the curators and exhibit designers in choosing the most significant and culturally relevant artifacts for display. Without such assistance, it would have been very difficult for museum staff members working alone to obtain accurate and timely data about these artifacts and to accomplish the move on schedule.

Online Exhibit Design: Collaboration Between Curators and Exhibit Designers

The desire to pack artifacts slated for display in one gallery with other artifacts also going on display in that gallery meant that information indicating which artifacts were to be displayed where had to be entered into the museum's information systems quickly and accurately. This was a particularly troublesome problem for several reasons:

  • multiple curators worked on each gallery and often disagreed over artifact choices;
  • each gallery was being designed from scratch and curators could not rely on past displays for guidance;
  • exhibits often included newer artifacts not yet properly inventoried and older artifacts with erroneous records;
  • curators working on any given gallery often could not meet at the same time or in the same place; and
  • curators were prone to change their minds about the composition of exhibits.

The museum's information infrastructure helped solve these problems by moving much of the curators' work online, encouraging them to share data over the Internet with their colleagues and the museum's exhibit designers. For example, curators were able to identify groups of artifacts electronically, mark their virtual groupings with a particular designation and share the resulting sets of artifact data online with other curators. A professor of anthropology, working on an Oceania display for the East Asian gallery, could group a proposed set of artifacts temporarily in order to receive feedback from her colleagues, who could examine her ideas online from their own offices. In this manner, curators were able to isolate and identify groups of artifacts for potential display online, allowing them to collaborate dynamically, asynchronously and at a distance.

Packing Nightmares: Cooperative Problem-solving in Artifact Tracking

One danger inherent in packing artifacts while they are being inventoried is that one may inadvertently pack an artifact that has been misidentified, misnumbered or otherwise inaccurately entered into the computer system. The museum's infrastructure has to be robust enough to catch such errors, even after the fact, while still allowing the packing process to proceed relatively unhindered. Essentially, this involves a great deal of double-checking and cooperative problem-solving during both packing and inventorying procedures.

For example, a certain African carving, a Mende standing female figure (accession number 1971.13.0002), was recently packed by the museum's collections staff in box number 772. However, when entering this data into the museum's database systems, a member of the registration staff discovered that computer records showed this artifact had already been packed in box number 705. Such problems are often the result of typographical errors or misread numbers; however, in this case, an analysis of the various paper-based records and packing sheets showed that indeed two artifacts, each with the same accession number, were apparently packed in two different boxes. This was then confirmed when the two boxes were retrieved, opened and the artifacts examined.

However, the problem of which artifact was properly numbered and which was not could not be easily solved, for the various records describing these two artifacts, paper and electronic, were confounded. Although only one record in the computer system existed for that particular accession number, information about each artifact was mistakenly recorded into that same record when each artifact was inventoried. For instance, the electronic record contained the digital image for one carving but a textual description of the other. Solving this sort of problem requires a close examination of both artifacts by the museum's registrar, with each artifact being compared to old records, ledgers and accession cards in an attempt to discover where and when these two artifacts became confused.

As the actual moving date approaches, however, no time is available to solve such complicated problems, which must be left for resolution in the new facility. Therefore, the problem must be carefully noted and tracked now, in paper and electronic format, so that it is not forgotten. Moreover, the identification of such problems must be an inherent part of the unpacking process in the new facility; otherwise, an artifact may be unpacked without being properly identified, then stored but essentially lost in the new facility.

In museums and other institutions of cultural heritage, we have an opportunity to study the impact that the implementation of information systems has on the activities of staff and visitors as social and technical systems co-evolve. Further, in examining the problems and issues raised above, we may better our understanding of the fundamental questions of social informatics in general.

Paul F. Marty is director of information technology at the Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois, and a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached by e-mail at p-marty@alexia.lis.uiuc.edu


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