Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Stories from the museum database

Some people say that museums are about objects – after all, they are the things you go to see. I’d disagree though. I’d say that museums are about stories, and the display and interpretation of objects that survive from the past are but one way in which we tell those stories.

One element of museum work that doesn’t receive much public attention is the database. ‘Why should it?’ I hear you ask. After all, it’s basically just a list, an inventory, a way of keeping track of how many things we have. It’s just a computerised version of a load of index cards.

I happen to think that it is much more than that – it is the beating heart of any museum because it is the key to managing the information we hold about our objects, and that information is the ingredient that makes the stories we tell tasty ones.

This can be especially true for archaeological material. Some objects have aesthetic qualities, true, and are attractive enough when displayed simply as 'objets d’art', but through proper information management, the stories we can tell are so much richer – stories about the site the object was discovered on and about the people who lived there. What they wore, what they ate, how they built and furnished their homes. We can talk about their technology, what deities they believed in and what they thought might happen to them after they died. We can talk about how they entertained themselves, how they fought with their neighbours, and how they traded thoughts and possessions between settlements and across continents. The humble database provides the means for this rich tapestry to be woven.

So why am I blethering on about this now? Because the database system that we use in Lincolnshire, called MODES (which stands for Museum Object Data Entry System – I know you were wondering) is about to get an upgrade, and today I spent the day hearing all about it – and I have to admit it’s got me rather over excited.

Some of the changes the upgrade will bring will be welcome because they simply improve the workings of the database – layout changes, the introduction of dragging and dropping to add multimedia etc. Nothing earth shattering in the wider world of modern IT, but features that will make our lives easier and our work more efficient. Greater integration with national standards will mean that our data is always assured of including everything it needs to.

Other changes are more exciting. The ability to plot finds data on Google maps directly from the database means that it will be possible to swiftly create datasets to analyse the findspots or production places of archaeological finds.

New timeline outputs will enable us to quickly plot temporal data (for example dates of production or dates of discovery), investigating and presenting data in different, more visually stimulating ways than ever before.

The ability to produce QR tags directly from the database mean that providing new and innovative ways to link to our online catalogue Lincs to the Past will become possible.

Other juicy possibilities open up in the form of merging our data with other organisations, such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme, to ensure that the museum’s stories are informing, and being informed by, discoveries in the wider archaeological world.

A good database is just the starting point for the whole function of a museum, so changes that allow us to not merely store data, but to interrogate it in new ways, and discover even more fascinating stories to tell are always exciting. I for one can’t wait to get playing with some of the new toys.

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