Getting collections online in the South West

In our latest #ItsGoodToShare blog post, Rick Lawrence, Digital Media Officer at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM), discusses his museum’s experience of sharing collections data online through the South West Collections Explorer.

Mobile phone photographing a vase

At the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) we started getting collections online in 2008. Ten years later and we are on the third version of our website, the South West Collections Explorer, which now offers an online home to other collections in the region. This post is about what we’ve experienced and learnt over this period, and our future aspirations.

From database to website

The first task was to identify which fields to use from the collections management system on the website. Once we decided what would provide useful and clear content to visitors browsing the website we got started. This selection of fields has a consistent core with additional fields added based on feedback, income generation and linking to other websites.

Our second website in 2013 also saw a key decision about how to import data and share it more widely. We were already contributing data to Culture Grid as a national aggregator and to benefit from our collections gaining exposure on Europeana. We looked at using Culture Grid as a possible data source but its future was uncertain. So we developed a .NET based website with a local software company who were used to working with data.

It’s worth noting that how we get data into the website has remained unchanged over the years. We can send images by FTP but the data is emailed as a .CSV file. This is partly because our local authority IT services restrict remote connections to keep sensitive data secure and also the cost of setting up remote access to our collections management system.

Future aspirations

We’ve found that bringing even a small group of collections together in a user friendly website has benefitted the museums involved. Having a larger pool of data for visitors to explore and an API to extract that data has given more presence to these collections than a simple front end on a database would.

Future challenges include scaling up the website to handle increasing amounts of data. Plus time spent adding the data to the website once ready. Linked to this is us having time to help other collections prepare their data for publication. Some data needs more of a data cleanse than we have time to provide. In an ideal future we would be able to feed cleansed data via an API into the website. This would probably need a national collections data aggregator similar to Culture Grid but with the capacity to help museums prepare data and extract data via widgets, plugins or an API to their own and other websites.