‘Just give us the data’

In the first #ItsGoodToShare guest blog, David Dawson, Director of Wiltshire Museum, explains why Wessex Museums Partnership would like to combine their online collections to offer users a joined-up service.

The Wiltshire Museum is part of the Wessex Museums Partnership, along with Poole Museums Service, Dorset County Museum and Salisbury Museum. The Partnership is an ACE-funded National Portfolio Organisation and we are busy getting our collections documented and online. One of our ambitions for the Partnership is to combine these online collections. Different audiences would benefit in different ways, eg:

  • Someone living on the Wiltshire/Dorset border could find items from their village in all our museums.
  • Researchers studying the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site could more easily find suitable Beaker burials for DNA analysis, isotope analysis of animal teeth from Iron Age midden sites or Bronze Age food vessels – all currently spread across several museums.

As an example of how our data might be re-used by others, take a look at the Stonehenge Barrow Map, created by independent researcher Simon Banton with open data from the Wiltshire Museum. Using a Google satellite map, it links burial mounds near Stonehenge with the finds excavated from those mounds, now in our collection. Even better, you can use the map on your phone when walking the Stonehenge landscape. The Wessex Museums Partnership wants to encourage this kind of re-use of our combined collections data (and for our data to be used alongside that of the big nationals).

As museum curators, we need each others’ data too. For example, the Partnership is planning a major exhibition about Thomas Hardy’s Wessex that will combine collections from across our four museums. A combined database would make it simpler to draw out the stories from our collections for this project and all future exhibitions. (Being able to search the combined data of all museums for Thomas Hardy material would be even better.) We would also be able to create virtual exhibitions, drawing data from our existing documentation systems and adding layers of interpretation for different audiences.

What we want to do can’t be unique. It would be hugely wasteful for us, and every other group of museums that wanted to collaborate online, to build from scratch the tools needed to pool our data in the first place and – more importantly – keep it all up to date as the information changes. We’d like to use something along the lines of CultureGrid, but need to know we could rely on it being there over the long term.

The newly-published DCMS Action Plan for the Mendoza Review hopes for ‘intelligent and appropriate digitisation of collections, with greater accessibility for researchers and the public.’ A decade ago, the study Discovering physical objects asked researchers what they wanted from museums. The answer was simple: ‘Just give us the data.’ We say: ‘Just give us the tools to put that data out there.’