Nothing new except what has been forgotten

In a timely reminder that infrastructure is not just for Christmas, Kevin Gosling blows the dust off some initiatives to connect the nation’s collections that almost everyone has forgotten about.

You may have seen me sounding off in last month’s Museums Journal about how short-term thinking has held back the ability of UK museums to search across their collections data. While most other European countries have quietly got on with it over the past decade or so, the experience here has been a succession of projects announced with a fanfare only to fizzle out. For those readers not old enough to remember them – and to jog the memories of those who are – here’s a run-down of some them. As we think about the future information-sharing needs of our sector, we can learn from these and other initiatives. And the most important lesson is that infrastructure is not a one-off project.

‘A compendious index’

The idea of bringing collections information together lay behind the formation of the Museums Association well over a century ago. In February 1888, Henry Maurice Platnauer, Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, wrote to his counterparts around the country, ‘It is proposed to call a meeting of the curators of a few provincial museums… to discuss the possibility of obtaining… a compendious index of the contents of all provincial museums and collections.’

However, it was not until the late 1980s, and particularly the 1990s, when computers were increasingly used in museums and the general public began using the World Wide Web, that the first ‘compendious’ data sets were brought together.

FENSCORE

FENSCORE (Federation for Natural Sciences Collections Research) was formed in 1980 to coordinate the work of geology, botany and zoology curators, working across the country to map and aggregate data about their work and collections. The FENSCORE database was active through the 1980s and, although originally compiled on paper, it is still available online, published by NatSca, the Natural Sciences Collections Association, but it hasn’t been updated since 1999.

In 2014 NatSca launched the next generation of FENSCORE, the crowdsourcing project Natural History Near You, which gathers information about natural history collections in Britain and Ireland through a simple online form and publishes it online using a map interface. To date the project has collected information on several hundred collections and, as with FENSCORE, it compiles high-level data, including collection name, institution, institution type, size, display status, time periods and associated collector names.

DOMUS

The Digest of Museum Statistics was launched in 1994 by the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC, which later became the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, MLA) and was active until 2000. DOMUS gathered information from ‘Registered’ (later ‘Accredited’) museums via an annual survey. The DOMUS survey and datasets evolved over its lifetime, becoming ever more layered and complex. The ‘supplementary information’, for example, grew to include detailed questions on collections type, collections care, display and access.

DOMUS relied upon a labour-intensive process of museums submitting information via paper questionnaires, which was then manually entered into the database. As a result, the data gathered was never reliably comprehensive, accurate or up to date across all institutions. Archival versions of the datasets and more details on the DOMUS project are available online at the National Archives.

Cornucopia

One of the projects that went on to use records from DOMUS was Cornucopia, an online database of collections held by cultural heritage collections across the UK. It was established in 1998 as a pilot project by the MCG, initially to put information about 62 Designated collections in the UK online. MLA later expanded the project remit to include all Registered museums. In an article from 2004, the MLA’s Chris Turner gave a useful history of the project. Thanks to ongoing pro bono support from the original developer, Orangeleaf, the legacy Cornucopia site is still available online and well worth a look.

The 24 Hour Museum

The 24 Hour Museum website was launched in 1999 by the Campaign for Museums and MDA (which later became Collections Trust). It was branded as the first ‘national virtual museum’ with the aim of being a public-facing portal to all the UK’s museums. The initial data behind the site – the institutional data, collection strengths and collection overviews – was drawn from DOMUS/Cornucopia.

Initially the site contained information on around 2000 Registered museums, but quickly grew to include non-commercial visual arts and heritage venues. Records were uploaded manually and thousands of venues joined individually as the site offered an online interface which museums could use to enter their own information. 24 Hour Museum’s key development was to collect and publish exhibition and events listings alongside the institutional and collections data. Take-up and usage by venues was never consistent, though, and a significant level of support and encouragement from the 24 Hour Museum team was necessary to generate content.

24 Hour Museum became Culture24 in 2007 and launched a new public-facing website that is still live, although not updated or maintained. The website’s third iteration, launched in 2017, is Museum Crush.

Culture Grid

Set up by MLA, Culture Grid began life in 2005 as the People’s Network Discovery Service (PNDS) and is the de facto national aggregator for UK museums. Through Collections Trust, the aggregator received start-up project funding in 2009-11 from MLA and other bodies, then from 2011 it became part of the core service for which Collections Trust received grant support from MLA. When ACE took over as the lead body for museums in 2012, Culture Grid continued to be part of Collection Trust’s grant-funded activity until March 2015.

In April 2015, Culture Grid stopped receiving new content, but once again, thanks to ongoing pro bono support from the original developer, Knowledge Integration Ltd, it remains the pipeline through which UK museums can be part of the Europeana ecosystem. Through its API, Culture Grid delivers content to third-party sites, such as the Scottish University Museums Group portal, Revealing the hidden collections, and it currently has around 3 million records from around 100 institutions, many of which have been further aggregated into Europeana’s 58 million records.

This blog post is based on research by Anra Kennedy in the scoping report of our recent work for DCMS on Mapping digitised collections in England.