Suzanne Keene – towards the semantic web in museums

Way back in 1996 the Science Museum, where I then worked, were getting very excited about digitization. We’d been forced by the National Audit Office to create a basic database of our collections, including locations and things.

We’d just installed multimedia in the museum and we were getting to grips with the enormous potential of this very complicated piece of software. At that time we were having a lot of debate and I wrote an article about museums and the web, indulging in a bit of ‘future-ology’, as many other people did.

I had this sort of dream that museums collections would be all linked up to local history collections, so people in local areas could click on their local area, their house or where their relatives lived and find out a whole cloud of information surrounding museum objects.

Eleven years on, I’m still waiting for this. It is happening, but much more slowly than everybody thought. But, at last, the dream of the Internet of Things might be in sight.

So – how can semantic web technologies be used? It seems to me that the heart of the whole thing is linking physical collections to information collections. The semantic web is key to this, making them inseparable and making the physical collection (so vast, enormous and overwhelming) actually useful by making them information collections as well. It could make the physical collections –

more physically findable – in order to justify having them at all people must be able to find them for research or enjoyment. I mean the collections nationally, all collections.

more manageable – so we knew where they were, what people were doing with them and who was likely to want them during a particular time.

more useful – In those ways, they are only useful if you can find them, if you know what they are and why they are significant, why they are in the museum collection.

more used – attaching information to them make them more useful, and hence, I hope, more used.

more interesting – clearly, if you see a huge collection of objects its not going to look that interesting unless you know why its there, what’s in it and why its significant.

The information collections could enrich the physical collections through interoperability with other collections.

Questions raised by the Semantic Web:

1) It makes me wonder, when we talk about the outside world contributing, are we chucking out the idea of classifying collections authoritatively? Or is the idea of museum people classifying collections in an authoritative way dead?

2) Will images with tagging and metadata actually supplant text descriptions of objects? There are lots of examples of this happening already.

3) What would aggregation mean for collections? Will they merge?

4) Syndication. RSS feeds and so on. What can that mean for collections and information collections management?

5) Moving on to the implication for museums – if museums become information brokers rather than information creators or providers, or authorities and so on. If they move more into brokering information that comes from all sorts of sources including other museums, what will this mean for them? Less work? Or, as we may suspect, more work?

6) What century does the DCMS exist in when they refuse to recognize that people expect to be able to find things online?

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