5 Professional practice – working with semantics in the museum

Nick Poole: “If the fundamental product of a museum is knowledge then every single part of the museum is part of the process of realising the value of that product.

Starting with the above assertion that documentation is relevant, or should be relevant, to every part of the museum, Nick Poole opened a discussion on professional practice by raising the question of how museums use, manage, create, store and handle knowledge and information.

This was followed by the second assertion, that the actual professional practice on the ground is several steps away from the orthodoxy of standards and principal. To Nick this meant looking closely at what it means to work within a museum institution and to realistically market the outcomes of the Thinktank and the Semantic Web, in ways that will fit logically with current practice. This meant doing two things:

  • Tweaking the standards
  • Tweaking the general principal of universal access by inserting the word ‘meaningful’.

This led into a discussion on the wider business case as a means by which museums could amplify the outcomes of current investments. To others, however, using the business model as a model for the culture sector only served to trivialise the fundamental intellectual service that museums provide.

After a wide ranging discussion on this, what became apparent was the necessity for both of the following options to be taken forward.

  • Transformation – This discussion could take place internally within the sector – discussing the Semantic Web as a tool that will enable us to reposition and professionalise the sector and disaggregate collections.
  • Consolidation – This approach may be more applicable when approaching funding bodies such as DCMS – to market the Semantic Web as a tool that will allow institutions to do better what they should be doing and to re-enforce the shape that institutions should take.

Seamus Ross: “There is a big difference between access to objects and information about those objects, and translating that into knowledge and co-contextualisation –you can do things with the Semantic Web that you couldn’t do before.”

This did raise the concern that the Semantic Web was becoming another tool to aid museums in the curation of their objects and so harking back to the nineteenth century model of creating knowledge within the institution. To some it was important that the Semantic Web should be a tool which increased participation, upgrading and enhancing the knowledge that institutions hold about their objects by co-contextualising them and engaging communities more directly with the knowledge assets of the sector.

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