Learning from the past 4: putting information online

This is the last of a series of posts looking at the lessons about museum documentation thrown up whilst I was researching my recent article on the website of the Horniman Museum (where I work as Documentation Manager), investigating the objects related to the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration which were once owned by the Horniman. I’ve already looked at accession registers, capturing and sharing information, and recording what happens to objects. This last post is slightly different, as it’s less about the past, and more about the present: I want to talk about my intentions when putting information about the Antarctic relics – and all the Horniman’s objects – online.

I won’t say anything about the entire collections online project and website here. It’s a subject I will write about, but this isn’t the place for what would be a lengthy piece. Instead, I will focus on just one of my aims: making our online collection information interconnected. The objects in our collections – both inanimate and living – are all related to each other, and potentially to a great deal of contextual information. Preparing records for our Antarctic relics has given me an opportunity to show how this might be displayed online in a rich series of connections between the objects and the contextual information we hold about them.

It’s probably easiest to explain this with an example:

  1. Let’s say someone was looking at our tobacco pipes on the website and, seeing a rather traditional-looking object, has opened the record for Captain Scott’s pipe, and clicked on the Details tab in order to find out more about it.
  2. They might then see that the pipe is documented by Otto Samson’s initial letter regarding the disposal of the Antarctic relics, and follow the link to the letter.
  3. There, they can see the letter (and zoom into the image to read it). They can also see that it documents other objects, such as Scott’s uniform button, and follow the link to the button.
  4. Again clicking on the details tab, they see that it was owned by Scott, and decide they’d like to find out more about him, so  they follow the link to Captain Scott’s record.
  5. There, they will find a picture of Scott, and, if they again look at the details tab, a reasonably long biography, and some suggestions for further reading. They click on the link for the most recent biography, David Crane’s.
  6. In the record for Crane’s biography of Scott, they see that the ISBN is a hyperlink, and click on it.
  7. Clicking on the ISBN opens a new window and takes them to the record for the title in OCLC WorldCat. There, they click through to a record for the book.
  8. After telling the system where they’re located, they see that a nearby library has a copy of the book.
  9. Going back to their old window, they go back to the record for Scott, and see that he was leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition (the Discovery expedition). They click on its link.
  10. This takes them to the page for the Discovery expedition, where there’s a fairly long (but I hope still readable) account of the expedition. They will also see that its members included Sir Ernest Shackleton and, curious to know more about Shackleton – who they vaguely remember hearing had links to south-east London – click on his link.
  11. Shackleton’s page also includes a biography below the Details tab, which amongst other things explains his links with Sydenham and Dulwich, and shows that there are objects in the online collections related to him. Our visitor is intrigued by the  lifebuoy, and clicks on its link.
  12. Reading the detailed information about the Quest lifebuoy, they also see that it was probably used in Antarctica, and wonder what else we have connected to Antarctica, so they follow that link.
  13. On the page for Antarctica, they see that we have seal skulls, and click on the link to the Crabeater Seal skull collected by Bob Young.
  14. There, they see that the skull came from the species Lobodon carcinophaga, and decide they’d like to know more about it, so they click on the link to the related species.

There, alas, the information runs out: they can follow a link to the Crabeater Seal’s entry in the IUCN red list of endangered species, but that’s about it: I’m simply not qualified to write sensible descriptions of species. But our hypothetical visitor has followed a dozen different links, and has looked at information about another four objects, two people, an event, a publication, a place, and a species. There’s also the potential to follow links to information about materials and techniques, cultures, object types, the Hornbostel-Sachs musical instrument classification system, and various rather randomly-assigned subjects.

Why provide so much information? My aim has been twofold:

  1. To provide as much information about the objects as we have. We’re a publicly-funded institution, which means that we have a duty to the public to make our resources available for them to use. Our key resources are first, our objects, which we try and display, either physically or online; and second, the information about them, without which they are close to meaningless.
  2. To provide a rich online experience. If a user has reached a web record for a Horniman object, then there should always be a link they can click in order to find out more, about either that object, its contexts, or similar objects. We hope that visitors to our online collection will always leave them having found something interesting.

There is a problem: much of this contextual knowledge exists either in curators’ heads, in our object history files, or in external publications and websites – but not in our collections management system, which feeds our website. At the moment, some of the richest contextual material is, ironically, attached to a small group of objects which we no longer own. There is a debate to be had about whether we should aim to write these texts ourselves, so that they are part of our website and the Horniman becomes an authoritative source for information that relates to its collections; or instead simply link to existing material on other peoples’ websites. Either will require work. Broadly speaking, our anthropology curators favour the first approach; our natural history curators, the second.

But in the meantime, I hope that the Antarctic relics’ online records will provide a stimulus to my colleagues to start preparing similar information for the rest of the collections. I’m particularly interested in the ways information about research expeditions could contextualise our objects, whether these are major expeditions like those related to out Antarctic relics, or the HMS Challenger or HMS Rattlesnake expeditions; or anthropological and ethnomusicological fieldwork carried out on our behalf, such as Nicholas Guppy’s work with the Wai Wai, Gosewijn van Beek’s with the Bedamuni, or Rolf Killius’s in India).

Many of these research expeditions are documented in papers in our archives and in books in our library. The Collections People Stories project has enabled us to make a start in identifying these resources, and thinking about how we might link our object and archive records to each other as I’ve been able to do on a small scale for the Antarctic relics, but there is still much work to be done here.

I’d also like to provide closer ties between the anthropological objects that are used to cultivate and/or process animals and plants for food, and the live animals in the gardens and aquarium, live plants in the gardens, and specimens of dead plants and animals in our natural history collections. I hope we will be able to start work on this shortly as part of the Europeana Food and Drink project.

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