Museums: Spreading Their Images in a Telecom World

Article excerpt

Somewhere between video arcade and libraries stand the museums the world. Their job, in conjunction with the primary mission of archiving art objects and data, is to entice, entertain, and educate visitors. Yet, to remain operational, museums face many of the same work-a-day challenges that confront businesses, libraries, and schools-administration, fund raising, file management, communications (including e-mail and networking), and, very occasionally, natural disasters.

Strategies for conquering these challenges were among the topics presented the consecutive meetings of CIDOC (Documentation Committee of the International Council of Museums) and MCN (Museum Computer Network) in Washington, DC, August 28-September 3. Papers were delivered in French, Spanish or English, sometimes without translation

As telecommunications technology shortens the distances that separate us museums have acquired new roles and changing images-to preserve and promote cultural and biological diversity to audiences beyond the museum doors. Thus the conference themes: "Automating the Americas" and "Cultures Connected."

The museum must entice its community to visit the museum and to use its resources either at the museum or, increasingly, online. The museum is also a school that can instruct the visitor-a museum of art, for instance, can guide visitors to critical viewing. Interactive computers are a new partner in this role but, as Harald Kraemer, consultant, Institut fur Kulturwissenschaft, Vienna, asked, Will they be able to meet the requirements of the information age?

The Many Aspects of Images

Museums are the supplier, publisher, archivist, and producer of images and a consumer of images in multimedia products and exhibition design. In these roles, as John Perkins, CIMI (Computer Interchange of Museum Information) pointed out, critical issues are index/retrieval; interfaces; image quality, capture, and generation; coding; compression; duplication; distribution/interchange; display; and preservation/conservation.

"Images are a source of income, and museums are eager to sell their images," Perkins said. "To do that they will have to learn how to make those images accessible to such buyers as art directors who might have specific requirements-for example, space in the upper right hand corner of an image or groups of people talking. Museums will have to know what kind of information they have that people want, for example, for children K- 1 2."

Sometimes information professionals think that an ID number, the artist's name, and the title of the work are sufficient to identify that work. Yet increasingly, many experts strongly emphasize that a verbal description, especially a brief one, is not enough. As Helene Roberts, visiting scholar, Dartmouth College, stressed, "It is important to know who painted the picture, who is the subject, under what circumstances it was painted, whom did the artist influence, was the work on the art market and, if so, was it sold and for how much."

Also needed is information not included in the picture but to give background, perhaps a sense of chronology and meaning. "To leave text out of the picture is to leave the picture naked. Neither the text nor the image is sufficient by itself. The information about both can be integrated into one record," concludes Roberts.

Standards for image Files

One useful way to link text and image independent of the hardware is with SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language). SGML is an international standard for marking up machine-readable text in an independent, reusable form. Well known for his work on image databases, Howard Besser, University of California, Berkeley, and Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), noted that the CCA records will eventually use SGML.

Image issues and standards are now recognized as important for future retrieval. "If you're willing to take a little bit of extra time and care, and add a little bit more information," Besser advised, you're future-proofing it. …