The technical aspects of museum information vs. the museum professionals point of view: a conceptual change of perspective on data processing

Tobias Baumgaertner, University of Passau, Germany, Franz Lehner, University of Passau, Germany


This paper highlights the key issues with information inquiry, input, and presentation in the context of museums and art galleries. The main intention from the technical point of view is to provide easy access to available metadata in the museum application domain. Data shall be available to developers, visitors, and museum professionals alike, both intra- and inter-institutional. Museum professionals on the other hand are often not acquainted with the “behind the scenes” processes of data input and transformation, especially in small and medium size institutions. Therefore, it is essential to provide interfaces and data structures that enable the import and export, and simplify the digital input and editing of new data revolving around objects, actors, and events. We propose a conceptual idea supporting the person interacting with the backend system—the user—while not being too disruptive to the processes in place today.

Keywords: Web interface, metadata, accessibility, user experience, dcx, museum, LIDO, CIDOC CRM

ViSIT (“Virtuelle Verbund-Systeme und Informations-Technologien für die touristische Erschließung von kulturellem Erbe”) first and foremost is an international collaboration between Germany and Austria funded by the European Union through the Interreg Program. The structural changes digitalization imposes on museums and the opportunities information and communication technology offers to touristic development are to be examined. The University of Passau is the lead coordinator and ties together the knowhow of art history, informatics, mathematics, and information systems. The scientific insight generated by a strong collaboration with the University of Applied Sciences Kufstein (Austria) and the museum partners “Veste Oberhaus” and “Festung Kufstein” will provide a model for further regional partners to adapt and join.

In general, the goal of ViSIT is to connect the cultural area defined by the the rivers Inn, Salzach, and Danube based on its rich history revolving around the salt trade, its castles, and rulership. The structural changes digitalization imposes on museums and similar institutions as well as the opportunities information and communication technology offers to touristic development will be examined.

The main intention from the technical point of view is to provide easy access to available metadata in the museum application domain. Data shall be available to developers, visitors, and museum professionals alike. Therefore it is essential to provide interfaces and data structures that enable the import, export, and simplify the editing and generation of new data concerning actors, objects, and events.

In this paper the key issues with information inquiry, input, and presentation in the context of museums and art galleries will be depicted.

Neither the idea of using information technology to aid in the field of museums nor the questions that have to be answered are new. The benefits of museum automation were identified almost 50 years ago at the IBM conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968, where the term “museum automation” was coined (Stam, 1996). The discovery and retrieval methods using Web technologies were identified over twenty years ago (Stam, 1996). He describes the emerging trends of the time that were enabled by the newly established Internet and services such as search. Today new transformational drivers have changed the face of IT infrastructure as a whole, with both mobile devices and the cloud (Nobayashi, 2016). Along with this change, new implications for the museum application domain arise; every step of the way the possibilities grow and new impact factors can be discovered.

“Digital Transformation” is the most recent way for describing the implementation of technical solutions which has been happening for the last half a century “to radically improve the performance or reach of enterprises” (McAfee et al., 2014). Every time a new technology emerges, the implications may alter the possibilities but not the underlying problems.

Those have been identified and they have not changed. Yet little has been done to actually solve them. There are a multitude of databases, tools, and apps out there, but most of them are just showcasing the abilities of the technology in question, rather than being built to fit the actual needs or the context in which they are used.

However, there is something that has changed. The transformation in certain areas and the the accessibility of information provided by the Internet and devices like smartphones disrupt society as a whole (McAfee et al., 2014). This leads to the transformation of the very role of museums. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines the museum as a continuous and public nonprofit institution that serves society and its development. The goals are scientific mediation, teaching, and entertainment (ICOM, 2007). Those traditional views have sustained over time, but the museum today is more than just a collector of artifacts: it has become an information provider (Marty & Burton Jones, 2008).

Yet museums are very resistant to change in that regard, as problems resonate between “subculture and circumstance” that foster “proprietary attitudes towards museum information” (Stam, 1996). Four sets of issues were identified: administrative, economic, technical, and professional (Stam, 1996). Both economic and administrative complications are omnipresent, especially in nonprofit organizations, and are not specific to digitalization by itself. The insecurity about the accuracy of intra-institutional records and the tradition of privacy do not correspond well with the idea of the revelation of information to the public eye.

Likewise, the existing technical infrastructure is not equipped for the tasks necessary to perform extensive changes.

McAfee et al. (2014) identify three main categories of digital transformation: customer experience, operational processes, and business models. Those each consist of three elements of their own.

The customer experience summarizes the perception of the user and their interaction with (digital) products. Analyzing the level of customer satisfaction or simply understanding their needs is required. Utilizing the available technologies to generate top-line growth is achievable when customer relationships are established. This can be achieved by managing customer touch points and creating engagement opportunities that often manifest themselves within multiple channels, but most frequently in social media. The short reaction time and transparency of the interaction with the audience is provided by platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Multichannel support has to feed one single strategy to serve the actual objective.

This goes deeper into the operational processes and does not appear on the surface as easily as customer interaction.

Process digitalization can help employees to refocus on strategic and creative tasks as well as creating data that can support and facilitate other processes. Furthermore, labor requirements can be reduced while data quality is enhanced, enabling the worker to concentrate on collaboration and knowledge sharing as questions that can be answered and data that can be accessed in real time. One of the most central aspirations is performance management. Digitized processes allow us to identify bottlenecks in the workflow and hone strategic decision-making, since it can be based upon real data rather than assumptions, and therefore be evaluated in the same manner.

This can even lead the underlying business models to transform. New digital businesses and digital globalization can grow companies beyond the boundaries and activities of the institution, not by interrupting core processes, but by supporting them by discovering synergies or offering digital self services or other digital products that decouple and automize inquiry and response.

One of the most central takeaways is creating a vision and concentrating efforts towards select projects; it is impossible to transform all areas at once (McAfee, 2014).

When looking into the problems identified in the museum application domain and trying to apply these nine elements of digital transformation, the first step is to identify the status quo.

It is crucial to know the methods and processes in place today because they are closely related to the issues that arise when IT is introduced. One of the first hurdles when discussing data sharing is to determine the target audience. Three categories can be identified: in-house staff, the research community and the general public (Stam, 1996). But today, it is mostly the visitor and apps revolving around them that are identified in the realm of information systems, not the museum professionals themselves.

Before information can be made available to any audience, it has to be accumulated and processed. This fact is often overlooked and presents itself as the main constraint of the whole idea of building a shared knowledge base. Therefore it is advisable to take a step back and look at the user that first handles the data— the in-house staff—and the way data is dealt with in the day-to-day setting.

Data in the museum domain today has not yet made the transformation into being a commodity, as it has in fields like advertising and marketing. Data sharing and discovery are not treated as an operational necessity, like they recently have become in the field of medicine (McCusker et al., 2013). These factors lead to tension between existing internal structures and the demand of external parties, e.g. the visitor, and is described as user expectation (Palumbo et al., 2013). That is not just the case in the development of end user applications, but for internal tools as well. Most of those tools are built for staff with a specific skill set and assume a special education and understanding of data processing. In order to be able to offer an application that is so well received that it can support the actual processes and aid the user in their activities revolving around data at the museum, the solution must be tailored towards them. To enable data sharing, the existing standards must be examined.

The “Conceptual Reference Model” (CRM) developed and recommended by the International Committee of Museums provides “definitions and a formal structure for describing the implicit and explicit concepts and relationships used in cultural heritage documentation” (ISO 21127, 2014). That structure can be described in the “Resource Description Framework” (RDF); RDF is a standard model for data interchange on the Web. Data is saved using triples, each consisting of a subject, an object, and a predicate, with the link between the two resulting in a graph of connected data (

Existing databases may offer an export using the “Lightweight Information Describing Object” (LIDO) schema, an XML exchange format compatible to the CIDOC CRM. A mapping between those two formats is available as well (Dörr, 2006). Hence LIDO can help to transform existing datasets into the structure needed to successfully apply methods like contextualization and data exploration.

Combining the abilities offered by LIDO with the formal model that is the CIDOC CRM in one information system enables the development of a Web-based tool that can be easily deployed.

There are three distinct stages of institutional digitalization to consider: an environment where no IT is used at all; a setting where basic infrastructure is available, e.g. electronic databases; and a fully integrated IT landscape. The idea is to create a basis to enable all three groups to communicate with one another.

Starting at the lowest stage, data entry and fragmentized information have to be tackled. To prevent data from being created over and over again whenever it has to be accessed, it must be managed digitally. Its availability has to be communicated to those who need it, when they need it, reducing the workload for each individual. The simplest technical solution of gathering data into a database is an entry form (An et al., 2011). That usually works fine for relational databases and limited data. For example, a form could be generated following the LIDO schema. Since it has all the structural information needed, entered data can be processed to a XML file that is prepared for the transformation to RDF-triples. However, those structures are complex and the semantics of connecting the nodes require a deep understanding of the schema as a whole; this approach requires a tremendous amount of effort at the outset. Approaching this issue from the non-technical point of view , one way data entry can be achieved is a text-based approach. The user writes their observations in plain text, just as they do for catalogs and similar tasks. The resulting text is the foundation for further screening and it is filed so that is accessible throughout the institution. In the next step, a semi-automated text markup can aid in generating structured data from the existing text. Certain elements like dates, places, or names could be detected automatically, while others can be labeled or tagged manually by the user. By presenting the user with an editor, they are confronted with a familiar, comforting environment, which decouples the processes of entry and structuring the data, and reduced the amount of choices. The system could guide and support the user, decreasing the initial efforts. Missing information can be identified and asked for by the system, and structural setups can be predicted and suggested to the user.

The challenge on the second stage is to enable the professionals to use data that is already available in other databases, integrating it with newly added entries. Creating an interface to export the existing databases into the LIDO format relational data can be added to the triple store with low user interaction.

On the highest level of digitalization, the task is to transform proprietary data into a common format to enable data sharing and interaction. In developed infrastructures that have existed for some time and are developed internally, it is often the case that those structures are unique to the institution and may not be readable elsewhere. Relying on standardized formats and procedures can help the inter-institutional conversation and reduce the efforts of intra- institutional operations.

The LIDO exchange format offers its benefits on every single stage. The fact that it can be directly mapped to triple stores following the CIDOC CRM makes it a powerful tool.

Once structured data is available in RDF, it can be accessed via a RESTful API or via designated applications. Furthermore, the possibility to write queries in SPARQL is not excluded, and can offer powerful insights for more dedicated users (Aljalbout et al., 2015).

Besides entering and accessing data, validation is an important aspect; once the system is not contained to a single organization, the problems multiply. The accessibility and possibilities presented by linked open data (LOD) apply, but so do its problems (Knuth et al., 2014).


The central issue is that the target audience of most solutions today is professionals that are required to understand both the cultural historical implications as well as the foundations of the information technology. The actual user base and infrastructure in those institutions, on the other hand, may not fit those criteria. Therefore it is necessary to enable the average museum professional to read and write triples, without them needing to know the foundations of IT.

This idea is contained within the changing perspectives towards looking at data. The record itself shouldn’t be the focal point, but rather its purpose: to serve the museum’s employees and visitors and create an experience of learning and knowledge sharing.

Looking at the standards quickly gets technical and overwhelming. But by breaking it down to the application level, it does not have to be. It is sufficient to implement general concepts already present in the everyday work environment and hide the actual transformation process. The approach we suggest is to shift the focus from the end user to the actual museum staff, in order to support curators and museums professionals in their everyday work while at the same time creating a data basis that can enable, enrich, and simplify the digital landscape desperately needed in the museum domain overall.

However, this idea begins with thought leadership and shifting the general philosophy to concentrate more on information and exchange. Trendsetting concepts like apps and public access are practiced by few, and their creation doesn’t always originate in the desire of the institution, but rather is caused by public demand. Willingness to change as well as identifying, rethinking, and implementing transformation are the actual challenges.

With the intention of testing the feasibility of the suggested approach, a prototype will be implemented and presented to users within the institutions associated with the ViSIT project. Beforehand, user stories and workflows will be identified by conducting dedicated interviews.

Once data processing is enabled to a certain extent, the contextual information can be used to populate app pages and other media facing the visitor, and aid in the storytelling process. Since apps and other public facing media have their own requirements, they are in need of a separate examination.

Apps can assist the museum visitor by offering additional information on exhibits and much more. By establishing a personalized connection between museums and the visitor, symbiotic benefits can be utilized. They can be guided from the initial planning all the way through their visit. They also can be accompanied afterwards by suggesting other cultural or social engagement opportunities according to his or her interests, location, and history.


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Cite as:
Baumgaertner, Tobias and Franz Lehner. "The technical aspects of museum information vs. the museum professionals point of view: a conceptual change of perspective on data processing." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 16, 2017. Consulted .

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