The Cataloger Game is ready when you are! Try to have fun, unlike this cataloger.
What made this game hard or easy? Was there enough information in each question for you to get the correct answer? Do you understand what a catalog record is?
The cartoon above by Unshelved, is a pretty good example of what museums and libraries are experimenting with which allow users to add information to already existing catalog records.
Why Digital Collections Matter?
With the rise in digital collections making museum objects available online, museum goers can stay home and browse through entire museum collections in a matter of seconds. Museum no longer rely solely on static exhibits open for a few months or a few years at a time. With entire collections available online, museums are creating more digital exhibits, web pages, and adding more interactive technologies, like augmented reality, into traditional exhibits. When an object is available online, metadata (or information about the item) is included for researchers. By doing so, not only can researchers use correct terms, photos of the object, and citation but museums are also vulnerable to how little metadata is given about objects.
Let’s look at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology digital collection. Not only is the museum’s entire collection available online but so is all the metadata about those objects. As you noticed in The Cataloger Game, the names of objects are vague. For example, only looking at the photo of the first object most people would consider that a string or maybe a shoelace.
However, the catalog record states the object is a band. Why didn’t the cataloger use the term waistband or catalog this piece with the rest of the girl’s costume? If we look at the graph below, we can gleam what terms are used for object names. As you see, the term “band” is used by itself and along with more identifying terms like “arm”.
Object names are not the only inconsistent identifier of items in catalog records. Unfortunately, we cannot ask the cataloger why they did not give the object a more specific name. However, museum scholars like Hannah Turner, Benjamin Filene, and James Gardner note how past museum theories and practices do not fit in our digital lives.
Cataloger’s are painfully aware of “legacy data”, a term used by Turner to describe metadata that was directly migrated to computerized systems from typed and handwritten records with no attention to accuracy.
Another part of The Cataloger was matching descriptions with objects. While that is not typically the case for museum catalogers, in most cases they either create their own description, use information available upon object’s arrival to the museum, or they will provide the most basic descriptions as possible. As you noticed in the game, these descriptions vary from extremely detailed, like the Huipil blouse to basic details like the human figure. Take a look at this graph of Descriptions used.
While Object Numbers do not specify when an object was cataloged, the sequence is consistent. This graph shows us what terms are used together most often. If we look at Object Numbers 13535 through 13599, we see the descriptive terms most frequently used together. These bag of terms are most used together to describe objects in the collection. Looking closely at these terms, we see descriptions of shapes, size, materials, and texture. There is little description concerning how an object was used.
In Gardner’s article, he encourages museum professions to give some authority to visitor in museum exhibits by being transparent about museum practice and theory. The same should be applied to digital collections. Take this hat for example. When I look up the word hat in the catalog, this item shows up immediately. However when I search basket, this hat is still on the list of potential items. Looking at the hat it does resemble as basket.
This may be an issue with the digital collection platform. Yet, it still begs the question, was this object once considered a basket then changed to a hat? If UPenn was transparent about any changes or even how objects are categorized (even an explanation on how objects are named or more provenance of an object) may better explain why this object is a hat.
Many museums are looking to expand descriptions by providing crowdsourcing opportunities to researchers and museum visitors. Flickr is a popular platform for museums to allow social tagging and provide more contextual information. Let’s compare this Karuk Basket Flickr page to the catalog record in the digital collection. The Flickr page includes one unique piece of information that is not in the catalog record, a concise description.
This elegant Karuk basket with lid was made by the Native American weaver Elizabeth Hickox who lived from 1872 to 1947. Karuk, California, ca. 1910. Collected by Patty S. Jewett.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “Karuk Basket with Lid.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 10 June 2009, www.flickr.com/photos/pennmuseum/3614369530/.
If this information was included in the catalog record, do you think visitors and researchers would be more likely to use it? Unlike other descriptions used in the catalog records that we saw in the Descriptions Graph, this description used adjectives like “elegant”. Also note, the creator’s full name is used in the Flickr description along with her role as a “weaver”. In the catalog record we only see her abbreviated name, “E. Hickox” as the “Maker”.
Fliene’s article looks at public history projects like StoryCorps created by a non-public historian in comparison to traditional museum exhibits created by public historians. Similar to Gardner, Fliene argues that traditional public history projects (i.e. museums) limit curators in creating innovated projects like StoryCorps. He encourages public historians to go beyond the boundaries of the physical museum and create projects like non-public historians.
In a perfect world, museum catalogers could add this descriptive metadata to reflect the Flickr page. In the meantime, social media like Flickr allows users to add Tags and comment on images. By giving museum visitors opportunities online through social media to add descriptions, museums can go beyond the boundaries described by Fliene.
The data used for this project comes directly from the UPenn Museum’s digital collections data set. For the purpose of this project, objects from the Americas collection was used. The UPenn Museum encourages researchers to use their data sets for projects as well as sharing those projects with the museum. Below is a collection of data visualizations created from the data set.
This graph shows how many objects were given to the museum based on the information from the “accession credit line” in the data set. The most being from “Museum Purchases”. Depending on how an object is given to a museum and who is giving the object can determine the level and detail of description.
These two graphs relate object names to locations. Above locations are primarily in the United States. Below locations are North, Central, and South Americas. Like descriptions, object names can be provided by object donors.
Turner, Hannah, “The Computerization of Material Culture Catalogues: Objects and Infrastructure in the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology” Museum Anthropology 39 no. 2 (2016): 163-177.
Filene, Benjamin, “Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us” The Public Historian 34, no. 1 (2013) 11-33.
Gardner, James B., “Contested Terrain: History, Museums, and the Public” The Public Historian 26, no. 4 (2004) 11-21.