Cultural Heritage Organizations, page 4 of 4



Poster produced by the National Museum of Mali to raise public awareness of the need to protect archaeological sites. The caption reads: "protect archaeological sites; and you thereby save your history" (reproduced by courtesy of the National Museum of Mali, Bamako).

Edinburgh Roundtable Meeting of
Museum Documentation Experts

The second consultative meeting convened by the project was a roundtable of museum documentation specialists, held in Edinburgh on November 5-6, 1995. The participants reviewed the findings of the 1994 survey and recommended categories of information for inclusion in the proposed standard. The survey results were considered in the context of existing documentation standards and standards-making initiatives from within the museum community, including the CIDOC Data Model and Guidelines for Minimum Information Categories, the Museum Documentation Association's SPECTRUM standard, the Canadian Heritage Information Network's Data Dictionary, and the Art Information Task Force's Categories for the Description of Works of Art. In addition to museum professionals, the meeting brought together two specialists in the recovery of stolen art (representing the Art Loss Register and the Thesaurus Group), and an attorney specializing in cultural property law.

At the outset, the participants agreed to make a distinction between information that was essential for purposes of identification—the purpose for which the standard was being developed—and corroborative information that might be useful for establishing ownership once an object had been recovered.

The representative of the Art Loss Register stressed the importance of a photograph, since "To a policeman an image is worth 10,000 words; if he can see it he will remember it even if he does not know what it is." When ownership of an object was being disputed in a court of law, "an image is much more effective when dealing with a judge or a jury than a description."

According to the representative of the Thesaurus Group, law-enforcement agencies need guidance on what questions to ask about stolen objects when gathering information from a burglary victim. He recommended a checklist that tells them what questions to ask. Another participant suggested that the standard itself be developed in the form of a checklist containing definitions of the categories in the form of questions, such as "Do you know who made the object? Do you know its date or period? Does it have any markings?"

A long discussion on the categories Type of Object, Object Name, and Title argued, on the one hand, that Object Name and Title could not be combined, since there was an important distinction between them: "The name is something a person knowledgeable about objects would assign to an object. The title is not an observation about the object; it is something that someone named it. . ..Titles by their nature cannot be inferred from objects." Object Name might combine the type of object with other pieces of information, such as the form of the object, its style, country of origin, period, or place of origin. At the same time, to make Object Name and Type of Object separate categories, it was thought, might confuse people as to what information should be put under each heading. Although the meeting recommended that all three categories be part of the proposed standard, Object Name was removed after subsequent consultation because it created confusion and made the standard more complicated to use.

There was agreement on including the category Maker, since "a maker's particular style can make an object identifiable." The standard, the group agreed, should make it clear that Maker could be used to record the tribe or culture responsible for creating an object.

While the importance of the Subject category was agreed, the group cautioned that users of the standard should not use culturally specific terms to describe subject matter that may not be understood by persons unfamiliar with that culture. For example, a painting might be described as a "Madonna and Child," but to a policeman in a non-Christian country, it would merely be "a woman and baby." It was also recognized that many objects do not have subjects, and that some have subjects that cannot easily be described. For example, some abstract paintings can be described only in terms of shapes and colors.

A lengthy discussion on whether there should be a separate category of information for recording an object's unique reference number (Object ID Number), e.g., an inventory number, argued that this information would create a link to an institution's collections management system. This, in turn, might make it possible to access other information about the object and perhaps the collection. Others were doubtful that reference numbers help to uniquely identify an object unless they are inscribed on the object itself, in which case they could be recorded under Inscriptions & Markings. Still others pointed out that such numbers are often not unique to an institution, nor do they indicate the identity of the institution to which the object belongs. The meeting recommended that Object ID Number be considered for inclusion in the standard, but later surveys and meetings demonstrated that there was no consensus in favor of including this category in Object ID.

All the participants were in favor of including a written Description of the object, even when using structured computerized databases. They believed that it is important not to "lose the narrative type of description" because it enables various pieces of information to be combined in "a visual picture" of the object. Moreover, it offered the opportunity to provide additional information that might be relevant, such as the color(s) of the object, its shape, and whether it is one of a pair or part of a set.

Presentations made by members of the Conservation Specialists Working Group elaborated on the Distinguishing Features category. One-word descriptors such as "excellent," "good," or "fair" were seen as having no value in identifying an object, while detailed condition reports—though providing useful information—contained more infor-mation than could be incorporated into a theft report form. Distinguishing Features had the advantage of recording the condition infor-mation that could make the object uniquely identifiable.

Having reviewed the findings of the preliminary survey and discussed each of the categories in turn, the meeting recommended that the standard should comprise the following categories of information:

Photograph
Object ID Number
Type of Object
Object Name
Title
Materials & Techniques
Measurements
Inscriptions & Markings
Distinguishing Features
Subject
Date or Period
Maker
Description

The standard recommended by the participants at this roundtable of experts has been little changed by the findings of subsequent surveys and the recommendations of later meetings. This gathering was an important milestone for the project, in that it demonstrated the possibility of establishing a consensus among professionals within a key community.

The archaeological community is deeply concerned about illicit excavation, maintaining that removing objects from the ground other than in the course of a scientifically conducted excavation results in the loss of irreplaceable information about the site and the culture(s) that occupied it. An archaeologist explains to Malian villagers the importance of not disturbing archaeological sites (photograph copyright Dr. K.C. MacDonald, University College London).

 




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Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society — Copyright 1997 The J. Paul Getty Trust