Protecting Cultural Objects

Networked Access to Information / The Need for Documentation Standards
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Networked Access to Information
It is one thing to create inventories, but another to develop the means by which that information can be circulated rapidly among the organizations and agencies charged with protecting cultural objects. There is a growing awareness of the importance of developing mechanisms -- political, administrative, and technical -- that will enable information about stolen and illegally exported cultural objects to be shared between organizations and nations. In 1990, delegates to the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Havana resolved to address the problem of illicit trade in cultural objects by developing an automated international network to exchange information on crimes against cultural property. The need to build an information network was also recognized by the Charter of Courmayeur, Recommendation v of which stated that

The United Nations and UNESCO, in close collaboration with ICOM [the International Council of Museums] and other interested non-governmental organizations, should encourage close co-operation between emerging initiatives in the private and public sector that are developing data bases about stolen cultural property. The feasibility of establishing a network of these data bases should be carefully explored.54

The rapid development of international electronic networks is creating channels of communication by which information about stolen or illegally exported objects could be exchanged both rapidly and economically.55 A number of projects aimed at linking other sectors of the cultural heritage community are already underway, including Network of Art Research Computer Image Systems in Europe (NARCISSE), Remote Access to Museum Archives (RAMA), and the Visual Arts Network for the Exchange of Cultural Knowledge (VAN EYCK), all of which aim to enable member institutions to exchange data and images electronically.56

The Need for Documentation Standards
The existence of digital information and computer networks to transmit information solves only one part of the data exchange problem. Data cannot be transmitted quickly or read easily without standards that render it comprehensible to both systems and people. Therefore, even though the majority of inventories and art-theft registers are now computerized, any projects to form networks that exchange information on the illicit movement of cultural objects will first need to develop the necessary information standards.

Visual documentation is of great importance to the progress of identifying and recovering stolen objects. These leaflets, produced by the Metropolitan Police (U.K.) and the Central Criminal Police of the Czech Republic, encourage members of the public to photograph their valuable art and antiques.

In the past twenty years the museum world has given a great deal of thought to the development of standards for the cataloguing of cultural objects. In 1978 Robert Chenhall and Peter Homulos provided two explanations of the museum community's increased awareness of a need for systematic documentation:57 first, that museum collections were "being used by more people in more different ways than ever before," and second, "that the widespread availability of computer technology has made it feasible to think about creating adequate records for the millions of objects stored in museums."58 Two years later, Andrew Roberts and Richard Light observed that the wish to computerize museum records had "forced curators to look critically at the information being recorded" and that, as a result, attempts were being made "to assess individual fields or categories that could be considered to make up a typical museum record and which together formed a data standard."59 A number of countries now have national documentation standards,60 and work continues on initiatives aimed at developing both regional and international standards for the documentation of aspects of the cultural heritage.61

In parallel with this work on data standards, there have been a number of initiatives to develop standardized terminology, or data values, for individual information categories. Perhaps the best known of these projects is AHIP's Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT). First published in 1990, the AAT is one of a number of AHIP's projects aimed at promoting consistency and compatibility among art-historical databases.62

The importance of international documentation standards in the fight against the illicit trade in cultural objects is now being recognized. For example, the U.S. delegation to the Budapest Conference of CSCE in 1994, registered its continuing concern "at the disappearance of works of art, particularly from the eastern portion of the CSCE region," and declared that "one of the greatest difficulties in stemming this tide is the lack of uniform standards of cataloguing of these cultural objects."63

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