Protecting Cultural Objects

PART ONE: BACKGROUND
The Value of Core Information
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The Value of Core Information
As has been stated, the development of computer networks in themselves does not make possible the interchange of information among agencies interested in the protection of cultural objects. Standards defining the information that describes an object need to be identified and mutually agreed upon. The fundamental step toward the building of efficient information networks is, therefore, the development of an international "core" documentation standard for the description of cultural objects. Core information may be defined as those categories of essential information (textual and pictorial) common to a broad array of documentation projects, whether manual or computerized, which make it easier to record, use, and exchange information. It has been described as an enabling mechanism that "represents a way of indexing, ordering and classifying information, independently of whether that information is on paper, card index, or database."64 Agreement on core information in no way limits the further information an individual organization's database may hold: "It is not something which is seeking to make organizations conform to systems which are incompatible with their own needs."65 Examples of core information used in the documenting of cultural objects might include a unique identification number, the materials the object consists of, the date of its creation, its measurements, the subject depicted, and the name of the artist who created it. The choice of information categories is less difficult than the securing of broad agreement as to their clear definition and use.

In their 1978 work, Robert Chenhall and Peter Homulos put forward a list of sixteen "minimum" categories, six of which were to serve as a means of "identifying uniquely the object."66 The purpose of the remaining categories was to provide "information to be used in the preparation of internal museum reports" and/or "to record the history of ownership and use" of the object. Chenhall and Homulos argued that a list of minimum categories would be useful, irrespective of the type of collection. However, they recognized that particular museums would need additional categories "in order to provide for research objectives and any other specialized purposes that the documentation is intended to serve."67 The museum community has continued to work on the development of core information standards. At the board meeting of the International Council of Museums Documentation Committee (CIDOC) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1993, the Committee's Data and Terminology Working Group was charged with producing a minimum data standard for museum objects. This standard is intended for the international museum community, "especially those in small museums that have no access to existing standards, and those in developing countries."68

ICOM's AFRICOM Programme includes the project "Standardization of African Collections Inventories". This project is the first of its kind launched at a continental level, involving six pilot museums in Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Namibia, Tunisia, and Zaire. It has already produced a "Handbook of Standards," a publication which has been widely distributed in Africa by ICOM in close collaboration with CIDOC.

The value of core documentation has also been recognized by those concerned with the protection of the built and archaeological heritage. In 1989, the Council of Europe initiated a project that has resulted in agreement on a core information standard for the architectural heritage of Europe.69 More recently, CIDOC established an Archaeological Sites Working Group, to develop and propose an International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments.70

Threats to cultural objects concern both the cultural organizations charged with the recording and protection of moveable cultural objects and those bodies concerned with their recovery in the event of theft. Museums, art galleries, documentation centers, the art trade, law-enforcement agencies, and commercial art-theft databases around the world all create and hold documentation on cultural objects. The information needs of organizations with different interests in cultural objects (e.g., a law-enforcement agency, an insurance company, and a museum) will inevitably vary, but all need the pieces of information that enable objects to be identified. It is for these vitally important categories of information that a core standard is proposed.

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