Protecting Cultural Objects

The Survey
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The Survey
The first of a series of steps toward building a consensus on the content of a proposed core documentation standard has been to identify the information requirements of the various communities, to gain an understanding of the purposes for which information is collected, and to determine how it is used and with whom it is shared. These requirements have been identified by a combination of background research, interviews, and, most importantly, a major international questionnaire survey. This survey was carried out between July and December 1994, and was endorsed by the Council of Europe, the International Council of Museums, and UNESCO.

Because the information needs of organizations with different interests in cultural objects vary, the questionnaire commenced by asking for background information about the nature and function of each organization. In the second part of the questionnaire, organizations were asked which of a number of information categories they: (a) record at present, (b) believe should be included in any future core documentation standard, and (c) regard as being appropriate for data exchange with other organizations. Regarding the last question, making information on cultural objects more accessible has its risks as well as its advantages. The same information that can help recover a stolen object can, in the wrong hands, be used to bring an object to the attention of thieves. A core data standard will have to meet the security needs of the organizations that use it.

In addition, organizations that make condition reports on objects--principally museums and galleries--were asked to answer a number of questions about their procedures and the types of information they record about the physical condition of the objects in their care.

The categories of information put forward in the questionnaire have been compared with those identified and defined by a number of existing and proposed documentation standards.

Finally, the questionnaire asked each organization about the information retrieval systems it uses and about the present or projected future use of electronic images and of data networks. This information has helped in gaining an understanding of the extent to which computerized systems are being used for the automated collection, analysis, and transmission of information related to cultural objects, as well as what scope there may be for common standards and methodologies to be employed.

The Organizations
One hundred and seven organizations and initiatives in 42 countries responded to the questionnaire. The majority of responses came from museums and galleries (75), the next largest category being documentation centers (16), followed by law-enforcement agencies (7). The most common form of funding for responding organizations is national govern-ments (72), the private sector (including nonprofit organizations) accounting for only 18, and regional and local governments for 12. Of the 107 organizations, 96 hold records of cultural objects, while 89 both make records and hold them. Seventy-nine of these organizations make information available to the public and 74 to other organizations. Only 13 organizations charge fees for information; 8 of these charge for each inquiry.

Use of Information Technology
The great majority of responding organizations (87) currently hold records of cultural objects on computerized databases. Of these, the majority are equipped with only stand-alone personal computers (PCs) (32) or networked PCs (28). Multi-user systems are used by 24 organizations, although 12 of these organizations also used stand-alone PCs or networks for certain applications. Only 18 of the 87 organizations (21 percent) have 100 percent of their records on computer, and more than half have less than 50 percent. It is interesting to note that 34 of the respondents already subscribe to data network services, and an additional 25 plan to do so in the next three years. The service most commonly subscribed to is the Internet, mentioned by 26 of the respondents. However, relatively few organizations (13) are supplying information on-line at present.

Visual Documentation
Visual documentation is of great importance to the process of uniquely identifying cultural objects. Law-enforcement agencies, in particular, stress the value of the image and assert that, without one, it is very unlikely a stolen object will be recovered and returned to its rightful owner. They point out that "taking a photograph of your valuables won't stop a burglar, but it could greatly assist the police in catching him, and anyone who has handled your stolen goods."

The responses to the questionnaire show that visual documentation (e.g., photographs, sketches) form a part of the records of 100 percent of responding law-enforcement agencies, 89 percent of museums and galleries, and 67 percent of documentation centers. Of the organizations that responded in the affirmative, 96 percent use photographs as part of the record, 36 percent use drawings, and 19 percent use other types of visual documentation (e.g., video, slides, and x-ray plates). Fifty-six percent estimated that over half their records had associated visual material of one sort or another, and 47 percent indicate in their records whether reproductions of objects exist which are not part of the record (e.g., published photographs, or illustrations of the objects held in other collections).

The survey has revealed that 37 of the 87 organizations with computerized systems store images in electronic form, and 43 more plan to do so in the next three years. Thirty-four of these 37 organizations store their images in digital form (five hold both digital and analog images, and three hold analog only). The responses show that the percentage of organizations with images linked to records is small: 26 of the 37 organizations having electronic images for fewer than 50 percent of their records. Of the six that have images for more than 75 percent of their records, three are law-enforcement agencies.

The law-enforcement community's belief in the importance of visual documentation is reflected in their computerized systems. No fewer than five of the seven agencies responding have systems that hold electronic images of the objects recorded.72 This community is equally aware of the need for textual documentation in addition to images, but argues that such documentation must be comprehensible to the average police officer as well as to the museum or art-trade professional. As Jean-Pierre Jouanny of INTERPOL, Lyons, has said, "The most difficult thing is to find a common description to enable us to access the pictures without having to be specialists."73

Condition Information
An object's physical condition provides one of the best means of identifying it uniquely, particularly when an object is one of a number manufactured to a common design or when it closely resembles other objects of the same kind. In the case of a bronze sculpture stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, India, and sent to England, it was the presence of termite tracks across the surface of the object--which had affected other sculptures from the same underground hiding place--that helped identify the object.
74 The value of condition information is recognized by those engaged in the tracking of cultural objects, and for this reason they recommend that "any markings or features which 'individualize' an object be recorded, e.g., a scratch or chip on a piece of furniture, 'cracking' or other damage to painted surfaces, etc."74

Among the respondents to the questionnaire, 70 percent of organizations record a free-text narrative that assesses the object's physical condition, while 55 percent classify its general physical condition by using single-word descriptors (e.g., excellent, good, fair) and 37 percent do both. Only 37 percent of organizations make use of controlled vocabularies to describe the condition of the object (See also Appendix B).

A mutual recognition of the importance of condition information to the identification of objects has led to a collaboration between the Getty Art History Information Program and the Getty Conservation Institute. The two Getty programs have organized an international Conservation Specialists Working Group that will examine the ways in which physical characteristics can be recorded to identify objects. The recommendations of the group are informing the work of this initiative. The group will also produce a series of papers establishing the context, techniques, and value of identifying and recording the physical characteristics of objects.

Candidate Core Categories
The responses were analyzed to find out what percentage of the three principal types of organization (museums and galleries, documentation centers, and law-enforcement agencies) recorded each category of information. These percentages were then grouped into three bands: 70 percent to 100 percent, 50 percent to 69 percent, and less than 50 percent. This analysis has been applied not only to categories currently recorded, but also to those believed to be essential to identi-fication and those thought appropriate for data exchange. A score in the 70 percent to 100 percent band for all three of these criteria is taken as indicating a high degree of consensus on the importance of a category; a score in the 50 percent to 69 percent band, a majority but not a broad consensus on the importance of a category; and a score in the less than 50 percent band, no agreement.

It is important to point out that the categories listed below, under Consensus Exists, represent only a trend uncovered by this survey and should not be equated with the core. These findings will, however, be used in Phase Two of the project to inform a series of specialist roundtable meetings at which consensus for a proposed standard will be developed. A broad spectrum of organizations and institutions will be represented in this process. It is quite likely that, as a result of this process, categories from Majority Agree and No Agreement, and categories not in this list, may be included in the core.

Consensus Exists
Seventy percent to 100 percent of all three types of organizations currently record the following categories, believe them to be essential, and regard them as appropriate for data exchange.

Object Identification Number
Object Name/Title
Object Type
Textual Description of Object
Date/Period of Object

Majority Agree
Fifty percent to 100 percent of at least two of the three types of organizations currently record the following categories, believe them to be essential, and regard them as appropriate for data exchange.

Persons and Organizations Associated with Object
Related Visual Material

No Agreement
Less than 50 percent of the organizations currently record the following categories, believe them to be essential, and regard them as appropriate for data exchange.

Normal Location of Object
Custodian of Object
Related Objects
Estimated Value
Legal Status of Object
Recorder Name
Date Documented
Role of Person or Organization
Place of Origin/Discovery
Related Textual Material
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