The Penn Museum has a long history of using technology to help manage our collection. We started our journey toward computerization in 1978, when the museum used a DEC-10 system which could only store the most basic object information (only six fields!). Now, our current content management system, Argus, has hundreds of fields and nearly 400,000 object records.
What exactly is a content management system? A content management system (CMS) is a database application that helps museum staff describe the objects in our collection, how we acquired them, where they are in the museum, and record events like accessions, deaccessions, conservation, loans, exhibits, scientific testing, classroom use, and research requests.
Basically, a CMS is the Museum’s brain. Since there are simply too many objects and events for even a very smart team to keep track of, we carefully record what we know about our objects into this huge database. Bits and bytes about Etruscan statuary whizz past descriptions of archival collections and statistics about who last borrowed our mummies. The CMS tells the history of what we have and what we do all day.
In 149 days, the Penn Museum will end a two-year database migration project, moving from Argus to a new CMS, KE EMu. The first two years (Nov. 2008 – Nov. 2010) have focused on the data migration from Argus to EMu, and the third year will focus on creating a website for publishing our collections.
Our CIMS (Collections Information Management System) group spent 10 months meeting almost weekly with collections staff and other museum departments (registrar, exhibits, archives, education and conservation) customizing EMu to accommodate Argus legacy data and building the functionality we needed. To take a small example, most objects in the museum have a permanent location in storage. They may go on loan, to conservation, or be taken out for a class, but eventually they need to be returned to their permanent locations. Updating their locations to their permanent location was something that EMu couldn’t do exactly as we wanted, so we had the crack development team create a “Return to Permanent Location” wizard. This saves our Keepers a ton of time because they move hundreds of objects every week. Now, instead of manually entering that data, they have an automatic process.
But this switch hasn’t been all whizz-bang application pyrotechnics. Thirty years of digital legacy data and 125 years of analog legacy data add up to a substantial problem that all museums face, that this information will always need to be “cleaned up”. During this configuration phase our volunteers, staff and work-study students were working on data cleanup projects that were required for the migration to EMu. This was a huge amount of work and took years to finish. I don’t think enough can be said about their contribution to this project, it was a lot of repetitious and tedious work moving data from one field to another but in the end the migration wouldn’t happen without their help. We are not finished cleaning our data (and I don’t know if we ever will “finish”) but it’s about the journey, right?
In about a week the real fun starts with the first of three data validation processes. Basically, this is the step where we take all of our Argus data and load it into EMu as a dry run. We look at the data and make sure that it went where we wanted it to go, and that nothing got lost in translation. This process will be repeated two more times between now and November when we flip the switch. While this may not seem like a big deal, it is a major benchmark in our project and I’m very excited about seeing real data in EMu. It feels like filling a big empty house with furniture, art (and soon, inhabitants) for the first time. Four walls and a roof is nice, but having your stuff inside makes it real.
We’ve only started discussing our plans for our collections website, but it is exciting working with Amy and Mike, our fabulous web team. We are thinking about how the public is going to want to interact with this data, and how can we create a site that is both a powerful research tool and an accessible way to explore our collections. This is the next big project after the EMu launch in November and what we will be working on in 2011. Stay tuned, because we have some great ideas!