Contents tagged with data
Created: 9/1/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects.
Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?
With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:
“Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.”
Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind -- Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.
Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.
In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 3/16/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
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Keeping track of items in a museum collection requires organization. A LOT of organization. Collections staff track where specimens and artifacts are stored and record any time they move, such as when they go on loan or on exhibit. We track the condition of a specimen and any procedures that we undertake to resolve preservation issues. We make notations about how much deterioration a specimen is subjected to when it is on display in an exhibit. We document information about the specimen, such as who collected it, when, and where. But to be able to do all of this, we first need to know what we have!
How do you go about inventorying a museum collection? In a word: methodically. A small army of staff, interns, and volunteers went through the Academy's collection for our inventory. It took us five years, but cabinet by cabinet, each and every item was handled, counted, and described -- bird and mammal study skins, pinned insects, fossils, pressed plants, snail shells -- over 280,000 items! We created a new digital record in a database for each item we documented so that the inforamtion is in one place.
What, exactly, does this mean? It means that our Collections staff can now look up information about our collection in a database, rather than sifting through old musty ledger books and multiple, out-of-date card catalogue systems. These searches are faster and more comprehensive. We can provide this library of specimens and corresponding data to researchers and help answer questions about the environment. More of the collection can be incorporated into our exhibitions and educational programs to help illustrate issues relevant to the Midwest and allow our visitors to see these treasures first hand.
It means we have a much clearer picture of not only what is in our collection, but the history of it all as well. And knowing what we have makes tracking it, and building a reservoir of information about it, much easier. Many thanks go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for their generous support of our collections inventory project.View Comments