I just returned from the American Association of Museums Annual Conference in Philadelphia. I try to go to AAM every year, and this year was just stellar. Fantastic location, great programs, amazing networking opportunities, and interesting sessions. This is usually the case most years, but there was something special about the Philly conference. I got to be a part of the conference in many ways: teaching basic “Technology 101″ tutorials about blogging, helping with the Media & Technology SPC MUSE Awards and the Marketplace of Ideas, playing “Vanna Black” in the Museo-Jeopardy: Stump a Museum Technologist session. Most importantly, though, this was the first time the Magnes has presented a project at the national conference. I had the honor of presenting along with Alla Efimova, Acting Director and Chief Curator and Francesco Spagnolo, Director of Research & Collections.
Our session, Bridging the ALM Divide: An Integrated Archive-Library-Museum Approach for Hybrid Institutions, highlighted an important project the Magnes is currently working on. The Magnes has a large collection of objects in the museum, a significant amount of documentary materials in the archives, and a significant holding of thousands of rare books and manuscripts. Over the years, these materials have not been cataloged consistently, nor has it been at all easy for researchers to discover related materials across the whole institution. In response to this problem, we decided to adopt a collection management system, IDEA@ALM, to help us catalog materials in one centralized database, but according to the professional standards museum, archive, and library materials require. Additionally, we are now able to catalog our materials using various scripts, including Hebrew, which means we can sidestep some of the problems caused by transliteration and translation.
This is not a methodology that has been widely adopted by museums with mixed collections. The big problem has been how to catalog materials according to professional standards while providing the ability to search across all of those materials at once and find related records. What other institutions have done to address this has been to create disparate databases and then hire programmers to write code to link these systems for information retrieval (known as “federated searching“). Because the Magnes’ information is housed within one centrallized database, we don’t need to hire programmers, nor do we need to run four separate programs to make our information available (four: one for museums, one for archives, one for libraries, and one to tie them all together).
I won’t go into the technical details here, but some of it is explained in the slideshow I’ve linked to above. But what this means for researchers is that any and all Magnes collections are findable, regardless of collecting area, so long as we’ve cataloged and described each individual item correctly. We’re working hard on getting our collections available online, which should be ready by Summer, 2009.
Alla Efimova, our Acting Director, also discussed how artists are using our materials to reimagine our holdings. She talked about the REVISIONS series, in which artists look through our collections to find inspirations for their own art-making practices. One such project, Shahrokh Yadegari: Through Music was curated by Laurence Rinder, the grandson of Cantor Reuben Rinder, an influential figure in 20th-century Jewish musical culture. He looked through the archives to find Cantor Rinder’s notes and materials and found additional inspiration through the museum holdings. The result was a fascinating blend of contemporary with traditional music along with antique ceremonial art and manuscripts with modern art – all backed by the musical legacy of a cantor whose notes inspired his grandson. The video explaining that exhibition is here:
After the session, I was gratified to hear from people, thanking us for the session. One comment, “This is the best session I’ve been to at this conference,” was especially nice to hear, because it was a bit of a validation that we’re on the right track; providing an achievable solution for a common problem. We’re still working on it, and we look forward to feedback from others, but we are really proud of our work and greatly hoping our public will find it as useful as we think it is.