Browsing online catalogs should be an exciting way of discovering museum collections, yet I have the feeling that even among museum lovers and professionals this might not be the favorite past-time. And I easily get tired when venturing out on catalog expeditions.
Poor search functions, time-consuming navigation, lack of contextual object information, wrong object information, poor or no images, little language choice, missing links… Overwhelming forests of poorly documented objects.
It was just as frustrating working on the other side too, undertaking the actual collection registration for some once-to-become online catalogs (once all the many tens of thousands objects were revised). What would the audience and especially people from source communities think about the mistakes in object records that I was almost doomed to commit? There seem to be far more objects in the average collection than the usual understaffed museum has staff with sufficient knowledge and/or time to simply verify their records, but the public would not know this. So even though I like the “locally grown” I used to dream of centralized databases online where museums could get help from the expert public to correct and complete object records. I dreamed of catalogs where enthusiastic people, both from staff and different audiences, would add their personal and cultural meanings to the often quite boring object records. Catalogs where users could create their own little exhibitions, guided tours or galleries online. That would make online catalogs really “useful” in my understanding of the word, i.e. catalogs that people would use and find interesting both for pleasure and work.
Museums long seemed afraid that publishing unrevised records online would make them look incompetent and go against their role as a trusted sources of knowledge. And, further, how could a museum make its visitors do this kind of volunteer work for them, and how should the possible overwhelming stream of varied visitor comments be handled? I always thought there simply was no other way around this and it has cheered me up to see many museum catalogs openly asking for corrections/input from the public -and exciting developments seem to bring the bright future closer.
Yet, my bottom line frustration, as a non-technical museum lover, still is that I think online catalogs have such exciting potential, but that the amount of time, money and technological understanding needed to reach it is rather boring.
So while waiting/working for perfection, that will probably always be a step ahead, what’s your favorite online catalog?
Next I’ll write about one of my favorites:)