A database for everyday museum life
Innovations at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz
The Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz (RGZM) is introducing a new web-based database this spring after an extensive test phase. This not only stores images, but also links the workflows of many departments: an optimization that will pay off in the long run not only in terms of greater transparency for (inter)national collaborations - such as the virtual library "Europeana" - but also in savings of working time and financial resources.
About the Museum
The "Roman-Germanic Central Museum" is both a research institute and Museum
for archaeology. Its research ranges from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. The associated branch, the "Museum for Ancient Shipping" (in the picture), houses the museum's picture archive. This keeps about 150000 pictures, slides and ectachromes.
At the beginning
The idea to introduce a database that would record many work steps related to museum objects and provide a common work platform for all staff involved was born more than four years ago. At its beginning was the realization that such a tool could structure and simplify the work of a large research museum, such as the Leibniz Association's Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz. In the search for suitable technical options, a web-based solution using so-called open standards crystallized quite quickly. Such a choice not only ensures independence from platforms and operating systems as well as license agreements, but also guarantees (if desired) availability of the database application from any point in the world. Another essential wish was the flexible adaptation to the specific needs of the large museum operation in Mainz.
The search for a suitable provider ended at the premises of Programmfabrik in Berlin. Together with their employees, all key points were clarified in a first workshop in May 2008 and a first specification sheet was created. In it all points were outlined exactly, which should be important for the structure of the RGZM-specific easydb- data base. A short time later, it turned out that the repeatedly necessary adaptation of the specifications and the transfer to the easydb system would ultimately take about three and a half years - a time that, in retrospect, turns out to have been well invested.
The structure of the database
The basic unit of the database is the museum object. It is at the center with its master data (place of discovery, place of storage, material, restoration treatment, photo documentation, dating, publication, etc.) and binds all further formations of itself: images of the original, data on copies, images of these copies, worksheets in which the restoration steps are documented, offprints from in-house publications in which the object is treated scientifically. Thus, from this central object, all further information can be found through various search functions.
The standard view of the RGZM database:
- Fields for free text search and item type selection.
- Fields for detailed search.
- right window with search result, in this case for items with the entry "Celestial globe".
- left window with detailed view, in this case of the object COPY_42696a marked in blue in the right window, for which all captured data are displayed or accessible via further tabs.
The search functions
The database offers very flexible search modalities. Above the right field, which is reserved for the search result, there are two lines with input fields.
In the top row, the first field allows a full-text search across nearly all fields of the database. Naturally, this often leads to a high number of hits, which can be further narrowed down by selecting the item type in the following field - is a museum object, a photo or perhaps a work sheet being searched for? - can be narrowed down further. A check mark in the "search in result" field can also be used to further narrow down a search once it has been performed. For a detailed search within selected individual fields, an "advanced search" is also available.
In the second line, below the one just viewed, a pinpoint search is possible. If the number of the photograph, the work sheet or the inventory number of the object searched for is already known, one first selects the prefix - for example "O." for one's own original museum object or "KOPIE" for a copy located in the RGZM - and adds the entire number or the part that is known in the following field. Since the system automatically adds the wildcard '*' to the entered string in this case, the required records can be found shortly.
The following functionality can also be used for searching and is one of the main features of the database created for the RGZM.
The systematics tree
The integration of a systematics tree was considered particularly important. The individual branches of this tree take up the various aspects of the item "object" and can be extended as desired. They represent, for example, the localities of the place of discovery or the place of storage and also allow a fine differentiation: Thus, the city of Mainz (in Europe/Germany/Rhineland-Palatinate/) can be the "place of discovery" of a Roman ship, whereas its exact "place of discovery" is to be located in the winter harbor. In corresponding detail the execution of all systematic branches is possible, although of course not necessary at every place.
They are used both for structuring individual workflows ("Personal Workbook") and for the collaboration of employees on a web-based work level mentioned at the beginning ("Public Workbook"). This is a structure that makes it possible to combine data from the database and make it accessible to a group of colleagues defined by themselves via rights management. The data is collected in arbitrarily hierarchically arranged folders, similar to what is already known from the text processing operating system.
The rights management
Of course, the ability to tailor access to individual data to each user is important for the security and stable operation of a database. This is ensured by a rights management system that can be adjusted in detail, with the help of which not only individual accounts can be assigned, but also user groups can be set up. The inheritance of individual group characteristics allows additional, individual adjustments.
- In workbooks, objects, images, worksheets and PDFs can be compiled for further use.
- The search results displayed in the right window can be used in different views, here in the text view with links to all linked items.
The so-called "Creator" enables the modification of the web interface after the program factory has completed its work and handed over the easydb database to the customer. This tool also contributes significantly to the adaptability of the selected database, which has already been emphasized several times. However, due to its wide range of functions and its complexity, it can only be used by employees who are already experienced in this type of IT work.
The requirements of the individual departments
A major, if not the greatest, challenge was to map the requirements of the various departments of the RGZM in one database. Through the early involvement of all parties involved already in the planning phase, an attempt was made to meet these requirements, which are outlined below.
The database allows the maintenance of an inventory book with the cooperation of all scientists involved. The newly created entries can be printed out and, if required, bound into an analog inventory volume. The digital system also allows access to all existing data at any time by means of a wide variety of search masks and printouts, even of sensitive data, without damaging the originals - such as the volumes of the 19th century with watercolor drawings.
The museum's scientists use the entire spectrum of information stored in the database on the individual objects for their research. The processing almost always leads to a publication in the museum's own publishing house.
The systematics tree:
- The system entries are available in an expandable tree structure.
- The entries are editable and allow differentiated specifications up to alternative spellings and geographic coordinates.
The publishing house edits and publishes scientific journals and monographs, as well as exhibition catalogs, conference proceedings and popular science books, which were produced in the house or by external scientists for the house. The print PDFs of the contributions as well as the images used can be stored in the database and made accessible. At the same time, it is possible to store publications that are to be offered via the web store in this way and to mark them with a release for sale.
The work steps carried out and planned by the restorers are documented in the database, and special photographs, such as microscope or X-ray images, are attached. The accruing data form the item "work sheet".
The photographers document the objects in their initial condition and after completed restoration. The images serve as a basis for the restorers' work, document the condition of the objects in the inventory (book) and provide illustrative material in the scientists' published articles.
In the picture archive, the pictures taken in the workshops and in the photo laboratory are archived and, linked with their diverse data described above, are then available to the scientists of the house as well as to selected specialist colleagues. At present, the immense analogue legacy holdings of the picture archive still represent a major challenge. They, too, are to be digitized and entered into the database in the future, because they - like the inventory - contain the scientific "memory" and thus a great potential of the institution.
The image archive is also responsible for maintaining the easydb database. Given the size of the museum operation and the mass of data generated, quality control of the data sets for completeness and consistency is indispensable. The entries in the classification trees have to be checked and completed at various points, such as the list and structure of the keywords, the materials, the chronological epochs, the find and storage locations or the internal tags for responsibilities, cost centers or release status.
Last but not least, the public relations department benefits from all the data created beforehand. It makes use of the rich pool of images and information with material for the external presentation of the house. At the same time, it provides new content for the image database: The images of, for example, the "Open House", exhibition openings, conferences and other events provide visible evidence of the museum's activities.
In the near future
The state reached now is for the time being the successful conclusion of a long phase of detailed elaboration, but not yet the end of planning.
Another area is already almost finished and will only be fine-tuned in the near future: A web store for digital images. Their sale has so far been handled individually by telephone and e-mail, but will soon also be supported by the database. In future, press representatives will be able to download views of the museum sites in Mainz, Mayen and Andernach free of charge in a separate store area. Recurring requests from well-known textbook publishers for illustrations will also be processed quickly and conveniently in this way. In addition to the standard service, the tried and tested e-mail service is of course still available for individual inquiries from individual researchers.
Due to the flexibility, which was already demanded as indispensable in the planning phase at the RGZM and which has been proven in the meantime, further areas of the museum operation can be integrated into the database in the future. One example is the museum's letter archive. But also a depot administration or a module for loan transactions could be integrated in a meaningful way. From a technical point of view, there are no limits to the ideas!
About the author
Ute Klatt received her doctorate in Classical Archaeology from the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn and subsequently worked as a freelance researcher at various archaeological museums and the Justus Liebig University in Giessen. Since spring 2011, she has been working as a research assistant in the picture archive of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz.
Contact: Dr. Ute Klatt, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Research Institute for Archaeology, Picture Archive, Neutorstraße 2b, 55116 Mainz, firstname.lastname@example.org
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