Provenance research is difficult, slow, and constantly changing. Many museums are behind in their research due to barriers of access and resources. How does the research process get better, and how can museums improve the quality of the data?
This paper will explore ways the web can enable us to, in the words of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Be excellent to each other.” Sites like Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Gallica have made provenance research easier than ever. However most information is still trapped in archives, non-circulating books, and distant repositories. Few museums can afford to send a researcher to a remote library, in a likely futile search for information.
To build a provenance community, researchers must be connected with resources. GitHub has been used as a civic issues tracker, so why not use it for research? If a researcher in Pittsburgh needs a specific reference from the British Library, an issue ticket could connect a person with a BL reader’s pass to the requestor to pull the book and share the information. Further, academics have used the tag #ICanHasPDF to request articles from academic journals which they cannot access. Those with access find and share the article. Could #ICanHasProvenance be just as effective? This person-to-person network is critical to building a provenance community. Connecting people to resources builds relationships, and encourages museums to explore their own data.
Further, museums should publish provenance online, and not just works that fall under the Nazi-era mandate. By publishing this data, the names and places involved in provenance are indexed and easier to find and researchers can then connect names, dates, and citations. Many fear publishing this data because of the perceived risk, and the possibility of a restitution claim. However, museums enjoy a great deal of trust from the public, so if a patron challenges the provenance, the chances are the information be worth evaluating. This alos demonstrates a commitment to transparency. Museums should make a finding aid of their provenance materials available online to enable researchers to make better requests. Staff are then able to more quickly assist the requestor, saving all parties time and thus, being excellent to each other. While some have indexed their libraries through WorldCat, most provide no external guide to their institutional holdings. By publishing library information, researchers can connect to materials that may not otherwise be available to access via interlibrary loan.If we want to be even more excellent to each other, making digital copies of provenance material available online would be best, but the cost and time barrier to this is palpable.
Finally, training people to write provenance, and to do digital provenance research must be a priority. Most professionals have a high degree of technical literacy, but provenance research not only requires creative search skills, but the ability to evaluate the information.A web interface called Elysa and a Ruby library available at www.github.com/cmoa/museum_provenance developed by the Carnegie Museum of Art will help people to write better provenance. These tools turn unstructured provenance text into semi-structured text and help us to talk about provenance data in a standardized way.In order to advance provenance, we need to build a community that actively connects the information in our holdings to the people who want it. We also have to connect our people to each other, to share information and to be nodes in a network of research. There has to be a commitment to transparency around provenance data and provenance resources in order to make the work of provenance simpler, faster, and more accurate. Museums also must commit to being excellent to each other, and welcome and encourage research requests as a way of building a community, and furthering our knowledge of our holdings and transforming provenance.
Party on, provenance researchers.
Collections Database Associate, Carnegie Museum of Art
Talk to me about provenance, collections, collections technology, the responsive web, marathons, fuzzy dogs, toilet history, and Antiques Roadshow. |
Pittsburgher, lover of Glasgow, Type 1 diabetic.
Friday November 6, 2015 2:30pm - 3:00pm
Hyatt Regency Minneapolis 1300 Nicollet Mall Minneapolis, MN 55403