Webs 1.0 2.0 & 3.0 (Museums and Cultural Heritage)

The delivery of the results of MCH research via innumerable websites is, in common with every other discipline, a quotidian phenomenon and of negligible significance in itself. What this obscures however, is the complexity of certain systems that present themselves simply to the user but are reliant on complex procedures and tools (e.g. server farm configurations, sophisticated data mining techniques, automated record linkage processes, probabilistic matching routines, etc.) at the back end to deliver content. The resources available to organisations in the MCH sector means that in comparison to corporate search engine technology configurations, system architectures will remain diminutive, but it should be acknowledged that some UK MCH datasets are in fact now very sizeable, largely due to the tools and techniques associated with standardising and aggregating data (e.g. OAI-PMH and various forms of XML compliant data frameworks).

The Archaeology Data Service (ADS a.k.a. AHDS Archaeology) has cross-searchable records for over one million items; Canmore, the online database of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland has details of around 250,000 sites and structures, totalling 800,000 catalogue entries; and the Heritage Gateway has 1.2 million records online (with a further 1 million waiting to be added). Databases of this sort and the interfaces used to search them are powerful research tools and are, in some cases, augmented with point and click map interfaces allowing the retrieval of data using location criteria, functionality that is supported using GIS (geographical information systems) data.

The group of technologies and tools that are linked to Web 2.0 approaches are currently being investigated and evaluated by the MCH community. Steve, the Art Museum Social Tagging Project, is an initiative to build up user-generated descriptions of works of art to improve access to museum collections and to encourage user engagement with the items in those collections. The tagger can be accessed without even registering and terms can be applied and submitted instantly for random images that are provided from the collections of the U.S. based project partners. Other examples where user-generated tagging has been used to provide alternative routes into the collection are the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art which tested the process in 2005. More comprehensive user generated information is being solicited by the Coine Project.

Whilst there is much debate about the ultimate value of this form of tagging, it is clear that this method and others that are associated with Web 2.0 approaches, such as tagclouds and syndication (using podcasts and RSS feeds), as well as approaches that take advantage of AJAX (asynchronous javascript and XML) functionality to increase the interactivity of web pages, enhance the user experience of the web environment and will continue to be the subject of both technical and social research. Collaborative forms of publication such as blogs, wikis, fora and taxonomies are included as features, modules or plug-ins in the majority of modern content management systems and open source examples of these include Joomla, Drupal, and Typo3.

The development of what has been referred to as Web 3.0, but is more often called the Semantic Web, is the subject of ongoing debate across many subject areas. The principle concept that underpins aspirations for a more richly described Web is to remove the need for humans to mediate and make manual connections between items of content that have been unintelligently provided by current search and retrieval mechanisms. By the application of ontologies and descriptive frameworks that relate entities and concepts more explicitly to their knowledge domains, a great deal more precision and interoperability can be brought to the process of retrieving and analyzing data. As Jennifer Trant has stated:

[quote]What we want them [Museums and their end-users] to buy into is the vision of interconnected, interoperable, easily integral resources that exist in multiple places and are used by multiple people to support different functions. You want them to buy into a vision of a shared, useful, integrated information environment in which museums play a robust part.

The most prominent tools that have been designed to enable this framework are based on XML applications and principally involve elaborations on the use of the Resource Description Framework (RDF) model, a W3C recommended specification which has been extended to encompass:

  • RDFa (for adding semantic attribute information to XHTML)
  • RDF Schema (to provide basic elements for the description of ontologies)
  • OWL (for defining web ontology information)
  • comprising of OWL Lite, OWL DL, OWL Full

Obviously it makes no sense to build new ontology schemas in domains where people have already carried out effective work and the use of standardised methods such as OWL facilitate the appropriation of schemas wherever possible. SchemaWeb and the DAML Ontology Library provide searchable lists of existing specific ontologies whilst SUMO (Suggested Upper Merged Ontology) provides a number of mid-level ontologies, e.g. transportation, engineering components, finance etc., but also links these to a very high-level conceptual framework consisting of broad themes and ideas. Recent work in the field of developing ontologies for historical information, including references specifically to the MCH sector, were showcased at an e-Science Institute event at which Mark Greengrass (Humanities Research Institute and the ARMADILLO project ) and Oskar Corcho (University of Manchester) introduced a variety of concepts relating to ontologies and their relationship with the semantic web, data mining, and knowledge engineering concepts.

The most high-profile formal and extensible ontology used by the cultural heritage sector is the CIDOC-CRM, a system which has been designed to provide the ‘semantic glue’ to enable data to be shared between libraries, museums and archives. Based on object-oriented modelling methodologies and displaying compatible properties with RDFSchema techniques in its use of triple entities (subject, predicate, object) to describe relationships, the CRM establishes context-independent descriptions of how one element of data is related to another and provides a richly granular method of integrating legacy or incompatible datasets into formalised searchable systems.

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