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Monday, May 30, 2011

Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium

Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium
We made a family trip to one of the University of Michigan's smaller museums, a little gem called the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.  Even though they added a large new wing for exhibition space, the entire museum is still quite small, and is perfect for smaller children (but who are still old enough to be interested in going to a museum).

We wanted to be sure to check out a special exhibit that ended on May 27, 2001 called Vaults of Heaven:  Visions of Byzantium.  While the museum's permanent collection contains artifacts from the ancient world (Egypt, Greece, Rome), this exhibit featured relatively recent items from between the sixth and fifteenth centuries.  There's an image from the the exhibit on their web site, and I've created a link to it to the left.

One thing that struck me about the items in the exhibit were the similarities -- and the differences! -- between how a museum like the Kelsey preserves objects and makes them available for access, and how a place like ICPSR does it.  Another reminder about how the digital world and the physical world are very, very different.

For example, one item available to view at the Kelsey was a small piece of pottery with an image of a person on it.  No doubt it is very fragile, and it probably needs to be kept in a very safe, climate-controlled location when it isn't on exhibit.  There was a card next to the object that contained some (all?) of the information the museum had collected about it:  When it was likely made, what it was used for, and the identity of the person in the image.  (St Simeon the Stylite.)  This information also needs to be preserved and made accessible, but it would not need to be kept in the same type of storage as the object.  In fact, it may well be the case that the metadata in this case is kept in digital format, and only printed out on a card for access purposes.  And so one of the key preservation tasks would seem to be maintaining a reliable, bi-directional, long-lived link between the metadata and the object.  If the link breaks, then the task of finding the object (or re-discovering what it is) becomes very, very difficult.

In the digital world of ICPSR, we face some of the same issues (climate controlled storage for objects, purchasing and managing storage space, linking metadata to objects), but my sense is that we have a much easier time of it when it comes to linking metadata to objects. 

For one thing, both our objects and our metadata are built from the same stuff - bits - and so keeping them in the same type of storage is easy and makes sense.  (And it sure is much easier to make copies of bits that centuries old pieces of pottery.)

Also, because our stuff resides in the digital world and tends to be kept in a file, there's the filename that one can use to help identify the object, even in the absence of metadata.  And so if I have a digital object without metadata, I still have the filename (and the content, of course) to help me identify it.

And, for some type of files, like PDF, one can bundle a great deal of the metadata inside the file itself.  This creates a very close coupling between the object and its description.  This type of close coupling is also available via some of the stat packages, but becomes less useful if the file may only be read successfully with proprietary software.

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