What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?
In February 1888, Henry Platnauer, Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, wrote to his counterparts around the country, ‘It is proposed to call a meeting of the curators of a few provincial museums… to discuss the possibility of obtaining… a compendious index of the contents of all provincial museums and collections.’
Despite the widespread digitisation of collection catalogues in recent decades, the problem Platnauer was trying to solve remains: it is not currently possible to search, let alone work, across the estimated 80 million object records spread across hundreds of UK museum databases, most of them offline. That’s a barrier to collaboration between museums, researchers and others, and a barrier to innovation in our understanding of collections.
What’s the solution?
We’re bringing together data drawn from UK collections large and small, and sharing it for any number of uses. We’re compiling summaries of those collections to give a much-needed national overview. Drilling down, we’re gathering detailed object records and turning them into FAIR data — findable, accessible, interoperable and re-usable — as the raw material for others to work with as needs arise and funding allows. In short, we’re providing the digital standpipe to let decades’ worth of knowledge flow and grow.
This short (silent) video sums up how MDS works. Accessible description.
What do we mean by ‘data’?
Individual object records are only one kind of collection-related data MDS will hold. The scope of our data includes four levels:
- Level 1: institutions The names of museums (and other institutions sharing data with MDS), linked to information held elsewhere about their location, opening times, etc.
- Level 2: collections Descriptive summaries of the scope and highlights of collections (and, where appropriate, sub-collections).
- Level 3: object records Item-level catalogue records drawn from museums’ own collections databases.
- Level 4: new and enhanced data New content (eg exhibition text) and enhancements (eg AI-generated keywords) linked to level 3 object records.
What about images?
By design, the MDS repository will not hold any image files or other media assets such as audio or video files, as the cost would be prohibitive. If object records include the locations of images stored elsewhere online, and links to them, users should be able to see those images if they have permission to do so.
We’re aware that our no-images policy does not answer the need for sustainable and affordable cloud storage for museum images and other media, but this is a bigger problem than we alone can take on. We’re lobbying for sector-wide solutions as part of a national digital preservation strategy for the UK’s cultural heritage.