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Archives & Museum Informatics

Re-casting Our Net: Broadening Information Access at the National Maritime Museum

Sarah Ashton and Sophia Robertson, National Maritime Museum, UK


Following the launch of the Centre for Maritime Research at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, the Museum has enhanced the collections databases already available on the Web with the addition of an impressive range of new services and repackaged content. This paper looks at major online developments to date: the Search Station collections resource and Port the maritime information gateway. Produced using FileMaker Pro and Web technologies, the Search Station is a multimedia resource providing thematic access to almost two thousand exhibits from the Museum's collections. This paper will outline the production and extent of the content, examine the user profile, and highlight the future potential of the system. Port ñ an information gateway for maritime studies ñ employs the open source software toolkit ROADS (Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based Services) to provide a searchable and browseable catalogue of maritime-related Internet based resources. Hosting considerations and the Web-based administrative features of Port are examined, together with the gatewayís development and marketing.

Figure 1: Setting the nets on the coast of North Wales, Henry Moore (BHC1274). Available from the Picture Library.

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) encompasses three public sites - the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) and the Queenís House. It houses an unrivalled maritime collection of over two million objects, including 64,000 prints and drawings, 4000 oil paintings, 270,000 historic photographs, 50,000 charts, 5000 scientific instruments and globes, 7000 uniforms and weapons, and four miles of manuscripts. These collections relate to every aspect of ships, seafaring, astronomy and time, from prehistory to the present day.

The NMM is very much a self-reflective institution that continually reassesses its role and purpose in the museum world. In recent years the Museum has redefined itself to attract new audiences and to maintain its appeal in todayís competitive leisure industry. In April 1999, the NMM completed a major redevelopment programme. This resulted in the creation of a dramatic new architectural space enclosed within a glass roof, and the production of sixteen new galleries. The Museum also aims to re-position maritime history as a subject and to improve access to its collections in order to attract researchers from a range of disciplines. To facilitate these developments, the Museumís Centre for Maritime Research (CMR) has harnessed the very latest information and communication technology (ICT) to transform and substantially ërecastí its information services on the Internet.

The NMM was one of the first UK national museums to establish a web presence early in 1996. Searchable text catalogues of the library, manuscripts and prints and drawings collections were made available online soon after. The approach of the new millennium prompted a re-evaluation of the museumís information and research services. ICT is seen as integral to the NMMís digital policy, allowing the Museum to work towards fulfilling the demand for online access to its information resources from a UK and worldwide audience. In this paper, we will look at the CMRís two flagship projects to date: the Search Station collections resource and Port, the maritime information gateway. These key projects are essential ëbuilding blocksí towards making the NMMís collections and resources fully accessible online, and both have been commended in a recent report for Britainís National Museum Directorsí Conference. The projects involved technical collaboration with a multimedia production company and a university-based electronic library project respectively. We will describe our experiences as project managers, the resulting developments and future applications.

The Search Station

The Search Station is a collections resource providing thematic access to over 1800 objects. It opened onsite in April 1999 and offers the public ten touchscreen and mouse-operated work stations. It was launched online ( in early December 1999, allowing the public worldwide access to highlights of the Museum's varied and vast collections. From original idea to onsite launch and then to online access, the evolution of the Search Station is interesting to consider as the project was achieved with limited resources but using a variety of new technologies.

Planning and Creating the Content

The Museum began to computerise its collections using the Multi-Mimsy collections management system in 1996, and it was one of the first national museums in England to establish advanced in-house scanning facilities in early 1997. This provided a basis for the Museum to improve public access to its collections, particularly those that could not be displayed, in readiness for the opening of the new Museum. The refurbishment had secured over 20 million pounds in lottery funding and the majority of staff were working towards its completion, so both staff time and money for other projects were in short supply. In addition, a future-proofed public access system for collections was unavailable in the UK at that time, and Multi-Mimsy the collections management database required a great deal of interpretation before it could be made available to the ëvisitingí public. So the Museum decided to create multimedia presentations, highlighting key areas in the collections, which would both inform and entertain. This pilot project formed the first stage of making the Museumís collections accessible electronically to the public. The Search Station idea was born and the challenge was to put the idea into practice.

The tight timeframe demanded rigorous planning if the project was to meet its deadlines. Funding was secured through Museum project funds and sponsorship from Research Machines plc, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Silicon Imaging. This, although adequate, did not allow for lavish production techniques. The Director of the CMR together with the Head of IT at the Museum were responsible for overall control of the project, the choice of technology and installation, whilst the content project manager was responsible for the day-to-day operation of producing and managing the content and system design. Six themes were chosen for production (three for completion in April 1999, and the remaining three in September 1999). These six themes provided a good cross-section of objects from the collection and were chosen to complement the new Museum galleries. The themes were: Nelson, Passengers, Trade and Empire, Exploration, Maritime Art and Sea, Stars and Time.

The themes were divided into topics and sub-topics, and researchers were chosen internally and also appointed externally to develop each theme. Researchers were asked to provide object information and associated topic text for each item they chose within a topic, to order the objects within each topic and to provide topic overviews. Thus the Search Station provided factual information on a variety of topics, for example The Slave Trade, alongside the usual object information - date, maker etc. Researchersí guidelines were produced to provide helpful information on writing for multimedia applications and to ensure consistency in style and form. With links to the National Curriculum in mind and in view of the Museumís own preferred reading age for labels, all text was aimed at the 11-14 age group. A template was produced for the collections information and full object lists for each topic were passed to the Museumís Photo Studio for photography and scanning. All submitted data was checked and text edited by both an education specialist and a copy-editor.

Production and Delivery

Whilst the content was being created, the Museum put the production contract out to tender. This was awarded to Cognitive Applications Ltd, Brighton ( Production began with the immediate collection of materials. Content data was entered into a source database online using an HTML form and Perl script. This enabled data to be collected from a number of contributors at once into one text file. It also allowed the producers the ability to develop the system whilst material was still being collated or refined. At a fixed date, the text file data was exported into Filemaker Pro databases. These different databases - including theme, topic, exhibit (text and title) and asset (object information and media files) - were of varying size and complexity, and formed the master database for the Museumís onsite system and website. The database was thus used to manage all the data for the system - text, images, animations, audio, film, atlas, timeline, glossary entries, quizzes and design data. Image files were collected in batches and routine programmes were written to accelerate their collection and management from the Museumís server. The database and system structure continually developed as the project progressed and particularly as new materials were added. Early on, in addition to the object and contextual information, a variety of extra features were added to make the system more entertaining and informative to the user. Different storyboards, maps, quizzes and materials were assembled from which the producers created many stand-alone features in Dynamic HTML, QuickTime, Java applets and Macromediaís Shockwave and Flash. The design for many of these items followed the constraints of working with touchscreen delivery but producers were aware that all materials would be reworked for the Web. The onsite version was delivered using Filemaker Pro Web Companion and Microsoftís Internet Information Server.

In order to turn the onsite Search Station into a website, there were a number of considerations. The Search Station needed to run trouble-free on as many browsers and platforms as possible, so two versions of the site were created ñ a ëtext and images onlyí version and an ëadvanced versioní which included the features and plug-in content. The site was designed to work with Version 3 browsers and above. There were three options to choose from for transferring the master database to the Web. Firstly, it was possible to host the databases with a Filemaker internet service provider who offered a database service. But this option would have been expensive and difficulties may have arisen with server reliability and ease of access for updates and bug-fixing, plus it would have delivered a slow system. Secondly, the website could have been compiled from the source databases to produce a static site. This would have required the programming of a tool for compiling a static version of the website from the source databases. Although this could be hosted on the NMMís server, it would have involved the licensing and integrating of a standard web engine into the site, and again was costly. The third option, and the one that was finally taken, was to deliver the system via a custom Perl script. This method was preferable as delivery would be faster, the site could be hosted on the Museumís own server, updating would be simple and it was known to be reliable. As one of the most common programming languages used for CGI throughout the Web, Perl has been used widely to programme electronic web forms and as the glue and gateway between systems, databases and users.

Having decided on this route, the producers exported all the fields needed from the master database into a number of text files (themes, topics, exhibits, assets, quizzes, atlas, timelines and glossary). Then a Perl script was written that retrieved the information needed to display elements of the website - the page layout, screen titles, text descriptions, asset data, images, image sizes, quiz questions, timeline entries, index information and multimedia content. The information was subsequently turned into web pages using a small number of HTML templates. At the same time as allowing the system to build itself quickly, this also enabled global design changes to be made independently of the underlying data.

Much of the content had to be reworked for the Web, both in editorial and technical terms, and the main areas included:

1. Images: All the images had to be resized and reprocessed. Digital watermarks were added and higher compressions were used to gain quicker download times.

2. Design: A new streamlined design was created that ensured navigation remained clear and simple, and followed good web practice. In addition a frontage was produced using animated gifs to provide the ëSearch Station onlineí with its own identity within the NMM website.

Figure 2: Search Station front screen.

3. Theme and Topic screens: These screens were revised to incorporate overviews, image montages and content lists. ëView as listí and ëView as thumbnailsí options were essential additions to the topic screens in order to gain quick and easy access to the object data.

Figure 3: Maritime Art Theme screen.

4. Exhibit screens: The Exhibit screens were resized and glossary items included as pop-up windows. The magnify option, originally created using Java, was produced as a pop-up also.

Figure 4: Henry VIII Exhibit screen with glossary.

5. Search Engine: The Search facility onsite had been a three-part section including a ëtopic indexí, ëcategory indexí and ëtext findí. For the website, the ëtopic indexí intuitively became the sitemap and the ëcategory indexí and ëtext findí were formed into a search engine to offer users an established searching format.

Figure 5: Search Engine screen.

6. Maps: A number of animated maps produced in Flash were resized, and fonts were embedded to ensure that the correct fonts were displayed across all browsers. All maps were duplicated as static images for inclusion in the text only site.

7. Other Features: A variety of items, such as the Battle of Trafalgar animation, Bugle Calls and Ship Sails produced originally using Shockwave were resized and, where necessary, files were reworked to reduce their size and so ensure reasonable loading times.

Figure 6: Battle of Trafalgar animation screen.

8. Audio Items: The sound files were too large for the website, so Shockwave streamed audio was used to allow the files to be heard as they are downloaded.

9. Trade and Empire, and Exploration Quizzes: All the images in the quizzes were resized, and the Java programming rewritten to overcome cross-platform problems. Also a browser specification check was added to files. This indicates if a userís browser is incompatible and thus ensures that users do not find an unworkable feature.

Figure 7: Trade and Empire Quiz screen.

10. Copyrighted items: A number of items were in copyright with reference to Internet access, so the databases were tagged to ensure that any object images that were not to be accessed were excluded from the website.

11. Film Clips: Over thirty film clips were included in the onsite Search Station using Quicktime. But these have not been included in the current website, as the files are too large and put too much of a drain on server resources, so a decision was made to delay their inclusion until they have been streamlined.

In all the Search Station consists of over 2000 pages, and currently includes six themes, 72 topics, 1884 objects, a search engine, 2 quizzes, 6 timelines linking to key exhibits, an atlas section with 14 maps linking to key exhibits, 7 Shockwave features, 83 recorded eyewitness accounts, a pop-up glossary, a sitemap, an ëaboutí section with credits, copyright and general information, a feedback form, links to the NMM and ROG websites, Encyclopedia Titanica (a Titanic website produced independently of the Museum but licensed for inclusion within the Search Station), and Research Guides available on the Port website. The system is working well and no major problems have been reported. Furthermore, maintenance and corrections have been minimal to date.

User Profile and Future Developments

Figure 8: Search Station website feedback.

The Search Station has been online for a comparatively short time but so far public reaction has been extremely positive. Even at these early stages it is possible to identify distinct user profiles from the feedback forms. The subject matter tends to attract a predominantly male audience, and this is born out in results so far. Schools and universities are also emerging as regular users. The feedback has indicated that people find the material both educational and interesting, the system delivery quick, and the design and navigation clear. Users also emphasise that the content organisation is both innovative and engaging. Monthly website logs will be implemented shortly, and these will provide more detailed information about the usage of the content and which themes and areas are most popular.

Users actively want to access collections information and are fascinated to see the breadth and depth of our collections, but they also want integrated resources and interactive services. Some of these have been provided, but there is much more still to develop within the Search Station. In the coming twelve months, planned additions will include: teacher resources linked to the National Curriculum, a support CD-ROM created specifically for teachers, default Search Links throughout the NMM website to help publicise the shipsí plans collection, manuscripts collection and picture library, and new content, including the outstanding film clips.

Museums in the UK are now actively being encouraged to create digital museums providing access to their collections and to join government schemes such as the National Grid for Learning (aimed at schools) and Peopleís Network (aimed at lifelong learning). Pilot projects like the Search Station have been well received by museum professionals and public audiences alike, and greater resources are being made available for the consolidation or growth of many such projects. Many UK museums including the British Museum are working towards their own public access systems and SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network) is the UKís prime example of just what can be achieved when substantial funds are invested.

The NMM is building on the success of the Search Station to begin the second stage of providing electronic access to its collections with a fully comprehensive public access system of its own. There are many issues still to consider including free and subscription access, rights management and associated multimedia publishing, but the NMM feels that its experience with the Search Station can only assist in providing what the public wants and pointing the way for future developments. With over two million objects within the Museumís collection there is obviously a long way to go but the Search Station certainly has shown that something very worthwhile can be achieved with limited resources in a relatively short period of time.

Port (

Although sufficiently wide the channel on either side was environed by reefs and detached rocks upon which the heavy swell rolling in broke heavily. Young and I were aloft nearly the whole forenoon looking out that we avoided these dangers. I did not fear them with a commanding breeze...
(McClintockís expedition in the Fox, Papers of Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock, MCL/18)

The rapid expansion of the Internet and global networked information makes it increasingly difficult for users to locate useful material. To tackle the problem of finding quality information resources on the Internet, in recent years a number of subject-based information gateways have been developed, in subject areas such as the social sciences, history and medicine. The aim of Port is to facilitate access to high quality networked information resources for maritime studies, to be McClintockís "commanding breeze". Port is based on the model developed by other UK subject-based information gateways as part of the Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) ( funded by JISC (, the Joint Information Systems Committee for the university sector. These subject gateways provide catalogues of Internet resources which users can search or browse. As they relate to a specific subject area, they are far more focussed than the large search engines and often contain a range of associated materials and services.

For Port, maritime-related Internet resources are identified, assessed, organised and described by a Librarian or Subject Specialist at the Museum, and cataloguers are also employed on a temporary basis to populate the database from time to time. This skilled human involvement is crucial to quality control: only resources which fall under the Port Scope Policy and also fulfil criteria according to, for example, currency, relevance and authority are included. A meaningful description of the resource is written and keywords are assigned which are appropriate for the end-users wanting to locate such resources.

Figure 9: Sample record.

Effectively Port staff carry out the time-consuming tasks for users: they join discussion lists, monitor sites, perform searches and filter out items which are irrelevant, out-of-date or of poor quality. In addition to the catalogue of high-quality resources, Port extends access to related materials developed by the CMR, such as a series of self-help research guides which provide information about the Museum's collections and about other sources for research into maritime history. The development of some of these materials was generously supported by Londonís Baltic Exchange.

Port employs the open source software toolkit ROADS (Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based Services). To the best of our knowledge, the NMM is the first museum in the world to exploit this set of Internet-based software tools. ROADS ( was originally a project from the Access to Networked Resources section of eLib and the software has been developed by a consortium of leading-edge developers in the fields of metadata (especially Dublin Core), cataloguing, indexing and searching. Although this project has now finished, the software continues to be developed and is used by service providers around the world.

ROADS is a set of software tools which enables the set-up and maintenance of Web-based subject gateways, for example it looks after all the indexing of resources, creates a search mechanism and checks links automatically. The toolkit perspective means that developers can select which parts of the software they wish to use. The software consists of a package of Perl modules which can be downloaded as a bundle and installed on a Web server. ROADS runs on any modern version of the UNIX operating system, such as Linux. ROADS uses the Whois++ directory service protocol. This presented the Museum with a problem. At the time, the NMMís website was hosted by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and that ISP was unwilling to house scripts written by anyone else. A further problem was that ROADS requires that a Whois++ server be run on the web server. The Whois++ server is not a CGI script, it is a daemon that is started up and allowed to run continuously. Unlike a CGI script (which typically is fired up when it is triggered from a web page, runs and dies), a continuously running daemon presents a higher risk to a web server. A daemon may also use more resources than is reasonable for a single user or it may interfere with other server processes. Several randomly selected ISPs were contacted and the Museum found two who were potentially willing to host the gateway. Soon after this, the NMM website was transferred to a server administered by the Museumís IT Department. However, at the time the Museum did not have the technical skills (UNIX and Perl) to develop and support the ROADS software in-house. Coupled with this, the dynamic nature of the software and the remote access to the server required by ROADS developers was considered a potential security risk to a proposed e-commerce system which would run on the same server. The decision was therefore taken in June 1998 to accept a proposal from the Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT) at Bristol University to host and provide technical support for Port.

The ILRT is one of three project partners that developed the ROADS software. A Project Manager and a Technical Officer were seconded by the ILRT to liase with the full-time Port Project Manager at the NMM. This arrangement has worked extremely well and the success of Port owes a great deal to this partnership. The Museum has been fortunate to be able to draw on the ILRTís experience of working on established gateways: both the social sciences information gateway, SOSIG (, and the business and economics gateway, Biz/ed (, are based at the ILRT. Throughout the planning and development stage of Port (July - November 1998), a number of face to face meetings took place in Bristol and Greenwich. Generally, however, the Project Team communicated via email. A timetable for website design and content development was established to fit in with the launch date of Easter 1999. The most time-consuming part of the project - inputting resources into the database ñ began in November 1998. This process was assisted by the Museumís appointment of a temporary Project Assistant. Also in November, work began on the look and feel of the Port website which was designed with low resolution users in mind. This part of the project was delayed in order to incorporate the NMMís new corporate identity, a separate project linked to the Museumís physical redevelopment programme. Between November 1998 and the end of March 1999, materials were developed by the CMR for the events and research sections of Port. Port was completed on schedule and was launched at Easter 1999, containing some 600 resources in the database. This figure has risen to more than 1000 to date, with an average of 50 new resources being added to the database every month.

Figure 10: ROADS Administration Centre.

The password-protected ROADS Administration Centre gives the gateway maintainers control over the day-to-day running of the gateway. It contains the tools needed to create and edit templates, together with an automatic link checker, statistical counters, record validators and online documentation. The tools all have a Web front end and ñ from the point of view of the maintainer ñ consist of nothing more complicated than Web forms. Templates are used to add records to the database of Internet-based resources. They allow records to be entered individually and carry out certain validation and indexing tasks. The resource description (or metadata) format of the ROADS templates is based on Internet Anonymous FTP Archive (IAFA) templates. ROADS templates are defined for different resource-types, for example document (for cataloguing a single piece of information such as, an electronic journal article) and service (for collections of information, such as company websites). The templates consist of simple attribute-value pairs displayed as a series of text boxes. Administrative metadata (such as unique identifying number) are assigned automatically by the software, whereas descriptive metadata (such as the resource URL, title, description and keywords) is added by the cataloguers. There are mandatory fields (such as title and description) which must be completed for the template to be accepted into the database and optional fields (such as administratorís email address and language of the resource). These can be left empty but in practice are completed as fully as possible. In order to create browseable listings for the end user, each template requires the subject descriptor field to be used. As no maritime-related subject-specific scheme exists, the Port subject categories are based on the UDC (Universal Decimal Classification) scheme used in the Museumís Caird Library. To ensure consistency, authority files are used to select pre-set options for subject categories, geographical coverage and historical period

Figure 11: Authority Files.

The software is highly configurable and this flexibility meant that it was possible to tailor the software to the Museumís requirements. For example, the standard ROADS configuration files were altered to include the option to browse resources by historical period and an ëemail template to administratorí option was enabled whereby an off-site cataloguer can send work to the Project Manager to be checked and activated. The Admin Only interface contains the tools used only by the database administrator to edit these catalogued templates or remotely update the content of Port web pages (for example, the events listings).

Since its launch, Port has seen a steady increase in users: there were on average almost 7200 user sessions per month between April 1999 and January 2000, with each user typically spending 7 minutes on the site. Considerable emphasis has been placed on promoting the service both electronically and by traditional paper-based methods. The website was registered with the main search engines and metadata included in all the pages on the Port site to facilitate its classification. The site has been marketed through subject- and library-specific electronic discussion lists. The aim is also for there to be a link to the Port site from as many quality websites as possible. For example, the administrators of all websites included in the Port catalogue are notified of their inclusion, and a reciprocal link from their site is requested. At the launch, adverts were placed in key maritime and information journals. Leaflets were produced, together with posters and postcards incorporating the Museumís images. These have been distributed widely - for example to maritime-related university departments - and are available to on-site visitors. Opportunities to demonstrate Port in person have also been taken, for example as part of the Museumís established adult education programme. In May 1999, the Museumís Press Office organised press releases together with a high profile launch for Port and the Search Station.

Port also has strong links with another related online initiative - the Museumís recently launched Journal for Maritime Research ( (JMR). The JMR is the first fully refereed electronic journal for maritime research. The journalís content includes substantial essays covering maritime studies in the broadest sense, book reviews, a discussion forum and upcoming conferences listed in Port. As a value-added feature for each journal essay, related Internet resources and news items are identified and added to the Port catalogue. The immediacy of these ready-made reference lists provides readers with rich and timely content, impossible to replicate in the printed form.

The Port Project Manager actively encourages feedback or suggestions and an online questionnaire to find out more about users is planned for Spring 2000. Informal feedback suggests that the speed and ease of use of the Port catalogue and the quality of the related services are greatly appreciated. Port helps promote the Museumís online activities, raising awareness of maritime-related networked information and promoting the use of the Internet to complement existing research methods. Ongoing work to both the catalogue and the website will ensure that the best quality resources in the NMMís subject area are accessible, steering people away from the "reefs and detached rocks" often found on the Internet.


As we have shown in this paper, the Search Station and Port substantially augment the Museumís Web-based collections databases. The two projects combine multimedia and cutting edge technology with well-prepared, well-managed content for a global audience. They highlight what can be achieved through careful planning with limited resources and in collaboration with software developers. The NMM has fully embraced its responsibility in the emerging digital world with these innovative projects. The Museum seeks to engage people with its unique collections, provide access and interpretation of them for enjoyment and learning and enable two-way communication and participation between the Museum and its audience. These flagship projects have established the CMR as a centre for excellence in ëNetí-worked maritime-related information, and this supports its mission to encourage collection-led maritime research and promote the Museum as a centre of study for schools and colleges, academics and lifelong learners.


Dr Margarette Lincoln, Director, CMR, National Maritime Museum

Dr Jason Ryan, Multimedia Producer, Cognitive Applications Ltd

Dr Ian Sealy, Technical Consultant (Internet Development) and Martin Belcher, Project Manager (Internet Development), Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol


National Museums Directors Conference. A Netful of Jewels: new museums in the learning age. London, 1999