| A dynamic area
The region concerned is divided into two administrative « départements »,
Nord and Pas de Calais whose main towns are respectively Lille,
Dunkirk, Valenciennes, Roubaix, Tourcoing and Arras, Calais. With
seven urban areas of more than 100,000 inhabitants each and a total
population of almost 4 million ( 7% of the French population), it
is the third industrial area of France although it has been hit
hard by the economic crisis within the industrial sector.
Around 250 promotional actions and projects were put into place
in the area before IRISI was completed in March 1997. As the October
1997 issue of « Netsurf » magazine stated : « 1997
will most likely be remembered as the year The Internet hit the
Such was the highly charged atmosphere and experimental background
in which the Association decided, as soon as 1995, to start the
digitizing of the art works in order to to set up a « virtual
The Nord-Pas de Calais museum curators association
Created in 1975, the association is a regional branch of the General
Association of Curators of French Public Collections. 50 curators
and assistant curators working in the 33 museums of the area are
affiliated to it.
From the beginning, it has been organizing activities in order
to promote the quality and diversity of the collections .
The Association contributes to the cultural, social and tourist
development of the region, and has received recognition and support
from a variety of public offices: The Ministry of Culture, the Regional
Council for the Nord-Pas de Calais, The Council General of both
the Nord and Pas de Calais regions, as well as the European Union.
The Association has published 16 issues of « Treasures of
the museums of the Nord region »; and a catalogue called « Ten
years of FRAM acquisitions ». ( Regional Fund for Museum Acquisitions).
As a project manager for the computerization of the museums' collections,
the Association has also undertaken to inventory, protect and restore,
as well as appraise the value of the photographic collections preserved
in the regional museums. The association also helps the museums
cope with more practical problems such as, visitors, activities,
tourism, information and promotion.
The digitizing project
The 50 ACMNPDC members who are taking part in the digitizing project
which aims to cover within three years and with a $ 1,250,000
(7,5 million francs) budget, the computerization of about
50,000 art items from all fields : Fine arts, ethnology, natural
history, history, and society.
The web site project
As part of the project to digitize the collections of the museums
of the Nord-Pas de Calais region, approximately 15 museums, already
computerized, are taking part in the creation of a web site destined
for use by the general public.The second objective is to offer art
lovers and professionals everywhere a look at the riches of our
regional artistic heritage.
The website was officially opened on December 17th 1997. 4,600
snapshots have been digitized and are ready to be catalogued and
tranferred to the database. Until the end of April 1998, the website
will be a beta-test version containing about 1000 records: 300 antique
photographs, 200 Oceanian items, 100 Dutch paintings, 100 Italian
paintings, 50 drawings, and 50 sculptures.
To undertake this gigantic project in an efficient and effective
way, priorities were set concerning the order in which the collections
were to be inventoried and digitized. The following fields have
been selected :
- Ethnographic items from Oceania
- 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting
- 16th and 17th century italian painting
- 17th to 19th century French painting
- 19th and 20th century French sculpture.
- Wood painting of the 15th and 16th century Northern shools
- Antique photographic collections
Each museum purchased the hardware and software of their choice,
but many of them chose « Micromusée ©» for PC from
MOBYDOC, while others chose « M3 Multi Média Muséums ©»
for Macintosh. Both software make it is possible to manage collections,
some versions manage images as well. Modern Art museums, however,
have a preference for « Vidéomuseum ©», a database
system connected to a videodisk.
The first items selected had in most cases already been exhibited
or published and had therefore already been photographed. As for
the remaining items, several photographers are now working in the
museums and their reserves to photograph them.
At the same time, an assistant researcher/documentalist will be
sent by the association in each museum in order to make an exhaustive
and precise list of the items that should be put into the documentary
data base according to the association's orders and choices. He/she
will also have to inform the photographer about the items he should
shoot in priority.
Once this mini pre-inventory is done, he/she will have to perform
the following tasks under the museum's curator supervision :
keyboard the museographic data into the museum information system
from the list he/she would have made out or check previous records
if those one have already been done.
The documentalist then collects the snapshots and classifies them
in a folder with an exhaustive and orderly list of the corresponding
works. Every file is labeled by school of art, theme or by every
100 items (the maximum capacity of a Kodak photo CD) in the concern
of a good and ordered organization. The datas for each object are
then entered into the museum information system and a file in ASCII
format is created on a floppy. This diskette is included in the
loose-leaf file and the whole package is then sent to the Association.
From there, the snapshots are sent to the digitazer in charge
of making the Kodak pictures CDs following the initial classification.
When the CDs are returned, the images are converted to JPEG & GIF
formats, checked and touched up: crop, gamma correction, brightness/contrast,
hue, saturation, luminance, RBG adjustments...etc.
The very last step is simply to transfer via FTP the ASCII files
completed with an additional field containing the inventory number
of the Kodak photo CD ROM to the Internet accessible database located
at the University of Lille 1.
And the work is done!
This procedure may seem slow and behind the times considering
today's data base exchanges, high flow ATM links and multimedia
downloading, but one must not forget that not all of the museums
have computers (even if the major ones do), and that they are not
yet connected to digital communication networks such as Numéris
At first, the idea was to go quickly. The museums inventories
are not yet completed and more involved documentary research would
have delayed the implementation of the data base.
Each museum entry contains around twelve fields containing the
information destined for use by the general public. The MUSENOR
data base was conceived as a tool to bring together the collections
of the Nord-Pas de Calais and not as a scientific database, such
as JOCONDE. But the structure of MUSENOR allows for easy transfer
of data, making it possible to develop MUSENOR along the lines of
JOCONDE, if need be.
Each data entry contains the following information:
- Title or reference
- Author or origin
- Date of the work or the acquisition
- The field or origin of the acquisition
- The material or technique used
- Location (which museum
- Inventory number
- A description or key words
- The name of the image document (jpeg)
The web interface
Let's go to see how it looks ! http://www.univ-lille1.fr/acmnpdc
A federative goal
The principal objective of the project was to create a documentary
data base which would include most if not all of the treasures of
the Nord-Pas de Calais museums. Very early on we discovered that
the difficulties were not technical, but organizational.
Considering that the progress in information sciences is exponential,
there are more than enough tools to meet users' needs, but the organization
of the project was based on the following essential ingredients:
- The role of the museums: First and foremost, each museum must
be responsible for its own data entry, either by employing their
own documentalist or someone from the Association who will work
under the curators;
- On site work: Selecting and verifying the photographic reproductions
of items in the collection must be done on site by the documentalist,
with the assistance of the curator and perhaps the photographer.
- Standardization: each museum can do its own data entry as it
chooses, but there is an inherent need to standardize the entries
from the start to avoid random results when data queries are run.
To avoid problems, the categories chosen by the « Direction
des musées de France (DMF) » French Museums Administration
for its database, « Joconde », serve as an excellent
base from which to work.
- Evolution : it is unrealistic to think that the information
and documents available in a given museum are unchanging, they
are alive in a sense, they evolve and need constant updating.
In addition, recent advancements in search engines (by complete
text, natural language, idea, or meaning) must be integrated in
order to offer the user greater ease, power, and efficiency.
Problems and hurdles
When the process of computerizing the regional collections started
10 years ago, the systems used were still large and not geared for
use by the general public. Consequently, museum curators and researchers
were unable to use the tools and information available because they
lacked the necessary technical expertise.
In addition to this, most museums are staffed by one curator,
a secretary and several guards; there is no archivist, no documentalist
and no computer expert. Most museums in France posses large collections
which are extremely versatile and varied, but most curators are
specialists in only one domain and most if not all are overwhelmed
with work. To ask them to use a complex computer system is nothing
short of ridiculous.
The development of the personal computer revolutionized the computerization
of museums. Since the beginning of the 1980s, curators have been
able to take charge of documenting their collections, but they are
still overwhelmed with work. It is for this very reason that the
ACMNPDC has made its specialists (project manager, documentalists,
photographers, data processors) available to museums to help them
computerize their collections. One must bear in mind, however, that
this process can only be successful if the museum itself is supportive
of the work being done and if the staff cooperates with the specialists.
Standards have therefore been established which allow for complete
and detailed information on each documented object. Each object
is unique, having its own registration number, being of a specific
material or technique, and having one or more anonymous or known
artist/creator. The established standards for JOCONDE must encompass
an enormous quantity of information and they are not necessarily
ideal. This is why we have chosen for MUSENOR to use the minimal
information necessary to describe an item. The standards themselves
are based on a rough consensus established by curators in a given
field of expertise.
Consequently, the main difficulty encountered during this process
was to avoid changing the standards which had been used before the
development of computer processing. Experience has shown that to
neglect established standards in a situation such as this can lead
to a refusal on the part of the user to accept the new technologies.
The other cause of a rejection of computerization is that it tends
to bring to the fore existing organizational and managerial problems.
As a result, computer technology is often seen as a hindrance to
smooth and efficient working conditions, thus making it an arduous
task to respect established norms while taking advantage of the
possibilities which computer technology has to offer.
The role of the ACMNPDC therefore is to help the staff from each
museum recognize the need for a regional collective catalogue. By
working within the established norms, curators will not only be
able to contribute to the MUSENOR database from their own local
computer systems, but will also be able to exchange information
directly from one museum to another. They will quickly discover
that they have access to a tool which can help in organizing exhibits
and in promoting their own collections.
Advertising their collections translates to increased numbers
of visitors, which brings in more money. Making their collections
more accessible will also give educators new elements and tools
to reinforce their teaching, especially in the field of history.
The ACMNPDC web site is still a baby but at least is taking its
first steps. Only long term efforts and patience will bring success.
As a matter of fact, it is no longer a question of simply being
on the web. In order to make up for being behind the times, we have
to hit the target right away, at every level : scientifically
rigorous, technical yet functional, ergonomic and easily navigated,
artistic yet useful, fun yet informative, graphically of the highest
The use of computer technology in France (and in Europe in general,
with the exception of Great Britain and Scandinavia) remains rather
simplistic, used mostly for internal management and not as a way
to communicate with the client. Clearly, the time has come to rethink
the use of computer technology at a strategic level: the PC is no
longer that machine which we use to write letters and enter museum
information, it is a communications, marketing and representational
The computerization of a museum should no longer be perceived
as an internal project. The museum must go beyond its walls to take
part in a global exchange and communication. While such projects
may be technically easy to implement, they are intellectually rewarding
The current has started to flow. We are working through the beginning
stages, but the most difficult task is yet to come: following the
growth pattern of the database -- a showplace for the artistic riches
of our region -- and its capacity to carry out horizontal and cooperative
To conclude, I would like to stress the three-fold nature of our
work: indispensable, irreversible, and increasingly efficient :
- Indispensable because in the future, as stated by a speaker
at a November 1997 conference in Bonn, if you are not on the web
you simply don't exist
- Irreversible because now that we are on the web we have no choice
but to move forward; there is no going back.
- Increasingly efficient because a bit of time regularly and locally
given to the task of getting our museums on line can bring both
continual world-wide impact and visibility.
Hoping that thanks to the multiplication of our efforts, this
famous French backwardness will be soon forgotten !
- This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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