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Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

info @ archimuse.com

www.archimuse.comArchives and Museum Informatics Home Page

published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


MUSENOR : The Virtual Collection of the Musées du Nord-Pas de Calais, some thirty French Museums

Bruno B. SIMON, Association des Conservateurs de musées du Nord-Pas de Calais

A first in France

The Web site project being undertaken by the « Association des conservateurs de musées du Nord-Pas de Calais (ACMNPDC) » - North and Pas de Calais museum curator association- is a first in France as far as new technologies linked to the diffusion of cultural information via the Internet is concerned. As a matter of fact, the objective is to coordinate the digitizing and cataloguing of the regional museum art works in order to supply a multimedia data base in which every file will include a minimal scientific description and a digital picture of each entry.

The French backwardness

Whether reading an article or watching a television show on computer technology in France, you cannot escape the French obsession with being technologically behind the times. But what is the truth? Here are some figures and a short explanation.

It is true that the Internet has not yet taken off in France and that, in comparison to the United States, very few households are connected. But one must bear in mind that an average American family has 20% more disposable income than its French equivalent, a personal computer costs 15% less in the United States, software runs as much as 40% less, and local telecommunications which are used to connect to the Internet cost virtually nothing.

Under these conditions, it is understandable that the general public in France does not yet see Internet as accessible and/or as a valuable investment.

While a good number of British, Canadian and American museums are already on the web, in France talk is all about being behind the times. France seems almost reluctant to take part in the digital revolution for fear of staking too much on the future, regardless of the future handicaps it would imply.

The Nord-Pas de Calais region, situated on the border of Belgium, was not an Internet forerunner until November 28th 1994 when it was chosen by the European Commission as a pilot region for the IRISI project (Inter-regional Initiatives for the Information Society). This program aims to assist in the development of projects taking part in the emerging information society. Five other areas will be subsidized by the European Union : The free State of Saxe, the Valencia Community, Piedmont, Central Macedonia and the North western area of England.

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 region. ».

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 collection »


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
  • Laces
  • etc...


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 (ISDN).

Documentary files

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:

  1. Title or reference
  2. Author or origin
  3. Date of the work or the acquisition
  4. The field or origin of the acquisition
  5. The material or technique used
  6. Measurements
  7. Location (which museum
  8. Inventory number
  9. A description or key words
  10. 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:

  1. 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;

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 quality...etc.


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 tool.

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 and stimuating.

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 projects.

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 !

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