Building a museum from scratch

I posed a quick question on Twitter this morning (or this afternoon, for those of you east of the Rocky Mountains) that I feel needs a bit more clarification than I could squeeze into 140 characters, so I thought I’d log into the ol’ blog (for the first time since July) and do some old fashioned clarifyin’.

Anyway, the question I posed was this:

What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?
@5easypieces
Koven J. Smith

While it’s easy to think of all kinds of things that museums could do better (and indeed, since asking this question, I’ve received a bunch of excellent replies to this effect), what I’m really trying to get at here are identifying processes that we (perhaps grudgingly) accept as givens, but that we would never enact if we were just starting from scratch today.

A good example of this would be object (or accession) numbers. If museums didn’t already exist, each with their own unique object numbering schemas, I have a hard time imagining that we would take a similar approach to object identification. It seems far more likely that we’d do something along the lines of what Richard McCoy and I have been discussing for a while, something like an ISBN or PURL for works of art. This number would be forever permanent, and would move with the object when deaccessioned, purchased, loaned, or whatever. The reason that this is such an interesting example to me is that because unique objects don’t, in fact, have truly unique identifiers, using them in a linked data context is extraordinarily difficult. The main reason objects don’t have truly unique identifiers is because tradition dictates that objects have identifiers only within the context of an institution–once the object leaves that institution, the identifier no longer has meaning.

It’s just a small example (and a super-technical one, because that’s my thing), but the implications are huge in that we wouldn’t have to build big, complicated systems around compensating for the lack of unique IDs. I wonder what other processes there are like this in our world–how would we build museums differently, if we were just starting out now?

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