“Episode IV: A New Hope”

The Stealth Collections Management System (aka an Excel Spreadsheet)

(Note: Opening melodramaticization is intentional) A few days ago I found myself feeling a little like Luke Skywalker who upon return to his Uncle Owen’s and Aunt Beru’s on Tatooine found the place in shambles–his family and home destroyed by Imperial Stormtroopers.

Why?

I was having a phone conversation with a new friend, a curator. This friend, who last year moved across the country to take his dream job had been absolutely astounded to discover that he was not allowed to have any control over the data for his collection in the museum’s collections management system. If he finds an error or wants to make a change he has to physically print out the record, make the changes by hand, and send the paper off to the Imperial Stormtrooper the person in charge of collections information. Objecting to this situation, but without recourse or support from the administration, he has developed the habit of simply keeping the accurate and up-to-date information in a private excel spreadsheet.

Really folks? In 2013?

Most collections information professionals are well-intentioned. No doubt I will hear from some of them in response to this blog who can cite chapter and verse why curators shouldn’t be allowed to futz around in the CIS. They’ll tell you horror stories. They’ll tell you that most curators don’t really want to do it anyway. Maybe this is true in some cases; however it is not always true. This kind of policy leads, I would argue, to an infantilization of the curatorial staff and ultimately fails to hold them accountable for what is arguably a primary responsibility in a data-driven world.

Systems are flexible and customizable. We can identify–if necessary–the fields that are quite clearly the responsibility of the curatorial staff, some that education and interpretation ought to have at least a voice in, and others that for security reasons should remain in the hands of the registrars. Yo…that’s what permissions and validation protocols are for. It’s time to begin to trust one another.

In the first Star Wars film “Episode IV: A New Hope,” Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the force to a young Luke Skywalker.

Here’s my version of the scene rewritten for 21st century cultural heritage professionals.

Luke, Today data is what gives museums their power. Data is created by all living things, about all things things, it surrounds us, penetrates us , and it binds us together.

Teach everyone how to use the CSI. Let go. Trust me.

What we need is more Obi-Wan Kenobi and less Stormtrooper. What about it? Do you want to be remembered in a white robe, or a white helmut? It’s your choice.

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