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Travels into Several Remote Digital Realms of the World
PART I: A Voyage to Libraryland

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Location: Champaign, Illinois, United States


The aura of ownership

Martha Washington Gown (1780)
Through the synergies between my Museum Informatics and Metadata courses I've had the chance to look over several metadata standards such as VRA Core and the soon-to-appear CDWA Lite schema.

While the VRA and the Getty should be congratulated on their efforts, I do see a problem with extending these schemas beyond the art community and into general historical museums. Each of these schemas allow objects to be identified by their creators, but I haven't seen a schema that allows one to identify the "owner" of an artifact. Often artifacts in historical collections are not significant by themselves, but from the aura they attain because a historical figure owned them.
There is some mention of "ownership" in the CiDOC CRM, however it seems aimed at tracking legal ownership. I suppose one could consider the transfer of an object from the creator to the "owner" a legal transer does take place. Chaining this all the way to the present would allow scholars using the resource to see an artifacts provenance.

One of our examples was this gown owned by Martha Washington. While it may be a good exemplar of 18th Century costume, it's significance is closely tied to its owner. This information probably gets dumped into descriptions rather than being tagged seperately.

A quick scan of Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) doesn't seem to offer any suggestions on the best way to include this type of information in a record.

Another challenge to providing a common metadata format for museums as a whole.

I spent the weekend at a Text Encoding Initative (TEI) workshop. I'm wondering if the modular nature of TEI might also be useful to adopt for cultural heritage information. Each community who uses TEI has the ability to create customizations for their type of markup, but it's all built on a common chassis. I can already see the interoperability issues present in this approach, but at least it constrains things from being too hetrogenous.

(A quick aside - if you ever have a chance to attend a TEI workshop given by Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman I'd strongly recommend it. They are excellent and entertaining presenters!)


Blogger Yana/Jenn said...

I was wondering the same thing, albeit in a less-sophisticated manner than you were. I tried finding some way to signify that it was "Martha's" gown using the AAT, but no luck there (no entry for "first ladies" or the like, even). Wish we could've talked more about this in class.

Plus there is the added issue that this gown is actually an ensemble of at least 4 separate garments (overgown, fichu, bodice, petticoat). I study historical dress as a hobby, so I might have been the only one in class to notice this. And then we get into the problem of whether this dress is a "robe à la française" or a "robe à l'anglaise," which I can't tell because I don't have a view of the back...but I digress.

2/22/2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger Richard Urban said...

Maybe when we get back to cultural museum informatics this issue will come up again.

As far as the dress, that's supposedly the beauty of a heirarchical taxonomy like the AAT. Even if I can't identify something at a lower level, at least we should be able to put it at a higher level.

The multi-part nature of most cultural objects blows all kinds of holes in using something like FRBR to identify a "work." With some contortions you might be able to squeeze some artwork into the model, but I don't see how something like Martha's gown would ever fit. The CRM probably takes a stab at the whole-part relationship, but it's also what makes it complex.

2/22/2006 11:48 PM  
Blogger jtrant said...


Look at the Ownership category in the CDWA. It goes into detail about provenance, a category of significant interest to art historians as well as historians.

But because this is information that's not often recorded in visual resource collections, it doesn't appear in the abbreviated documents based on CDWA, like the VRA core (or CDWA lite).

The beauty of FRBR is not in its ability to handle part/whole relationships, but in its capacity to link multiple instantiations of the same work. What if Martha's dress were based on the same published pattern, and made by the same dressmaker, as her sister's? FRBR would relate the work [published pattern] and the instantiations [the local dressmaker's pattern] and the items [each dress].The works, instantiations, and items could have multiple parts [just like books have multiple chapters]... and you could imagine other instatiations / items based on the same published patterns made by other dressmakers ...


4/17/2006 11:07 AM  
Blogger odd said...

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4/17/2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger Richard Urban said...

Thanks Jennifer,

At the time I posted this I hadn't taken a look at the full list of CDWA categories. Was this kind of ownership information shared via AMICO and other collaborative projects?

Having spent a few more weeks pondering the wonders of FRBR I might ammend my original comment above. I don't have time to dive into it now, but I plan on writing my semester paper on the general topic area (stay tuned).

Quickly using your example below and the work with FRBR I've done:
There is an abstract idea of a dress like Martha's. This abstract concept might be made concrete by expressing it in the form of a pattern, which is manifested as a drawing on paper, and Martha's dressmaker owned a copy (item).

Using the pattern, the dressmaker might also express the concept in the form of a physical object, manifested in salmon pink faille, one item was owned by Martha, and another by her sister.

A CRM committee is working to create an Object Oriented version of FRBR (as opposed to it's current Entity-Relationship format) to align it with CRM concepts. Looking forward to getting a peek at it and see if it fits better with some of the subtleties that a quick overview misses.

4/17/2006 8:09 PM  

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