About lubar

Professor of American studies at Brown University

“Interfaces to History”

The timeline paper posted on this blog a few weeks back is part of a longer paper I’m working on, “Interfaces to History.” Here’s an abstract:

The organization and classification of artifacts, words, and images to tell stories is the essence of exhibitions, whether in museums or on the web. The 1898 Report of the National Museum called this “the all-important question” and tried to determine the form of presentation that would allow “the great truths of human history may be told in the briefest and clearest way.” That is still our challenge, though perhaps our aims are not quite so high. My paper will consider some of the organizing principles museum curators use in real and virtual space– among them chronologies, genealogies, synoptic series, geographies, themes, topics, and the newest, the search – and the assumptions that underline them. The museum or website is a narrative space that demands thoughtful interfaces, and we should be clear about both the meaning of the choices we make, and the criteria by which we judge them.

Any advice or suggestions appreciated – the abstract is aspirational, not yet descriptive.


With all of the excitement about new interfaces to visualize the past, it’s easy to forget the old standby: the timeline. It has the power of simplicity, the challenge of over-simplifying. And in museums it has a visceral appeal: walk through history!

I’ve written a bit about the timeline, at too much length for an easy post, for an article. I’ve embedded a draft here, footnotes and all.  Any comments, suggestions or examples most welcome.

[scribd id=83077179 key=key-2gixwfq5oxnh4zwva4lb mode=list]

What I want from my collections management system

(I’m reposting this from my blog, thinking it might be of interest to participants in the workshop. Not exactly about visualization, but the step before that.. – Steve)

One of the first problems I identified on becoming director of the museum was its collections management system. It infuriated me. The interfaces were arcane. The data was imprisoned in a proprietary system – one that seemed designed to make reports difficult and information sharing impossible. It was complicated, to the point where most of the staff just stayed away and asked the one person who could figure it out to use it.

I’m not mentioning names. It’s a fairly common problem.

Like most collections management systems, it was designed to make registrars happy – and with its careful tracking of changes, its built-in thesauri, its many, many fields – it served the key purpose, and the key audience. It just wasn’t designed to be used to share information.

I looked into changing it, and ran into the perfect storm of bureaucracy, money, staff expertise. Who could tell us what the university might provide as a server? What would it cost? We needed to know more from the vendor. The vendor was in the process of bringing out a whole new system that would solve all our problems, any month now. (A year later, still to come.) Getting straight information was difficult; getting all of the people who would be necessary to understand how that information would work in our context into one room, real or virtual, was almost impossible.

And so I put off a decision on replacing the software, and looked into other possibilities. What if we kept the collections management system and occasionally dumped the data from it into an online system like Omeka? What if we set up a database server online? How about the Library of Congress’s Recollection? The data, it turned out, was pretty well trapped in our existing system. Who owns that data, anyway? There should be a guarantee, with any system, that you can get your data out.

A year later, I’ve started to consider this again.

Let’s consider first what I want a system to do. It needs to serve the registrar, of course. But what if my goal was not only to keep track of what we have at the museum, but rather to make the information about it available as freely as possible? What if I wanted to not only let users search it and view it online, but also to link to it? The point of a thesaurus is to allow for interchange, after all. Why shouldn’t they be able to download the parts of the database useful to them, to do with it whatever they like? Why can’t there be ways to call up collections from several museums to compare? Or to consider as a single whole? Anthropology museums use “cultures” to categorize their collections – why can’t I see all of the objects from a “culture” in all museum collections?

Museum collections systems now are instruments of control over objects. That’s the word librarians and registrars use: physical control and intellectual control. But what if we said they are instruments of access, first? Take control for granted, and think about ways to make the information available. That’s what makes museums useful.

I don’t know if information wants to be free, but I want my information freed!