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Costis Dallas (1992) Information systems and cultural knowledge: the Benaki Museum case

Costis Dallas (1992) Information systems and cultural knowledge: the Benaki Museum case

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Published by: Costis Dallas on Mar 02, 2011
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Author’s post-publication version of: Dallas, Costis (1992) Information systems and cultural knowl-edge: the Benaki Museum case.
Computers and the History of Art Journal
, 7-15.
 © 1992-2010 Costis Dallas. Some rights reserved. Work licensed under the CreativeCommons Attribution -Non Commercial -No Derivatives 2.5 License. Electronicversion: <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/> 
Information systems and culturalknowledge: the Benaki Museum case
Costis Dallas
This paper presents an overview of documentation activities and plans inthe Benaki Museum, a very young participant in the museum automationarena. It is organised in three parts. Firstly, an account is given of theBenaki Museum's distinctive physiognomy and of its information strategy,suited to its character and mission. Secondly, the activities of the pilotdocumentation programme and the present activities of the newly-founded Documentation Department are presented. Lastly, the plannedMITOS information system of the Museum is introduced, preceded by adiscussion of some pertinent aspects of the complexity of cultural knowl-edge, which must be captured by the system. Acknowledgements for helpand stimulation with ideas presented here are due to the staff of theDocumentation Department, to the researchers of ICS/FORTH, and to mycolleagues in the Documentation Committee of ICOM.
The Benaki Museum and its information strategy
The Benaki Museum was founded in 1930 by Anthony Benaki, who for thispurpose offered to the nation his art collections and Neoclassical residencein central Athens, and continued to care for the Museum's well-being untilhis death in 1954. In the sixty two years of its history it expanded consid-erably through the support of numerous benefactors, who offered their 
This is the author’s post-publication version of the paper published in
CHArt Journal
in1992. Pagination differs from the published version. The MITOS information system men-tioned here is also known as CLIO, and was subsequently deployed by ICS/FORTH in sev-eral other institutions; conceptual work for MITOS/CLIO was a foundation for the subse-quent development of the CIDOC CRM international standard (Author’s comment, 2010).
2 C
© 1992-2010 Costis Dallas. Some rights reserved.
private collections or contributed to its acquisition fund. It is today thelargest independent museum in Greece, receiving financial support fromthe Greek Ministry of Culture and recognised as a cultural institution ofnational status. Representative collections in the Benaki Museum demon-strate the continuity of Greek civilisation from the Bronze Age to the pre-sent. Unique examples of ceramics and jewellery, of exceptional artisticvalue, represent the Geometric, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods,and the Roman and Byzantine eras. The transition from the ancient to theByzantine world is illustrated in the collections of Alexandrine clay figu-rines, oil-lamps and bone carvings, as well as in a rare group of Copticworks of art.  The collections of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons and ofecclesiastical embroidery and metalwork reveal the impact of Christianityin the art of the times. The basement of the Museum is occupied by theunique, in their completeness and quality, post-Byzantine collections ofsecular art: costumes, jewellery, embroideries, ceramics, wood-carving,painting and metalwork, flourishing in the different regions of the Greekworld from the 17th century onwards (Delivorrias 1980).The Benaki Museum cannot be classified solely as a museum of decorativearts, a fine arts collection, a historical or an ethnographic museum. By vir-tue of the strength and complementarity of its collections, it purports to bea comprehensive museum of Greek cultural identity, presenting Greek artand material culture within both its geographical context and its historicalcontinuity. Currently in the course of a building expansion programme de-signed to double its gallery space, the Museum has organised and partici-pated in a large number of special exhibitions, highlighting different as-pects of the Greek cultural and artistic identity. Apart from exhibition cata-logues, it implements a policy of producing detailed scholarly publicationsof its collections.The information strategy of the Benaki Museum is conditioned by currentinternational trends in museum documentation, but also by its distinctivecharacter and mission. Thus, it shares the concerns of other institutions inEurope and North America for improving accountability in its collectionsmanagement practices, and recognises the importance of keeping adequateand up-to-date records in order to ensure the proper care of its objects(Roberts 1985).  Currently, Benaki Museum inventories are divided be-tween several different hand-written registers, some of which followdocumentation conventions and numbering systems fallen out of use; dueto the lack of up-to-date indexes, access to the information in the manualrecords is severely limited. The forthcoming re-organisation linked withthe building expansion programme will require the re-shelving of all ob-
© 1992-2010 Costis Dallas. Some rights reserved.
jects, both in exhibition and in storage, an operation not devoid of dangersand pitfalls.Establishing effective control over the collections is, therefore, the first tar-get of the Benaki Museum's information strategy. It involves in the shortterm comprehensive retrospective inventorying, checking the identity andlocation of all objects and aiding their safe movement, and requires in themedium term the development of an automated collections managementsystem capable of supporting adequately all important everyday opera-tions.Collections management systems replaced documentation systems as thestate-of-the-art only recently, during the mid-eighties. Such systems offerobvious benefits for improving museum procedures and increasing ac-countability for the care of collections, and for this reason they are fa-voured by many museums (Miles 1988; Dallas 1990). Typically, however,they are used by specialist documentation and administration staff ratherthan by curators vested with research responsibilities in collections.  One ofthe reasons curators are not motivated to use collections management sys-tems is that such systems often exclude most of the scholarly informationabout objects, their history and cultural associations, and thus are of littledirect value for research. Yet, ironically, in many museums microcomput-ers are now commonplace as personal productivity tools, used by curatorsfor word-processing and note-keeping, preparation of indexes and bibliog-raphies, and for personal research data bases.The "primacy of the object" issue is often considered to be of fundamentalimportance for determining the role of contemporary museums. At oneextreme, some museums (typically art) regard themselves primarily astrustees of treasures of artistic, historical or cultural value, and adjustmuseological practices accordingly: "collecting" is interpreted as referringto acquisitions; "preserving" is limited to object care and conservation; and"disseminating" focuses on the scholarly research, publication and exhibi-tion of objects. At the other extreme, museums (typically ethnographic)consider themselves mainly as educators: "collecting" and "preserving" takesecond place to "disseminating", which encompasses a broad range of edu-cational and exhibition activities whereby contextual information often dis-places original objects to a secondary role.While some think that information technology will lure people away fromoriginal museum objects -- a view that does not seem to be supported bythe experience of well-designed interactive exhibits such as the LondonNational Gallery application -- the "primacy of the object" issue itself intro-

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