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Peter D. A. Boyd

GIS in Museums - a case study

Peter D. A. Boyd, Collections Manager, Shrewsbury Museums Service

Web version of: BOYD, P.D.A. 1999(d). GIS in Museums - a case study. In Access to Better Information. Association for Geographic Information Conference Proceedings 1999, 8.9.1-8.9.7.

the agi conference at GIS 99


Museums are concerned with the care and interpretation of natural and man-made objects from the geological past to the present-day. Many of these objects have a geographical association. In the case of geological, biological and archaeological items it is 'place in which found or collected'; in the case of topographic pictures 'place depicted'; in the case of social history it might be 'place in which manufactured or used'.

A museum must keep accurate records about the items in its care and be able to access information about those items in response to requests from members of the general public or specialist researchers. Also the museum itself may wish to research its collections for an exhibition based on the human or natural history of a particular place or area. A GIS system linked to a relational database provides an excellent way in which to record and access information about items in a museum's collection.

Shrewsbury Museums Service has developed a database, known as 'ShrewD', using Microsoft Access™ and MapInfo Professional™. As part of Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, the Museums Service has been able to utilise Landline and other Ordnance Survey digital map data. The Museums have pioneered the use of some GIS applications in the Council (e.g. digital terrain modelling using Vertical Mapper and OS Profile data) and has been able to show that its Museums Service is definitely not 'living in the past'!


1. Introduction

Museums have not been slow to use information technology within their offices or exhibition galleries but relatively few of them use Geographic Information Systems. By examining the experience of Shrewsbury Museums Service, this paper attempts to identify some of the problems and advantages associated with adopting the technology.

2. Do museums have a use for GIS?

'A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit'. (Museums Association 1984)

There are about 2500 public museums in Britain. They range in size from the 'Nationals' with large numbers of professional staff to one-room village museums run by volunteers. 'Public' museums are supported directly or indirectly by central or local government or by charitable trusts for the public benefit and their collections are normally considered to be held 'in perpetuity'.

Shrewsbury Museums Service is part of Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council (SABC). Its collections, which were started in 1835, comprise about 145,000 items.

Its aims and objectives are as follows: -

"To collect, preserve, record and interpret the material evidence of Man and the environment in Shrewsbury and Shropshire"

· To act as a local, national and international resource for information about the natural history, archaeology, history, decorative arts and other aspects of the heritage of Shrewsbury, Shropshire and its region;

· To provide access to the museum collections (held for the public benefit) or information about them through long- and short-term displays or other interpretative techniques;

· To interpret the natural and human history of Shrewsbury, Shropshire and its region through displays, publications, lectures, broadcasts, the Internet World Wide Web and other means;

· To provide visitors with the opportunity to experience museum objects or contemporary arts and crafts from other more 'exotic' sources than Shrewsbury Museums Service collections through temporary exhibitions and other events.

The AGI '99 theme of 'Improving access to better information' is very appropriate to our museum aims and objectives. I believe that GIS will have an increasingly important role in museums as its potential becomes better understood and it becomes more affordable.

3. Access to better information about museum collections

Collections of natural specimens and man-made objects are the key component of a museum and it is essential that a museum knows what items it has, where they came from, where they are now, who they belong to and their significance.

Museums are constantly looking for new ways to make their collections or information about them more accessible to general and specialist users. This includes the provision of improved access to collections through new technology. This may: -

· provide access to information about items not on display;
· enhance the interpretation of items displayed within the museum;
· provide access to the contents of the museum through the World Wide Web - as an introduction for potential visitors or provide a means of 'access' for people who cannot physically visit the museum - through illness, disability, infirmity or geographical remoteness from the museum.

GIS has considerable potential in supporting database, Internet, Multimedia and other ICT technologies in museums.


4. The potential for GIS in Museums and its introduction to Shrewsbury Museums Service

GIS has a number of potential curatorial uses in museums: -

1) Sites and Monument Record;

2) Portable Antiquities Scheme;

3) Environmental Record Centre;

4) Museum object database records:

a) geological specimens;
b) biological specimens;
c) archaeological items;
d) social history items;
e) fine and decorative art (particularly topographic pictures);

5) Related museum records

a) site records;
b) building records;
c) person records.

Specialist staff (e.g. archaeologists, historians, geologists and biologists) at a local museum will receive requests for information about the heritage importance of a site even where it does not host the local Sites and Monuments Record or Environmental Records Centre. The museum may therefore play an important subsidiary role to the SMR or ERC. Such museums have a need for GIS. Often, the museum is an important source of information, arising from items brought in for identification or donations of finds or specimens.

Museums have a special need for their own database and GIS systems because their systems relate particularly to their collections and information about them. This may include information about the biodiversity of a locality in the present and in the past. They are often the repository for historic natural history collections containing data and 'voucher specimens' about past distributions of plants and animals in the locality or geological information about quarries or other sites no longer in existence. Some of this information may never have been published. Because of this key geographical link with such objects or records, GIS has a very important role to play in improving access to the information. The better the documentation system of the museum - the better the information on record - the easier it is to access - the more value it has to the wider world.

Most natural and man-made objects in museum collections have a geographical association with: -

· geological, biological and archaeological items it might be 'place in which found or collected';
· topographic pictures it might be 'place depicted';
· social history items it might be 'place in which manufactured or used'.

Some objects will have more than one type of geographical association.

The transfer of information to a computerised database is normally the first step. The use of computerised databases has become common in museums over the last few years. When I took up my present post in 1994, part of my job was to develop a computerised museum object documentation system.

After a period spent researching the options, I chose Microsoft Access™ because: -

· we needed software which could be stand-alone on a PC but capable of being networked at a later stage if required;
· I judged that what had become the top PC-based business database software would continue to be upgraded and supported;
· MS Access™ was flexible, relatively user-friendly and capable of virtually infinite in-house customisation and adaptation;
· it supports not only Text fields with up to 255 characters but also Memo fields for virtually unlimited amounts of text and OLE fields for inclusion of photographs and other images;
· several GIS software packages claimed to work with it;
· it was much cheaper than specialist museum database software.

The adoption of GIS by museums has been a much slower process than the use of computerised databases. This is probably due to four main factors: -

· ignorance of the possibilities of GIS;
· GIS seen by some museums as desirable but not essential;
· a perception that GIS software is very complex and user-unfriendly compared with other 'office' software;
· the high cost of GIS software and required datasets required in addition to the cost of standard database software.

I was convinced that GIS had great possibilities for Shrewsbury Museums Service. However, it was a new field for me and I found the GIS trade fair accompanying the AGI Conference invaluable as a means of familiarising myself with the GIS software packages available, their potential and their limitations.

At first, I concentrated on creating the database and took my time before 'dipping a toe in the murky waters of GIS'. As I developed our database, which became known as ShrewD, I was also able to develop my ideas for the incorporation of GIS. I decided that I wanted us to be able to: -

· hold data about the museum collections in ShrewD;
· identify mappable items within ShrewD with the British Co-ordinate System (National Grid Reference Number) - a number understood by non-GIS specialists, obtainable from paper or digitised maps and the form of geographic reference and cross-reference that would be required for collections data which we might wish to publish;
· use that National Grid Reference Number for UK records to create mappable tables directly rather than using a less user-friendly system of X and Y Map Co-ordinates;
· able to display museums collections data superimposed on raster and vector maps of not only Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council area but also the whole of Shropshire, the West Midlands, the British Isles, Europe and the World;
· interrogate the on-screen maps within the GIS to get information about the collections;
· access maps with superimposed collections data from the GIS within the ShrewD database.

In the final analysis of the GIS software packages available, I came to several important conclusions: -

· the technical needs of the Museums Service regards GIS were quite modest;
· we did not need one of the more expensive systems costing several thousand pounds - which we could not afford anyway;
· some of the 'cheaper' or, more accurately, 'less expensive' systems could not do the relatively simple things which we wanted to be able to do;
· MapInfo Professional™ probably offered the best option as regards combination of features and cost;
· we couldn't even afford MapInfo Professional™!

This was a problem! However, Shrewsbury Museums Service has an important educational role and it has won two national awards for its educational work with children and adults. This meant that we were eligible for educational discounts. Suddenly we could afford MapInfo Professional™.

However, the map data required was another problem. Most of the items within the collections come from within the SABC area. However, many are from other parts of Shropshire and adjacent parts of Wales (the border with which is only about 15 miles from Shrewsbury) and other parts of the British Isles. We also have antiquities and ethnographic items from the Mediterranean area, the Arctic and other parts of the world. This meant that we would require a fairly wide range of map data sets!

Local Authority Museums have an advantage over independent museums in that they have free access to Ordnance Survey maps already obtained for Planning purposes by the Council through the Service Level Agreement and any additional licences. We therefore have free access to some data including OS Boundary Line and OS Landline vector data and some 1:10,000 and 1:50,000 raster data.

For some museums, this means that the cost of introducing GIS may be limited to hardware and software and exclude the cost of new datasets. However, in the case of Shrewsbury Museums Service, our collections cover a wider area than the Local Authority of which we are a part and therefore we have had to fund licenses for extra datasets ourselves. We have pioneered the use of some GIS applications in the Council (e.g. digital terrain modelling using Vertical Mapper 2.0 and OS Profile data).

Independent museums may find that while they may be in a position to purchase hardware and GIS software that the datasets which they require may be too costly and put the whole idea of GIS 'out of the window'.

However, the introduction of a UK version of Microsoft MapPoint 2000 ™ in July 1999 as part of the MS Office™ suite may provide a means by which museums with limited funding for GIS may start to experiment with the technology. The software enables data held in MS Access™ databases or other MS Office applications to be imported into MS MapPoint 2000™ and displayed on the maps provided with it.

5. Current set-up

We currently use Microsoft Access 97™ with MapInfo Professional 5.5™ and Vertical Mapper 2.0™ on a stand-alone system using Windows NT4 Workstation™ on a Viglen PCI 300MHz Pentium II with 128MB RAM and 9GB hard disk. The printer is a HP 4MV Laser Printer with 12MB RAM.
The add-on tools include NTF Importer Suite (Dotted Eyes) and Grid Square™ (Dotted Eyes).
Grid Square™ is an invaluable add-on to MapInfo Professional™ for us because it allows National Grid Reference numbers to be used directly instead of X and Y co-ordinates in creating mappable tables, allows one to read the NGR at any point on an appropriate map or go straight to a particular grid reference 'marking' it with a chosen symbol.

We use vector map data including OS Landline, OS Boundary Line, OS Profile, OS Panorama, customised Shropshire parish datasets and raster data including OS 1:50,000 and OS 1:10,000 digitised maps. The Europe and World maps provided with MapInfo Professional™ are adequate, at present, for use with our non-UK museum data.

6. Has GIS improved access to better information in Shrewsbury Museums?

Yes. GIS has shown itself very useful in being able to answer questions that would have been difficult to answer before. Many of the enquiries received by museums involve questions such as "What do you have in the museum relating to the village of * or * site?" Such enquiries might be answered with a well-constructed card index or computerised database. However, such enquiries may not be answered adequately if the important evidence or information of interest to the enquirer is a few metres on the other side of the boundary of the site, parish or county which acted as the basis for the query made. GIS enables one to answer questions not only relating to a point or polygon (a place) but also of the type "What do you have in the museum found within a kilometre of * ?" or "What evidence do you have of the biological, archaeological or geological significance of the route of the * road between * and * ?"

This evidence may have been held in the archaeology collections of the museum as artefacts, the geological collections as fossils, the botanical collections as herbarium (pressed plant) specimens, the zoological collection as a group of insects or stuffed birds, the Fine Art collection as a depiction of the locality in a particular year or, within the archives, as a set of written or photographic records.

As long as the information has been input to the museums database, ShrewD, with a grid reference (or referenced to a polygon such as a parish or site) it may be accessed and analysed through the GIS. In fact, it will take several years to add the records to the database of all 145,000 objects in the collection!

MapInfo Professional™ allows information held in or accessed from ShrewD to be displayed about each category as separate maps, superimposed on each other or displayed as a seamless searchable map. Information about each item or defined groups of items may be accessed through the on-screen maps. This flexibility makes GIS associated with a database a more powerful tool than either ShrewD or MapInfo Professional™ alone.

7. GIS can point to information that you didn't know was there!

We have already found that GIS can not only be very useful as a means of accessing information but that it can be just as useful in pointing out spatial relationships or distributions which were previously unrecognised.

For example; mapping all our prehistoric bronze artefacts together had shown no particular pattern of distribution and none was looked for. It was useful enough to be able to illustrate the distribution of our 'finds' and enable enquiries to be answered through the on-screen maps. However, while I was experimenting with the ability to make a query in our Microsoft Access™ database, turn that into a mappable table and display it as a layer superimposed on other maps, I found that the prehistoric bronze flat axes in our collection had a quite different geographical distribution within Shropshire to our prehistoric bronze palstaves (another type of axe). This caused quite a flurry of excitement at the time with particular self-satisfaction not only at having worked out how to do the manipulation of data but at something unexpected coming out of it! It may only be an accidental pattern resulting from too small a sample or it may identify different bronze tool-making 'cultures' or 'trading routes' separated by a particular line of hills. This 'discovery' has prompted us to ask other museums and SMRs to look at their data to allow a comparison.

8. Limitations of our GIS system

For those who might be considering the use of the use of MapInfo Professional™ with Access™, it is worth pointing out that there are some irritating limitations: -

· MapInfo Professional™ does not support the Memo and OLE fields from Access™ tables
(nor the Replication ID and Hyperlink fields);
· if you perform table maintenance operations on these tables in MapInfo Professional™ they will be converted into MapInfo Professional™ tables and cause permanent loss of data from those fields.

As memo and OLE fields are key components of ShrewD, I have chosen not to work with Access™ tables directly from MapInfo Professional™. I get nervous about possible data loss or corruption in the main database so I create new MS Access™ tables to use exclusively with MapInfo Professional™ using data from ShrewD with only those fields that are supported included. I even hold them in a separate database called ShrewDmap. Then, any mistake that I make does not affect the sacrosanct ShrewD! This means that intermittently I have to update the tables in ShrewDmap but that is easy enough.

If you want to use MapInfo Professional™ with Access™, it is wise to structure the Access™ database so that the key information that you wish to access through maps is 'compatible' with MapInfo Professional™ in the first place: -

· use 'text' fields rather than 'memo' fields in Access™ for the mappable tables;
· remember that 'text' fields in Access™ are called 'character' fields in MapInfo Professional™;
· remember that Access™ will allow 255 characters in 'text' fields while MapInfo Professional™ will only allow 254 characters in 'character' fields. It is therefore better to limit Access™ text fields to 254 characters.

If you are new to GIS, remember that map data or other graphics take up a tremendous amount of disk space on a stand-alone system and large data files need plenty of processing power. The map data that we use takes up several Gigabytes on our current system.

9. Future developments

Creating separate MapInfo Professional™ tables from data in ShrewD enables one to use GIS in read-only form on more PCs using a useful bit of freeware. MapInfo ProViewer™ (downloadable for free on http://www.mapinfo.com/software/proviewer) allows any suitable PC to be used to open MapInfo Professional™ tables and workspaces and carry out limited operations with them. It will allow ShrewDmap tables and workspaces to be accessible on more office or in-gallery PCs than we could otherwise afford and therefore make a big difference in the rate of deployment of GIS in the Museums Service. 3D images saved from Vertical Mapper™ as tables or bitmap files cannot be viewed in MapInfo ProViewer™. However, they can be incorporated into ShrewD as OLE objects or viewed as image files from the computer's desktop.

The new MS MapPoint 2000™ may also have a use in the Museums Service. Although not released in its UK version at the time of writing and therefore not tested by me, it has been designed to work with data imported from MS Access™ databases including OLE support. This inexpensive software will apparently include low scale Ordnance Survey data in the UK release but it will not allow the import of other map data and will be limited in its functions compared with MapInfo Professional™.

We have already used Vertical Mapper™ and OS Profile data to create digital terrain models of the Shrewsbury area. Drape files of maps or photographs overlain on these create quite intriguing images which will assist the interpretation of the geomorphology of the area far more cheaply than traditional 3D models although they cannot replace them entirely. However, they do enable one to consider any number of images with drape files representing the townscape or landscape at different periods or illustrating different categories of item. The drape files can readily include data on the distribution of finds, fossils, plants or animals. These images may be used in the museum as an element within display panels or within an interactive multimedia presentation.

As ShrewD and the GIS is being developed to be accessible by visitors within the galleries and the Internet, I should like people to be able to access images of objects or sites (imported from our MS Access™ database, ShrewD) when clicking on a point or polygon. The inability of MapInfo Professional™ to support OLE fields is irritating. A satisfactory add-on to MapInfo Professional™ which overcomes this and the MEMO field problem has not yet been found. MS MapPoint 2000™ may have a role with us, if it does support images, even if its other functions are too limited to replace MapInfo Professional™.

The digitisation of building plans, archaeological site plans, geological maps and historic maps would enable us to make even fuller use of our GIS system. 19th and early 20th century local maps that show the woodlands, ponds or quarries which have now disappeared would be particularly valuable for plotting museum objects found or collected from them during those periods.

Knowing where museum objects are located in our museum buildings is just as important as knowing where they originated. While object location details recorded on and accessible through ShrewD may be adequate, the possible advantages of the same information being linked to co-ordinates on digitised non-Earth maps (plans of buildings, galleries or stores) in MapInfo Professional™ will be explored.


10. Conclusion

· Natural and man-made museum items have a geographical association
· GIS can be used to record and access information about museum items
· Shrewsbury Museums Service has developed a system based on MS Access™ and MapInfo Professional™
· It works!

While our system is not a complex one, as far as GIS goes, it has fulfilled most of our needs and I consider that museums or other bodies involved with similar information access issues and limited funds could benefit from a similar approach to ours.

Further Reading

Jones, C. (Editor) 1997 Geographical Information Access in Museums MDA Information Vol. 2, no. 3.

MapInfo Professional and MapInfo Proviewer web site at http://www.mapinfo.com

Microsoft Access and MapPoint 2000 web site at http://www.microsoft.com and http://www.microsoft.com/uk/mappoint

Campaign for Museums and the Museum Documentation Association 24-Hour Museum web site at http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk (funded by Department for Culture Media and Sport)

Museum & Galleries Commission's Cornucopia web site at http://www.cornucopia.org.uk



Shrewsbury Museums Service

Illustrations [web version not available at present]

Fig. 1

Screen shot in MapInfo Professional showing museum collections data from MS Access database ShrewD (relating to topographic pictures) superimposed on OS Boundary Line data. Each star represents one or more watercolours, oil paintings or other pictures depicting or painted from that spot. Information about each 'star' can be accessed by clicking on it with the cursor to highlight information in the browser or clicking on the browser to highlight the star which marks the point represented. © Crown copyright. All rights reserved.

Fig. 2

Screen shot in MapInfo Professional showing museum collections data from MS Access database ShrewD (relating to topographic pictures) superimposed on OS Landline data. Information relating to a star may be accessed using the 'Info Tool' rather than a browser window (fig 1). Clicking on a star with the cursor opens a window in which information about the object or objects is displayed. © Crown copyright. All rights reserved.


Fig. 3

Screen shot in MapInfo Professional showing museum collections data from MS Access database ShrewD (relating to Bronze Age Axes) superimposed on OS Boundary Line data (districts). Each type of axe is represented by a different layer of data and symbol with the lines and text written to the cosmetic layer in a MapInfo Workspace. Information about each item may be accessed by clicking on the on-screen symbol. © Crown copyright. All rights reserved.


Fig. 4

Screen shot in MapInfo Professional showing digital terrain model of Shrewsbury area using Vertical Mapper 2 and OS Profile data. A drape file has been created and superimposed including 'roads' and 'water' from OS Landline data of the same area to give an impression of current development on the landscape. © Crown copyright. All rights reserved.



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Peter D. A. Boyd.
Copyright 2001 Peter D. A. Boyd. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 2nd 2002