Collections Data Manager at the Yale Center for British Art

Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass

Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, Collections Data Manager at the Yale Center for British Art.

The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, is home to the largest collection of British art outside the UK. The works of art, rare books, and manuscripts found here exemplify British life and art from the Elizabethan period to the present. The Center, which serves as both a public art museum and research facility, is dedicated to making its collection as accessible to its communities as possible.

The Center’s Collections Data Manager, Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, works to ensure all collection information is standards compliant and accurate in order to support the highest level of research activity and open access. We recently spoke with Emmanuelle to learn more about her team’s efforts.

1. What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?

Our biggest challenge is to make sure that our collections data is standards compliant from creation to dissemination, with the latest version available 24/7 via our various outlets.

We publish to our online collections catalog directly from TMS, and while we have fantastic cataloguers, I do rely on list views and reports to catch data that might stray from our cataloguing guidelines. These guidelines are based on the metadata schema CDWA and the data content standard CCO.

The same TMS dataset is also transformed into machine readable formats including LIDO XML and CIDOC-CRM RDF. And, the dataset is made available through our OAI-PMH data provider and our Linked Open Data semantic endpoint. These dissemination services need to be up and running 24/7.

At the end of the day, my job is to make sure that no matter what data mapping or data modeling I develop, it is true to the original information that I started with, and that it is true to the original narratives that our curators crafted about the objects.

2. Technology continues to have a significant impact on museum management and the engagement of audiences. How do you see the use of technology in your institution evolving?

The YCBA has been an early adopter of technology, particularly when it comes to disseminating its collection data programmatically. We were the museum that contributed the most object records—5,385 to be exact—to the Google Art Project phase 2 in 2011, probably because we were already somewhat facile with standard data exchange protocols. A year later we deployed our semantic endpoint, and today we are keen to develop Linked Open Data applications to offer ways for users to engage more dynamically with the collections, and for scholars to advance the study of British art.

As a research institution, we strongly believe that providing users with the highest quality research data possible is important because today’s researchers rely heavily on digital resources to advance scholarship. Additionally, it seems to me that there is this notion that non-scholar users are not interested in deep knowledge about works of art. I would argue the opposite. I would argue that most users are clamoring for contextual information to better understand our objects. Unfortunately, I think that cultural institutions are not engaging audiences as well as they could on this level. As a discipline, we have not yet developed the appropriate tools to share the dynamic ways our objects are part of wonderful and complex stories.

Linked Open Data holds the promise to put more contextual information at our users’ fingertips by connecting distributed datasets. As far as the quality of the data goes, the cultural heritage sector is lucky to have the CIDOC-Conceptual Reference Model. The CRM provides a flexible semantic framework to describe the relationships between objects and their contexts. With such a powerful tool, it is only a matter of time until museums change the way cultural information is provided to online users, and propose a model different from the current one, which is largely dictated by traditional relational databases.

3. What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?

I was originally hired to manage the cataloguing of the art collection for its online publication. Guidelines had to be developed to produce structured and shareable data useful for the network in order to leverage information that was before locked in TMS and only used internally. Colleagues then started talking about data standards and metadata, and today, with resources dedicated to Linked Open Data, the Center is considering data as one of its most valuable assets.

We have come a long way since 2006, and understanding the difference between information and data was a big change for the Center. Today we leverage our hard cataloguing work by repurposing the same data for multiple usages, such as YCBA’s online collections catalog, Yale-wide single search point, data aggregators, OAI-PMH data provider, and semantic endpoint. The next step would be to reuse data coming from outside of TMS, such as our website.

4. If you were given $100,000 to spend on management of your collection or department, how would you use it?

I would use it to develop a Linked Open Data app that would let users connect our collections to others, either through exhibitions or networks of people. Being able to contextualize objects and people through relationships can obviously help make their stories relevant for today’s audiences. But so far, traditionally these stories have been mostly told from the perspective of the institutions. If users could choose their own paths to explore these networks and narratives it would create a more personal engagement with the institution.

5. Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?

The two references below are a few years old but they are great in understanding why crafting standards compliant metadata is so important. They are all the more relevant today that many museums are considering publishing their datasets as Linked Open Data resources, which requires shareable data and metadata.

This next resource is an important paper explaining why the cultural heritage sector needs the CIDOC-Conceptual Reference Model. It also warns us about the current flaws in the data providers/aggregators relationships, flaws that endanger the digital humanities field altogether.

The web application Mapping Memory Manager (or 3M) is an open source schema mapping tool that allows data experts to transform their internal structured data and other associated contextual knowledge to other schemas and, in particular, to the CIDOC CRM.

Finally, this last link is for ICOM’s International Committee for Documentation, which supports the development of best practices and standards, including LIDO and CIDOC CRM.

6. What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions organized by your institution and why?

Two of my colleagues, Jessica David, Associate Conservator of Paintings, and Edward Town, Postdoctoral Research Associate, are currently undertaking an in-depth cataloguing survey on 29 of our easel paintings, which date from around 1560 to 1630, and comprise the earliest part of the YCBA’s collection. Part of the project is to track down the authorship of these paintings, for which there is very little documentary supporting evidence. Consequently, they are working with images of Tudor paintings from many different collections, as well as conservation images. In order to support this collaborative imaged-based research project, we have been testing International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a new digital technology to make using distributed digital resources easier. We deployed IIIF compliant images through the Web-based viewer Mirador (there are others) and so far it has proven to be an efficient and flexible research space to support collaboration and annotation. We are in conversation with the IIIF community to see how we can develop it further for museums’ needs.

The YCBA is the first American museum to use IIIF and, as an IIIF Core Founding member, will be developing a community of like-minded museums by creating an IIIF Special Interest Group. If anyone is interested they can contact me. And of course, we are delighted that this project makes further use of our open access content.

carved picture frame

Perhaps Isaac Gosset, 1713–1799, British, Rococo Trophy frame, mid-18th century, Carved wood, later gilding over original gilding, Yale Center for British Art.

7. If you were allowed to take home one item from your collection, what would it be and why?

I have been obsessed with frames ever since Paul Mitchell, our frame consultant, started cataloguing our frame collection a few years back. Today we offer our frames as a separate collection in our online collections catalog and users can get detailed description for each one of them. One of my favorites is the 18th century British Rococo trophy frame that is on Samuel Scott’s marine painting Vice Admiral Sir George Anson’s Victory off Cape Finisterre. The ornaments are just exquisite, and we think it might be the skillful work of the Huguenot framemaker Isaac Gosset. We are hypothesizing that William Hogarth might have introduced Gosset to his friend Scott since some of Hogarth’s works was most probably framed by Gosset. Frames are fascinating because they reveal so much about the taste of collectors throughout time and the aesthetic agenda and social context that they were meant to fit in.