Week 11: Digital Tools in Public History

This week’s readings (http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47http://www.lotfortynine.org/2012/11/getting-to-the-stuff-digital-cultural-heritage-collections-absence-and-memory/http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2013/material-culture-in-the-digital-frame/artifacts-as-pixels-pixels-as-artifacts)  are again an extension of the discussion we’ve been having over the last couple of weeks on digitization of museum and archives collections.

As I’ve stated before, I am very much in favor of digitization and making collections more accessible online.  I feel though that the Sheila Brennan/T. Mills Kelly articles lack a real-world perspective.  The articles find fault in the efforts history museums have made in making their collections available online and creating a more interactive online experience.   The real problem lies with a lack of resources  – time, money and labor.  The majority of history museums are small and local and often run by volunteers or only a small staff.  The staff often have limited web expertise and they learn as they go with online projects.    The task of digitizing actual documents and photographs often falls to interns and volunteers.   Adding records for objects and attaching all relevant data usually falls to the staff.  And then it all needs to be uploaded to the website or database  – yet another task for the staff or perhaps that gets outsourced to a computer professional (which, of course, costs money).  Databases and websites need to be monitored and updated as well.   So digitization becomes a huge task with a lot of costs  – it definitely has benefits for the museum  but it can be quite difficult for a museum (of any size) to start this project and keep it up.

Martha Sandweiss points out some real drawbacks to digitization and how it creates a certain gap of understanding of the artifact.  The digitization process takes the artifact further out of context.  Often there is not substitute for the researcher or the museum visitor for seeing and sometimes handling an artifact in person.  There is no substitute for being able to stand next to a painting that is so large, you almost feel a part of it or to examine a document or object and see all the details and nuances.  (One of the perks of working in collections management is getting to working with “the stuff” and I’ve been so privileged to see and handle some incredible things.  The experience of handling an object that once belonged to Robert E. Lee is far removed to looking at a digitized photo of it!)

While digitization certainly helps increase access to collections and artifacts, museums need to strike a balance of their online presence and content and their in-person, in-house programming and experiences and the digital history community needs to understand that.


PastPerfect Software review

PastPerfect Software Evaluation Version

Many museums now use some sort of database program to manage the cataloging of their collections.  Anyone in a museum job that works with collections such as a registrar, collections manager, archivist, curator, etc. needs to be able to use a collections database.  PastPerfect Software is one of the most popular collections databases currently in use.

PastPerfect offers a free evaluation version of their program that can be downloaded from their website http://museumsoftware.com  under the Products & Services tab.   The same page provides links to video resources on their Youtube channel and links to their complete user guide.

PastPerfect Evaluation Version download page
PastPerfect Evaluation Version download page

Using the free evaluation version with the videos and the user guide is an excellent method for learning how to use a collections database and learning about the process of accessioning (formally bringing in) items into a museum collection.




Pros: PastPerfect Evaluation Version is essentially the same of their full version but limited to about 200 records and does not include any of the optional add-ins such PastPerfect online or Inventory Manager.

PastPerfect home page
PastPerfect home page



The three videos listed on the evaluation download page will provide the basics on how to navigate through PastPerfect, add catalog records and conduct searches.  Other videos available through their Youtube channel provide additional information on how to conduct more in-depth searches, use the lexicon/Nomenclature 3.0 and highlight some of the optional features of the full version.
Version 5 bases its lexicon for naming for items on Chenhall’s Revised Nomenclature 3.0 which is the standard system used by museums and archives to assign the proper names to items, so it’s a good method for becoming familiar with nomenclature.

PastPerfect catalog record
PastPerfect catalog record

The entire User Guide can be downloaded as PDFs and it is possible to learn how to use all of PastPerfect by going through the User Guide chapter by chapter.

Tutorials on CD on “Cataloging Collections”, “Research and Reporting” and “Managing Contacts, Donations and Membership” are available for $39 each or $110 for all three which also includes the user guide.  This would be a good investment for someone who is serious about learning this skill.

PastPerfect has excellent and helpful customer service for anyone who has bought one of their products.

Cons: Because PastPerfect is so comprehensive, it can seem like a daunting task to learn how to use it.  Having more tutorials available on the YouTube channel on how to use the software would be nice, but they also want people to buy their products so they can’t make everything free.

The search, research and report features are very good but the learning curve is fairly steep with each.  Working through the tutorials on these sections is especially recommended.

I would highly recommend that anyone who is interested in working in a museum  job that works with collections items download the free evaluation version of PastPerfect and take some time to familiarize themselves with it.  Museum interns often spend a lot of time working on cataloging and knowing how to use a collections database will be a good skill to list on a resume when applying for internships.