HAI consults with museums to choose cloud-based database systems

Harvesting the Cloud for a 21st Century Museum

Cloud-based technology solutions designed specifically for museums and collecting institutions are now widely available. Many companies have developed a variety of options designed to facilitate patrons’ and community members’ digital access to museum collections. This new technology is an answer to museums’ calls for online accessibility and interactivity. In an era during which museums have seen huge increases in online traffic, they want to make their collections readily available to online viewers. Cloud-based solutions and APIs make this possible. 

How do museums use cloud-based database systems?

Adopting new technology presents museums with new opportunities as well as challenges. Museums must assess the costs of purchasing and implementing cloud-based solutions and evaluate how these systems can benefit their institutions. Ideally, cloud-based solutions can be integrated with other software systems using an API created or purchased by your institution. Museum directors and staff unfamiliar with these technologies must learn how an API, in combination with a cloud-based system of storing and organizing metadata, can contribute to the success of their organization. In a field trending toward cloud-based solutions, a basic understanding of these technologies can help museum staff establish a system of digital curation that serves as an asset to their institution, not a burden. 

What is an API?

API is the acronym for Application Programming Interface. It’s a set of tools and protocols that facilitates the integration of application software and services. The API is the part of a remote server that receives requests and sends responses. It is the “stuff,” in other words, that lets your museum’s digital software and applications communicate with other products and services without having to constantly build new connective infrastructure. Many companies and organizations build their own APIs to facilitate connections between cloud-based services and in-house digital data and operations. Others purchase APIs compatible with their existing software to secure access to the advantages of cloud-based solutions. 

For museums, the increase in the availability of cloud-based solutions means that there are now more opportunities to link cloud-based software using an API. Software engineers at the Art Institute of Chicago created a data hub system (API) that collects information from its internal systems. The Institute’s API then makes data related to its collections, digital publications, in-gallery interactives, mobile apps, and events available to other applications. In this way, the Art Institute’s resources are made available across many of its applications. By linking its data to publicly available digital applications, the Art Institute of Chicago built an AP that intentionally makes its data available in an ongoing way. Other museums and collecting institutions can execute a similar function by selecting the right cloud-based software and/or API. By doing so, a museum can share its data and collections in a variety of digital venues.What is an API?

How Can Non-Experts Utilize an API?

Few library and museum professionals graduate with deep technical skills in software design and engineering. Yet the museum industry strives to push the cutting edge of these technologies and leverage its wealth of data to serve the public. Thankfully, it’s possible to utilize the most current cloud-based software systems and APIs in the absence of any knowledge of coding or software development. It’s a rare museum professional who also has the skillset to build an API like the engineers at the Art Institute of Chicago have done. Small local museums lacking on-premise technology experts, in particular, couldn’t manage this process.

Fortunately, technology companies now offer the benefits of linking a museum’s cloud-based data to its digital applications via ready-made APIs. These “out-of-the-box” options are designed to facilitate museums’ successful organization, storage, and use of data without requiring anyone to create an API from scratch. Museum staff members can use these API systems effectively without coding or software development expertise. Technology companies that create and sell these APIs consult with museums regarding their compatibility with an institution’s existing DAMS (Digital Asset Management System) or CMS (Collections Management System). In addition, they often train the staff members who will use these systems, and they help museums understand how best to use existing data with the API they purchased.

What Can Cloud-Based Technology Do for Individual Museums?

By linking to cloud-based data systems, museums can leverage existing information in new ways. Your institution has likely already created a wealth of metadata in its CMS or other database system. With an API that links this data to your museum’s new and existing digital applications, your data can now be displayed, accessed, and interacted with in new ways. This technology allows your institution to reuse metadata and link objects with metadata more easily. It can also be used in conjunction with an exhibit platform.

One company that offers software that facilitates creative, interactive uses of data is Culture Connect. Their technologies enable museums to deploy their vast stores of data in new ways. These include distance learning software, online exhibits, mobile museum guides, digital scavenger hunts, and other dynamic ways of making museum collections accessible. Culture Connect is an example of an API that can connect to a museum’s existing CMS and use its data to create creative, dynamic, accessible digital content. One of the most significant advantages of opting to purchase and use an API system designed for digital curation is that it does not require substantial additional work for the staff. Rather, it makes the metadata your institution has already created readily available for use in exhibits.

Experts Can Help Your Museum Evaluate Cloud-Based Software Options

Museum directors and staff are aware that opting to use cloud-based technologies for digital curation comes with both risks and benefits. Perhaps the most important benefit of cloud-based storage is capacity. Rather than being limited to the storage you have available on-premise, your data is hosted on remote servers. This is cost-effective and eliminates the need for staff to maintain servers. Relying on remotely hosted data servers does, however, create concerns about security. Anytime your system must communicate with others, this grants potentially unknown or lesser-known parties access to your data. History Associates Inc. (HAI) is a professional services firm with expertise in these matters; HAI consults with museums and organizations of all sizes to help them determine what digital software systems are best suited to these institutions’ needs. They provide informed guidance about how best to evaluate cloud-based museum collections management systems, and consult with organizations about matters including security, APIs, and ways to best employ data in service of their larger missions.

Do not let a lack of technical expertise be a deterrent. Assistance is available as you seek to choose and implement a cloud-based solution to present your collections in the best possible light. HAI experts are ready to help you assess your institution’s technology needs and desires, and to make the most of your data. Contact a museum professional at HAI today to learn more about how cloud-based systems can facilitate creative and interactive ways of accessing your museum’s collections. 

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Addison Williams

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