Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

J. Trant, Framing the Picture: Standards for Imaging Systems

A paper prepared for the International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums / Museum Computer Network Joint Conference, San Diego, California, October 1995.


  1. Introduction
  2. Image Capture
  3. Image Storage
  4. Image Documentation
  5. Image Use
  6. Conclusion
  7. Notes

1. Introduction

As I struggled with the development of this paper, I was told, I hope jokingly, by a colleague that perhaps I had reached my level of incompetence - as defined by the Peter principle, I guess that makes me an expert. It is certainly true that the more I consider the development of imaging systems, the more I realize there is to know. Technologies are developing rapidly, particularly in the area of networked communication and the capture and distribution of images. Things we only dreamed about 18 months ago are a reality today. The World Wide Web (WWW) is making the 'virtual museum' almost palpable. However, the more we struggle to evaluate and implement imaging technology, the more aware we become of how little we know about visual information and how people use it, and the more friable technological solutions to these issues become.1

Developing standards in an environment of constant change could certainly be described as a Sisyphean exercise. The normal life-cycle for the development and acceptance of a standard often far exceeds a generation of technology. We are almost guaranteed obsolescence by the time we reach consensus. But without the development of a common agenda, we risk the creation of disparate and incompatible systems which are not positioned to take advantage of the full potential of developing network communications technologies.

Why standards?

The case for standards has been made regularly and frequently in the museum documentation community, and in the broader information management community.2 Standards enable us to share information effectively and efficiently, without fear of data loss or misinterpretation. They safeguard our investment in information, ensuring predictability and consistency. Guidelines provide shared methodologies. They enable collaboration and cooperation through the development of consistent approaches to common problems. Sharing the ways and means of doing things avoids a duplication of effort.

The interconnectivity provided by the Internet and WWW provide further impetus for the development of common approaches to the creation of image databases. In the brief time since the release of NCSA Mosaic, we have seen the potential for the network distribution of visual information about museum collections. Many institutions have begun to make significant portions of their collections available this way. This emerging virtual world provides us with concrete examples of the need for standards for information capture, storage, retrieval and display. To 'put up' museum information on the Web is just the first step.

We must move beyond the present architecture of the WWW, where serendipitous wandering finds some useful and many irrelevant sites; our resources must be inter-related and inter-connected. Pathways to museum information must be clear. Tools must exist to integrate digital information, on the desktop of the user. We must also move beyond the present state of WWW "research", where digital data is downloaded without preserving any notion of its provenance. Museums must be prepared to assert the authenticity of their data, and guarantee its integrity, if the WWW sites of the future are to become valued educational and research tools rather than cabinets of curiosities, or worse, catalogues of clip-art.

Common practices and shared standards are the key to creating a quality information resource. So how can the cultural heritage community approach imaging system standards in such a revolutionary environment? Are there standards that can be employed when developing imaging systems? Are there areas where standards need to be developed? How can we target the limited resources of the cultural heritage community towards areas where advances in common practice are critical to our successful employment of imaging technologies?

Which Standards?

Now that we are all convinced that standards are not an evil step-mother but actually a fairy godmother - which standards do we need? There are a veritable smorgasbord of technical standards and standards-making organizations out there, which deal with all aspects of information management: including data storage, retrieval, representation and network communication. The Usenet Standards FAQ3 [Frequently Asked Questions] includes over 50 pages of references to standards "relevant to computing" for everything from "Paper holes for general filing purposes" (ISO 838) to the "Still image data compression standard" (ISO 10918), widely known as JPEG. Obviously, some standards more of more utility when developing imaging systems than others.

To position such a plethora of information, and to determine which standards are relevant to imaging in the cultural heritage community, requires a review of the various stages in the creation and use of an image database, and an examination of the functions for which image data is captured, stored and distributed. We must be wary of standards for standards sake. Instead, we need to develop a more pragmatic and functionally based assessment of museum information management needs, which focuses not on technology, but on the mission and activities of the cultural heritage community. It is in this knowledge of "what we want to do" that we will find the criteria to assess available technical standards and from which we can develop both needed guidelines for the application and use of technologies and an agenda for our own standards-making activities.4

Towards a Standards Framework for Imaging Systems

A standards framework for cultural heritage imaging systems is key. Such a framework must operate within the context of other domains - such as bibliographic systems - and other functions - such as interchange of information. It must accommodate present practice, while pointing the way to future developments. The framework must be generic to apply to a range of systems designed for different functions, yet identify stages or phases specifically enough that standards can be evaluated in their particular context.

What is an imaging system?

For the purposes of this discussion, an imaging system is defined as a computerized information system which manages visual information, and relates it to textual documentation. (Such a system could also be described as "multi-media database," as it contains two or more different kinds of media. However, moving image and sound are beyond the scope of this initial outline.)

Within the cultural heritage community, this definition encompasses a wide range of possible applications. These include interactive installations in the gallery itself - such as those at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, or the Micro Gallery in the National Gallery of Art, Washington,5 and electronic exhibitions accessible over the WWW, such as the sites of the National Museum of American Art,6 or the Canadian Museum of Civilization.7 They also range from published titles distributed on CD-ROM, such as the Microsoft Art Gallery8 or With Open Eyes: Images from the Art Institute of Chicago;9 to databases designed to archive high-quality digital images for future use, such as those of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, or assemble a corpus of scholarly information, such as the Census of Antique Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance.10

Imaging systems can be approached either in terms of the processes through which they are constructed their technical configuration or in terms of the functional set of requirements they fulfill. The various stages in constructing an imaging system image capture, storage, description, retrieval, distribution, and display offer an appropriate way to cluster the various technologies and standards which apply at each stage in the process. The functional characteristics of imaging systems become important when decisions are made at each of these stages, between competing standards or technologies. The specific restraints of a particular application - for example, the fixed storage capacity of a CD-ROM or limited bandwidth of the WWW - may preclude certain options, or dictate a particular course of action.

The following outline is not an exhaustive survey of all of the standards that might apply to cultural heritage imaging systems. Rather, it is an overview of the standards that apply in the areas of Image Capture, Image Storage and Image Use.11 Existing standards in widespread use whether official, de facto, or proprietary are profiles, and areas where standards guidelines are needed are identified, as these together will comprise the agenda for future collaboration. Interchange has not been discussed as it is the object of the work of the Consortium for the Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI).

Next Section: 2. Image Capture

Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.