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Published: March 15, 2001.


On-line Collections Access at the Museum of English Rural Life
Jonathan Bowen , South Bank University, UK
Roy Brigden , The University of Reading, UK
Mary Dyson , The University of Reading, UK
Kevin Moran , The University of Reading, UK

Session: Preserving and Presenting Culture

The Rural History Centre at the University of Reading, which includes the Museum of English Rural Life, holds extensive collections of material relating to the history of food, farming, and the countryside. As a result, it operates as the leading research and resource center for the subject in the country. The collections have been Designated of national importance and are now in receipt of a grant from the UK government-funded Designation Challenge Fund for a project designed to greatly enhance access to the collections via the World Wide Web. The aim is to have a dynamic, database-driven website which will present a thematic route of entry for exploration of the collections.

This collections access project aims to make the information available to a variety of users in an appropriate manner. Specifically targeted users are primary school children (and teachers), the general public (including secondary school children) and expert researchers (e.g., from academia). Different interfaces are provided within the website to accommodate these various types of user in the INTERnet Farm And Countryside Explorer (INTERFACE) section designated as schools, public and advanced users. For example, story-based environments are being included, extracting information from the database. The stories themselves are being generated by hand as static pages based on templates, but the database can be used at any time to include further information on objects or areas of interest. Primary school children can be limited to records that include graphical images, with access via story-based presentations suitable for use as educational resources, with associated teacher support. The public interface provides hierarchical exploration of subject areas. For experts, a more traditional form-based database interface with many fields will provide access to the full database.

One of the key considerations in developing on-line content for museums is bringing together collection management systems and exhibition information into one system. The manner in which collections are integrated into websites is likely to have implications for their accessibility. For example, the location of the access to collections within the overall site and the graphic presentation of the interface may influence visitors' search and navigation behavior. This paper includes information on an evaluation approach that was developed as part of the initial stages of the project. The objectives of the initial evaluation were to identify other sites which provide access to a collections database; to observe how functionality has been implemented; to consider which aspects of the interfaces may be adopted or adapted for the project. The outcome of the evaluations is described, identifying strengths and weaknesses of existing sites. As the sample of sites analyzed is small, this data is discussed in relation to potential uses for this methodology. A technical evaluation of the first version of the new website is also included.

The last part of the paper gives an overview of what is planned for the last part of the project. Not many museum collections are available on-line in a comprehensive form, especially from smaller museums, so this project aims to be exemplary of what can be achieved given appropriate resources