The celebrated Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford is an international centre for anthropology and world archaeology. It was founded in 1884 when General Augustus Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his personal collection of 20,000 items to the university on the condition that a museum was built to house the material. Today the collection consists of more than 325,000 objects and 275,000 historic photographs while its leading role in contemporary research and museum curatorship is recognised the world over.
Pitt Rivers Museum
"Using FileMaker is above and beyond having a generic database system. It has allowed us to progress at a faster and more cost efficient rate than other museum systems. It's intuitive and easy to use, allowing focus on the collection rather than the technology." says Haas Ezzet, Head of ICT at Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
Pitt Rivers unravels the mysteries of the past with FileMaker
From collection archives and conservation to administration and school trips, Pitt Rivers uses FileMaker as the backbone for numerous applications.
- Using FileMaker since the mid-1990s the team now runs 44 FileMaker databases.
- Culture and heritage: leading role in contemporary research and museum curatorship is recognised the world over.
- FileMaker provides the foundation for all subsequent record enhancements and research projects.
- An annual maintenance contract with FileMaker means Pitt Rivers can budget ahead.
A visit to the unique Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford stays long in the memory. From facemasks and a totem pole to smoking pipes and instruments, every one of the numerous glass cabinets is crammed with fascinating artefacts originating from cultures around the world.
But while many of the historical objects date back to Victorian times, the everyday business of the museum today relies on the latest technology to ensure it runs smoothly. These include databases to catalogue each item and to track the status of conservation work on objects in need of repair, as well as a group of websites that make information and images of the collection available online.
Equally important is the international role the museum plays in anthropology and world archaeology research, creating a requirement for it to share information with similar institutions and communities worldwide.
But like many museums operating today, resources are also tight - exacerbating the need for the running costs of any IT operation to stay within limited budgets and for the technology to be easy to use and, thus, require minimal staffing overheads.
The IWP tool means you can have your website up and hosted in a few clicks, while affording the ability to readily customise.Haas Ezzet, Head of ICT, Pitt Rivers Museum
The FileMaker solution:
The IT team at Pitt Rivers has been using FileMaker since the mid-1990s when they first started digitalising the collection by transferring the card-based index held in cabinet drawers onto a FileMaker version 2 database.
“None of what we have achieved in recent years would have been possible without this initial undertaking. It provided the foundation for all subsequent record enhancements and research projects,” says Haas Ezzet, Head of ICT at the museum.
“Since then we have evolved with FileMaker. The payment of an annual maintenance fee, to cover support and new releases, allows us to budget more effectively as we know the costs in advance. Committing to FileMaker has been a good decision, and we have benefitted from the technical and feature improvements with each release. I know other museums that have opted for bespoke systems and have had bugs and development issues resulting in greater IT overheads and slower development,” he adds.
In total, Haas’ team now runs 44 FileMaker databases, from the internal working catalogues for museum objects and photograph archives to databases for conservation, administration and individual research projects, which staff access on Apple Macs. FileMaker, running in kiosk mode, also underpins the museum’s public information point where visitors can search for specific objects on display.
“We have also recently created an education groups booking system which we are in the process of rolling out to one of the other Oxford University museums. This helps record the bookings, send out emails to confirm and print weekly calendars to front of house staff, as well as provide stats for education staff,” says Haas.
But, because of the space constraints at Pitt Rivers, only 10 per cent of the collection can be displayed at any one time. This means providing access to the collection online has become a priority, so that researchers, academics, source communities and members of the public get to see and learn about the complete collection of treasures stored at the museum.
Haas says: “Factoring in all items including objects and photographs, as well as smaller collections of sound recordings, film and manuscripts, the collection is around 600,000 items in size. Utilising FileMaker and publishing on the web allows access beyond the physical limitations of the displays.”
And with FileMaker’s Instant Web Publishing (IWP) functionality making it straightforward to publish online, Haas says, his team has made its entire collection database available through its website, as well as creating a dozen or so websites over the past decade focussing on different aspects of the collection at Pitt Rivers. While all rely on FileMaker database files during the life of the projects, they are published to the web through a variety of methods, including MySQL/PHP and XML.
He adds: “The IWP tool means you can have your website up and hosted in a few clicks, while affording the ability to readily customise. Due to this our collection’s web presence is ahead of a lot of museums I am aware of, which is important in terms of our international reputation for research.”
A recent example of how Pitt Rivers is using FileMaker to share and improve its knowledge of the collection is the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN). Its participants include the Haida Gwaii Museum, and members of the Haida Nation, a Canadian First Nation community. The Museum collections include a Haida totem pole and approximately 300 other objects. Publishing information on the Web and using FileMaker to convert data into XML for compatibility with partner institution systems, Pitt Rivers was able to provide invaluable evidence about Haida manufacturing and artistic techniques from the past – some of which had been lost. In turn, Haida knowledge about the artefacts, and their on-going significance within the community, is being added to museum records.
The collaboration culminated in members of the Haida community travelling to visit Pitt Rivers and a detailed archive of the project including photographs and records from both collections being sent to Haida Gwaii Museum in British Colombia.
“It’s a great example of what can be achieved using FileMaker,” says Haas.
- Predictable costs – An annual maintenance contract with FileMaker means Pitt Rivers can budget ahead.
- Ongoing technology improvements – Pitt Rivers’ use of technology is able to evolve at a steady pace thanks to FileMaker’s ongoing enhancements.
- Rapid development – From collection archives and conservation to administration and school trips, Pitt Rivers uses FileMaker as the backbone for numerous applications.
- Easy web publishing – Using the Instant Web Publishing tool in FileMaker, Pitt Rivers is able to get its content up on the Web and personalised in no time.
Photos © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.