In this post I wanted to reflect on a couple of my recent experiences of being led down the garden path by later additions or interventions into archival metadata. I don’t want to give the impression that I think curators and archivists are hopelessly ignorant and misguided. On the contrary, these examples illustrate the kinds of things that can go wrong when everyone is ostensibly doing the right thing. So I’m not sure if there will be any clear lessons except to emphasise the truism that interpretation is an ongoing, open-ended process fraught with danger as well as discovery.
To start with, both of these cases were affected by the fact that many collecting institutions make only a very thin layer of information available online for the public. There is no conspiracy here. The sheer person-power involved in digitising catalogues and card files is no doubt well outside of the budget range of most small- or middle-sized institutions. Even those larger museums that have managed to transfer all the hardcopy information onto spreadsheets may not have not taken the next step of turning those spreadsheets into searchable online databases.
This is why, wherever possible, it makes sense to visit museums in-person (global health crises permitting). Quite apart from being able to examine the objects themselves, it allows the researcher to compare the online information with the in-house spreadsheet, the paper card files and the catalogue volumes. Very often information is lost when it is transferred onto a spreadsheet, for example, we lose the hand-drawn diagrams, the queries in the margins and even the different handwriting styles that can tell you if more than one person added to the description.