History of collection database project

The paper records of objects in the British Museum collection cover more than 250 years.

They take many forms and use many different types of numbering sequence. Some objects have been transferred between departments and been given new numbers, while others have lost their original number completely.

The digital record

In 1979, the project to digitise the collection and its records began in what was then known as the Department of Ethnography.

A newly-formed team of collection documentation staff, led by the late David McCutcheon, carried out the data entry using a field structure he devised, accompanied by the associated thesauri and authority files. Although different types of objects use different fields, the underlying database and terminology control is standardised, allowing searches to be made across the entire collection.

The process of creating records varied to take account of what paper records were available in each curatorial department, and the nature of the material in its collection. This explains the variation of the type and quality of the records, and the different ways in which they have been entered.

The initial recording required staff to fill out data entry forms, which were then batch-processed. The first bespoke, interactive database was installed in 1988 and allowed Museum staff to access and improve the records themselves for the first time. Since the beginning of 1993 all new acquisitions of objects have been registered in this way.

In 1999 new software commissioned from System Simulation Ltd included new data fields and the new terminology controls of a biographical database and a place name thesaurus. Additional features included the ability to support non-Western scripts.

The conversion included mapping the data fields to those of the internationally-recognised standard, SPECTRUM, compiled by the Collections Trust (formerly MDA  / Museum Documentation Association).

The process of adding digital images to records began at the end of 2004.

The collection database online

In 2006, the decision was taken to make the database available on the Museum website and the first part was launched in October 2007. At that point there were 257,000 records available, of which 107,500 had images attached.

Publication of  records by Museum department was completed in December 2009, when parts of  the supplementary database of photographs and other material not from the main collection were also published. Most of these objects are field photographs taken by archaeologists and ethnographers since the second half of the nineteenth century, and provide context for the collection.

In order to upgrade as many records as possible a project was started in July 2006 to scan the Museum’s stock of colour photographs of objects in the collection. It is now adding original black and white photographs and drawings of archaeological specimens.

The project is also improving the text by adding cataloguing information that already exists in published or manuscript form. This will result in the entries in most of the catalogues published by the Museum since the early twentieth century being added to the database.

Ongoing improvements

Alongside this project, regular work continues every day to improve the database. The authority files and thesauri are constantly being improved and extended, and object records are being edited to improve their quality, consistency and indexing. 

As research continues, better descriptions are replacing old ones, curatorial comments are being revised and new photographs added.

All these improvements are being fed through to the online database on a weekly basis.

Libraries catalogue now online

Catalogues for all of the Museum's libraries can now be searched online. Work to develop and enhance the catalogue will continue over the coming months – please note not all Museum libraries have their entire collection recorded in the online catalogue. Please contact the relevant library prior to your visit for further details or to make an appointment where necessary.

Search the libraries catalogue now 

John White, Indian of Florida, after Jacques Le Moyne