Cultural Heritage Information Consultants

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Idealist in Museums

I have been setting up archaeological and museum databases since 1977 and since 1989 have managed one of the most interesting small Museums in London. As part of my time is spent acting as a Consultant on Information Technology I've worked with databases of horrifying proportions using the feared mainframe database IDMS, to simple flat file systems using Dbase, Foxpro and Idealist. In my experience Blackwell's Idealist is simply the most useful and easy to use Database I have come across.

I first worked with Idealist when a client, Aubrey Singer of White City Films, gave me a copy and asked me to set up a research database for a project on the 18th Century McCartney Embassy to China. I was frankly sceptical that this inexpensive DOS based free text database could deliver the goods. But as I used it I found that, it worked the way I worked, and gave me complete control over the data without the need to spend much time programming. I then began using Idealist for the Collections Management requirements of the Old Operating Theatre Museum using the Windows version. As I spend a lot of time sorting out other people's computers the last thing I wanted to do on my days away from my computing work was to spend time programming. Idealist has enabled me to concentrate my precious museum time on curatorial work, without the need for constant tinkering with the inner workings of the database.

The beauty of Idealist is that it works the way I work. Most of the time I simply use it by hitting F5 and typing in the word I want to search for in the database. The only other thing I need to do is press the print key to get a print out. Of course new versions of Idealist come with many subtle ways of refining data searching, of customizing interfaces, of setting up short-cuts etc. etc. But the joy of Idealist is that you rarely need them.

Many Curators struggle with Relational Databases, but I am a firm believer that Text Retrieval Software is appropriate for the Museum Curator, and Idealist, is to my mind, the first one, to provide a practical solution that is in the financial range of the small Museum. At the Old Operating Theatre Museum my database contains information on objects, videos, articles, letters, information panels, object labels, and research notes. All have their own data format, but I normally need to discover information from any of these sources, and Idealist's ability to allow a mixed database without any great programming overhead is invaluable.

The most exciting aspect of Idealist is that the database ceases to be a static information source, and becomes a dynamic aid to the user. I wrote all the Museum Information Panels, and object labels in Idealist - it became a writing tool not a Database. I imported from Dbase all the inventory information about the objects, and wrote the Panels, and labels directly into Idealist formats from my readiug in books, and notes. As information grew it was all immediately available to me, and checking cross-references between object documentation, object labels and panels become almost a joy it was so easy. At the end of the process I have a superb research tool that will enable my successors to have almost instant access to all my knowledge about the collection. As I find new information I add to the database, or amend it, and it continues to grow in usefulness.

One of the keys to the ease of use of Idealist is that you can create, expand, or contract data sets with great ease. They can be saved and retrieved, and this enables the user to set up a set of data to work with. If I were writing a panel on Bleeding and Cupping for example, I would begin by searching for references in the original and concise Inventory records to lancets, scarifiers, and leeches. Having found a set I would record in the database that these were part of the Bleeding and Cupping section, and would then begin writing the labels from the inventory description. When this was done, I would write the information panels to provide the background for the public, all the time refering back to the inventory, and label records to make sure all the text held together, and that new information discoverd during the research phase was entered and cross-references established. As the database grew I could 'walk' round the Exhibition to see how it would read to the visitor, and adapt as necessary.Much of this is possible using other database, but in my experience using most traditional databases, in practice it is beyond the abililty of the ordinary person to set up a really easy to use system in a practical time scale. Idealist, on the otherhand, is so flexible that you can set up a comprehensive, flexible system that works the way you work with an incrediblly small investment in 'system' time.

Does it Have No Faults?

Certainly, the company selling idealist have been trying to update the package for years and each new revision has been a disaster. Consequently, I am still using Version 3 dating to 1995. The print formating is weak, but I can live with that as complex print outs are exported to Microsoft Word.

I despair of Idealist ever being upgraded and know that one day I will find I have to move out of Idealist, but I hope that day will be long delayed.

 

Published Kevin Flude October 13, 1995. Revised May 2002

 

 

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Copyright CHIC 2004 Last revised on 20 May 2002

 

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