Local Objects, Local People, Local History: Creating the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database

The following chapter excerpt is from the second section of Digitization in the Real World; "A Diverse Digital Landscape: Digital Collections inPublic Libraries, Museums, Cultural Heritage Institutions,and Knowledge-Based Organizations." Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the book online at Amazon.com.

Access the collections here.


Emily Pfotenhauer (Wisconsin Heritage Online, Wisconsin Historical Society and the Chipstone Foundation)


Homepage3a The Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database is a digital collection of three-dimensional artifacts from the collections of historical societies and museums throughout Wisconsin, hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society and supported by the Chipstone Foundation. Since 2006, the project has documented nearly 1,000 examples of furniture, ceramics, textiles and other decorative arts made by early Wisconsin craftspeople and held in the collections of over 40 institutions throughout the state. This case study examines the genesis of the project, the photographic standards and metadata specifications established for object documentation, and the unique challenges of developing a diverse digital collection of museum artifacts from a wide variety of local and regional institutions.

Introduction & Background

In the past decade, the work of state- and regionally-based digitization programs across the country has resulted in an explosion of local history resources available online. These initiatives are collaborative efforts among libraries, archives, and museums to make their collections freely available to a broad audience of students, teachers, historians, and genealogists. Some of the earliest and most influential of these programs include the Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network, the Minnesota Digital Library, and the Colorado Digitization Project (now known as the Collaborative Digitization Program at the Bibliographic Center for Research). For the most part, programs such as these have focused on what some museum professionals refer to as “the flat stuff”: photographs, books, manuscripts, and other two-dimensional materials. This focus on the digitization of archival materials belies the fact that three-dimensional artifacts form the core of the collections of most local historical societies and museums. Moreover, the everyday objects people create and consume (for example, furniture, clothing, and tools) are considered by many scholars to offer significant evidence for historic research, as much if not more so than historic photographs or original manuscripts. Yet most institutions participating in collaborative digitization programs have not made their collections of three-dimensional objects available online at the same rate as their two-dimensional holdings.

Case studies of statewide and national digitization programs reveal the challenges common to most collaborative digital endeavors, regardless of the types of material being digitized. Roberto (2008) describes the lack of consistent standards in place for describing collections among even the largest and best-staffed museums in Great Britain. When collaborations are expanded to include small, local historical societies and museums, the creation of consistent collections data becomes even more challenging due to a lack of available staff, resources, and expertise (Rowe & Barnicoat, 2009). These obstacles are compounded when working with three-dimensional objects, which require more space, equipment, and technical expertise to photograph and more research and subject expertise to catalog.

This chapter examines the development of one digital collection of three-dimensional objects from multiple institutions: the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database (http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/decorativearts). This project was initiated in 2006 by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, a private foundation for the study of American decorative arts and material culture. Chipstone and the Society had three goals in mind at the outset of the project: 1) to bring to light objects held in the collections of Wisconsin historical societies and museums and share them with a broader audience, 2) to document examples of furniture, ceramics, textiles, and other decorative arts made by nineteenth and early twentieth-century Wisconsin craftspeople in order to reveal settlement patterns and the persistence of handicraft traditions in the state, and 3) to add the first three-dimensional artifacts to Wisconsin Heritage Online (http://www.wisconsinheritage.org), a research portal that brings together a diverse range of digital collections from Wisconsin libraries, archives, museums, and historic sites.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the book online at Amazon.com.


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