During the last decade we have been focusing a significant part of our research on the applica-
tion of Conceptual Models to Museum Information Systems, mainly on what concerns invent-
ory and collection management the main reason being that Conceptual Models systems can rep-
resent, extend and reason about the information they store, making it easier to format, exchange,
and adapt to new constraints and requirements in this field. An important part of the research ef-
fort was dedicated to intangible heritage, as it is a delicate area of inventory with a much shorter
tradition on standards and procedures than material objects.
Different museums and cultural institutions have different and complex requirements, and
they deal with very heterogeneous domains. Collections we had to deal with include material
and non-material objects, associated information and several kinds of links between them all
(mainly material and conceptual/interpretative ones). During the process of developing new
solutions for these inventory systems we faced the fact that standard information models, such
as the Relational Model, suffer from some limitations due to the fact that they deal with tabular
data therefore it is not easy to represent complex relationships and hierarchies between data
items. Thus, there is a search for models that can accommodate these requirements. Con-
sequently we decided to base our systems on the ICOM-CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model
(Lira and Gouveia, 2006; Gouveia and Lira, 2004; Gouveia and Lira, 2003).
On the one hand, the ICOM-CIDOC has been producing recommendations and guidelines
concerning the management of information in Museums since the beginning of the 1990’s. The
CIDOC Information Categories were first published in 1995 (ICOM-CIDOC, 1995), and they
Museum Inventory of Intangible Heritage: concepts, aims and
Fernando Pessoa University – Porto
GreenLines Institute for the Sustainable Development
Fernando Pessoa University – Porto
ABSTRACT: Museum Inventory is one of the fundamental functions of Museums' activity. The
traditional inventory has been giving place to more integrated solutions, where the inventory
function is deeply connected with collection management and educational services. Still, invent-
ory as a museum basic function remains an indispensable task. When dealing with intangible
heritage that task becomes even more crucial, as this kind of heritage is, by definition, im-
possible to collect in traditional (material) terms. Inventory of intangible heritage means, neces-
sarily, inventory of intangible heritage supports (or media, such as audio tapes, video tapes,
photographs). More problematic is intangible heritage that is not (at least yet) recordable, as is
the case for smells, tastes or feelings. Museums tend to record these by using parallel or indirect
media, such us oral descriptions. Dealing with the inventory of intangible heritage is thus a sig-
nificant challenge for the contemporary Museum. For the last years, by researching in this do-
main, we have been involved in the conception and the presentation of a range of possible solu-
tions for intangible heritage inventory and collection management. In this paper we will present
the concepts and aims of that research along with some examples of already implemented solu-
were later followed by a relational model (Reed, 1995). These were attempts to bring informa-
tion models to this field, with all the expressiveness and richness these techniques can offer. At
the same time, they were avoiding the adoption of less expressive models, such as those used in
libraries. In 1998 the ICOM-CIDOC Documentation Standards Group first published the basis
for a Conceptual Model (CRM) (Crofts et al, 1998), which would become a ISO standard
(Crofts et al, 2005)
. On the other hand, the International Federation of Library Associations and
Institutions also proposed a conceptual model to deal with bibliographic information, recogniz-
ing the pressing need of providing a clear and shared understanding of “what it is that the biblio-
graphic record aims to provide information about, and what it is that we expect the record to
achieve in terms of answering user needs” (IFLA, 1998). This work has been getting closer to
the CRM principles (Doerr & LeBoef, 2006). Although conceptual modeling techniques have
been proposed in the late seventies, their application by the Museum and Information Sciences
community has had to overcome the analysis of the huge work and investment already made in
cataloging standards, electronic records standards, and Information Systems.
We based our work on semantic constructs, such as ontologies, which define the concepts and
terms in a given domain in a way that can be read by non-specialists. An ontological approach
has several benefits that also apply to our work on inventorying intangible heritage:
- it is a high-level description of a domain, independent of implementation details, where on-
tologies can be translated to different implementation systems and formats;
- several institutions can share and agree upon an ontology, regardless of the specificities of
- besides being shared, ontologies can be reused; once a Time or Units of Measure ontology
has been created, several institutions can reuse it without having to define themselves the onto-
As Museums move from dealing with tangible, material objects to intangible entities (such as
contexts, implications between entities, traditions, believes, and moral concepts) there is a need
for more semantically powerful and meaningful information models. There is also a shifting
role that Museums are playing now, within the possibilities the Internet and the Web have
opened up. Therefore, our work had to face a double challenge: to inventory the intangible and
to make it workable and accessible on the web. Several other projects have been working to-
wards those goals; the Europeana initiative is the most recent, and probably the most ambitious
project for putting heterogeneous cultural information accessible on the Web (Davies, 2008).
National projects, such as the Finish Museums on the Web (Hyvönen and Klemettinen, 2002),
are also underway, and it is expected that interoperation between them will be possible in a near
2INVENTORYING THE INTANGIBLE: A PROPOSED SOLUTION
The system that will be shortly described in the following paragraphs is the result of a process
of research and field application that occurred during the last decade and that includes several
different projects and implementations (as described below)
. Some of the solutions were not
implemented at first and a significant part of the present implementations results from experi-
ence acquired during previous projects.
The main requirements of the inventory and collection management system we decided to de-
velop were: a) a web-based system, accessible from any web access point both for public view
and for work (all functions had to be enabled via a web access); b) a multi-level access system,
allowing different types of access with specifically defined permissions for typical users, the ac-
cess being allowed by a login and password code; c) an integrated system, meaning that all reg-
The Conceptual Reference Model (CRM) is an object-oriented information model, based on the notion of Ontologies, as proposed
by Gruber (1993). The Reference Model is itself an evolution of the Relational Model (ICOM/CIDOC, 1995; Reed, 1995). A map-
ping between the Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information data model and the CIDOC Reference Model is
given in (Janey, Sledge, 1995).
The Ontolingua project at Stanford University is an example of a shared repository of Ontologies, written by different contributors
(Farquhar et al, 1996).
In its present status the system is a commercial product distributed under the name of INDEX RERUM by FCo, a Portuguese com-
pany specialized in Museum and Heritage products and services.
ular normal functions of museum inventorying and collection management had to be included,
as described in specific literature and according to Portuguese (or other) legislation; d) a univer-
sal system, meaning that by using the standards mentioned above (see Introduction) our system
was to be able to adapt and communicate openly with main standards; e) last, but not least, a
system that would be designed to comply with all demand and standards on what concerns ac-
cess to disabled person. The main solutions resulting from these requirements are the following:
The system has a “client/server” architecture and clients connect to the system/server using a
For some applications, a secure connection is established using the Secure Sockets Layer pro-
tocol. The interface presented to the users introduces a minimum overhead, by reducing image
and graphic elements, and by not using frames, as this can bring some problems with some
browsers. No installation is required in the client machine and any operating system and any
standard web browser (according to the mentioned above) can be used.
The software architecture of the system uses a relational-object layer to present to the user an
object-oriented view of the data, and to store it in a table format in a relational database. This is
a common approach when we want the expressive power and the flexibility of the object model,
and the convenience (even in cost terms) of working with a relational database. The CIDOC
CRM also follows the object-oriented approach.
Classes with instances are mapped to tables, which contain all attributes, including inherited
ones. Relationships are mapped to tables with just two object identifiers. Although this is not the
most efficient strategy (e.g. see Agarwal et al. 1995), it allows for most of database accesses to
be made with only one joint operation. Future improvements could distinguish between differ-
ent types of relationships and decide different strategies for their storage in the relational data-
base. If performance issues arise, an object-oriented database could be used in the future (Kim,
We defined a set of rules to present information to the user by taking advantage of the object-
oriented model: browsing, navigating and searching information follows the structure of the
model. Similar approaches have been proposed by Paton et al (1994).
The above-described solutions accommodate equally the inventory and collection manage-
ment of both material and non-material objects. Intangible heritage is treated and stored as non-
material objects, the record files of such being created, retrieved and accessed using the same
functions and criteria as for tangible heritage. Furthermore, intangible heritage can be related to
material objects by linking them as “related” objects or by using different kinds of interpretative
linkage. This way the complete collection of a museum includes material and intangible objects,
presented and treated as above described “ontologies”.
The task of identifying user’s requirements always takes a significant amount of time and ef-
fort during the early stages of any project. For the sake of efficiency it is imperative to identify
the main types of users; normally, the following apply: 1) non-specialized public, who would
only search the inventory in order to gain information about the Museum; 2) researchers, who
would like to have precise, scientific information on specific issues; 3) staff of the museum,
with the task of inputting data and possibly editing it; 4) a system administrator (normally the
director of the museum) that would be responsible for system.
The first level of access only permits people to see information, and only some types of in-
formation. For that reason, no username or password is required. Restricted data is not available
to this kind of access (i.e. acquisition values of items, insurance details and other sensitive in-
formation). For this kind of visitor, the Museum inventory system appears more like a virtual
tour, that enhances significant or interesting issues about the collections, and invites to a physic-
The second group mentioned above (researchers) needs to retrieve other kind of data; for that
purpose, the system administrator is able to create temporary logins, with specific usernames
and passwords. This access allows researchers to see almost all data in the system and gives per-
mission to use special functions like “personal folders”, where items of the collection can be
virtually gathered and organized. However, researchers are not allowed to input data, neither are
they allowed to edit or change record files, obviously.
Staff from the museum has personal usernames, and those allow creating record files and in-
putting data into the system. Each username and password allows its user to edit and change its
own work. Yet, no one is allowed to edit or change others record files, preventing accidental
disruption of information. All action of a logged-in username is stored and so it is possible to
know exactly what was done, when and by whom. General systems logs are accessible by the
system administrator. Logs specific to a user are also accessible by the user himself.
The system administrator is the only user allowed to change other users' work; however, this
kind of action is also registered and the altered record file will present the previous version(s) of
the contents and the date/authorship of the change(s). The administrator is also the only user al-
lowed to create other users of any kind (even another administrator). No user may be deleted
from the system, but the administrator is able to deny access to any user making it “invalid”.
Main functions of the system are: inputting data (creating record files), retrieving data (ac-
cessing record files), editing data (changing contents of already created record files) and creat-
ing links between data (the system allows different kinds of link between record files, such us
object relations, interpretative relations and others, as described in the CIDOC-ICOM CRM).
For the normal public the only function available is “search”. Visitors may search the system
by entering a keyword or by accessing a specific kind of data choosing some data fields, like
“date” or “location”. All other users may search the system by using complete search criteria. It
is possible to decide which data fields are to be searched and shown on the result; specific val-
ues for those data fields can be used as search criteria and it is also possible to decide that a spe-
cific value in a data field must be “equal”, “higher” or “lower” then a specific given value.
Researchers will have access to other functions, such as personal profile, personal folders and
information about the number and type of items registered in the system. The personal profile
registers a number of information decided when implementing the system; normally it is a very
simple record. Users may not alter their usernames, but they are able to change password
whenever they decide.
Museum’s staff, after logging in, accesses all researchers’ functions and also the “create”
function. This enables inputting data into the system. A list of blank record files is available on
the screen and the user only has to choose what kind of data he/she is willing to register. Some
of the fields are automatic (date, name of user, number of record file) others are to be fieldin.
Generically, there are four main types of data fields: alphanumeric (with different lengths), val-
ues, list of choice or thesaurus (either simple-choice or multiple-choice) and upload fields
(these are used to upload files to the system, for example images, PDF files or multimedia files
– sound/video). Retrieving information is possible at all levels of detail. After a query is
defined, users may print it, export it to an excel file or save it, for future use; this function al-
lows a specific query with specific criteria (as complex as they might be) to be memorized. Any
query saved can be edited and, eventually, repeated for up-to-date results at any time.
All functions are available for administrators. They can see all information registered in the
system and they are allowed to edit and change all record files. They can also create new users
or disable existing ones. Privilege information is available after logging in as an administrator,
especially on what concerns statistics (number of record files, who created them and when, for
example) and information on users present on-line. It is always possible for the administrator to
know who is working; statistics on each user’s activity is also accessible. Statistics on non-re-
gistered users (normal public with non-logged in access) are also available (nationalities, IP’s,
browsers used, record files accessed, information retrieved, among others). Another function
only available to the administrator is the possibility to import data from standard sources (like
excel files, for example; with this function a number of files can be imported with an unique ac-
tion; this is extremely convenient when importing massive quantities of data from other data-
bases). It is also possible to import new models (in XML format). The administrator may also
export data in various formats: excel files, XML files, PDF files (eventually printed) or other.
For the convenience of labelling material objects or material supports of intangible objects, the
system generates labels with barcodes (in customizable sizes) equivalent to the inventory num-
ber of each item. Following recent trends in Cultural information systems, a OAI-PMH interface
(Nelson, 2003) is also available, using vocabulary from the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative
(DCMI, 2009) and from the Europeana project (Clayphan, 2009). Several ATOM+RSS feeds
are also available, allowing interested individuals and parties to pull information out of the sys-
Finally, the system is not closed to future possible changes or upgrades. If new needs are
identified it will be possible to adjust the system by accommodating new functions and/or re-
The Hat Industry Museum (S. João da Madeira), the EcoMuseum of Barroso (North of Por-
tugal), all of Oporto University Museums
and all of the Valley of Minho Museums
presently running systems conceived and implemented by us, as described above. As stated in
the Introduction of this paper, implemented solutions are not exactly the same in all those mu-
seums, because of different requirements and of different stages of the system development.
However, the basics are the same and all fundamental and initial requirements are common in
all the above mentioned institutions. We will now briefly refer to the specifics of intangible her-
itage inventory that apply in each of those examples.
The Hat Industry Museum (cf. Lira, 2007
and Lira 2001) intended, from the beginning of
the museological project, to gather and use as part of the museological and museographical ma-
terial testimonies of a significant number of former workers of the industry. The impressive col-
lection of oral and video testimonies that was gathered during several years of research (with
several hundred hours of recording) was completed by a comprehensive group of photographs,
including aspects of the main factory at the time it was still open and at work, pictures of work-
ers and their families and photographs of the home environments of those workers (family
houses, neighbourhoods, yards, local trade). Furthermore, the research collected sounds from
working factories, among which it was possible to find old machinery dating from the early 20
century, still in good working conditions. Also sounds from the office, and from the factory
store were collected or recreated. This collection of sounds was used in the permanent exhibi-
tion of the museum, producing a recreated factory and office environments, immersing visitors
in virtual situations. Finally, smells had also to be collected, these being the most difficult to
preserve. Although it was impossible to gather and maintain all smells of an old factory, some
of the most significant were recreated in certain areas of the exhibition. All these are examples
of intangible heritage, either with standard material supports (like video-tapes or digital record-
ing) or encapsulated in more innovative “media” (like jars with a specific smelling substance).
However all had to be present in the inventory of the Museum. To accomplish that task, the in-
ventory and collection management system included record files specifically designed for these
types of intangible heritage, allowing the linkage to other items of the inventory, like tools, ma-
chinery, documents and others. It is for example possible to access an interview of a former
worker from the record file of a specific machine he/she worked with during part of his/her life;
the reverse operation being also possible (accessing data of a specific piece of machinery from
the interview of a former worker). In this manner, intangible heritage recorded in the inventory
system is an indispensable part of the museum’s collection; either used in the permanent exhibi-
tion or not, this intangible heritage is accessible to all (within the limits of privacy policies im-
posed by law) being an important part of the preserved heritage, documented and in use by the
museum, its visitors and researchers.
Another application of the system was for the inventory and collection management system
of the EcoMusuem of Barroso, a museum that integrates a very large portion of territory in the
North of Portugal (cf. Lira and Gouveia, 2006). Being a museum of the territory the EcoMusem
12 institutions, the complet list being: Casa Museu Abel Salazar, Centro de Documentação da Faculdade de Arquitectura, Departa-
mento de Botânica da Faculdade de Ciências, Instituto Arquitecto José Marques da Silva, Instituto Geofísico da Universidade do
Porto, Museu da Faculdade de Belas Artes, Museu da Faculdade de Engenharia, Museu da História da Medicina, Museu de Ciência
da Faculdade de Ciências, Museu de História Natural da Faculdade de Ciências, Núcleo Museológico da Faculdade de Farmácia,
Observatório Astronómico Manuel Barros.
14 institutions, the complet list being: Núcleo Museológico Municipal (Valença) Museu do Cinema (Melgaço), Núcleo Musaeoló-
gico de Castro Laboreiro (Melgaço), Núcleo Museológico da Torre de Menagem (Melgaço), Espaço Museológico Memória e Fron-
teira (Melgaço), Porta de Lamas de Mouro (Melgaço), Centro Interpretativo do Castro de S. Caetano (Monção), Casa do Curro
(Monção), Museu Regional (Paredes de Coura), Povoado Fortificado de Cossorado (Paredes de Coura), Espigueiro e Eira
Comunitária (Paredes de Coura), Museu da Bienal Internacional de Artes (Vila Nova de Cerveira), Convento de S. Paio (Vila Nova
de Cerveira), Aquamuseu do Rio Minho (Vila Nova de Cerveira), Núcleo Interpretativo dos Moinhos da Gávea (Vila Nova de Cer-
veira), Núcleo Interpretativo do Forte de Lovelhe (Vila Nova de Cerveira)
covers a significant area of influence and of scientific research. In particular, the territory of this
EcoMuseum includes an impressive number of villages and several different landscapes (agri-
culture, mountain, etc.). The Museum is organized in different physical structures dispersed
over the territory. Its central building is located in the main city of the region – Montalegre. A
number of nucleus are located in significant places, where particular collections and themes are
covered. The importance of the location of such nucleus is not to be undermined, quite on the
contrary as Gurian (1999: 270) well explained. The EcoMuseu intends to address all major
themes of the region, from ethnographic studies to social issues. Diversity is one of the richness
of the Barroso region, but, on what the EcoMuseum is concerned, also a difficulty to face. The
EcoMuseu underwent the task of presenting the region, as a complex system, where climate,
geography, plants, animals and humans are parts of an intricate and multifaceted organism. For
achieving such a goal, the EcoMuseum undertook anthropological, ethnographic, archaeologic-
al, zoological and botanical research. A comprehensive gathering of audio-video documents las-
ted for circa two and an half years and the collection thus resulting is significant. It encompasses
several thematic areas such as traditional agriculture and food, festivals and religious ceremon-
ies, families, traditional architecture, oral heritage, migrations, traditional arts and crafts. Thou-
sands of hours of audio and video recording and thousands of photographs were produced and
stored as museum archive. Some hundreds were chosen to be publicly available, representing
the region. Oral history, an academic discipline with quite a significant and long history (Con-
nerton, 1995; Dunaway and Baum, 1996; Perks and Thomson, 1998), provided valuable meth-
odological tools for the systematic exploitation of such sources of information. Another import-
ant issue is the use of documents to perceive human activity during the long period of occupa-
tion of this territory. Obviously, on their own, documents or objects are not sufficient to create a
complete overview of the human activity. Yet, the information they contain is crucial for the
construction of such a complete vision, as asserted by Leone and Little (2004: 362). As a con-
sequence, all information registered in the inventory system must be possibly linked to other
items of the inventory. For example, scientific information on a particular species of mushrooms
can be linked to the audio of some tradition-telling (the voice being of an old lady from one of
the region villages) but also to the restaurant where it is possible to have a special dish prepared
with that kind of mushroom. Consequently, the inventory system of intangible heritage was a
critical issue. During the process of analyzing the specific needs of the inventory system, it was
possible to identify the following main types of items of intangible heritage, or related issues.
Ethnography: day-today life, food, agriculture, fishery, textiles, religion; intangible objects:
stories, legends, memories, gastronomy. Other information include “People”, which are linked
to most of these information categories, by means of, for example, “is builder”, “is owner”, or
“is informer” categories. Human organizations (such as the local football club of the village
band), local business, places to stay, restaurants and major traditional events also had to have a
specific record file and the correspondent virtual presence. All these categories were to be
searched and indexed in a uniform way and people working with the system would not need to
deal with material information in a different way from non-material information. The complete
system has over 140 categories, 86 relations, and 500 attributes.
The Museums of the University of Porto are a set of very differentiated institutions, covering
a very wide range of themes. As a consequence, collections are significantly diverse. Most of
the items are material heritage. Nevertheless, it was imperative to prepare the system for the in-
ventorying of intangible heritage as well. One of the first and main tasks of the project consisted
of gathering of the information on the specifics of each collection, enabling a common structure
of record files that would allow generic search throughout all the collections of all the museums.
Moreover, the initial requirements for this particular system established that the system should
be able to deal with each museum both as an independent institution and as a part of a group of
institutions. That said, it is easy to understand that the standardization of all record files, both
for material ans intangible heritage, was a complex one. During this process it was possible to
identify several non-material types of items that had to be in the inventory: events, ethnographic
information, multimedia objects and material items associated information. This kind of demand
for intangible heritage inventory was faced as in previous projects (described above) allowing
the linkage of intangible objects to material objects, both as “qualities” and as interpretative
connections. If in the future the Museums of the University of Porto decide for a more compre-
hensive system with more intangible heritage objects to be in the inventory, all is prepared to
accommodate such need.
Finally, as it was the last to be implemented, we will present the system designed for all the
Museum of the Minho river valley. As listed before, diversity is, again, one of the main charac-
teristics of these collections that include traditional museum objects (archaeology, ethnography,
etc.), modern art items, movies history objects and a range of intangible heritage objects. Again,
one of the main issues during the first stages of the project was to deal with this diversity pre-
paring record files that had to be ready to all possible differences, specifications and demands.
As described for the Barroso project, intangible heritage included all kinds of ethnographic in-
formation and associated data, and also music, oral history and planned tours. As all these insti-
tutions cover a significant territory, planned tours (shared by different regions, or specific to a
particular region) had to be recorded in the inventory, each including a number of stops that
would link to material and intangible heritage. The web visitor is able to follow those paths, de-
ciding at each step of the way if the linked heritage is worth a visit; when going to the real visit,
the same process applies. As described before, all items in the system are potentially linked to
others, creating an interpretative net inside of the inventory. Each of the institutions using this
system is able to “ignore” all others, and act as if the network is not established; however, all
were encouraged to share common work (as creating or using common thesaurus, for example)
allowing a significant level of cooperative work. As the region covered by these institutions has
some common ethnographic traditions and part of the heritage (both material and intangible) is
similar, networking saves time and effort and results in a richer and more attractive inventory,
this being truth for the normal public and also for the expert researcher. Again, material and in-
tangible heritage are in the inventory as parts of a global model, being possible to retrieve and to
access both in similar ways.
From the first challenge to produce a system that would be able to accommodate the inventory
of both material and intangible heritage to the last implementations of such a system we faced a
number of interesting problems, concerning up-to-date technical solutions and effective re-
sponses to the museological sector demands. Each project imposed new and more sophisticated
solutions to yet apparently simple issues. The requirements that were self-imposed from the be-
ginning proved to be accurate and successful, responding to the challenges of each new project.
All described systems have been at work for quite some time (the oldest having been implemen-
ted in its first version in 2003 and the latest being on-line since mid 2008) and the technological
decisions are proving to be effective with a significantly low average of problems. The web-
based solution, integrated with multi-level access, allows a common use of the systems by pro-
fessionals and normal public, without compromising security, accessibility and inventory/col-
lections management functions.
Specifically on what concerns intangible heritage inventory and data retrieving, the imple-
mented systems are working smoothly and with accurate results, registering and making avail-
able intangible heritage for the professionals, the researchers and the normal public. By using
them it is even easy to forget that a “traditional/imagined” barrier is always projected between
tangible and non-tangible heritage. In fact that barrier should be vanishing from the work of
museum or heritage professionals, if not from a theoretical standpoint at least from from the
day-to-day praxis. The systems we implemented connect, effectively, material and intangible
heritage, allowing the inventory to reproduce, in a conceptual model, the reality as we perceive
and interpret it. Moreover, the web-based model allows a next generation web applications,
opening an interesting door to the semantic web that one being the focus of present ongoing
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