Researching on the Cheap: Part 9 – Working with the Websites from Non-English Speaking Countries

Do not allow the fact that a museum is in a non-English speaking foreign country to stop you. The first important trick to know is that many foreign websites have a set of flags across the top of the page. The British flag is your friend – it means that they have at least some pages available in British English – just click on the flag. I should note that there are different definitions for some words between British and American English. Make sure that you learn the differences. Recently several of the museum sites have switched to a tab at the top of the page that says “language”. These drop-down menus let you choose the language that you want to see the site in.

Now, choosing the English language version of a site may not get you what you want. While a few of the sites have set up their data bases to function completely in English, many have not. Also, some sites may have a sort of “Readers Digest” version of the museum pages that ignores the information that you want. Be sure that you compare the foreign language version to the English version to see if they appear to cover the same information. If the English version has two pictures and 200 words and the Danish version has six pictures and 800 words, the pages are not the same. So then what do we do?     Google Translate

It will not be perfect, but you can usually figure out the information that you need. Sometimes you can just cut and paste sections of text into the translator, or ask it to translate an entire page.

Another solution is a variation on some of the original research techniques that I discussed at the beginning of this blog series. Make a list of the words that you need to know: iron, bronze, silver, bone, wool, amulet, bracelet, ring, time frames, locations – things like that. Choose the words that are relevant to whatever you are studying and make a list of the foreign words that you need to know. I often keep Google Translate open in one window and have the museum site open in another. I have spent a LOT of time in the Swedish National Museum database with a simple cheat sheet of artifact terms, and discovered some very good information. Is it as easy as dealing with a site in English? No. But if you want to get the accurate artifact information you need to learn to do this.

Here is a list of just a few of the foreign sites that are worth visiting. Deutsches Historisches Museum Databank – This is actually a database that collects together artifact information from dozens of smaller museums all over Germany. Some of the information is very old, and some of these artifacts may not even exist anymore, having been destroyed in World War II, but they have some amazing artifact records. Choix de miniatures des manuscrits de l’Université de Liège (French) – An amazing collection of manuscripts, many of which do not appear anywhere else. Historika Museet – Swedish National Historical Museum (Swedish) – An amazing collection of thousands of artifacts from Sweden and some surrounding areas. Do NOT assume it is all Viking Age material – it is NOT. Be sure to learn the different timeframes and what they mean. Photo Portal for Swedish Museums (Swedish) – A collection of artifacts from four Swedish Museums. Rijks Museum in Holland (Dutch) Musee Natcional del Prado (Spanish)   National Museum of the Renaissance (French) The Louvre (French) – They have limited selections available online, but they are still pretty amazing to look at.   The Vatican museum Website. It is less user friendly than I would prefer, but I expect this to improve in the future. The Vatican is in the process of digitizing a huge portion of their collections in order to make them available to researchers.

I hope that this brief list of websites provides you with some sources, and some ideas of your own about where you can do research. If you discover an interesting artifact, and know what museum has it, Google the museum! You may be able to find a LOT more information about it through the museum.

Next Time: Communicating with Museums


English: This is a Raven's Beak or warhammer, ...

English: This is a Raven’s Beak or warhammer, exhibited in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. Deutsch: Ein Rabenschnabel bzw. Kriegshammer im Deutschen Historischen Museum, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researching on the Cheap: Part 8 – Working with Websites

Here is a collection of just a few of the most reliable websites on the web that I routinely use. There are thousands more, but this is a good start. All of these websites are in English.

One of the things that you need to be aware of is whether the size of artifacts are in metric or English measurements. If there are no physical descriptions that give measurements, the easiest way to figure this out is to look at the picture of the artifact. If it was photographed with a ruler, count the small marks between the larger marks. If there are ten marks it usually means that the ruler is metric. Very few researchers use rulers with 1/10th of an inch marks.

General Collections which may have some good specialty collections:   The Hermitage Museum in Russia. Contains a lot of things that belonged to the Tzars. The British Museum – The British were inveterate collectors and brought back things from all over the world. Many excellent collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Museum of Fine Arts Boston Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology – Contains several private collections that were donated to the museum in the era of “elite collectors”. Victoria and Albert Museum in London – Houses one of the premier collections of textile study pieces from all over the world. Browse the galleries to figure out what sort of things they have.

Sources for Portraits and other Paintings: Web Gallery of Art A superb collection of all sorts of art; very searchable. The Freer and Sackler Galleries – part of the Smithsonian – one of the best sources for Persian miniatures on the web. They are also in the process of digitizing ALL of their other collection items.   National Gallery of England – Pictures, portraits and more.

Sources for Manuscripts:   The British Library – An amazing collection. Catalog of Digitized Manuscripts – a collection of sites from all over the world that have digitized manuscripts

Museums specific to their countries or locations:   Museum of London – The Focus is on London and its immediate environment from prehistoric times through today. Excellent information. – British – Over 817,592 items that belong to the National Heritage Collection all over Great Britain.    The Virtual Museum – focus mostly on Ireland National Museums of Northern Ireland Fröjel Gotlandic Society Archive (Fröjel Harbor, Sweden) The Roman Baths in Bath, England Metal Detectorist News Site – a British Site focused on Metal Detector Finds. This is now a closed Facebook group. Portable Antiquities Scheme – A British Site with a data base of all of the reported “treasure” finds that were reported under the National Treasure Act. An amazing resource for the British Isles.

And just a bit more…  The Gutenberg Project – over 46,000 free books that you can download. Be aware that some of these books were written during the Victorian age – be cautious.   Medievalist Net – A collection of articles, many of which are connected to academic articles.   Kornbluth Historical Archive – a private photography studio with some amazing close up pictures of artifacts. Past Horizons Archaeology News Site – they collect news articles on archaeological finds, from all timeframes, into one location.

Next Time: Working with Websites from non-English Speaking Countries

The main entrance of the Victoria and Albert M...

The main entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cromwell Gardens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researching on the Cheap Part 7: More Tips and Tricks

My conclusion about this series on research is that I could probably write an encyclopedia on this topic, and still omit things! So here are just a few more random tips and tricks for doing research.

One problem that you can run across while researching is the difficulty of interpreting artist renderings as a way of judging potential research value of an article. Older artifacts are often only available online as an artist’s rendering – a picture that someone drew of the piece. This is a difficult situation, because that artifact is being drawn through the interpretive eyes of the artist. Some artists are totally literal, they draw only what it actually there, and others draw what they think should be there. My personal preference is to compare an artist’s rendering with a black and white picture and a colored picture. Why? Because each of those mediums will give us a slightly different view of the piece. The newer super high-definition color photographs of an item, are usually the best, but even they may not show something that the human eye can detect. For instance, glass is extremely hard to photograph because minute scratches and oxidation on the surface of the glass will affect the perception of the color. The human eye and brain are capable of working out the actual color of the glass, which may not show in a photograph, so a description can be important.

Some years ago I was researching pre-1600 glass buttons and found a wonderful article written by one of the archaeologists who had excavated the Fort Popham site in coastal Maine. There we some great pictures of glass buttons recovered from the 1607 settlement. Try as I may, I couldn’t make the buttons come out with the “soft serve ice cream swirl” like the pictures showed. A few years later I visited the Maine State Museum and looked closely at the buttons. No ice cream swirls! Why had the pictures shown that annoying swirl? Bubbles. The way in which the buttons were lighted, combined with the digital camera used to take the pictures, increased the ability to see where microscopic bubbles had been captured in the hot glass.

This brings us to the “occasional finds” and “donated finds”. There are many thousands of “occasional finds” in museum data bases. These are objects that were found in random locations, often by using a metal detector. Objects that may have been lost randomly while in use, or moved from their original locations by agricultural activities are not worthless, but they do not tell us as much as we would like. Reputable sources, like the Portable Antiquities Scheme, or the British Museum will give as many details as they have about a piece, and compare it to other, more fully documented artifacts. This doesn’t mean that their information can’t have mistakes in it, but it is less likely to be wrong. A considerable number of items in places like the British Museum were collected and donated back before scientific archaeological excavation techniques were developed. Most of the major art museums are in the process of completely reevaluating their collections. They have discovered that many of their benefactors were lied to about the origins and value of their artifacts. The artifact records at the British Museum now reflect the continuing research, and restoration that has occurred.

When I was an undergraduate studying Archaeology, the old joke was – if you can’t figure out what something is label it as a “religious artifact”. While this is not as common a process as it used to be, older research may still include these sort of comments. Read “religious item” etc with doubt in your mind. Do they have a plausible explanation of WHY they think it’s religious? Some modern archaeologists actually have email groups that they query when they find something that they are uncertain about. It is almost impossible to know all of the tools that would be used in every craft. These email groups often include people involved in experimental archaeology and reenactment, because they are familiar with the use of archaic tools.

Next Time: Working with the Websites

English: The Entrance to the british museum in...

English: The Entrance to the british museum in London, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)