Researching on the Cheap, Part 10: Communicating with Museums

So you have done your research online, but the amount of information about the piece that you are interested in is just not enough. How do you get more information? Contact the museum where the artifact is stored.

I have chatted with many people over the years about their communications with museums. Some have had good experiences, and some have not. Some museums have a mandate to educate the public (the Museum of London is fabulous about this). Some are still locked in the archaic thought that the artifacts are “theirs” and that unless you are someone important you shouldn’t even ask for information, much less the right to actually SEE something. Fortunately this last view of the world is changing, but, and this is a BIG but, we need to be realistic. Most museums, like any underfunded organizations, are staffed by overworked employees. They already have a ton of work on their plates and any request that you make is just another thing to add to that pile.

So how can we make communications with a museum more likely to succeed? Well, the first thing is to make our question as concise as possible. Locate the museum’s accession number for the artifact. Every artifact in a museum usually has a specific number associated with it. In older collections that have not been updated, you will occasionally find a picture of multiple items, where there are no numbers listed for the individual pieces – note the number associated with that picture. When you contact the museum, use that number.

Be specific. Do not ask things like “could you tell me everything about this piece”. If you want to know “everything” then ask yourself what “everything” means, and make a list. Good examples of the sort of things to ask include: what is the thickness of the metal in this piece, what type of fabric is this made from, how much does this piece weigh? Be specific. Ask if there is a publication available that has specific information about an artifact.

I once contacted the Archaeology staff at Jamestown Historical Site, in Virginia, to ask about some black glass buttons that were in their collection. I randomly chose a collections archaeologist off of a list on their website and wrote her a concise note about the information that I was looking for and why I wanted it. It took about a week to hear from her, and when her email came back it contained information about the buttons that I knew about, and others that I did not know about, including pictures. I wrote her back, thanking her for all of the excellent information and asked if she knew of any publications. And yes she did.

But what do we do if the museum in question is in a non-English speaking country? Google Translate! Write a simple, concise letter. No complex sentence structures, no flowery descriptions, and run it through the translator. The person that you are writing to may speak English as well as you do, but they will appreciate your effort and the fact that you do NOT expect everyone to speak English. An example would be something like this:

I am studying Celtic pottery. Your museum has a piece that I would like information about. The number of the piece is 1234567-AB. Can you tell me how tall and how wide this piece is? Is there any published information about this piece?

Translation software usually gets the correct information across if the sentences are simple.

And be patient! Do not expect an answer within 24 hours. Or even a week. Assume that the person that you have written is busy. Maybe they are out of town at a convention, or maybe they are in the field. If you have not heard anything in two or three weeks I would write again and say something like “I am sure that you are very busy. I was wondering if you have had the time to investigate my previous request for information?” Always be polite. I understand the frustration of not being able to get information on something that you are really interested in. It happens.

So what do you do when you have exhausted your museum options and you haven’t found the information that you are looking for?

Next Time: Where do I go for more information?

English: Helmet from France, 1610-1620. Artifa...

English: Helmet from France, 1610-1620. Artifact in Brussels Royal Museum of History and Art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)