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published: April, 2002

Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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   ribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

MW2002: Papers

Documenting the V&A's Collecting, Publishing and Exhibiting History

Douglas Dodds, National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK


In recent years, the UK's Victoria and Albert Museum has embarked upon various projects designed to improve access to information about its collections, publications and exhibitions. An increasing proportion of the Museum's curatorial objects are included in the Collections Information System (CIS), and the V&A's National Art Library is close to completing a major project to transfer all its older records to an online catalogue. An Online Museum project has been established, and the V&A's web site has been re-launched.

In addition to populating these core information and documentation systems, V&A staff have embarked upon various initiatives designed to capture crucial information relating to the Museum's own historic activities. Examples include the compilation of a comprehensive bibliography and chronology of the V&A's publishing and exhibition history, and the computerisation of the Museum's institutional records. In collaboration with staff and students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, an on-line version of the full text of important documents relating to the Museum's earliest acquisitions is also being created, in XML format.

The paper attempts to demonstrate how the various projects relate to other information systems and standards in the V&A and indeed elsewhere, with reference to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), Encoded Archival Description (EAD), Spectrum and MARC21, among others.

Keywords: Victoria and Albert Museum; museum publications; exhibition histories; archives; acquisitions; text encoding


To begin with, I have to confess that I was somewhat concerned when I saw the title of this session. "Thinking big" is not something that I would ordinarily admit to. However, I do plan to talk about a range of initiatives undertaken in the Victoria and Albert Museum, most of which are interconnected. Fortuitously, at least one of them even has a Massachusetts connection. Although I work in a museum environment, I should also explain that I am a librarian by background, and the following remarks should be seen in that context. For those who are unfamiliar with the V&A, I should start by giving just a little background about the Museum and its technical infrastructure.


The Victoria and Albert Museum is the UK's national museum of design and the decorative arts. It was established after the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851, and for a time it was known as the South Kensington Museum. The V&A's ceramics, glass, textiles, dress, silver, ironwork, jewelery, furniture, sculpture, paintings, prints and photographs now span the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa, and date from ancient times to the present day. The Museum's new British Galleries opened in November, 2001, and proved to be extremely popular with visitors and critics alike. The Theatre Museum, in Covent Garden, and the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood are both branches of the V&A.

The National Art Library is a department of the Museum – or, to be more precise, part of a department, following a recent merger with the Prints, Drawing and Paintings Collection. As a major reference library, its fundamental strengths reflect the interests of the V&A itself. The Universal catalogue of books on art (National Art Library 1870) signaled the Victorians' desire to achieve comprehensive coverage of the subject area, but this was never a realistic ambition. Nowadays we seek to create virtual, rather than physical, catalogues of collections. Nevertheless, the Library now holds around a million printed volumes on a wide range of subjects relating to the fine and decorative arts, plus many archives and manuscripts. Among other things, the V&A’s own institutional archives are a rich resource for study of the history and influence of one of the world’s oldest decorative arts museums, and of the broader history of art and design. The bulk of the V&A Archive comprises some 60,000 so-called ‘Registered Files’, many of which record the acquisition, loan and disposal of objects, and the planning of V&A exhibitions, from 1864 to date.


The Museum's Collections Information System (CIS) is based upon the Musims software supplied by System Simulation Limited. The CIS database now contains some 670,000 inventory records for the vast majority of curatorial objects in the V&A, plus fuller catalogue descriptions for around 45,000 items. System Simulation also provide the software for the Picture Library's Photo Catalogue, which contains more than 80,000 records, including some 50,000 digital images. The Museum maintains an extensive intranet, and uses Oracle database software for various applications. An On-line Museum project was initiated in 2000 with the intention of maximizing the potential of the V&A's cultural assets in the digital world. The Museum's Web site (http://www.vam.ac.uk) was subsequently re-launched in late 2001, to coincide with the opening of the British Galleries. Separate pages are also maintained for the Theatre Museum (http://theatremuseum.vam.ac.uk) and the Museum of Childhood (http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk). Although the various Web sites provide access to a wide range of images of curatorial objects, the collections database itself is not yet available on-line outside the V&A. In the 1990s, however, the Museum was a partner in the European-funded Electronic Library Image Service for Europe (ELISE) project (http://severn.dmu.ac.uk/elise/), which sought to make a wide range of images from disparate sources available on the Web via a distributed Z39.50 service (Dodds 1999). More recently, some 5,000 records have also been contributed to SCRAN (http://www.scran.ac.uk), the Cultural Resources Access Network.

The National Art Library's Web site (http://www.nal.vam.ac.uk) is currently maintained on a separate server, with links to other related services such as the on-line catalogue. The NAL's existing library management software, Dynix, is supplied by epixtech (sic) and is due to be replaced by Horizon software later in 2002. At the beginning of the 1990s, the NAL embarked upon a major project to transfer all its older catalogue records to the Dynix system. With funding of 1 million from the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the work is now due to be completed by the end of 2003. The catalogue is made available on the Web via a range of different interfaces, including a JAVA-based application known as Webpac (http://catalogue.nal.vam.ac.uk). Like most North American libraries, the NAL uses the MARC21 standard for cataloguing the books in its collections. Among other things, the Webpac software allows the MARC21 catalogue records to incorporate Web links to other electronic resources, including the much richer Encoded Archival Description (EAD) records for archival material. The Library also maintains a Z39.50 server, allowing users to search the catalogue using third-party products and emerging standards such as Dublin Core. As part of the switch to Horizon, we expect to install epixtech's i-PAC on-line catalogue software later this year.

MARC is a well-established standard for recording bibliographic information, but it is rapidly being overtaken by newer methods of encoding and retrieval. The Museum Archives section of the NAL, for example, already uses XML and EAD to describe some of the archival material in its collections. Most of the catalogues (or "finding aids") for individual archives are relatively small documents feasible to write directly into XML, using the EAD DTD. The records can then be displayed as HTML on the Web. In order to assist resource discovery, the EAD records are also being linked to summary descriptions for each archive group. These "group level descriptions" are held in MARC21 format and can thus be retrieved via the Library’s on-line catalogue. We have created a number of catalogues from scratch, using the authoring software XMetaL, and have also had some existing catalogues keyed and marked-up. These we have converted into navigable but static HTML pages, which, although they lack internal search functionality, are accessed via indexed summary descriptions in MARC in the library's on-line catalogue.

ncoded Archival Description record for an archive group
Fig 1: Encoded Archival Description record for an archive group
(detailed image)

In order to achieve proper search functionality, our catalogues of archival material will ultimately need to be handled by an XML-aware application such as Oracle. One series of records in the V&A Archive, for example, consists of some 50,000 paper correspondence files. The catalogue of this material has been created in a simple Filemaker database, for subsequent transfer to an Oracle/XML/EAD environment. Alongside this database we have also produced an electronic surrogate of a sequence of original abstracts of correspondence, which describe some 300,000 letters received between 1864 and 1914; from these we can not only produce contents lists for the earlier correspondence files, but also to some extent reconstruct parts of the archive which have been lost or destroyed. The surrogate, now held in a simple text format, will also be imported into the Oracle/XML environment, but the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) rather than EAD may well prove to be the appropriate DTD for this data.

V&A Publications and Exhibitions

As mentioned above, the Library is coming to the end of a project to transfer all its older records to the computer system, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Before we received this welcome financial assistance from the HLF, we deliberately prioritized categories of material that were of direct relevance to the Museum itself. Among other things, we wanted to ensure that the V&A's own historic and contemporary publications were properly recorded and, of course, available to future generations. However, it soon became clear that we also needed to maintain information about any exhibitions or displays that might be associated with them. Like many institutions, the V&A's records were far from satisfactory at the time, with information recorded in numerous different places, if at all. The aims of the V&A Publications and Exhibitions project, therefore, were to:

  • Establish a master sequence of publications by, for, or about the Museum and its branches
  • Create on-line catalogue records for these publications
  • Establish a parallel database of exhibitions and displays organized by, for, or at the Museum
  • Produce a printed bibliography and chronology, with appropriate name, title, series and subject indexes
  • Enable links to be maintained between the records for the publications and exhibitions

However, the boundaries for such an exercise were far from self-evident, and certain categories of material (and indeed events) had to be excluded from the project. For example, many V&A staff had produced books and articles for a wide range of external publishers, without the Museum's direct involvement. Whilst it would have been useful to include these references in the project, the practical difficulties were ultimately too great to contemplate. In any case, much of the information was accessible via other sources such as the annual research reports published by the V&A. Instead, we decided to concentrate on identifying every title published by, for, or on behalf of the Museum. For the list of exhibitions and displays, we elected to include all events that at been held at the Museum or its outstations, even if the V&A itself was not the prime organizer. Of course, this also meant that we were recording details that were possibly also being recorded elsewhere – but more of this later.

We systematically examined all the book collections held throughout the Museum’s various sites, checking each title against the growing database of known publications. We also checked numerous records held in the V&A Archives, plus other external sources such as the British Library, the Public Record Office and the OCLC database. As a result of this exercise, a near-comprehensive list of V&A-related publications is now available online.

Webpac list of V&A publications
Fig 2: Webpac list of V&A publications
(detailed image)

In order to arrive at anything like a definitive list of exhibitions and smaller displays, we examined exhibition catalogues, published reports, magazine listings, press releases and numerous documents from the Museum's archives. The degree of evidence that exists is somewhat variable, with the result that some records are much fuller than others. In order to improve the accuracy of the often sketchy data, a draft list of exhibitions was published on the Library's Web site, with various indexes. The comments we received as a result helped to ensure that the information was as accurate as we could make it, given the limitations of the records that had survived.

Each exhibition entry includes some or all of the following fields:

  • Exhibition reference number (e.g. VX.1961.003)
  • Date opening / Date closing
  • Duration
  • Title
  • Curator(s)
  • Venue(s)
  • Sponsor(s)
  • Publication reference numbers (e.g. VA.1961.003)
  • Notes

As stated above, a prime objective of the project was to create electronic records for the publications and exhibitions, and to allow them to be linked to other related records. With this in mind, each publication was allocated a unique identifier, incorporating the year of publication and a simple running number. In parallel, each exhibition was also assigned a similar identifier, so that the records for the publications could refer to the associated exhibitions and vice versa.

Fig 3: Filemaker database of V&A exhibitions
(detailed image)

Once we were confident that we had identified as many publications and exhibitions as we could, the bibliographic data was downloaded from the Library's computer system to a Word file that formed the basis of the list of publications in the printed volume. The data was then amalgamated with the Filemaker records for the exhibitions. In the end, the printed publication (James, 1998) contained references to some 2,700 publications and 1,500 exhibitions from 1852 to the 1990s. The book contains a number of separate sequences - for monograph publications, periodical publications, related publications, exhibitions and displays - and is arranged chronologically. Extensive cross-references are provided, with name, title, series and subject indexes. It also won a major award - the Library Association's Besterman medal for an outstanding work of reference published in the UK.

Fig 4: The printed bibliography and exhibition chronology

At time of writing, the exhibitions database is still held in a simple Filemaker format, and we are considering next steps. We still need to enhance the basic records, and we also need to make fuller exploitation of the possibilities for linking the data to related information. In addition, we intend to migrate the data to a more appropriate longer-term environment. One possibility would be to transfer the data to the Museum's Collections Information System, which includes some relevant fields for exhibition history, events and so on. Another is to hold the records in the V&A's fledgling Oracle data warehouse. Of course, the Museum also produces virtual exhibitions nowadays, and there is a growing need to maintain a comprehensive list of virtual and actual exhibitions on the V&A Web site.

We are aware of a number of external initiatives that might ultimately have some bearing on our future direction. For example, for some time the Research Libraries Group's Art & Architecture Steering Committee has been considering the viability of establishing a Shared Histories of Exhibitions Database (SHED) project. RLG already hosts a database of records for auction house sale catalogues, known as SCIPIO, and the RLG database also includes many records for exhibition catalogues. Essentially, SHED would be a repository for exhibition-related information, with appropriate links to associated physical and virtual publications. In order to begin to assess the need for such a service, the Art & Architecture Group has started to explore current practices in a range of institutions. A survey carried out in 2001 indicated that a substantial number of museums are indeed maintaining information about their own exhibition histories. As might be expected, respondents indicated that the data is held in a variety of forms, and in varying levels of detail. Of the 33 responses felt to be relevant to the survey, 11 (33%) held the information in a database, 6 (18%) in a word processor, and 2 (6%) in a library cataloguing system. As well, 15 organizations (45%) made the information available in-house, whilst 8 (24%) had published their data on the Web. Only 4 (12%) had published on paper. For more information about the status of the proposed project, see the Art & Architecture Group's Web pages (http://www.rlg.org/aag/)

Recent developments with SPECTRUM, the museum data standard, may well be of some relevance too. We understand that a SPECTRUM XML schema is currently being prepared, and this may ultimately prove to be a suitable vehicle for sharing exhibition history data. For more details, see the Web sites for CIMI (http://www.cimi.org) and the mda (http://www.mda.org.uk)

The Art Referees' Reports

In addition to documenting the V&A's publications and exhibitions, we are also attempting to improve access to information about the institution's earliest acquisitions. In its formative years, the V&A's collections expanded rapidly as the Museum set out to acquire the best examples of metalwork, furniture, textiles and all other forms of decorative art from all periods. It also acquired fine art - paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture - in order to tell a more complete history of art and design. During the second half of the 19th Century, the Museum employed a number of eminent scholars, connoisseurs and practitioners to provide advice on potential purchases, and decisions about many of the most significant early acquisitions are recorded in a series of papers known as the Art Referees' Reports, which cover the period from 1863-1886. (Burton 1999). One of the most active collectors was J.C. Robinson, who worked in the Museum from the 1850s to the early 1860s. As well as producing an impressive range of publications, Robinson also traveled extensively, acquiring a remarkable collection of works of art and design for the Museum (Baker & Richardson 1997). As he later recalled, he undertook “successive yearly expeditions, of several months’ duration, in which innumerable art auctions, dealers’ gatherings, old family collections, convents and church treasuries, yielded up an infinity of treasures…” (Robinson, 1897)

The Robinson Reports, plus the rest of the Art Referees' Reports, are held in the National Art Library's Special Collections. They amount to around 50 boxes of papers in total, and are closely related to complementary material held in the Museum Archive. Although the documents have long been recognized to be of great historical significance for the V&A and for others with an interest in the history of collecting, they had not been microfilmed or digitized. In any case, Robinson's characteristic Nineteenth-century script was particularly difficult for a non-practised eye to read, and digital images of the originals would have been of limited use in isolation. In addition, hardly any of the information about early acquisitions had been recorded in the Museum's Collections Information System.

In 1999 an American academic, Professor Lee Fontanella, offered to transcribe the full texts of the manuscripts for the V&A. At the time he may not have appreciated the full extent of the commitment he was making, but we were immensely grateful for the opportunity to tackle a project that might otherwise have languished indefinitely. The transcription required expertise in three or more foreign languages, plus extensive knowledge of art-historical terminology and some familiarity with paleography. If the project were to succeed, it would also require a substantial element of technical support. Fortunately, Professor Fontanella worked at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, which has an active policy of sending its students out to undertake assignments in the community. Each year, WPI students have the opportunity to create and complete projects through the university's Global Perspective Program. Accordingly, three students from the Institute undertook a placement in the V&A in Spring 2000, working specifically on the Robinson Reports. They began by investigating the source documents and examining possible methods of capturing the data, then moved on to help to specify the details of the proposed methodology. Rather than create simple word-processed files, we preferred to retain the full context of the original documents, whilst also anticipating retrieval via specific characteristics. The intention was to integrate the data with other related sources, including the NAL's online catalogue, the Collections Information System, and the Museum's other archival records.

The approach we adopted is based upon the eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which was originally developed for transcribing literary texts. Although there were many literary projects using TEI at the time, there appeared to be very few art-historical projects using a similar approach. It was felt that the use of XML would facilitate the subsequent indexing, formatting and retrieval of the full text of Robinson's observations. An examination of TEI suggested that it could be used with the addition of just a few additional tags for art-historical or museological concepts. Rather than create these arbitrarily, the requisite tags were taken from the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) set. Unlike TEI, the CIMI tags had not been migrated from SGML to XML by the time the project started. For more information about TEI, see the organization’s Web site (http://www.tei-c.org).

Primarily because Professor Fontanella was already familiar with the software, the students developed a WordPerfect 9 system for creating the XML data. In an attempt to speed up the process, a series of document templates were set up for specific types of material, such as letters, lists of objects, minutes of meetings, or printed materials. Names were entered as they appeared in the source documents, with the facility to store a normalized version (i.e. Surname, Forename) to aid subsequent retrieval. The discipline imposed by the TEI approach also provided a ready-made way of recording specific features - different "hands", questionable readings of the text, commentary by the editor, etc.

Professor Fontanella started to transcribe the texts in Summer 2000. For ease of handling, the first batch of files was then migrated from WordPerfect to a dedicated XML editor, in our case Xmetal. A student volunteer - also American, incidentally - subsequently added additional tags (place-names, dates, V&A inventory numbers, etc) to the data. The following year, three more students from WPI undertook placements at the Museum, developing proposals for making the texts available on-line and integrating them into the Library’s services.

Sample XML data for Robinson reports
Fig 5: Sample XML data for Robinson reports
(detailed image)

At time of writing, some 300 documents, or around 25% of the total, have been transcribed and fully tagged. We are currently developing XSLT style sheets to display the texts to their best advantage, and considering various ways of providing indexes to the material. Although the bulk of the work to date has been done by volunteers, we are also seeking funding to help support the continuation of the project. In any event, we expect to make the full texts of some or all of the Robinson Reports available on the Web in the coming year or so.


Many museums are no doubt grappling with issues similar to those that the V&A is seeking to address, and some are probably more advanced than others in sorting out the relationships among the different types of information. Although the V&A has certainly made some progress in gathering the necessary data, we are still some way away from packaging it in a totally integrated form. The information about V&A publications, for example, is held in a standard MARC21 format, but this is likely to be superseded by XML or some other generic receptacle for the data. We hope to migrate the database of V&A exhibitions in due course, and expect to be able to make the records available in a recognized XML format. In the case of the Robinson reports, we consciously adopted a somewhat experimental approach, in the hope that the resulting XML data would prove to be of lasting value. Whilst the scholarly transcription has inevitably proved to be somewhat time-consuming and the full benefits have consequently still to be realized, we remain confident that the methodology employed is broadly appropriate to the task. We could perhaps have adopted a more straightforward method of recording the information, but it might have proved to be less useful in the longer term.

Of course, we expect that all the most significant records relating to the V&A's acquisitions, publications and exhibitions will be stored on-line in future. As the NAL, the V&A, and other libraries, archives and museums accumulate marked-up texts in electronic format, we look forward to being able to search the data in meaningful ways, to share it with other institutions, and to add to it where appropriate.


With thanks to: Professor Lee Fontanella and the students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, for their work with the Robinson reports; Cyndie Campbell and Jonathan Franklin of the National Gallery of Canada, for allowing me to reproduce the results of the survey of current practice in documenting exhibition histories; and numerous colleagues in the V&A for contributing to, and commenting on, parts or all of this paper.


Baker, M. & Richardson, B., eds. (1997) A grand design: the art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London, V&A Publications. ISBN 1851772170

Burton, A. (1999) Vision & accident: the story of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications. ISBN 1851772928

Dodds, D. (1999) Integrating access to distributed images: the Electronic Library Image Service for Europe (ELISE) project. Art Libraries Journal, 27, 1, 40-42.

James, E. (1998) The Victoria and Albert Museum: a bibliography and exhibition chronology, 1852-1996. London: Fitzroy Dearborn. ISBN 1884964958

National Art Library (1870). Universal catalogue of books on art: comprehending painting, sculpture, architecture, decoration, coins, antiquities, &c. London: Chapman and Hall.

Robinson, J.C. (1897). Our public art museums. Nineteenth Century, Dec, 962-3.