Home III. Bringing together information Three approaches Audio Interview with Sonya Dumais, National Gallery of Canada

Audio Interview with Sonya Dumais, National Gallery of Canada

November 2009

Sonya Dumais, Documentation Manager


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Sonya Dumais is the Documentation Manager, Collections Management, at the National Gallery of Canada. She recently added to the museum’s collection management system the information resulting from the case studies conducted by the DOCAM Cataloguing Structure Committee on two works from the National Gallery. Geneviève Saulnier, Conservator of Contemporary Art at the Museum, is a member of that research committee since 2007.


The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has a significant collection of new media works. Did the inclusion of these works in the Museum collection create any challenges in terms of cataloguing, documentation and data capture?

The rapid growth in the collection of new media works by contemporary Canadian and international artists in recent years, and in particular the acquisition of multiple generations of digital derivatives for existing works in the collection, has created unique and complex challenges for the documentation and data-entry process.


Those challenges have effectively accelerated the development and implementation of new policies and procedures to better manage the overall processes of cataloguing new media works and documenting the information in the collections management system. Some important questions and challenges that have surfaced as we endeavour to develop better policies and procedures include, but are not limited to the following:


• How might we assemble and record comprehensive technical specifications documenting the components and construction of the media work?

• How might we document the acquisition of multiple generations of digital derivatives over time for works already in the collection?

• How will we catalogue and sort the generations of derivatives such as format type?

• How will these derivatives be properly tracked separately from the work, given that the derivatives can move independently of the master (e.g. when a derivative copy of the DVD is produced for exhibition purposes)?

• Can information about the derivatives be easily searched and retrieved from the database to facilitate important operational requirements such as collection audits and preservation initiatives?

• How might we record and track accessories (e.g. playback machines) dedicated to or required for the display of the media work (including information regarding their potential obsolescence)?


These and other important questions have and will continue to shape the direction the NGC is taking to better manage its new media collection.


Were there certain works that required some re-thinking about data-entry methods?

Definitely. The acquisition of works of art made of materials that were new and unusual to the collection required our cataloging habits to be adjusted. For instance, Gar Smith Notes on Light, 1969-70 - 1200 35 mm colour slides and 3 sound tapes and Michael Snow Untitled Slidelength - eighty 35 mm colour slides presented issues related to preservation and exhibition copy sets. Both works were purchased in the early 70s.


Later on, we encountered issues related to integral electronic components and interchangeable physical furnishings. The Boardroom (1987) by Muntadas – 13 framed photographs, 13 video monitors, 13 b/w videotapes, 13 videotape players, cables, and boardroom furnishings is a good example.


Is the Museum able to follow its usual cataloguing practices when documenting new media works?

In 2005, the NGC implemented an interim approach for the cataloguing of new media works of art, their various derivatives and any related equipment.


When a new media work is purchased, new records are created in both the Acquisition and Object Authority (Catalogue) modules of the collections management system. The catalogue record will document the original format (the format in which the object was originally acquired, either through purchase or gift) and information about any equipment, or derivative formats that are acquired as part of the purchase will be documented in the accessories table of the object record.


When subsequent derivatives of the work of art are acquired at a later date, through purchase or produced in-house, these are catalogued as accessories in the original catalogue record and a second acquisition record is produced to document the later purchase date, price, source, etc.


There are also standards in place with regards to the nomenclature used to number the various derivatives and to describe the formats. For example, the identification of the derivative material would include the object ID number, followed by the duplication number in sequence.


The location of derivative accessories can be identified and tracked independently from those of the master. In addition, destruction or disposal of derivatives or accessories can be recorded.


The cataloguing of the equipment and derivative formats in the accessories table has several key benefits. First, the information is searchable and can be retrieved through an advanced search and reported for various project or preservation initiatives. Second, it is possible to track all of the derivatives and equipment for audit purposes. Finally, it makes it possible to determine what works may be at high risk, as a result of the obsolescence of certain formats and equipment, and which can then be the point of focus for long-term preservation objectives.


While the current approach has been successful, the biggest challenge facing the NGC is the communication between curatorial, conservation, multimedia and collections management staff when new equipment and derivative formats are acquired. If new material is acquired outside the standard acquisition process, for example as part of a preservation project, the relevant information about the new derivatives and equipment must be shared in order for the details to become part of the collections management system.


As part of its work, the DOCAM Cataloguing Structure Committee conducted two case studies on works from the NGC collection. How did you integrate but also, interrelate, the information associated with these new media works in your database?

The DOCAM results are being utilized by the National Gallery of Canada as prototypes in a pilot project to develop a template for the documentation of preservation information. A prototype record for each work of art that was part of the DOCAM project was entered in the Condition module in the collections management system. The record contains key information about the condition check, including:


• the main condition (e.g. good, poor, high risk, etc.);

• the date the object was examined;

• the key resource (who examined the work of art and who made the recommendations for treatment or preservation requirements);

• the purpose of the examination;

• a brief synopsis of the recommendations.


Once the record was created in the collections management system, it was then possible to link supporting digital documents. For example, the final report produced for the DOCAM project was linked to the condition record, allowing system users to view the full report in detail.


For the Museum, what are the benefits of this information-linking approach?

The key advantage of relating this information to the collections management system is that it contributes to the object’s history by providing a snapshot of the object’s current state and what is required to make it available for long-term installation.


By adding the information to records in both the catalogue and the condition modules, it becomes an important resource that can be shared and referenced by other museum staff.


To date, the NGC has not been using the Condition module of the collections management system. As noted in the previous answer, the two case studies in the DOCAM project were the catalyst for opening and testing the module, to determine how best the data collected could be captured in a meaningful and complete way. The combination of data entered in a summary section of the record, with links to digital documents, proved to be the most successful method of capturing the overview of the study and the details simultaneously. The prototype project will form part of a larger initiative to fully launch the Condition/Conservation module(s) of the NGC’s collections management system.