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UC Berkeley-led experiment with online museum collections opens doors to new participants
23 September 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - An ambitious experiment led by the University of California, Berkeley, is making it possible for anyone with Internet access to explore some of the richest historical and cultural collections at museums around the state - for free.

No standing in line, no buying tickets, no craning your neck to peer through the crowd, and no closing time. And for researchers, this new approach to viewing museum collections may mean the elimination of time-consuming and often costly travel.

Called the Museums and the Online Archive of California, or MOAC, the project, so far, provides easy, one-stop access via the Web - - to historical and cultural materials at 11 public and private museums in California. The archive presently contains some 150,000 images, from historic to contemporary, of artifacts, installation art, paintings, manuscripts, photographs and architectural blueprints.

"Most material culture in museums is all locked away in vaults. It has been hidden from us by the very institutions we hire to preserve and protect it for us. Our ultimate goal is to open it up and make it available to the public," said Richard Rinehart, MOAC project manager, director of digital media for the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, and a teacher in UC Berkeley's Department of Art Practice.

In the past, he added, online access to museum collections has been limited and, in some cases, subscription-based. Now, MOAC has made searching collections easier for everyone - from the casually curious to the academic researcher.

"What we know is it works, it works very well. No one else has worked out this level of detail for integrating museums, libraries and archives on such a large scale," Rinehart said. "MOAC is already a national model."

Eleven museums have signed up with MOAC, which is run by the California Digital Library in the UC Office of the President. MOAC was initiated by the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, where it is still managed.

UC Berkeley contains the highest concentration of MOAC participants -the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, The Bancroft Library and Museum of Paleontology. MOAC partners also include the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Japanese American National Museum, UC Riverside/California Museum of Photography, and California Digital Library.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) just joined this fall, and many more museums are expected to follow suit, said Rinehart, who has made presentations about the MOAC model to national museum and library conferences.

California has more than 2,000 museums, said Rinehart, and MOAC's 150,000 images are just a fraction of what it ultimately could contain.

"MOAC is a great project," said David Sturtevant, head of SFMOMA'S Collections Information and Access Department "It's really about providing broader access to information about our collections."

Not only does MOAC offer thumbnail images of collection items, but it also provides them in high resolution, along with summary descriptions of the collections and information about individual artists and objects.

One goal of the project has been to solve the problem of how to enable museums of all sizes and types to produce information about their collections - such as cataloging and images - and collect it on a central server so researchers can search across all collections at once. This solution needed to be simultaneously cost-effective for each museum and developed on a statewide scale.

Through consensus building, the use of international technical standards, and development of software tools, MOAC found a solution. MOAC partner museums enter their data into a software tool that converts them to the standardized format. Museums then send data and images to a central server at the California Digital Library where content is integrated and mounted online.

There is no cost for a museum to join MOAC, other than the expense of describing and imaging museum collections, then getting that information to the central server. Several museums also use the resulting data and images on their own Websites as well as on MOAC.

First to go online with MOAC were The Bancroft Library items from the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. collection of early Californian and Western American pictorial material. Other major collections in MOAC include the Hans Hoffman Collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and the Dorothea Lange Photo Collection, the largest Depression era collection in the world, at the Oakland Museum of California.

The UC Office of the President is paying for a computer server in which to store MOAC's mounting treasures. Financing for the two-year experiment came via a $500,000 development grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency.

The next phase will be a formal evaluation of MOAC's usefulness, looking at who is using it as a resource, how they are using it, and how to improve the system so that new museums can participate in the future.