Pretty Little Pictures: Metadata in Museums.

Selena Moon, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

Why does metadata matter? I learned part of the answer to that question this summer when I interned at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), part of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian was founded with funds from British scientist James Smithson’s (1765-1829) estate to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington. The National Museum of American History, initially named the Museum of History and Technology, opened in January 1964 as the sixth Smithsonian building on the National Mall. In 1980, the Museum’s name changed to the National Museum of American History to encompass its goal to collect objects that reflect the lives of all Americans. For my internship, I helped produce the Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

The Order, along with Public Law 503 signed on March 9, led to 120,000 Japanese Americans being uprooted from their homes and placed in temporary camps throughout the west coast before being moved to 10 camps further inland. Most of my work involved cataloging donated materials and artifacts relating to the Japanese American incarceration that may be used for the exhibit. Some came from individuals or their families, others from organizations; they include everything from military records and memorabilia to family albums and scrapbooks. Collections ranged from fewer than five to the hundreds. It was fascinating— if a little intrusive — to have such intimate contact with personal belongings that chronicled years or sometimes decades of people’s lives. But it is such artifacts that give the Japanese American incarceration a human element.


A Buddha statue currently on display at the National Museum of American History

Metadata is important because it gives an institution a standardized means of documenting, tracking and managing a collection while giving context to and relating various artifacts in a collection, which is especially helpful for researchers. To uncatalogued the materials, I entered metadata into the Smithsonian’s database. Some of the metadata to be entered was obvious – e.g., the owner’s name, donor’s name, date and location. But others parts of the description were not things I had thought about. I was surprised at how detailed some of the fields, especially with regard to materials used, could be.

The sections that I enjoyed working on the most were background research on the object and owner, though sometimes the latter was difficult. The amount of information on the owner varied greatly depending on his or her notoriety, from several sentences to pages of information. I tried to be as detailed as possible so that future researchers would have a lot of the background material about the object and owner when searching through the archives. Other ways to facilitate research included relating objects in a series, such as yearbooks, newspaper and magazines, to each other.

With the objects, there was a lot of guesswork, because the exact dates of photographs especially were hard to determine without notations, so dates were cited within a range. There were several ways to narrow the range, such as knowing the family’s history and determining the possible location based on the background. Additionally, knowing the materials was very useful. In researching the object components, especially photographs, I learned that photographs from different eras were made of a variety of materials. For instance, I learned how to recognize 1940’s photographs from the “silvering” or “mirroring” that gives the photographs a blue-ish sheen. However, in most cases, the dates had to be very broad, sometimes spanning decades.

The artifacts I worked with were only a small portion of the stories of Japanese American history and incarceration While the exhibit space is small, many of the artifacts and documents will be available online. The metadata that I entered will help researchers and site visitors access and explore the artifacts relating to Executive Order 9066. I hope to return next February for the opening. The Executive Order 9066 exhibit runs from February to November 2017 at the National Museum of American History.

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