Description creation for museum objects in a digital environment. Co-creation

Kaie Jeeser

Museums are skilful in using digital opportunities to offer information. Technology gives also an opportunity to involve people in creating the content and descriptions of museum objects. There are several projects in Estonia inviting people to send material (especially digital images) to a museum. Modern data gathering methods make it fast and easy supporting the visibility of a museum. Consequently, the number of visitors rises and the connection with the community fastens.  

Documentation and description of museum objects have always been regarded solely as a task of a museum worker. Must it be so? A museologist is proficient in using description methods and the relevant information system, but the person who has made the product is likely better able to describe it technically. Different professions provide different knowledge.

I have worked in a museum since 1993 participating actively in the creation of the Estonian museum information system and taught the documentation of museum objects to students and museum staff. Based on my experience, I wish to outline how, where and to what extent a person from outside a museum can be involved in the documentation of a museum object.

The documenting system (KVIS, MuIS)[1] has been used in Estonian museums for 20 years and the web-based documenting system for 10 years. The latter provides an opportunity to involve professionals from outside our museum giving them an opportunity to work in our professional work environment.

To engage the public, we use MuIS portal, which makes all the records of a museum object available for everyone.  After the confirmation of the receipt in MuIS userenvironment, a part of the record of a museum object – the name, the number and the picture of it becomes public. In MuIS portal, each interested person or those who took part in the event or found themselves in a photo can elaborate the description data of an object by typing their information in the Feedback data field. The information is sent to the related museum by email, and a museum employee adds the description into the system. Such kind of work process was set when MuIS was created because museum staff opposed to the idea of simply allowing the information to be inserted directly into the object’s description.

At many seminars and conferences on museum work (also in one session of CIDOC conference in 2018), heated debates have risen about whether the information added by people outside the museum or stories about museum objects are of historical value or simply stories that are not really usable in the future.

There has also been a discussion whether we should record all the added comments or a museum worker needs to apply their critical look in this process etc.

If we speak about inclusion projects that engage the public, some aspects of it have made me think:
1. Necessity of the information sent.
2. The value as a reusable source of history of the information sent.
3. The ways to include people so that is not only entertainment for the audience but also useful for the museum.

1. Necessity of the information sent – does this data contain information that helps to document museum objects? Or is it information noise?

In order to get an overview of how valuable the feedback has been, I collected the content of MuIS Feedback field received by the museum during one year. In 2020, the emergency situation caused by COVID19 virus provided an additional opportunity for this activity. In the first week of lockdown people were invited to make their stay at home meaningful and to help museums describe museum objects and to send us information through MuIS Feedback form. At the end of the lockdown, the analysis was carried out to see what type of feedback was received by the museums.[2]

Based on the practical experience and systematic data gathering during this year, certain generalizations can be made.

The use of the feedback field can be broadly divided into two:
1. Collecting information/stories from the people who donate objects with the goal that the owner could document the object themselves. This activity is called supervised cooperation or involvement. This type of feedback is highly relevant, interesting and expected because the collection of this information is carried out under the guidance of a museum employee, which facilitates the documentation processes in museums.
2. Collecting data about the museum objects in MuIS portal. It means the information that is added later to the museum objects that have already been described. It’s called random information about random objects.

To evaluate whether the information received from people is important and valuable for the documentation of the museum object, it is critical to look at the random information.

Random feedback can be grouped according to its type and ranked according to the number of its occurrences:
a) Corrections to the information created by a museum employee – incorrect data: years, events, name format, etc.
b) Specifying the existing information, usually about photos – adding the names of people, specifying locations, the name of the event, year etc.
c) Examples of the questions about the museum objects without existing information to get additional information.[3] For example, a person is interested in collecting the object or asks for the information related to its preparation.
d) Orders about the image.
e) Mistakes e.g. a photo is presented upside down in MuIS and typos e.g. kiriö -> kirivöö.
f) The image does not match its description.
g) Foolish comments. For example: I would like to welcome R. M., for whom I think such a leotard would suit very nicely; DAMN, WHAT A BEAUTY!

The photo collection receives more feedback than objects and archive material.

Below are some specific examples of random information about random objects:
a) Corrections to the information created by a museum employee.
With this information, the photo TMF 983: 41 was visible on the MuIS portal.

Figure 1

Note that the name of the photo hasbecome more accurate – locations are defined:
A pond -> Vanemuine Pond; the Russian Orthodox Church -> the Church of St. Mary (Luther’s Church)

Based on this data, the event characterizing the image in the photo was described by a museum employee.
1944 wars
Post-WW II devastation in Tartu. View from Vanemuine Street. In the background is the destroyed tower of St. Mary’s Church at 1 Pepleri Street. The St. Mary’s Church Foundation was established in 2009. The aim is to restore the church. Estonia Tartu; Vanemuise Street

It is important that after the feedback received from the MuiS, the museum object has got a much more informative description than before.

b) Specifications or additions to the existing information.
The direct translation of the feedback on MuIS:

Figure 2

In short, quite meaningful information can be found.

Most of the people who send such data are hobby historians. Based on my experience, they are eager to communicate, clarify and add more information to the message that has already been sent. I often develop a longer friendly interaction with them via e-mail. It is very supportive because they are the people who help us to get important additional information.

The following photo description was updated due to such communication.
With the information shown below, the photo TMF 915: 73 was visible on the MuIS portal at first.

Figure 3

Below is the correspondence about the photo above TMF 915:73 given via Feedback form in the MuIS presented in chronological order.

Figure 4

The following represents the interaction by email:

Figure 5

Look at the description in the photo TMF 915:73, after the receiving the feedback and the subsequent communication.
– Note that the year has been changed in the name: 1930 -> 1931
– An event has been added: Rescue operation 1931

See the green text

Figure 6

Based on the feedback in MuIS collected during a year, I dare to say that a large number of random feedback is relevant and contributes to the documentation of museum objects. Only the tiniest percentage of it had to be deleted.

2. The value of the information sent as a reusable source of history. Can it be guaranteed?

The question how reliable the information sent by ordinary people is still remains. Should a museum specialist check the facts in the stories people have sent? When a museum employee inserts data, they check any suspicious facts. Reviewing everything is impossible and meaningless. Also, a museum specialist can make mistakes. As it can be seen in the examples above, the sender of the information may be an expert i.e. a person skilled in their art. In this creative process it is important to maintain the probative value of a museum object as a source of history. Then it would be possible to create information[4] and tell stories based on this data without losing the original truth in the future.

What can a museum do to guarantee that the data, information and stories added by the public would have the historical source value throughout the time in the future?

We must take into account that any information is influenced by several subjective factors[5]. The writer or documenter record what the information according to their (preliminary) knowledge. Each receiver/reader forms a new understanding of the information depending on their prior knowledge. Thus, the knowledge that is obtained from a museum object depends both on the person who added the data and the reader. The more people, the more interpretations– a difference that makes a difference[6]. It cannot be guaranteed that everyone understands the written text in the same way, but we can contribute to a uniform interpretation of data and information.

While recording and storing information, we must also record and store the background data of the information to each description: the person who enters it; the time, the place and the situation of entering); and all the additional sources used in the description.[7]

I will help a reader to understand the content of the description or to interpret stories and presume that the transmitted and/or forwarded data is veritable. The existence of the background of the description gives a reversibility to the information. This becomes especially necessary when the veracity of the data needs to be checked.

In short, updating the data related to a museum object cannot be anonymous. The information system should store both the name of the person who entered the data and the time when the entry of the data was made. Whether the system does it automatically or with the help of a museum worker is irrelevant, but this is what gives a researcher a basis for interpreting the data in the future.

3. How to include in a way that it is not only entertainment for the audience but also useful for the museum? How could this activity support the documentation activities of museum objects?

The goal should be the integration of inclusive activities carried out outside a museum into the museum’s work process – a new work segment in a museum called inclusive documentation.

Since the introduction of the MuIS portal in 2009, I have tried to involve people from outside the museum. A certain experience has been acquired, giving me an understanding where and in which stage of the museum’s work it is the most effective.

Documenting museum object’s description data is an activity that begins with collecting. The more the object is explored, the more data will be found and the new data will provide new additional information. It is an ever-continuous activity.

Therefore, to simplify the involvement of the public a museum object’s description could be divided into 3 work phases, resulting in 3 description levels:
1) Collection – primary registration of data and information.
2) (Full)cataloguing – making data and information available.
3) Scientific research and additional descriptions – organizing, correcting, supplementing data and information – ongoing description.

The first work phase – collection – primary registration, which results in the first description level.
At this stage, it is important to gather all additional information about the object, for example, the stories from the donator of the collection (the owner of the object). The questions the donator is asked by a museum employee give the best result here. Based on my experience, it is the cooperation which is based on the knowledge of the donator, but at the same time it is strongly directed by the museum employee. The contribution of both parties is 50%.

The second work phase – full cataloguing, which results in the second description level.
The object is classified and systematised according to the specificity of the museum. The description of a museum object, based on the data model following the mutually agreed requirements, becomes public. The information related to the object is made searchable. In the second work phase the object’s identification card is formed.[8] It is the base for further research work.

Cataloguing museum objects forms a specific part of museum work, the knowledge of which cannot be demanded from a person outside the museum. It is the cooperation in which people from outside a museum specify some facts, but most of the descriptions in this phase must be done by a museum worker. In this stage, the contribution of the parties is inclined towards the activities of a museum worker, who does approximately 80% of the work.

The third work phase, scientific research and additional descriptions (ongoing description), which results in the third description level.
Its goal is to provide the museum object a general historical-cultural context. The third level may include a museum worker’s or any other researcher’s specific study of the object (scientific work in the museum specific area) or the memories and additions to the museum object shared by the people related to the object.

Owing to the knowledge of different people´s additional descriptions, a museum object is created. There can be several descriptions by different people on this level. This is the stage where the possibilities for involving a person outside a museum are the greatest because a museum (especially a history museum) certainly does not have (nor is unable to employ) specialists of literarily every area of life, especially when we talk about history museums.

The third work phase of describing a museum object, in which the contribution of the person from outside the museum to the documentation of the museum object can be about 80%.

The following approximate workload could be taken into account at involving people from outside the museum in documenting museum objects:

To sum up, it can be said that in the first work phase activities parties contribute equally; however, the second work phase of the description primarily requires the knowledge of a museum employee. The third work phase involves activities where the greatest opportunity to make use of the knowledge of people outside the museum is hidden. In this phase, it is easy to integrate inclusive activities performed outside the museum into its work process to reach a new work segment in a museum – inclusive documentation. Additionally, we should think about the development of entertaining games and programs to create the content.


There are three key problems that we have to solve when involving people from outside the museum in documenting an object i.e., at applying inclusive documentation:

1. Necessity of the information sent – does it contain the information that helps to document museum objects? Or is it information noise?
It’s important to find time to communicate with a sender. The goal of collecting this kind of information is not quantity (the more senders, the better) but quality. Communicating with the sender of the information will helps to create a high-quality description.

2. The value of the information sent as a reusable source of history. Can it be guaranteed?
Documenting all descriptions and stories with background data (the people who are related to this activity, the time, the place) supports the understanding and interpreting of the added information in the future.[9]
It would be good if the addition of new information together with background data took place automatically to the description page of the object, on which the info would be inserted into a specific data field with background data. It is also important to keep any information sent in its complete form.

3. How to include in a way that it is not only entertainment for the audience but also useful for the museum and would support documentation activities of museum objects?
It can be done by integrating inclusive activities carried out outside a museum into the museum’s work process to reach a new work segment in the museum inclusive documentation.

This requires:

a) The museum documentation system that takes into account different stages of work when creating the description of an object. This three-step work process of describing an object (as in the MuIS) supports involving people outside the museum in documentation activities.

The second phase of description (cataloguing) is a professionally created description level which results in having a museum object’s ID card. The existence of this description level is important for the developing of models and systems of inclusive documentation that would be integrated into daily museum work. The third work phase built on the second work phase would be the easiest to integrate inclusive activities carried out outside the museum into the museum’s work process to reach a new work segment in a museum – inclusive documentation.

b) It is important that the source data related to the museum object and the information (with background data) added by the audience is stored in one environment/system.

What not to do? The inclusive documentation is not supported if separate systems that have nothing to do with the system used in the museum are established and used for collecting data from the public. Such activity creates only an illusion of inclusive documentation. It can be entertaining for the public, but not useful for documenting museum objects.


It is important to involve people outside the museum in documentation activities. But we must not forget that in doing so it is vital to ensure the quality of the content so that in the future it would be possible to create information and tell stories based on this data without losing the “original truth” and also to provide an opportunity for a wide range of different but still scientific interpretations.

We must use available options in the systems to make the work of the collection more understandable and interesting for the audience. We must find a solution to involve the community in designing collections, either in collecting new material or describing the existing material, so it would not be just an exciting project for a participant but also useful for the museum.

[1] Since 1993, Estonian museums have used elektronic documentation system, named KVIS (Information System for Museums and Antiquarian Institutions). 42 Estonian museums used the same software based system, but there was no connection between different databases. In 2009, we to the new system into use, named MuIS (Museums Information System), it is a central Internet-based system.  The data model of MuIS is identical to the data model of KVIS. And the data of all the museums in KVIS was transferred to the new web-based information system MuIS, which is used in 58 museums at the moment. Museums from a very wide range of fields can work together in the same system: for example, we have museums of sports, art, agriculture and so on that all use the same system in Estonia. MuIS portal is available for the general public. I will rely on the examples of the web-based documentation systems for museums that we use in Estonia, since this system has been in use for 20 years and already contains enough data to make conclusions.

[2] The Estonian Heritage Board. The information about the statistics of MuIS feedback (20.03-08.04. 2020).

[3] There are many records without information in the system, because the system automatically makes public all museum objects that have been accepted, ie only the number, name and image are public.

[4] Create informatio Jeeser 2013:52-53.

[5] Information is like a system with its own natural amount of relations or subjective factors of information, which form the information architectures. Information architectures are developing and dependent on situation and receiver (Capurro, Hjorland 2003, p. 359). Subjective factors: sender (time and place, situation) = “background data” / this gives the framework of information; receiver (time and place, situation) = “background data” / this gives the framework of information; sender (t+p+s) + receiver (t+p+s) =  this gives the framework of information flow.

[6] Capurro, Hjorland 2003, p. 359.

[7] Background data will form the framework of the layers of different descriptions. Adding the information framework to the different layers of description will help to separate (the incremental information from the pure information) the different layers of description.  It would also be important, that all the reuse of the data models (this machine-readable Open Data etc.) have to display with the added information this information framework and connections between data elements that carry on information/knowledge.

[8]  An analogue of this card has been developed by Object ID CIDOC.

[9]  See reference 5.


Capurro, R., B. Hjørland (2003) The concept of information. Annual review of information science and technology 37. Information Today, pp. 343-411). [].

Jeeser, K. (2010) Structuring of museum objects description: implication of information theory, CIDOC NEWSLETTER No. 01/2010, pp. 14-17.

Jeeser, K. (2013) Documentation Of Museum Objects In Estonian Museums. [ (Accessed: 18 April 2021)].

Jeeser, K. (2014) Telling stories with museum objects – information noise or information with historical source value in future. CIDOC Conference Paper. [ (Accessed: 14 October 2020)].

Lotman, J. (2006) Kunstilise teksti struktuur. Tallinn, Kirjastus, Tänapäev.

Van Mensch, P. (1990) Methodological museology; or, towards a theory of museum practice. Objects of Knowledge, pp.141-157. London.

[ (Accessed: 25 October 2020)].

[ (Accessed: 25 October 2020)].

The Estonian Heritage Board. The information about the statistics of MuIS feedback (20.03-08.04. 2020), Google Analytics´ist [ (Accessed: 25 October 2020)].


Kaie Jeeser

She has a diploma in History and a Master’s degree (MA) in Information Management at the University of Tartu. She is the Head of the Collections Department, Tartu City History Museums. Since 2018 she has been a Board Member of the Estonian Museum Association (EMA) and since 2019 the EMA Chairman of the Union of Collections. Kaie joined CIDOC in 2006 and 2013-2019 belonged to the Board of the CIDOC.