A virtual treasure chamber of knowledge

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They have been gathered together over the centuries: the 1,019 collections at 87 universities in Germany. They include models, coins, drawings, herbaria, apparatus and preparations that had long gathered dust in back rooms or were stored in cupboards and drawers – until they were rediscovered during the past two decades as unique testimony to the history of knowledge and science and as part of our cultural heritage.

From fossils to microprocessors

This is also the case at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), where Udo Andraschke has served since 2011 as the custodian of the university’s 23 collections. They are just as wide-ranging as the 263 degree courses on offer at the university, which was established in 1743. They encompass for example the 1825 "Herbarium Erlangense" with its 170,000 botanical objects from around the world, a geoscientific collection of minerals and fossils that passed into the university’s ownership in the eighteenth century, and machines charting the evolution of data processing from the Zuse Z 23 electronic computer to modern microprocessors.

Adapting existing software

Now six of the collections are being digitised as part of the "Objects Online" (only in German) project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The objective is to make the FAU’s collections more accessible to academics and the general public, thereby also increasing their usefulness for research and teaching. To this end, the WissKi software is being adapted. Together with the project’s partners from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, it had previously been developed with a view to setting up virtual research environments. The idea is for it to be compatible with the international standard for the documentation of museum objects that is defined by the International Council of Museums, the ICOM.

A growing network of knowledge

"We are developing a flexible data model. It records what the objects in the various collections have in common, while allowing a detailed description nonetheless", says Martin Scholz, an IT expert in project leader Andraschke’s team. This is possible because the knowledge is portrayed in the form of a network. "It is easy to add new nodes for further information to the network without modifying its structure." Existing data models do not offer such flexibility, but this is essential given the wide thematic spectrum of the collections.

Another advantage of the network data structure is that semantic technologies can be used to link the data to individual objects in the collections. Thereby, different objects and collections can be interlinked – much like interlinked content in the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia.

The system is being continuously further developed

The WissKi software can already be used by anyone wishing to digitise their research data. And it is being continuously further developed, partly with the help of the developer community outside the project. "What is more, we will be providing universities in the next few years with a profile that will allow them to use WissKi to digitise their collections", explains Scholz. The key outcome of the project, which will run until 2020, will be an online portal. It is expected that from mid-2019 not only university members but anyone who wants to will be able to access the Erlangen collections.

Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections

The Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany wishes to showcase the diversity and special features of the collections at universities. To this end, it promotes exchange between the individual universities and supports the establishment of a joint network. The Coordination Centre is situated at the Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

www.wissenschaftliche-sammlungen.de > Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections