Collection management systems: Museums and the Web 2011

Museums and archives manage information about their collections, facilitate interdepartmental communication, and make collections available to the public using collection management software. Here’s a rundown of the collection management systems being exhibited at Museums and the Web 2011…


The earliest museum automation traces to the late 1960’s, when the Met used mainframe IBMs to give museum staff access to collection information. Collection management systems were designed around the needs of back-office staff who were continually editing data records about museum objects. Many are stale, ugly, yet highly functional legacy systems that run on old Windows PCs, saving data on a server which the museum keeps in a broom closet.

Since the late 1990’s and the growth of the Internet, collection management software had a new job: to also make collections available to museum users (“the museum without walls”). The challenge was that the server in the broom closet was not designed to host millions of hits from the internet, so vendors created separate “web” modules to make put the collection on the web. At the same time, with the explosion of digital images and video, a new software genre, for managing digital assets, was born. Now, since many objects are photographed, the line between collection management and digital asset management is blurred.

The newest revolution is in mobile devices. There too, a line is blurring, as handheld audio tours and online collections can draw data from the same database.

Vendors and their products

Adlib Information Systems — Free-$140k. Adlib launched their first product in 1982, running on minicomputers, and now running on desktops, web browsers and mobile. Their Adlib Museum software is in use at 1.6k institutions in 25+ countries.

According to managing director Bert Degenhart Drenth, the unique benefits are: (a) Flexibility, museums can configure the system in any way they like; (b) Optional modules for Libraries and Archives; (c) An open and well documented API that can be used by third parties; (c) Mobile hand held device apps that interface with the collection management system for logistic purposes using bar code and/or RFID tags, called the “Adlib Mobile Suite;” (d) Free versions for small museums or private collectors with fewer than 5k objects; (e) Completely multi-lingual with 6 languages; (f) A plugin for Microsoft Office.

Technically, it is based on Microsoft .NET, with data stored in SQL Server, Oracle, or a stand-alone file system. An iPhone app is coming this summer, and Silverlight based in Fall 2012. Prices depend on the number of administrative users and chosen features. The full package of museum and archive features with a few users is in the $15-30k range. See a demo of the standard front-end for the public, and a custom front-end (switch to English) which was created using their API. Data can be stored locally or remotely, and there are many export options via a well-documented API. Their smallest customer is a one man operation, and their largest are national museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Museum of Ireland.

Azavea — $15-90k. Sajara is an web-based collection management system centered on digital media (photos, maps, documents, multimedia) with geographic metadata. The product was originally developed as a custom web app for the City of Philadelphia in 2005, and they decided to spin it off into a product. Being web based, it works well for organizations that wish to work together as part of a consortium.

It is an media database with taxonomies, geotagging and search, plus various options for watermarking or restricting access. It runs on a Windows server with data in SQL Server or PostgreSQL. It supplies GeoRSS feeds, saves KML files, has a search API, and has a smart-phone optimized version which works as a web app. Data can be stored locally on in the cloud using EC2. Pricing includes software and implementation, and depends on the services desired, which could include data loading, data migration, skinning, customization, or integration with other systems. Demos: PhillyHistory.orgMural Farm.

FotoWare — $5-70k. A generic digital asset management system for organizing digital files. It was first developed in Norway 17 years ago, and 100+ Nordic and mainland European museums use it. There is a desktop product, FotoStation (Mac/Windows) for managing assets, and a web-based version for the public to use. The sell a standalone system for $600, but a museum will want to have multiple users and the public access their “FotoWare Index Manager” from a server; pricing depends on the number of administrative users and the number of images. There is an option to save data in-house or in a cloud, and full options to export data. According to Kurt Jackson, of their U.S. distributor, SCS, the key benefits are that it is easy to set up and customize, easy to use, they offer strong customer support, and it’s a reliable product that “just sits there and runs.” There is a live demo. Searches are slow, taking 5-20 seconds for queries which have not been recently searched; but the second time you search for the same thing, replies come back in less than a second.

Gallery SystemsThe Museum System (TMS) is a collection management system with features such as various display modes and lightboxes, object relationships, taxonomies and  predefined metadata fields for tasks like loans and shipping. It runs on Windows server, and stores data in SQL Server or Oracle. It is not online. They have a secondary product which is no longer their development focus: EmbARK Collections Manager and EmbARK Cataloguer is for Mac/Windows, stores data on a 4D server, and has a web view. Pricing not disclosed.

KE Software — $5.3k and up. The EMu software has roots in collections management with their first version launched in 1997. According to Chris Fincham, the head of U.S. operations, the key benefits of EMu include: comprehensive museum management (collection management plus other administrative needs for a museum), workflow and project management, flexible metadata, various stats and metrics, and comprehensive web interface with support for mobile devices and kiosks.

EMu’s web interface, branded IMu (Internet Museum), includes tools for mapping objects on locality maps, plotting objects on floor plans, and generating custom guided tours.  The administrative interface is a client/server architecture, which can be set up on a Windows or Unix/Linux server, and administrative users use a Windows client.  Export is available in a broad range of formats. It exports in XML and several text formats. Pricing depends on features and the number of concurrent administrative users. They have 312 clients, and 5k+ users worldwide. Pricing increases with the number of concurrent admin users, plus there is a 20% annual fee for maintenance. Other possible costs could be for data migration, training, and customization/configuration.

Selago Design — $3k for nonprofits, $7k+ for commercial orgs. Based in Ottawa, Canada. Mimsy XG is a central data repository for museum staff to track the logistics of collections, manage interpretive content, and make the data available to the public online or via 3rd party tools. Selago’s approach is focused on low costs to museums, industry accepted standards to keep the software relevant for many years, and an open design that works with 3rd party tools. Like most systems, Mimsy has a client/server architecture. The front end is Java, and works on both Macs and PCs. The backend is Oracle, which is reliable. It supports multiple languages.

They offer two front-ends for the public/visitors (included in the price above). MWeb makes catalogs of data and multimedia, and has more search, display and customization options, and runs off a Microsoft web server. Möbius is a simpler product, running on PHP. Both can have the appearance customized by editing some HTML/CSS. (See product comparison chart PDF.)

Mimsy is used by ~125 sites, and has been available since 2004, and older versions  since the early 1990s. In 2009, there was a corporate merger, and lead programmer Andrea Boyes moved over from her prior company. The software is still actively developed by Boyes and other full time programmers. Some license fees are waived for nonprofits. Pricing is based on concurrent administrative users, and is $4k per user. Additional costs for the database server.

SydneyPLUS — Questor Systems merged with SydneyPLUS  in 2010. is a portal, mobile app builder for exhibits, and collections management solution all in one package. Details about ARGUS are vague. Pricing not disclosed.

Vernon Systems — Vernon offers a conventional client/server system, and also a totally online, cloud-based system:

Vernon CMS, is priced at $5-20k (see pricing). It’s designed for medium to large museums, mixed collections with natural and social history, and museums who require sophisticated tracking of object activities. According to Paul Rowe, the joint CEO, “Vernon CMS was built to handle any kind of museum collection, rather than coming from a heritage of a specific collection type such as natural history or art museums. Many of our clients have mixed collections of social history, art and natural history.” The system is compatible with many standards. The collection can be put online via their ‘Vernon Browser’ which is based on JSP, and is typically on a server located outside a museum’s intranet. Available features include: cataloguing (cataloguing, location recording, links to multimedia), activities (loans, exhibitions, conservation), online access (for publishing to kiosks, intranets and the Internet), and thesauri (Art and Architecture Thesaurus and Chenhall’s Nomenclature).

eHive is a cloud-based collections managements system designed for small or geographically spread museums. Free to $3.5k (see pricing). It’s designed for museums that don’t have in-house IT support, don’t want to deal with any software and server hassles, or want the convenience of a completely web-based system. See features.

According to Rowe, the two systems will soon be integrated, “for museums that want to use the Windows desktop platform of Vernon CMS, but want to publish to the web using some of the functions that eHive offers.”

Web firms

The above companies sell dedicated collection management software with extensive back-office options for managing a collection. For organizations more focused on the web experience, several vendors at MW2011 create web sites, and have experience putting collections online. Here are two developers who highlighted their work with online collections:

Cultivate Technologies — Based in Philadelphia. Uses Drupal. Focuses on publishing collections online, collecting donations, selling items, and managing events.

Mediatrope Interactive — Based on San Francisco. Builds web sites using their proprietary “Sitebots” for web sites and “MuseumCentric” for collections, as well as Drupal. Their services focus creating easy to edit web sites, publishing collections online, managing email marketing, running online stores.

For a comprehensive backgrounder on the history of collection management systems, and also discussion of many products, see a 2008 report by Dr. Poma Swank. (See 9.5 MB PDF.)

Update 8-Apr-11: Clarified product line from Selago, and moved Selago to main vendors list.

One comment on Collection management systems: Museums and the Web 2011

Hughram Grumfeld

13 Sep 2012, 8:23 pm

The sheer amount of model specific MS points are well adapted to enterprise needs. All of them may differ slightly, but they are all moving into the cloud to better fit operations such as document control software.


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