Cultural Object Online Descriptions / Susan Barrett

This study path guides the learner in evaluating how cultural objects are described online, and develop recommendations for their improvement based on evaluating and incorporating non-Western knowledge descriptions.

By Susan Barrett, Director of Library Repository Services and Technology, Arizona State University


Library, Archive, and Museum (LAM) professionals are frequently tasked with describing and sharing cultural materials on blogs, websites, or social media. The ability to evaluate and incorporate non-Western description is critical for research and scholarly inquiry about cultural objects. The learner will evaluate how cultural objects are described online, and make recommendations for improvement.

Prerequisite Knowledge

This hands-on activity is designed for information professionals with an interest in access, user experience and metadata. Previous coursework or knowledge of metadata schemas, web design or cataloging is helpful but not required.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this assignment, students will be able to:

  1. Articulate the needs and objectives for building relationships with creator communities to improve the care and description of cultural objects in a manner that preserves diverse “ways of knowing”.
  2. Define how online exhibit and access systems accomplish this goal.
  3. Describe improvements that would accomplish the goal of improving relationships and responsible knowledge curation.



Srinivasan, et al. assert that the representation of cultural objects held outside the creator community requires us to evaluate how description, retrieval and organization is organized and shared in online spaces.

“…we assert that individuals within a given community attach different descriptions to shared phenomena, and they need to continue to describe the world differently. As each of us is a member of different communities, we each describe and classify our world using different concepts at different times and for different purposes…Not only are they useful but they are the ontological keys that unlock the doors to diverse, rich, and incommensurable knowledge communities to which the objects travel, or return, and within which they participate. They are not merely alternative translatable ways of expressing the same piece of knowledge but more accurately are diverse ‘‘ways of knowing’’ about the world that are necessary to organize, find, and use information.”

Srinivasan challenges us to think about how the knowledge system can present different and possibly conflicting traditions and perspectives.

Topics to consider:

  • Are digital objects described by a member of the creator community? How do you know?

  • Are digital objects described in more than one language? Is one of the languages that of the creator community?

  • Does the web interface provide clear identification of creator community knowledge?

For this assignment, you will:

  1. Complete the readings.
  2. Visit the online collections discussed in the readings.
  3. Evaluate how traditional knowledge or #ownvoice metadata about cultural objects is presented, organized, displayed and described, if at all, in the online platforms.
  4. Write a paper that includes:
    1. Your analysis of the readings.
    2. Recommendations about how to improve the online collection to meet the aspirations outlined in the readings.
  5. Alternative small group assignment:
    1. Small group readings discussion.
    2. A collaborative group session evaluating the online platforms.
    3. A presentation of the redesign ideas for improving the online platforms.



Cambridge University. 2018. “The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.” 2018.
Conaty, Gerald T., Carter, Beth. 2005. Our Story Our Words: Diversity and Equality in the Glenbow Museum, in Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility. Museums Association of Saskatchewan.
Glenbow. 2018. “Glenbow Museum Collections: Northwest Coast.” Glenbow. 2018.
Srinivasan, Ramesh, Katherine M. Becvar, Robin Boast, and Jim Enote. 2010. “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 35 (5): 735–68.

Supplemental Readings

Christen, Kimberly. 2011. “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation.” The American Archivist 74 (1): 185–210.
Christen, Kimberly. 2015. “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters.” Journal of Western Archives 6 (1).

Exemplary Projects

Mukurtu Community

Related Study Paths

User Interfaces and Interactions

Testing Interfaces with Diverse Populations

Representation in User Design

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