Joint ERCIM Actions
ERCIM News No.33 - April 1998

Aquarelle - Sharing Cultural Heritage

by Alain Michard

In most countries of the European Union, policy makers, both at the governmental and at the regional levels, are aware that the Internet is a powerful infrastructure that can be used to disseminate cultural and educational content, and have launched many initiatives aiming at deploying such applications. Aquarelle is a R&D Project supported by the Telematics Application Programme of the European Union which was initially set up in 1995 through a tight cooperation of public authorities from four countries, namely Greece, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, associated with research organisations members of ERCIM and with I.T. companies from the same countries. Through the project, this partnership have designed and is now experimenting an original information system that offers access to the huge information repositories which are created by public bodies and ­ to a lesser extent ­ by some private organisations, and which together document our cultural heritage.

The main challenge that had to be addressed in the project is the requirement to provide access to legacy data which has been created well before the emergence of the Internet, and which is supported by very heterogeneous systems. Even restricting to digital information, data itself is heterogeneous: it ranges from databases organised along very different schemas and based on different terminologies, to various types of digital documents such as multimedia presentations created for dissemination on CD-ROM, 'office documents' created with various text-processors, or HTML documents created for dissemination on the Web. Of course, the technologies supporting this information are themselves extremely varied, ranging from different database management systems to documentation systems, knowledge representation systems, or simple HTTP servers. However, the largest part of existing cultural heritage documentation is made of the databases created by museums and other cultural entities, and cataloguing the collections they are in charge of.

Museum curators, urban planners, commercial publishers and researchers should be able to collect information relevant to their needs or interests notwithstanding the information location and organisation. In addition, each author of a given information component should be able to link directly a part of his/her own creation to another information asset created and updated by another author. Linking, annotating and commenting on relevant pieces of information belonging to different sources will bring much more than simple access to existing information: it will add value to the information content itself. The overall Aquarelle architecture is designed to relieve users from the cumbersome manual task of maintaining cross-references as well as to support the high precision required in referencing and retrieval.

In order to develop such a hypermedia network of multimedia documents, Aquarelle relies on two main sources of cultural information: existing primary material, called archive data, such as records, drawings, maps or text bases provided by the different cultural organisations (museums, galleries, etc), and secondary material, referred to as folders, in the form of SGML documents, describing, commenting on and referring to archive data, as well as adding new information. Folders, in the Aquarelle sense, are considered as containers gathering a structured collection of specific information elements (archive data), which can be semantically linked together (intra or inter-folder references).

In order to create a folder, users can start to retrieve, via queries on archive and folder servers, cultural heritage information related to their study or research interest. Furthermore, they can browse through the retrieved folder's structure and hyperlinks to identify particular objects of interest. Then the user can insert into the new folder references to the relevant objects, via an SGML editor. Users will 'cycle' between editing, retrieval and browsing until they achieve a satisfactory product. Therefore, queries on data available in archive and folder servers play a central role within the Aquarelle information discovery system.

Aquarelle does not impose a data schema on the primary material, which ranges from strongly-structured (in record-oriented relational bases or graph-oriented object bases), to semi-structured, where the structure is looser, or irregular, or implicit (in SGML or bibliographic bases), and unstructured raw data (images or drawings).

The system relies on the Z39.50 protocol to support access to heterogeneous databases, including SGML document repositories. The Aquarelle Z39.50 profile is based on Draft version 3 of the Consortium for Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) profile, a companion profile to the Digital Collections profile. The CIMI profile was seen to be of particular relevance, as it aimed to support a similar, though narrower constituent community to Aquarelle.

Interaction between a user and individual databases is mediated by an access server. It controls access to the Aquarelle system through the user management functions which include the storage and manipulation of user profiles. It supports the services provided by the user client, namely resource discovery, query handling, result management, folder publication, and one-to-one connections with servers, through specific functions. It provides a uniform interface to archive and folder servers based on the search and retrieval protocol Z39.50. It also provides an interface with a thesaurus browser to assist users in selecting query terms. Finally the consistency of hyperlinks in folders is guaranteed by the Aquarelle link management module.

After two years of design and development, a prototype system is now available for experimentation. Users from cultural organisations are presently evaluating the system. The system will be improved during the first semester of 1998, taking into account the results of this evaluation. It is expected that the Aquarelle system will be exploited to set-up regional and national cultural heritage information services in the coming years.

The set of articles presented hereafter provides an overview of the most advanced technical features of the Aquarelle system:

Please contact:
Alain Michard - INRIA

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