I have to admit that not too long ago I thought heritage inventories were about the most boring subject in the world. Long lists of of geographical coordinates…artifact drawings and state of conservation reports…highly technical terminology…close-up photos of stratigraphic layers, cracked foundations and water stains…

Rodney and Inventories

Rodney Dangerfield could have spoken on behalf of traditional heritage inventories. But things could change…

Coming from the field of public heritage interpretation, I’ve always preferred the sizzle to the steak. I’m not saying that the particular cut of steak—and its physical condition—are less important than the presentation. I’ve also always known that SOMEBODY had to do the listing and documentation. But the very concept of archaeological and architectural inventories summoned up visions of some patient and sometimes put-upon staff member tediously glueing field photos to printed inventory forms or squinting for hours at the rows of an excel spreadsheet or typing inventory data—item by item—into the fields of a conventional database.

That all changed a couple of years ago when my firm Coherit started to work on a regional cultural initiative for the Organization of American States. There was considerable uncertainty about the extent and even existence of heritage inventories among public sector respondents in many of the fourteen participating member states.

Now just imagine if a town, city, or region had no Registry of Deeds, no assessor’s database, no Registry of Vital Statistics. Taxes would go unpaid. People would disappear or never be acknowledged. Property would be claimed (and lost!) without legal means of recourse. No one would know—except by word of mouth—who, what, and where important things were kept. The rich and powerful could shape the landscape to their whims and the community as a whole would have no lasting collective memory.

When it comes to heritage inventories, that’s exactly the situation in some of the places we’ve worked in. I’ve grown to appreciate that inventories should not be the Rodney Dangerfield of heritage work. Yes, the storytellers may get the attention, and the preservation architects and restorers may keep individual sites and buildings from collapsing, but should a natural catastrophe or other disaster strike suddenly, inventories are the key to reconstruction. They may be the only thing standing between a community and the irreparable loss of its heritage.

Inventories are essential

Santa Ana Catholic church in Port-au-Prince, badly damaged by the January 2010 earthquake. Only a handful of Haitian sites were recorded in detail. The rest remain in ruins or have been bulldozed away. Photo: Radio Vaticana

Take My Inventory…Please

What are the problems? Why aren’t heritage inventories everywhere complete and kept current? The work is painstaking, time-consuming, and highly detailed. Most heritage organizations have to spend most of their time putting out fires and dealing with imminent threats. They have too little time to devote to long-range documentation. And besides that—with most of the traditional methods of record keeping—many of the individual entries are out-of-date and out of mind by the time a single round of inventorying is done.

attics or inventories

Does your heritage inventory look anything like this?

Add to that the problem of finding a certain range or type of entries: paper inventories kept in folders and file cabinets are often hard to search and impossible to visualize in their entirety. Often an inventory is kept in a combination of media—handwritten notes, printed forms, spreadsheets, scanned images, and GIS shape files—so research about sites over a large area and a particular timespan is a bit like rummaging through an attic filled with trunks and suitcases and cardboard boxes. Clouds of dust and frustration are likely results.

No wonder the keeping of detailed heritage inventories are seen as a chore that definitely needs to be worked on—next week, next month, next year…

From Closed Inventories to Open Invitations

In earlier posts, I have described the enormous potential of Arches, the web based, open-source inventory management system developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund. Arches solves many of the most common headaches that heritage inventories cause: once installed and configured, Arches combines the mapping power of GIS with the nimble data relationships of of a graph database. Entries are easily made and edited with drop-down menus, and can be accessed simultaneously by multiple authorized users on any online device, from a widescreen desktop to an iPad or smartphone in the office, at home, or in the field.

This obviously makes the inventory accessible, flexible, and easily updatable. But there is more. At Coherit we have been working hard to develop new interpretive features to the front end of Arches, such as customized templates, user-friendly interpretive search glossaries, and integration with social media to involve the general public in contributing information and interacting with the inventory in new ways.

With these features a heritage inventory can do double duty: both as a secure, standards-based inventory for professional conservation monitoring and as a powerful interpretive tool that will offer heritage enthusiasts and the public at large a way to connect with the historical assets they share.

We’ll keep you updated on our work and the services we offer. And maybe someday soon, 21st century heritage inventories will finally get some respect.