Evaluating the Format of Museum Data

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

March 15, 2023

Last week we discussed how to evaluate the quality of museum data—which impacts the ability to successfully migrate data from one museum Collections Management System (CMS) to another. The same is true for the format of the data.

If the data is in a non-compatible format, it should be converted to the correct format before or during the migration process to a new CMS. Restructuring data formats can happen at the schema and field-level and can take a considerable amount of time to execute correctly. The more work done ahead of time to identify these issues, the better. In addition to data schema and field formats, it’s also helpful to know what format the data can export to if you’re using an existing CMS. In this post we’ll cover all three format areas:

  1. Data Schema
  2. Data Fields
  3. Data Export

For this evaluative area, the main prompts are as follows:

  1. Data Schema: Is the data in a recognizable schema and consistent format?
  2. Data Field: Is the data for each field in the expected format for that field?
  3. Data Export: Into what format(s) can the data be exported?

Museum data as it exists for you currently is in a format the current system (or spreadsheet) allows. However, just because it’s allowed currently doesn’t mean it’s correct. This is especially true of older museum CMS tools that were rudimentary in design and could not impose or enforce a standardized data format per field. If the museum CMS data you’re working with is in this camp, the potential for needed clean-up could be greater than if it was in a newer and more standardized system.

Different Types of Data Schema Formats

Data can be recorded in a variety of data format patterns or schema, with one or several formats existing per field of study. The most common data formats found in museums are the following (listed in alphabetical order):

What to Look For: Each data format (schema) comes with its own set of standardized or suggested basic fields. By clicking on each hyperlink above you can compare and contrast your data schema to the ones present for each format. Or, if you have a CMS tool in use there’s usually instructional documentation or an “About” section where you can learn more about the data schema the system uses.

Different Types of Data Field Formats

When thinking about a future CMS implementation, it is important to understand which data format is expected for each field you intend to use. It is also key that the museum data in each field matches what best practices dictate. Knowing this information can assist with any pre-migration cleanup as well as navigating any data migration challenges. Each field in a museum CMS will have an allowed format. The following are the main data field formats found in museum CMS platforms:

  • Free text: alphabet-only, numeral-only, alpha-numeral, etc.
  • Calendar: usually in a uniform version of MM/DD/YYY; DD/MM/YYYY, etc.
  • Flat vocabulary: typically local and linked to a controlled vocabulary in the system.
  • Hierarchical vocabulary: typically from an authority vocab source.
  • Drop-down {select type}: Fields with predefined and selectable values, typically dictated. by the CMS platform and can be changed based on the museum’s use.
  • Reference fields: pulls and displays linked data from another area in the CMS.

What to Look For: For both your current CMS (if you have one) and your new CMS, you can request a field guide that lists all available fields in the system and what data values they accept. This can be very helpful in instances where some of the existing fields may need to migrate to a different field in the new CMS.

Different Types of Data Export Formats

For those with an existing CMS platform (especially those that are online) there are a few formats data could be exported to, but the universal form is the Common Separated Value (CSV) file. Here are the main three export formats:

  • Comma Separated Value (CSV)
  • JavaScript Object Notation (JSON)
  • Extensible Markup Language (XML)

What to Look For: If you’re not sure which format your data was exported to, look to the file extension at the end of the file name. Here are examples: dataexport.csv; dataexport.json; dataexport.xml.


Tracking the variety of data formats can (at first) be overwhelming. While I recommend getting to know all available formats, the first step is to recognize what formats you’re currently working with and how they may (or may not) relate to a future CMS.

Additional Reading

Establishing Museum CMS Best Practices

How to Prepare for a Museum Collections Management System Migration

The Importance of Sustainable Museum Cataloging & How to Achieve It

Museum CMS 101: Workflow and Record Construction

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

If you’d like to learn more, please join us for “Evaluating the Shape of Museum Data”, presented by Rachael Woody. It’s on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717. 

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