Paradigm Shift: Museums of Mexico

Vania Ramírez Islas, Ministry of Culture, Mexico


In 2018, the Culture Digital Agenda launched the Museos de México (Museums of Mexico) project, a digital development that renews the digital collections of seven major museums under the Ministry of Culture, adapting them to best international practices. Through this project, these museums have improved the management of their digital collections through a management system that linked documentation, curators, conservation, educational services, and public outreach areas. The system is based on a collections manager developed by Collective Access and supported by a shared data structure to standardize and bring into alignment the information created by the institutions. Finally, the project offers visitors the opportunity to enhance their experience prior to and after their museum visit through an attractive, easy-to-use, dynamic graphic interface different for each museum and that responds to the types of content and curatorial approaches created by the managers and researchers of these museums.

Keywords: Mexican museums, open museums, digital collections, web, new sectors of the public, museums on the web, UX, limited budget


The use of digital technologies in museums has modified some of these institutions’ intrinsic processes, such as registering works, public outreach, and the way collections are represented on the Internet. This latter field is perhaps the one that offers the greatest possibilities and that ultimately demands the greatest reflection; a digital output of collections entails a new way of conceiving of their organization, access, and dissemination. Giving digital tools to these spaces is an optimal complement for interpretation because they contribute information germane to researchers and educators. For this reason, in the Museos de México (Museums of Mexico) project, it was necessary and essential to propose a paradigm shift in how we visualize and exhibit information in Mexican museums on the Internet. Today, it is no longer enough to have the basic web information on museums; these spaces need to offer experiences that enrich the public’s approach to the enormous and diverse archaeological, historical, and artistic patrimony of Mexico.

As a result, this document describes the processes, information structures, and user-interface design of the Museos de México project, which includes the re-structuring of seven collections management systems of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Museo Nacional de Historia, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo Nacional de San Carlos, Museo Nacional de la Estampa, and the Museo Nacional de Culturas Popular.

For the development of the project, three fundamental guidelines were taken into consideration that, later, would be integrated through work modules:

  1. Management of information and standardization of databases
  2. Development of the collections management and data modeling system
  3. Development of the graphic interface and user experience
  4. Test-runs and getting the page running

The general objectives of the Museos México project are to make available to the public the cultural patrimony of the above-mentioned museums via a practical, intuitive web platform centered on digital collections and to offer users an optimal experience. Among the specific objectives are:

  • To connect the collection and knowledge that has been generated on it to the user
  • To offer information on the work in an enriched and contextualized way (generation of content and records)
  • To restructure information with a new data structure
  • To generate management systems by work modules to meet the needs of the different departments in the museum
  • To create multi-platform websites with a graphic interface that meets the needs of each museum and to exhibit holdings in high resolution that have never before been on the web
  • To develop a free, open, and universal system that permits not only the visualization of information but also to re-use the data capital in other automatized ways in other contexts related to education and research
  • To develop functions that enable the final users to actively participate and interact with the works
  • To offer Mexican museums a replicable technological tool for the implementation of new digital collections


Various views of the website from the Museos de Mexico

Figure 2: Museos de Mexico project

It is worth emphasizing that the seven systems will be interoperable with the Repositorio Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural Mexicano (National Repository of Mexican Cultural Patrimony: Free, open digital repository to interoperate and exhibit the holdings of the Ministry of Culture) and although the data schemes are different, a series of correspondences were created through the use of the same catalogues and a mapping with the ontology of the Modelo de Datos México (Mexico Data Model: Data model developed by the Ministry of Culture to catalogue Mexico’s patrimonial holdings), which will make it possible to integrally take advantage of the museums’ data capital to link objects and to conduct searches that result in structured information.

With this project, the Mexican museums that are international points of reference, some of them among the most important on the continent, will have websites on par with their importance, befitting their collections.


Project Coordinates

One of the principal needs to initiate the project was to establish agile and direct communication with the data providers to generate an analysis from the perspective of the state of the records, digital objects, and needs. Based on the analysis of the state of the digital collections and the use of management systems, we found: that seven museums have a public webpage, 70% have a (non-interoperable) management system, 0% have access to manage their collection, 0% exhibit their work on the web, 0% handle structured information or use data models, and 40% use vocabularies or have controlled catalogues.

On the basis of this analysis, the conclusion was reached that the project would begin with the module of 1.) information management and standardization of databases, because the absence of rules and standards would entail a slow and delicate process of data standardization, but it would permit, as a result, structured, recoverable information  for systems. Parallel to this, work was conducted on the module for the 2.) development of the collections management and data modeling system that permits the recovery of information submitted by institutions without losing or changing essential data, in addition to implementing a collections manager in Collective Access (free, specialized management system of holdings in museums) for the input and editing of records and objects in a standardized data model; generating an intermediary interface for the management of areas of documentation, movement of works, digitalization, and conservation, and finally to enable the exhibition of metadata by way of the OAI-PMH protocol. Finally, work was done on coordinate 3.) Development of the graphic interface and user experience which, in conjunction with the personnel of the museums, explored the needs for the creation of an agile and user-friendly interface, easy for collection administrator users, as well as for the final user; this phase included the development of navigation and usability prototypes.


Information Management and Database Standardization

Today, the documentation of collections held in museums has become an important focus for the preservation of patrimonial objects, and it is a generator of knowledge for experts and the general public alike. To give greater visibility to the documentation on the Web, the first step was to conduct a detailed review of the standards and structures used to generate a homologous correspondence of data for input into the new system and to standardize fields without losing the described essence.

In the case of the Museos de México project, the provenance of collections information was divided into various data agents: for the museums under the jurisdiction of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), information was submitted by the institute’s conservation and registration center, the Centro Nacional Conservación y Registro del Patrimonio Artístico Mueble (CENCROPAM), and in the case of museums under the umbrella of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the data suppliers were the museums themselves (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Museo Nacional de Historia, and the Museo Nacional del Virreinato).

One of the most important characteristics of this project was to connect all the museum personnel, who work with collections in the development process phase of the system, and later to connect the areas of education and outreach in designing the graphic interface. In this way, the virtues of this project were not only found in the underlying project to not publicly show the holdings on the Web but also in transforming the museums’ internal processes to make everyday tasks more efficient, to strengthen documentary and management processes to generate knowledge.

In a first stage, the databases and digital objects were integrated (Table 1) from seven museums. Under a detailed analysis, it was confirmed that none of the museums had data schemes and/or structured information. It is worth noting that the definition of integrated digital objects was determined based on digitalized objects free of any copyright.

Database Total number of records Number of digital objects
Museo Nacional de Antropología 65,095 12,800
Museo Nacional de Historia 1,862 308
Museo Nacional del Virreinato 2,029 850
Museo Nacional de San Carlos 2,157 948
Museo de Arte Moderno 2,869 94
Museo Nacional de la Estampa 12,351 1,065
Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares 14,674 272
TOTAL 101,037 records 1,065

Table 1: Number of records and digital objects


Based on the analysis, it was determined that record standardization work would consist of the following actions:

  • Check the correct spelling and syntax of the records, which included the appropriate use of upper and lower case, such as:
    • ministry of culture -> Ministry of Culture
    • CHAPULTE FACTORY -> Chapultepec Factory
  • Check the correspondence between the object and the description, because there might be errata in classification, duplicate records given the form of the work, or repeated information in different databases.
  • Add the specialized vocabulary for the object description, which includes giving preference to the singular masculine noun in Spanish to facilitate the recovery of the creative agents, in addition to verifying the object field so that it coincide with the object presented:
    • Object: Arm/Utensil
      • Form: Stamp
    • cms -> cm
  • Check and link the identifying number with the digital object. In a high percentage, the digital objects do not have a number that corresponds with the database. Example:
    • TheTwoFridas.jpg  -> 14503.jpg
  • Standardization of digital objects, which includes editing and retouching the image in some cases and correction of inconsistencies, such as images in different formats, heterogeneous formats, and embedded color palettes.
  • In addition to what has been mentioned, the exceptions to cataloguing rules were reviewed, such as notes that appear in different fields, works classified with the same number but divided in several parts.

To develop the database, recommendations from the Modelo de Datos México were taken so that the records could be incorporated into the digital platform of each museum and later to the Repositorio Digital del Patrimonio Cultural de México, based the Model’s emphasis on the standardization of required and recommended fields (fields based on the Modelos de Datos de México should be in the databases that guarantee the minimum of metadata to describe a work):

Name of field Description Correspondence with the Modelo de Datos México
Identifier It includes all the identifiers of the piece, namely the numbers used to identify the work in the museum catalogue, the gallery catalogue, and the storage catalogue. Class: cultural object
Property: it has an identifier
Title of work Title of work or name by which it is known Class: cultural object
Property: it has an identifier
Creative agent of the work Person-individual, artist-, group—Maya, Mexica, Chol, etc—or institution that created the object. Class: production process Property: developed by
Type Field that describes the typology of the object. Class: cultural object
Property: it has object type
Technique Method or procedure by which an object is constructed. Class: technical use
Property: specifies the technique used to produce a cultural object
Material Elements or groups of elements used for the creation of an object. Class: it has type of material
Property: link to a process of modification or production with the materials used.
Dimension In this field are included the measurements of the entry in height, length, width, depth, diameter, thickness, etc. Class: it has dimension
Property: it permits defining the different measurable dimensions of an entity defined in the model
Data It indicates the date, range (beginning end) or period in which the work was created. Class: production process
Property: it has data
Curatorial area/Collection Selection of works that form a group and that have shared elements. Class: it forms part of

Property: it defines the relationship of belonging between an object and its component parts or between a collection and the objects in it.

Institution It describes the physical location of the work and the museum holding it Class: name of institution
Property: official name of a specific institution.
Object It indicates the type of object described in the record Depending on whether it is an image or a document:Class: Image
Property: identifier web or
Class: document
Property: identifier web
Rights of Property of Cultural Interest Description of copyright or patrimonial right of the cultural property. Class: rights
Property: it is the holder of
Declaration of use Class: it has permission Property: it permits specifying the permits of use and/or exploitation of a property of cultural interest (physical or digital). Its value can be a chain of characters or the URL of a document where the permission is specified.
Other complementary fields (these depend on each museum), however, some of them are standardized

Table 2: Metadata fields


To carry out the standardization of information, a master table was made in SQL with the entries and static data contained by the above-mentioned fields. In this table, various catalogues were devised that can be consulted by means of the unique identifier.


Development of the Collections and Data Modeling Management System

There is a considerable number of systems to manage digital collections and to create repositories and portals to spread awareness of the cultural patrimony of archives, museums, and libraries. Outstanding examples include Dspace, Eprints, and Invenio in the field of institutional repositories, ICA-AtoM and Archon for archival collections, Fedora Commons and its derivatives (Islandora and Hydra) for repositories that require a high degree of detailed and personalized requirements and a group or applications that focus especially on collections management, including Collective Access and Omeka.

The collection management systems made for the Museos de México project are designed in Collective Access, a management and collections dissemination system for museums, archives, libraries but also usable for any other type of information.

The above-mentioned system was chosen as a result of its characteristics, including support for links between objects, entities, places, collections, and vocabularies; configurable metadata scheme; configurable cataloguing interface; creation of controlled languages; the possibility of uploading predefined profiles by other entities; configurable search engine (keyword search, faceted searches based on any system field), can use MySQL or Apache Solr can be configured; configuration of management tools aimed at collections management; and metadata re-collection and exhibition through the OAI-PMH protocol.

Once the system was defined, a relational database structure was defined for the better operation and recovery of information, a basic model was generated with a table of records that contains references to catalogues with unique values. Based on an analysis of fields used by the data model, the following catalogues were defined:

  • Data: Catalogue to structure information referring to the time of origin of the piece.
    • cat_data. It contains the catalogue of the different types of origins with respect to time: periods, historical trends, etc.
    • data. It concentrates the information of time and relates it to its respective descriptor and provides the identifier of the piece the information refers to.
  • Dimensions: Catalogue to structure and store data referring to dimensions.
    • cat_unidades. It contains the different units in which the dimensions of a work can be represented.
    • cat_dimensiones. It consists of the types of dimensions such as length, width, diameter, thickness, etc.
    • dimensions. It contains the complete record of the values corresponding to the dimensions of each piece.
  • Others: In the case of hyperonyms, objects, artist, rights, institution, base, and collection a catalogue with information is required of the different cases related to a work.

It is worth highlighting that one of the needs of institutions supplying the data was not to change the essential information of the bases so that when doing the analysis for the construction of catalogues, it was found that a number of the fields contained duplicate information, which resulted in larger catalogues without standardized information. However, in collaboration with linguistic experts, a new field was developed called, “Hyperonym” (Table 3), a word that can be used to refer to the reality that names another more specific concept. For example:

Term (unstandardized information) Hyperonym (preferred) Other hyperonyms
PAINTING (collection) painting pictorial work, canvas, canvases
textile work textiles textile art, textile work, cloths
KITCHEN INSTRUMENT kitchen utensil
WORK INSTRUMENT tools agricultural tools

Table 3: Hyperonymus


Based on these analyses, the following information structure was developed that responded to the need to standardize information without transforming essential data. It is worth emphasizing that the system makes it possible to continue to expand the catalogues continuously (Figure 2):

A complex chart showing database structure

Figure 2: Database structure


Development of the Graphic Interface and User Experience

To expand the experience of the museum visit and to recognize the importance of the materiality of the work, it is necessary to develop a user experience close to the final users, and the design must be on the level of the importance of these cultural institutions. For the graphic development of the Museos de México project, attention centered on creating heterogeneous interfaces that would respect the identity, style, and values of each museum.

Based on the project’s usability values, the following objectives were established for an optimal user experience:

  1. To know the strengths of the Web and recognizing its limits, these systems seek to create digital experiences that allow users to perceive the work in a way much closer to the physical object so that digital objects are displayed in high resolution for their clearer visualization.
  2. To provide the user with quality online content that enables museums to become important digital providers of information for research, education, and dissemination.
  3. To input the content and high-quality digital objects under a scheme of open rights, which makes it possible to spread awareness of patrimony in different contexts, as long as they do not violate copyright laws.
  4. To offer an experience 100% adaptable to mobile devices. The central values of innovation and interaction are primordial for this type of devices in Mexico and represent 80% of the visits on websites.
  5. To generate analytics and indicators that makes it possible for museums to focus on user interests for better decision-making.


A screenshot of the main page of Museos de México

Figure 3: Main page of Museos de México


Graphic interface of Museos de México      Graphic interface of Museos de México

Figure 4: Graphic interface of Museos de México                     Figure 5: Graphic interface of Museos de México


The project began with a comprehension and definition phase (Table 4) with each one of the museums’ areas. One of the primordial phases was to link the needs of the research areas with those of public outreach and/or promotion, which in cases work independently. This made it possible to have a census on the needs, interests, and functionalities required by each area. In relation to this, an analysis was conducted of the sections and functionalities that should not have a space on the website, because they are not part of the museums’ projects or programs.

Areas Feasible Second stage Discarded
Dissemination and Outreach Creation of a user-friendly CMS to be used by personnel without technical knowledge. Generation of calendars for activities and exhibitions. Creation of new sections that need different layouts. Automatize permission processes. Change search and faceted search systems.
Research Creation of a collections control system. Link of basic registration entries with other areas. Generate validation processes among the administrative users. Generation of lists of work. Automatized filling out of forms in Word. Logbook of searches.
Conservation Generation of a database with high-resolution, digitalized material and specialized metadata. Consultation of basic data for other areas. Increase values in catalogues. Automatized filling out of forms in Word. Add new catalogues
Digitalization Generation of a database that can be consulted with the high-resolution digitalized material and specialized metadata. Consultation of basic data for other areas. Link digital objects of local servers.
Movement of collections Control system for exhibitions and travelingpieces. Generation of a security catalogue. Control of works by agenda for long-term loans. Link digital objects of local servers.

Table 4: System integration


The principal guideline of the development of the site navigation, both for final users and administrators, was by focusing on the collection, based on the navigation map and surveying the requirements with the areas. Each one of the sections was conceived to allow the final user to get to know the collection, whether through the “collection” section or through menus, banners, footers, or activities. In the case of the administrative users, the linkage of all the catalogues and databases is through the unique ID and by the basic entry. Returning to the final user, one of the main objectives of these new sites is to expand and enrich the experience of users prior to their physical visit to the museum, during the visit, and after it, offering a simple, agile and intuitive website that makes it possible to attract new members of the public, bringing them closer to the works and offering the broad panorama of activities parallel to the permanent and temporary exhibitions.


Screenshot of Graphic interface of Museos de México (Museo Nacional de San Carlos)

Figure 6: Graphic interface of Museos de México (Museo Nacional de San Carlos)


Opening digital collections of Mexican museums online was one of the greatest challenges for this project. Given the restrictive legal scheme of the Federal Copyright Law, many of the works could not be shown on the Web; nevertheless, they were, indeed, available for administrative users. To truly change the paradigm of how the works of Mexican patrimony should be visualized, it was necessary, from the start, to make institutions aware of the importance of exhibiting their collections in high resolution.

Some of the relevant functionalities on the final graphic interface are: 1.) Creation of user sessions that allow them to save their favorite pieces and to share them on social media 2.) High-quality visualization of digital objects, in order to expand the experience of the work, in some cases even better than in the exhibition galleries 3.) Creation of dynamic sections such as scheduling events, a historical record of past, present, and future exhibitions, glossaries of terms, publications downloading and educational apps 4.) Generation of searches by word and faceted searches 5.) Visualization of works that are not among the holdings on display or are pieces that are on loan to other institutions.


Graphic interface of Museos de México (Museo Nacional de Antropología)

Figure 7: Graphic interface of Museos de México (Museo Nacional de Antropología)


Finally, an intermediate graphic interface was created to be the gateway to the pages that form the project and that could contribute a general panorama of Museos de México, and in a second stage, to connect the technical and conceptual documentation to expand the use of the development carried out.



In May 2018, the Museos de México project was publicly launched. The reception in the academic and cultural community was positive, but one of the most important demonstrations of the impact of the websites is that with only a month online, the number of visits of virtual users has increased from 300 to 500%:

  • Museo Nacional de Antropología: 20,000 to 36,000 visits per day, a 30% increase.
  • Museo Nacional de Historia: 3,000 to 6,000 visits per day, a 40% increase.
  • Museo Nacional del Virreinato: 1,700 to 3,000 visits per day, a 50% increase.
  • Museo Nacional de San Carlos: 700 to 1200 visits per day, a 40% increase.
  • Museo de Arte Moderno: 1,500 to 3,000 visits per day, a 30% increase.
  • Muser Nacional de la Estampa: 500 to 900 visits per day, a 35% increase.
  • Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares: 2,000 to 4,000 visits per day, a 50% increase.


Prospects and Conclusions

Aware that restructuring the digital collections of museums is a long-term undertaking and given that these museums have altogether more than 230,000 patrimonial objects, the Museos de México project contemplates the integration of the entirety of the museum holdings in five years, taking into account that around 190,000 objects from these seven museums still remain to be digitalized and standardized. The project today includes more than 100,000 records and around 18,000 digital objects, as an initial effort to provide incentives to create digital projects with open cultural patrimonial objects for educational and academic use.

To guarantee the continuity of the project, the proposal is:

  • To generate a permanent national digitalization program of cultural holdings that make it possible to augment digital materials, beginning with the objects in poor condition, the pieces important for institutions, and those free of copyright (in order to scale the collections free of copyright use).
  • To generate a training program for personnel who work in museums and who are in charge of registering works and to provide incentives for the standardization of metadata used.
  • To stimulate the creation of new professional profiles in museums, necessary for the technical sustainability of the management systems. It should be pointed out that the project is replicable in other museums, as long as they have trained personnel to carry out the implementation actions.
  • To raise awareness in the institution on the importance of the permanent financial investment in digital preservation.

To build more open, accessible museums so the user can have access to all the knowledge generated by the institution should be a priority for Mexican institutions. Museos de México paves the way for new perspectives and opportunities in this field, under the best international practices and with the possibility of making it widespread throughout Mexico.

Through Museos de México, Mexican museums will increase the possibility of public access, both for the public in Mexico and from abroad, through the digitalization and public accessibility of their collections through the network. This universalization of access will permit and also complement the physical visit.



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Further Viewing

Cite as:
Ramírez Islas, Vania. "Paradigm Shift: Museums of Mexico." MW19: MW 2019. Published February 7, 2019. Consulted .