The Future (and Past) of Open Source: Lessons from The Walters Art Museum

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Courtesy of City BizList

What does a sheepskin have to do with the open source movement? Two things, actually. First what if that palimpsest was the original open source platform, created nearly 2,000 years ago, one that continues to be enhanced into the 21st century? Second, what if that same parchment was instrumental in reshaping the standards by which we access and use museums’ works of art and research in the 21st century? Among cabinets of ancient manuscripts, a place seemingly lost in time, Will Noel shared how The Walters became a leader among museums in the open source movement – blame Archimedes…

The First Platform. What literally saved Archimedes so it can be read at The Walters today was the value of the parchment. Remember when costs were such that we rewrote on software disks instead of simply tossing them? Parchments served a similar role into the 14th century. As Will Noel, Curator of Ancient Manuscripts at The Walters explained, the fact that the Archimedes Palimpsest? had been overwritten with a Byzantine prayerbook saved it from becoming dust. And what is particularly amazing about this adaptive reuse is that other manuscripts from other parchments had been assembled into that same prayerbook. And no one knew it. So along the way to reading Archimedes, they found a speech of the Greek orator Hyperides defending his life, a speech that we know from other sources was famous in his time but the original text was thought to have been lost. They also found a previously unknown 3rd century commentary on Aristotle’s Categories. There are a couple of other texts yet to figure out. The point is that these sheepskins were so valuable that it was easier to scrape off the old writing and reuse them, than to cure and prepare a new parchment. Sheepskin: The Original Open Source Platform.

Transparency of Process and Result. As discussed a couple of columns ago Will and his colleague Mike Toth, set about designing an approach to reading Archimedes from an illegible text. At the offset they established one overarching rule for all who offered to help, “there had to be transparency in all aspects of the process.” What Will and Mike decided, along with their benefactor, was that every component of the research and conservation effort must be open to all. “We wanted to fully publish the research path,” explained Will. “There were to be no exclusive rights to technology used, or images [created].” The Archimedes team realized that they were going to learn new ways to conserve ancient texts and they didn’t want anyone on the team who disagreed that every lesson learned was a lesson to be shared with all, “from the equipment and software used… to the techniques that did or didn’t work.” By opening up the process to solve the problem of reading Archimedes, The Walters set itself on an ineluctable course in how they would handle works of art. The doors of The Walters were about to open in a very different and profound way…

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