The Phillipps Collection project focuses on the provenance of the Phillipps manuscripts. I am aiming to track, analyse and visualise their individual histories from the time when they were created to the present day – often spanning a period of more than 500 years. Among the main elements to be covered are: who produced these manuscripts, who owned them, how they were transmitted from one owner or custodian to another and from one location to another, and how and when these changes occurred.
The field of provenance studies encompasses significant research questions relating to the history of cultural heritage objects in libraries, archives, museums and galleries . The history of the ownership and transmission of these objects can reveal a great deal about the nature and significance of collecting, both private and public. It can help to explain the ways in which attitudes to the past – and especially to cultural heritage – have changed over many centuries. It can also illuminate the networks of relationships between the owners of these often very valuable objects. The provenance of these objects tells us a great deal about the history, significance and transmission of culture. A successful popular example of the use of provenance is Neil McGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, which reconstructs the histories of 100 individual objects which are now in the collections of the British Museum .
Provenance has a different meaning in the domain of computer science: “information about entities, activities, and people involved in producing a piece of data or thing, which can be used to form assessments about its quality, reliability or trustworthiness” . Modeling provenance in this context focuses on tracking the production of digital data and digital assets, and includes such elements as file formats, software, and hardware. This is closely related to the field of archival provenance more generally. These senses of “provenance” are outside the scope of my project.
The evidence used in tracking the provenance of the Phillipps manuscripts is quite varied: inscriptions in the manuscripts themselves; sales catalogues; acquisition and disposal records of individual collectors and institutions; catalogue records (printed, hand-written or digital) associated with specific owners; and other external documentation (including references in other documents). A typical provenance statement – compiled from various evidential sources – might look like this:
In 1862, Sir Thomas Phillipps bought Phillipps MS 16402 in London as part of the Sotheby’s sale of the collection of Guglielmo Libri. The sale catalogue listed it as “Coptic Papyri. 19 leaves pasted in fragments between glasses. Supposed to be of saec. iv” and priced it at five guineas.
This narrative, note-based approach reflects that used in printed manuscript catalogues. They almost invariably record provenance as a series of narrative statements about ownership. A typical example  looks like this:
395v. has "394" in a 15c. hand and in a later hand are three Benedictions; Br. by a 19c. hand is "Missale Romanum. Codex missalis A.B." and autograph "Payne" (Messrs Payne and Foss from whom Sir Thomas Phillipps purchased the volume in 1848); inside front cover is a green seal with lion rampant (device of Phillipps) and "12289 Ph." (no. repeated on spine); the MS. was acquired in 1910 by A. G. Little, then later by W. H. Robinson, and was subsequently presented to the library (details of the 1949 negotiations that resulted in the donation can be found in the article by Fr C. Kelly OFM, "Franciscan Scholarship in the Middle Ages - II", Catholic Review, Vol.V (1949), pp.213-14)
This account of a late thirteenth-century Franciscan Missal owned by St Paschal’s College in Melbourne (currently on loan to the State Library of Victoria) records the evidence relating to the provenance of the manuscript in chronological order, assembled into a single narrative paragraph.
The provenance of a manuscript consists of a series of statements like this. Collectively, they add up to a history of the life of the manuscript, from its creation to its current status. This history is often fragmentary, since evidence is often lacking, especially for the period before the 19th century. But even a fragmentary history of this kind is vital for understanding the processes by which tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts have survived over many centuries to play a crucial role in our knowledge of medieval Europe and to serve as witnesses to a very different and distant era, which still forms a major component of the European cultural heritage.
Modeling this provenance history for computational purposes is challenging and difficult. For the Phillipps project, I’ve reviewed existing approaches as reflected in the catalogues and databases of cultural heritage institutions, as well as in various object-oriented and event-based ontologies and data models. I’ve also examined the possible value of newer approaches built on event-based knowledge representations and conceptual spaces, before coming up with an interim data model which appears to be workable for my project and its research questions.
1. Dondi, C.: The Integration of Provenance Data for the Reconstruction of the Dispersed European Book Heritage. In: Foravanti, M., Mecca, S. (eds.) Safeguard of Cultural Heritage: a Challenge from the Past for the Europe of Tomorrow: COST Strategic Workshop July 11th-13th, Florence, Italy. Firenze University Press, Firenze, pp. 100-102 (2011)
2. McGregor, N.: A History of the World in 100 Objects. Penguin, London (2010)
3. Moreau, L., Missier, P. (2013) PROV-DM: The PROV Data Model,
4. K. V. Sinclair, Descriptive Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Western Manuscripts in Australia, Sydney, University of Sydney Press, 1969, no. 181