Museums are responsible for caring for artifacts and objects of art, history, and science. Much like libraries store and maintain books for public access, museums store and maintain these items for the public too, though in perpetuity (i.e. theoretically “forever”). They are ethically and legally bound to be accountable for these collections and make them accessible to the public they serve. This means incorporating them into well-interpreted museum exhibitions, but also making them available behind the scenes to scholars, researchers, community members, and other members of the public. It can also mean creating digital content for social media and blog posts like the one you’re reading now!
Physically preserving our collections is important, but maintaining the data is equally too. Changes in technology and the process of digitization provide us with opportunities to document, photograph, and inventory our collection. Digitizing the collection minimizes the time it takes to physically access an object while also protecting them from over-handling. In addition, many items are written in illegible script, or simply deteriorate over time, such as audio and visual recordings on tape or film. When these items are digitized, they are not only preserved, but are accessible to a larger audience. Ultimately, some museums are able to put their collections database online, where students and enthusiasts can see and learn about museum objects from the comfort of their own home, from their office, or even on the go on their mobile devices.
As technology evolves, so does the meaning of accessibility. Once limited to exhibitions and behind-the-scenes collections tours, museums are now able to share information online through blog posts, social media, and online collections databases. What used to be index cards and paper files are becoming digital photos of objects and scans of documents. What used to be stored in filing cabinets is now stored in a computer database that is constantly changing and updated. Many museums across the country have been doing this for decades. For example, realizing that only 1% of their collection was on exhibit at any time, the Smithsonian Institution sought to make the other 99% more accessible. Museum professionals at the Smithsonian began digitizing artifacts in 2013, crowdsourcing research and opening up the collections for public interpretation and consumption. By doing so, they are able to reach new audiences, not just the folks who are able to walk through their doors. With 154 million objects in Smithsonian collections, digitization is estimated to take at least 50 years. They hit their one-millionth object in July 2016.
So, what is Turtle Bay doing to keep up with these trends in digitization? In 1994, the Redding Museum of Art and History received a grant from the McConnell Foundation to start this digitization process by inputting 35,000 object file cards into a computerized database. This seemingly simple task took over 20 years and that data is continually refined and enriched. While many museums employ a number of staff, our tiny department relies on the generosity of volunteers who offer their time to this ever-evolving project.
It is a complicated process. In addition to data entry, volunteers perform a number of tasks, including, but not limited to: scanning paper records and other documentation, photographing museum objects, processing images (resizing, cropping, adjusting brightness, etc.), appropriately naming digital files to correspond with associated objects and ensuring they are filed correctly in the drive, linking digital images of museum objects and/or documentation to the database, creating inventory sheets, and more. You can see why their work is invaluable. Not to mention, they are simply delightful and we adore them.
Our wonder-full and precious volunteers add all of this information to our database so we always have the information we need at our fingertips, fulfilling our role as stewards of objects and information while also keeping us accountable to the collections we hold and the public we serve. We are able to find any object at any time and tell you everything we know and can legally share. As we develop more in-house curated exhibitions and invite more scholars and researchers to utilize our collections, we learn more about the objects and update our database and records accordingly.
It’s a lot of work, but we love it. We do it because it has to be done, but we also do it because we are passionate museum professionals. We do it to fulfill the ethical and legal responsibilities of the museum. We do it to fulfill our mission, “to inspire wonder, exploration, and appreciation of our world” through education and cultural engagement. We do it for you, our public.
Check out these superb examples of online collections databases from cutting edge museums around the country: