Conserving valuable artworks and artifacts is only part of a museum’s mission. It also must share its collections with the public. Yet
museums can display only so many objects at once—and only so
many people can visit them. With new technologies enabling projects that used to be infeasible, museums are creating high-quality
digital images of sprawling collections and making them accessible
to anyone online.
“We can now digitize more collections in a shorter amount of
time for less money,” says Günter Waibel, director, digitization program o;ce, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA.
;e blending of the digital sphere with the marble-and-mortar
environs of traditional museums is also a matter of survival. As a
paper presented at the 2015 Museums and the Web conference
noted, “the expectations in terms of audience are clear: if informa-
tion is not available online, then it simply does not exist.”
;e world’s largest museum system is
taking that to heart. Each year, the Smith-
sonian’s 19 museums welcome about 30
million visitors. But they’re missing the vast
majority of the 138 million objects in the
collection. “You can see less than 1 percent
of that on display, so we wanted to bring
this enormous collection to the public and
let them interact with it,” Mr. Waibel says.
To determine the safest and most e;cient way to digitize its objects, the project
team launched a series of one-week prototype projects. As part of these projects, the
team integrated various databases that store
information about the objects as well as the
digital images, which enabled the databases
to communicate more e;ciently with each
other. A scanned-in barcode provided the
unique identi;er that allows the synchronization between the databases. ;e team also had to routinely upgrade the network switches
to handle the project’s massive data. “For projects using a digitization conveyor belt, we’re ;lling up the equivalent of a hard disk on
an average laptop in half a day—it’s a lot of data,” Mr. Waibel says.
Technology alone wouldn’t be enough, however. ;e team also had
to perfect the project’s physical work;ow: the safe and speedy movement of each object from its location to the digitization station and back
again, so that ;at objects could be digitized in ;ve to 30 seconds. “You
have to orchestrate this steady stream of objects to achieve the numbers and cost e;ectiveness we’re trying to achieve,” Mr. Waibel says.
;e team’s e;cient process allowed it to take an object o; its shelf and
make its digital image accessible to the public in just 24 hours.
in a shorter
time for less
Washington, D.C., USA
PHOTO COURTES Y OF SMI THSONIAN INSTITU TION