For many of the museums I’ve worked in (and with, as a consultant), the development of digital collections was haphazard. The evolution of museum collections management software, digitization technology, and issues such as digital preservation and storage have all contributed to an uneven approach to publishing digital collections online.
Shifting priorities, lack of stable funding, and the absence of a uniform methodology from the outset have further added to the lopsided appearance of digital collections.
Periodic evaluation of a museum collection’s digital presence should be undertaken in order to ensure that the museum’s mission and goals are supported by the quantity and quality of the objects available through the collections management system (CMS). If the museum doesn’t already have a system of evaluation in place, the following four questions should be considered:
1. Is the quality of the digital files acceptable?
This is usually the first, noticeable issue with digital surrogates of museum objects. Due to the improvement, availability, and decreasing cost of digitization equipment, museums today are better outfitted to capture high-quality digital object files. Digital capturing that took place 5, 10, 15 or more years ago will not hold up nearly as well in terms of quality and should be considered for a re-shoot. Many museums follow a set of quality standards dependent upon the type of digital file being created (.jpeg, .tif, .pdf, .mp4, etc.) and these standards should be considered when reviewing older digital images. It is important for digital files to be of high-quality since optimum quality files will encourage more digital user interaction, and will provide the best possible files for future digital migration and preservation.
2. Is the cataloging information correct and does it meet industry standards?
Catalog information—the quantity and the quality—is perhaps the most varied aspect when considering a museum’s digital collection. Different projects, staff transitions, availability of information, and the structure of the museum collections management system can all impact the way a museum object is cataloged. The museum’s set of cataloging guidelines should be up-to-date with industry standards and any internal standards the museum has elected to follow. Catalog records of collection objects should be compared with the guidelines in order to determine whether they meet the museum’s standards. Catalog records that fail to meet the minimum requirements should be updated.
3. Does the CMS contain an accurate, representative sample across all areas of the museum collection?
A museum with an even representation of the collection within the collections management system is rare. Changing priorities, staff transition, unstable funding, and exhibits of any given year can lead to imbalanced creation of the museum digital collection. For example, one area of the museum collection can have 100% of its objects digitized and cataloged online, while other areas only receive a minimal level of digitization or none at all. This is a common scenario and one that museum staff should strive to rectify in order to create a more accurate and representative account of the museum collections online.
4. Are there areas of the catalog record that are optional, but could be used to improve access and enjoyment of the object?
While a catalog record can meet museum requirements, it may be improved upon with the use of additional descriptive fields. For example, are there museum objects that may be difficult for visitors to understand, or that could be further enjoyed if more information was supplied? Adding additional descriptive information to promote access and enjoyment of a museum object should be considered as time and resources allow.
It’s natural to look forward to new projects and ideas, and it’s easy to discount the need to review past digitization work. However, museum staff owe it to their collection and to their digital users to evaluate their museum’s digital collection and improve upon past work to promote accessibility, use, and enjoyment of the museum collection online.
Rachael Cristine Woody has helped with museum cataloging and collections management at institutions like the Freer|Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College. Read more of Rachael’s posts on museum collections and management. See also more information on Lucidea’s solutions for museum collections management systems.