Article: Digitizing museums

The Transition from Physical to Virtual: Digitizing Museum Collections

By Pam Dixon 


In his short story The Night Meeting , Ray Bradbury describes a rift in time that allows a Martian and a human to meet at the same geographical location but in two different eras. The beings communicate across a thin veil of reality that allows them to talk with each other, but not to touch each other.

Today, the World Wide Web is like a thin veil of reality that separates the physical from the virtual. People can communicate with each other, but they can’t touch each other. Museums can communicate the visual, audio, and textual aspect of their collections to people without any need for the people to be physically present. This creates an environment where works of art and artifacts can be spread worldwide for a very broad audience to see, greatly extending the boundaries of the museum.

Harry S. Parker, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco sees digitized collections as helpful tools for museums. “In the broad sense, technology offers enormous opportunities for museums. Included among them is the ability to communicate with an audience outside the museum through the Internet,” Parker says. “Digital imagery flows so easily around the world.”

But there’s a catch. To get a physical object onto the Web requires a physical-to-virtual transforming process called digitization. An image on a paper-based Polaroid snapshot is physical. An image on a photo CD-ROM or the Web is digital. To get the one to the other requires a great deal of work, and it generally isn’t cheap.

Despite the cost, museums have a good deal of impetus to get digitized. There are the obvious benefits of sharing information. There’s more. Jim Bower, Head of Institutional Relations of the Getty Information Institute explains. “Museums have a very strong drive to get digitized,” Bower says. “Funders often make it clear that it is important to get the collections online.”

It’s a good thing funders are pushing digitization, because digitization must come before any translation of works of art can go on the Web.

It’s not an easy road to digitization

Make no mistake – getting digitized is not a glamorous process. It requires a lot of thankless detail work that would wilt the resolve of even the most dedicated staff members.

Administrative issues such as synchronizing staff efforts factor in. So do practical issues like physically getting artifacts photographed, storing data in updateable formats, and working with existing cataloging records. Surviving the sheer drudgery of all the work is also an issue.

Even top institutions have to work hard at getting digitized — no one escapes the pain of the transition from physical to virtual. “We are a very diverse institution, so a rosy estimate is it will take us some years to digitize our collections,” says Bower. “We have millions of artifacts in collections ranging from archeology to history to anthropology. It is a huge task to get the text databases digitized, let alone doing the scanning or photography of artifacts.”

Not helping even the most basic digitizing efforts is that in many museums, it is not unusual to find masses of curatorial records that have not been transferred to computer systems yet. ” Many museums are making the transition from handwritten to digitized records,” says Bower. “Every museum needs to realize that it is not alone on that continuum.”

Digitizing Trailblazers

While those museums struggling to catch up may berate themselves for not getting collections digitized sooner, it is worth considering that the museums which have pushed the farthest ahead in digitizing have often been presented with some sort of a building-related crisis, or have worked on a very specific project requiring digitization.

Arguably, nothing could motivate a museum to go digital more powerfully than losing access to its regular display space. This has been an extraordinary driving factor for two museums in particular: The National Museum of American Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The National Museum of American Art

The National Museum of American Art has hired an entire staff dedicated entirely to utilizing new media, a commitment that is still a relative rarity in the museum world. The museum has a very practical reason for maintaining an electronic focus.

“The museum is closing for two years in the year 2000,” says Jeff Gates, Head of New Media Initiatives at the National Museum of American Art. “We will have eight exhibits traveling while we’re closed, and new media will be responsible for providing the base of the museum. It’s an incredible opportunity to look at the introduction of technology in the museum.”

Currently, the museum has placed about 3,000 images from the collection online, along with more than a dozen significant online exhibitions such as “Posters American Style.” Suggestions are being made museum-wide as to how to further the organization’s physical-to-digital-to-display transition. “Perhaps we will use jumbotrons, the TV screens you see in stadiums, on the outside of the buildings. But we’re not sure,” says Gates.

Beyond the physical aspects of getting the collection digitized, the transition promises to present some tough points administratively. “The whole process of taking any organization and getting that organization and the people who work in that organization to buy into the use of technology in this way is an arduous task,” says Gates.

That’s because museums are essentially 19th century-based information organizations where information flows in a neat, hierarchical manner. But the pace of technology turns that old model upside down, maintains Gates.

“What I’m seeing is that for organizations to effectively deal with new media and new technology, in the course of accomplishing our mission we have to look at how the organization functions so we can respond more quickly to the incredibly fast pace of changes,” he says.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and “The Thinker” Web site

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, home of The Thinker site , has an extraordinary story. Robert Futernick, Head of Conservation and Director for Collection Imaging says many factors played a role in the final outcome. “You can really say we started the process when in 1980, the museum made a commitment to computerize its records. After the occasion of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, we decided to update the records and take care of some glaring omissions, namely the prints and drawing collections.”

The museum was forced to close in 1993 for structural repairs to fix earthquake damage, and the staff moved off-site. For three years, a core staff took on the task of making new computer records and barcoding every object, along with taking a photograph and making a slide of each object.

The process was completed in 1995, just in time for the re-opening of the museum. The digitized database was available to the public in a room located within the museum. Dakin Hart, Assistant to the Director, got his now legendary idea to put the entire digitized database on the Web.

Hart says, “The database was in a room that was only open to the public on weekends. The most common sentiment we heard was ‘When will we be able to get the database at home?’ ” Right at that time, the Internet was getting a lot of media attention.

That’s when the idea started to germinate. Hart proposed his Web idea, and amazingly, Parker and the museum board went with it despite the huge unknowns. After securing permission from the copyright holders to place the images on the Web, the project moved forward.

Hart says that he works “for the bravest director in the world.” Parker, the brave person in question, says the decision to go forward with Hart’s suggestion was indeed brave, but for reasons most people wouldn’t suspect.

“The brave part is that we ran the risk of being criticized for not having thorough enough or accurate enough information on every object,” says Parker. “By placing our collections online, we exposed ourselves to tremendous public scrutiny of major and minor objects.”

Parker says that the response to the online database has been overwhelmingly positive, but that a few little notes do pass over the e-mail transom. “We get corrections to our data from scholars and school children. We look up the information, and more often than not, they are right. We correct the file and go forward.”

The Thinker site, home of FAMSF’s digitized database, launched in October, 1996. It is currently one of the most extensive examples of a publicly available digitized museum collection. “We now have about 70 thousand works of art images in our database on the Web,” says Futernick, “And we’re still going.”

Where the rubber meets the road: inside the digitization process

Getting the FAMSF’s objects digitized is a time-intensive process. First, the objects are photographed. Then the photographs are developed into slides. Then the slides then get scanned onto photo CD-ROMs, where they become digital records. From there, they can be placed on the Web or transferred to other off-site databases.

Susan Grinols, Imaging Specialist for FAMSF is the person who actually goes into storage, handles the objects and takes the photographs. At this point in time, after photographing tens of thousands of objects in the collections, she is very likely the most experienced person alive doing this work.

“We use barcodes and non-acidic archival tags. I go into storage, then I bar code the items. I physically tie the tag onto the piece and at same time enter the barcode into the computer record. This is how we tie the image to the database. It also helps in inventory control. Whenever we move pieces, we can easily scan them with a hand held scanner,” says Grinols.

Grinols then photographs the object using 35mm slide film. “I have a studio set up in art storage. There are trained art handlers who help me set up the objects,” she says. Then the actual photographing begins.

“Due to the sheer volume of the work, I can’t spend a lot of time being really fussy. I have to compromise in that area.” Grinols aims for similarly shaped objects, and she goes through them as quickly as she can. Grinols can get through about 50 objects a day if they are small and easily handled. “Then there are some things like furniture and sculpture, where one piece takes all day to do,” she says.

After the slides have been developed and scanned onto the photo CDs, Grinols pulls up the images on the photo CD and fine-tunes them. “I work with them in Adobe Photoshop. I color correct, crop, and rotate the images if necessary.” Finally, Grinols names the images with the bar code, the CD number, and the frame number the image is located on. Finally, the record files are processed, named, and then compressed.

Even though Grinols works with treasures, the work is still tedious. “Due to the volume, it can get really boring. The thing that keeps me going is knowing that without the photographs, no one would ever see what’s in storage. I feel really good that I’m creating access for people. Also, the photographic record keeps the objects from being handled so much.”

Corollary Issues

Unfortunately, after digitization, all sorts of delicate tangential issues come up. The most prominent issues are living artists’ requests for specific digitization requirements, questions about licensing fees, and intellectual property issues about digitized material.

Control of the digitized image

Diane Zorich, a museum and technology consultant who has written extensively on intellectual property issues and copyright, says that after an image is digitized, the artists and the museums lose some control of how that image is displayed — the opposite of a traditional exhibit environment. Because artists and organizations don’t know how the image will be used after its online, most worry about putting reproduction quality images of artwork on the Web.

“I often find that museums will approach an artist with a request to scan their artwork for use on the Web, and the artist comes back with very strict requirements for the image, often asking for low resolution images,” says Zorich.

It’s a conundrum, because at lower resolutions, artists are protected from having their images used illegally, but the image doesn’t look good on the Web. Nevertheless, use of low-resolution images has been the primary solution to date.

Copyright issues

Dakin Hart, Assistant to the Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) has been working extensively with acquiring permissions from living artists to digitize their works and place them on the Thinker Site, home of FAMSF’s digitized collection of 70,000 images.

One of the first things FAMSF did was to ask Web users to agree to a statement of use before entering the image database. The statement, in part, reads: …because we respect the right of every artist represented in the collection to make a living, we must remind you that you may not reproduce, alter or transmit any artwork in the catalogue without written permission. We will pursue anyone who does not honor this trust.

Working with the public is just one side of the copyright issue. Working with the actual copyright holders is the other. In the case of the FAMSF, the organization held the copyright to most works that came in before 1989. “Anything that has come into our collection after 1989, we send the artists a note asking if it’s OK to put a digitized image of their work on the web site.

So far, only one artist has said no, and that’s out of about 130 artists,” says Hart, who describes the artists’ general response as very positive. In terms of payment, the FAMSF works out a fair licensing fee with each individual artist.

Jennifer Trant, of Archives and Museum Informatics, is working with the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO) to help answer some of the questions the licensing of digitized works brings up. As of yet, there are no perfect solutions, especially when a group is considering how to go about licensing tens of thousands of digitized images for large databases on the Web. “Its hard to think about an economy of digital art,” she says, noting that AMICO receives a lot of commercial licensing inquiries, despite that AMICO is working with licensing images strictly in educational settings.


Zorich says a complicating factor is the time involved. “It’s a very time consuming process to clear rights,” she says. It’s true. It took FAMSF about two years to clear the rights of about 130 works.

Given the fast pace of the Web, it is museums’ great hope that AMICO and others can work with artists rights groups like Visual Artists and Galleries Association (VAGA) and Artists Rights Society (ARS) to establish ways of quickly clearing copyright and a set of standardized fees for payment.

New Copyright Acts

One new unknown is what the impact of the October, 1998 passage of the Copyright Term Extension will be. “The point of copyright is to foster ideas for the public good,” says Zorich, who agrees that the artist and the artist’s children should be protected by copyright. But to extend copyright protection to the grandchildren of the creator is stretching it. “Eventually, you want to be able to say this has got to be public domain. It’s a concern we should be thinking about very carefully.”

Another act, The Digital Millenium Copyright Act has passed the House so far. It is a 94-page document that very nearly requires a law degree to parse through. The act, if passed by the Senate, will cover many digitization copyright issues brought up by the Web , with a section dedicated to use of visual images on the Web. A hopeful sign is that museums and other crucial groups involved in the issues are being asked to contribute opinions to the bill.

Looking at the big picture

Digitized collections on the Web are very, very new phenomena in the history of museums. They are the crucial first step toward creating a well-established information niche for museums within the Web community, yet the very thing that is so helpful brings up important and difficult questions of copyright and licensing.

It seems so far that access is a good thing. It also appears that artists, museums, and the public are finding a balance between their interests.

But no matter what the problems or the benefits, one thing is sure. There’s no turning back now. Too many people have become highly accustomed to getting information through computers, those blinking, glassy veils where reality is measured in bytes and pixels.

Copyright Pam Dixon


PUBLICATION: COMMISSION FROM CALIFORNIA ARTS COMMISSION. Published in conjunction with the Governor’s conference on the Arts.