Let’s Get Digital: The Future of Museum Collections

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Let’s Get Digital: The Future of Museum Collections

You’re sitting on the couch in your pajamas, steaming cup of coffee in hand and laptop in front of you. It’s a perfect morning to go to the museum, so you log in to your favourite museum’s collections database and start browsing. You zoom in on the brush strokes of a Van Gogh, listen to a rare audio recording from the 19th century, and check out all the angles of a T. rex skull by freely rotating it 360 degrees – all before your second  cup of coffee.

This scenario is becoming more of a reality in our digital age. A growing international movement by museums to digitize their collections and make them accessible online is changing how museum and archival information is made available to the public and researchers alike.  According to G. Wayne Clough of the Smithsonian, “online access to digitized objects, images, and records is democratizing knowledge, enhancing the visits of the many who come to us in person, and extending our reach to the millions who cannot.” With today’s technology, a museum’s entire collection can be made instantly accessible 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world.

Considering some collections boast millions of artifacts, this new digital landscape presents a daunting challenge for museums, but many are already facing it head-on. The Canadian Museum of Nature has digitized 1 million of their 3 million specimens, and their web portal goes live in 2014. The Royal BC Museum is currently working with NGX to create a learning portal that will make many of its 7.2 million artifacts, specimens and archival records available online to students and educators across the province. An early trailblazer in the area of digital collections, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (which will be reborn in 2017 as the Canadian Museum of History), has more than 200,000 artifacts in its searchable online database – and those numbers are growing.

Digitizing museum collections goes way beyond just scans or digital photography nowadays. 3D technology is taking digitizing to the next level by producing incredibly detailed digital 3D replicas that can be freely rotated, measured, magnified, you name it. The Smithsonian’s new X 3D program has fully embraced the 3D movement and digitized many of its iconic objects in 3D, which can be viewed online, downloaded, and yes, even 3D-printed (I’ll take one Wooly Mammoth, please).

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Image: Smithsonian X 3D

Aside from making information more available to the online masses, the other big benefit of digitizing is preservation: having high-quality digital replicas available online reduces the handling and deterioration of precious or fragile items. Researchers can get all the information they need without physically handling items, and museum staff don’t have to locate, re-shelve, and repeat. Museums can even curate entire digital exhibitions based on handle-with-care items where visitors can, if they want, go nuts.

That being said, museums should proceed with caution. Digitizing for the sake of digitizing is likely a poor strategy. An online digital collection is an extension of the museum, so it should be presented for public consumption just as carefully as any other exhibition. Prioritizing what is digitized (at least initially) will give museums the most bang for their buck, and an easy-to-navigate platform will do wonders for the usability of an online collection.

As cool as they are, digital replicas and 3D printouts will never replace the real things, which is why museums will still be relevant long into the future. If anything, the role of museums will continue to expand as the demand for digital collections rises and technology makes collections even more accessible – and that’s something everyone can get behind, from methodical researchers to pajama-wearing museum browsers.

– Jason Clarke, Interpretive Writer & Content Researcher

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