This blog follows my placement with Research & Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham in January 2014, where I will undertake a range of collections management projects to further develop my skills in research, cataloguing, exhibition and preventive conservation.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Digitisation and documentation

Another crucial aspect of collections management that I was able to reflect on this week – digitisation refers to the conversion of an object, image or data into an electronic format. It is an issue that most cultural institutions are now faced with, or are at least beginning to encounter. However, the type of collections, resources, staff and technology available to cultural institutions invariably means that each will handle the task of digitisation differently.

The varied approaches to digitisation within the University of Birmingham alone highlights this. At the Cadbury Research Library, a high-quality scanner is utilised to quickly digitise large quantities of mostly flat, paper-based material. This method also allows for the capture of intricate details, for example the fine cross-hatched lines in an intaglio print, which could be studied to identify an engraving or etching. A different method is required at Research & Cultural Collections (RCC), which is mostly composed of three-dimensional objects. A professional camera and photo-editing software, studio lights and backdrop are used by a dedicated staff member, Patrick Dandy (Museum Photographer). During the week I joined 3 other students in a photography training session at RCC. Patrick took us through the standards and settings required to capture high-quality images of collection items, ‘as they really are’. We then had the opportunity to practise what we’d learnt, each setting up and photographing an object using the equipment at RCC. It was an extremely practical, informative and rewarding session.

Focus on Curating photography training session at RCC, 23 January 2014 (Photograph by Nadia Awal)
 But why go to all this trouble? A key reason is that digitisation improves the use and access to collections. With a high-quality image linked to an online catalogue, a researcher on the other side of the world has the ability to study an object in great detail. However, cultural institutions also need to make images available online in a way that is also objective, informative, inspiring and user-friendly.

Digitisation can also be an important tool in the preservation of collections. A digital record of an object can reduce the need to handle it. High quality images are also a key aspect of the documentation of collection items – for instance, when an object is first acquired by a museum or gallery, before and after it is displayed in an exhibition or goes on loan to another institution, and during conservation treatments – to record any changes to the stability or appearance of an object.
Condition reporting in the conservation lab
During the week, I also assisted Clare Marlow (RCC) and Sarah Kilroy (Wilson Conservation Studio) with the selection, transportation and condition reporting of four anatomical wax models from the Medical School Collection.  The teaching models were created by Friedrich Ziegler during the late 19th century and will be featured in the upcoming ‘Art of Anatomy’ exhibition at the Cadbury Research Library. As is standard in conservation practice, before commencing any treatment I had to compile a detailed summary of the appearance, method of production, and condition (aesthetic and structural) of the wax models. It will be my job to clean them in the coming weeks!
Test cleaning a late 19th century wax model of a gibbon foetus, created by Friedrich Ziegler

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