Digitising a museum collection means making digital copies of the physical original, for example by transferring slide photographs into digital formats or making 3D copies. At Clare Museum, it mostly means scanning or taking digital photographs of our collections.
The main reason we’re digitising our collections is to increase access to our objects and documents. This is not a new activity at Clare Museum, as back in 2002 we became one of the first museums in Ireland to use a website as a platform to host digitised collections. It allowed us to break free of the physical confines of the Museum building. It also allowed the Museum collections to be accessible to all with access to the internet. The website was hosted by clarelibrary.ie, but became outdated by 2008 when the smartphone became ubiquitous. Our website was not suited to this platform at a time when the potential audience could not have been bigger.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic really highlighted the potential of museums with an online presence to engage with the public while they are social distancing, and at Clare Museum we used the digitised objects on our website as fodder for our Facebook page. This allowed us to reach our audience on smartphones, and establish a new audience during the pandemic.
However, we also realised that our collections had grown over the previous decade and few of those newer collections were represented on our website. In the past we had also employed a professional to take these photographs for us, but with social distancing during the pandemic, this was no longer an option for us. In October 2020, Clare Museum successfully applied for funding from the Heritage Council to purchase our own camera and studio equipment which would allow us to digitise our collections and upload them to our social media.
So, digitising the collection allows us to provide access to our collections and also allows us to achieve our mission which has a commitment to having an online presence.
Our Mission is to collect, preserve and display, the material culture relating to the history of County Clare, both in the museum building and online, as an educational resource and as a socially inclusive cultural service for the people of Clare and visiting tourists.
Digitisation is also valuable for conservation purposes. This is because when an object is photographed it captures it at a particular moment in time and allows us to monitor any deterioration in the object in the future. In 2021, during a routine spot check of the collection, a stain was noticed coming through the paper in a framed and glazed Blood Pact between William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher dating to 1848. While a condition report from 2000 had noted the presence of the stain, it was not as noticeable on a photograph of the ‘pact’ taken in 2002. It was immediately decided to send the item to a paper conservator to be sure the item was stabilised and for any necessary remedial action.
Digitisation is also useful as a preventative conservation tool. The Museum has in its possession a number of items such as documents and autograph books that are delicate to touch. By digitising these, the Museum can provide the necessary access for researchers and the general public without increasing the threat that handling these delicate items often brings. Indeed, as the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland indicates, the digital collections can be particularly valuable in the event of catastrophic loss.
All museums are regularly asked for images of items in our collections for local, national and even international publications. We also use images in text panels for temporary exhibitions in-house and in our publicity material, and so having an archive of digitised images is a very useful resource.
Our collection, at about 4,000 items, can be considered to be small and with about 25% of the collection already photographed, it is possible that we may be able to digitise the entire collection one day. However, our first priority is to digitise smaller items, such as coins and medals, as these are relatively easy to photograph by museum staff with limited experience. Consideration is also being given to vulnerable items, such as autograph books, some of which have been scanned using a scanner in the County Library. As previously mentioned, these can now be made available to researchers, without there being any threat to the original autograph book.
Larger items, such as costumes or textiles for example, are more problematic. It is likely that these will be left until later in the project when staff have more experience and training in photography, or perhaps funding can be sourced to employ a professional photographer to digitise these more difficult sub-collections. We often have difficulties with framed and glazed collections, as the glass usually reflects the flash or the photographer, and have reverted to professionals in such instances.
Photography of the collection takes place on Mondays between October and the end of May, when the Museum is closed to the public. These are the days when much of the collections management activity in the Museum takes place, and while this means digitisation will not be possible every Monday, we should be able to make considerable inroads into the digitisation backlog every year.
We only digitise items where title has been signed over to Clare Museum by the person gifting the object to the collections, and some items on loan where permission has been granted, such as the collection on loan from the National Museum of Ireland, for example. We are governed by Clare County Council’s GDPR policy in relation to the reproductions of photographs of living people.
For us at Clare Museum, photographing of the object is essentially the final stage in its initial documentation. When an object is donated to the Museum, we complete an entry form with the person donating the item. This information is then input to our Axiell database under an assigned number, which is then marked directly on the object or attached using a tag. Once this is completed, the item is ready to be photographed, although sometimes we take the photograph before the marking takes place. The assigned number is essential. It is applied to the digital image and then uploaded to a portable hard drive and stored in a folder which has been assigned a year.
So for example, the first items catalogued in 2022 is 2022.1 and it will be stored in the 2022 folder where later objects will appear in numerical order. Different images of the object will be assigned a letter, so for example if 2022.1 is a medal, 2022.1a would be assigned to the obverse while 2022.1b would be assigned to the reverse. The photographer also sends a digital copy to the curator for uploading to the database, where the name of photographer and the date the photograph was taken are also recorded.
Scanned items are initially stored on a memory stick at the library, before being uploaded to the portable hard drive, while only a scan of the cover is uploaded to the Axielle database.
The images uploaded to the database are stored on the server of Clare County Council and it is backed up each evening. The mobile hard drive is a flexible storage method, stored in a fire-proof safe in the Museum.