Précis: As museums close their physical spaces due to the mandate of social distancing, their digital collections take on unprecedented importance: sustaining their audience engagement, enabling ongoing scholarship, and inspiring all of us to #museumfromhome. Might the full digitization of a museum’s permanent collection be a worthy priority going forward?—a means of virtual art conservation and future-proofing their collections.
“We are only as valuable as the information we keep.” So noted Elizabeth Goraybeb of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute in a compelling keynote delivered on March 5, 2020—just a few days before New York City declared a State of Emergency. Her words, which kicked off a day-long conference entitled “Digitization and the State-of-the-(Art)World,” would take on a much weightier context the following week, when museums across the country shuttered to visitors, and the movement to #museumfromhome emerged for art-lovers everywhere.
Suddenly, “the information we keep” becomes museums’ current lifeblood, as closures of their physical spaces accelerates engagement with their digital collections. But virtual tours, tableau-vivants, and Old Master memes aside, it seems the digitization of a museum’s permanent collection might be the most convincing indication of its institutional endurance.
In the past few weeks, many of us have taken advantage of a museum’s online collection—a cultural lifeline for anyone whose pre-pandemic Friday night might’ve looked like getting lost in an (actual) gallery. Now, browsing a museum’s collection highlights might lead a teacher or parent to find a homeschooling lesson; a practicing artist to seek new inspiration; a graduate student trying to continue her dissertation; or my own father, who recently downloaded an apocalyptic Hogarth to compete with office colleagues for most creative Zoom background. The digitization of museum collection objects enables these meaningful (or at least light-hearted) engagements.
For the purposes of this article, “digitization” refers to the process of registering, photographing, and uploading the full record and image of a work of art on a museum’s website. I’d be hard-pressed to name a single institution that has 100 percent of their holdings digitized and photographed (ever notice the optional “image available” checkbox when searching a museum’s online collection? Try leaving it empty, and stare into the non-photographed abyss). Anecdotally, the closest statistic I’ve heard is the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, with a permanent collection 90% digitized, following a comprehensive institution-wide effort to get there. Yet digitization is an essential process: a demonstration of a museum’s mission as the keeper, protector, and deliverer of works of art and their connected data. I believe the images of these works are an integral piece of these digital records, and that we must prioritize their inclusion to truly conserve works of art in their entirety.
Collectively, a digitized museum collection represents a stand-in for—or as any art history graduate might prefer, a simulacrum of—the original. During the current closures, it keeps the institution up and (remotely) running; in a time of crisis, it provides evidence in the event of an object’s damage or destruction. In the natural history world, a signature image might have its equivalent in a fossil’s “holotype”—the “the first, best, and most important examples of their kind…losing them is like losing the avatar of an entire species.”
So what’s the hold up? And why don’t more museums have more complete digital collections? First one must consider the labor-intensive and often tiresome process of digitization, involving numerous staff members, from a curator initiating a request for new photography of a work they’re exhibiting, to the technician that delivers it, to the photographer producing the photograph, to the collection manager overseeing the website upload, to the security guard on-duty when the work occurs. Like many museum workflows, it’s a highly collaborative and process-oriented exercise—one without definitive authorship, and often without particular urgency. It’s also worth noting an object may wait weeks, or sometimes decades, to have its official portrait taken, leaving many complete digitized object records, but ones which lack illustration.
Apart from the laborious process of digitization, there are also institutional arguments against making it a high priority. First, the museum’s current holdings may not reflect its most current collecting philosophy—perhaps acquisitions channel the priorities of a different era (yes you, Gilded Age), and the digitized records haven’t quite caught up to a more progressive curatorial agenda. Second, the way to engage the next generation of museum-goers may well be through video, social, and/or more interactive content rather than with a static object image. (Although, one could argue that the permanent collection forms the basis of any of the former content.) Finally, for many museums, conserving actual art objects may have to take precedence over maintaining sweeping digital records.
In today’s moment, it’s impossible not to compare this issue to its parallel in the medical space: where the pandemic sparks debate over prioritizing preventative versus curative care of patients. Similarly (and pardoning the uneven comparison to human lives and works of art), the museum space faces the question of how to allocate their limited resources: to the curative measures of temporary special exhibitions and public programming?—or to the preventative measures of art conservation, building upkeep, and somewhere down this list: digitizing/photographing the permanent collection?
Thankfully, much of the work of digitization can be done remotely, and/or within the restrictions of social-distancing. In the example of procuring new object photography: one technician delivers the work; one photographer produces the photo; then any number of remote employees or contract workers can oversee the post-production and image delivery. Doubling down on digitizing the permanent collection helps ensure institutional health. In the same vein, research on metadata like provenance and image copyright can be conducted largely online.
Prioritizing certain aspects of the permanent collection can help direct resources most efficiently. Revisiting the Smithsonian’s example, then-Secretary G. Wayne Clough described choosing some objects over others “…you have to prioritize. There are a few elements in that. One is that we kind of have an understanding of what we think people would want, and we’re also asking people what they would want. So our art collections, for example, contain around 400,000 art objects. So we’ve asked our art people, and they told us 20,000 objects that are the best of the best. So we’re going to do high-resolution digitization of those objects.” This curatorial input prevents wasted resources on digitizing objects which may not garner as much engagement, but ideally, institutions could adopt more of a “no object left behind” policy when it comes to new photography.
For now, museums have new evidence of engagement with their online collections, from increased site traffic to the plethora of tableau vivants on social media, using every household item from old bananas to toilet paper rolls. Post-quarantine, many institutions expect a stall in in-person visitorship due to “social hesitation,” another point in favor of investing in their digital collections.
If technology is what’s keeping museums running through this crisis, it could also do a lot to enhance inter-museum collaboration in the long run. Imagine an authoritative, centralized database of museum object and image records, layered on with metadata such as provenance, exhibition history, and copyright. Indeed, the acceleration of digital programming may necessitate a new normal in the field of image licensing—until now, a process as analog and opaque as so many other art world transactions.The WPI Conference found me sitting on the 48th floor of a months-old building in Hudson Yards, eye-level with the whirring helicopters in Manhattan’s midtown west. Seven weeks, one pandemic, and countless museum closures later, I sit in my kitchen listening to @AnnePasternak, Shelby White and Leon Levy Director of the Brooklyn Museum, presenting on a call regarding the state of Non-Profits during Coronavirus. She describes their upcoming programming: her curators are currently mining the Museum’s online collection—“4,000 years of human creativity,” which will highlight stories of “resiliency, survival, and where civilizations have been resurrected after a crisis.” Digital images are the current lifeline for meaningful engagement with museums: both echo and equal to their physical collection.