Digitisation of Museum Collections. A Worthwhile Effort?
Early digitisation might have been thought of as the actual technique used to create a digital surrogate of an analogue object. Today the term covers a range of activities from choice of object to be digitised through to possible end use of the digital material. Museums of any renown worldwide have taken steps to make their collections accessible on line. Researchers and the public alike expect to be able to find images of objects online at the click of a button. This paper reviews the impetus for this aspect of digitisation and investigates the consequences of these activities. A qualitative literature review, an empirical study of directives and case study of three museum websites are used in order to test the proposition that digitisation of museum collections has proceeded without formal museum policies, but is now being driven by government directives to provide access to collections. This results in a change in focus for the museum to become knowledge rather than object oriented. Historically there has been a move towards preventive conservation. Digitising a collection would seem to support this ethic. Once photographed the object can be archived and not handled unnecessarily. There may be further benefits in terms of conservation research including manipulation of the digital image and reconstructions otherwise not possible without significantly altering the original. Through an on-line survey the impact of digitisation on the role of the museum conservator is investigated. It is concluded that many of the reasons for digitising found in the literature are not in fact reflected in directives, or found on the websites reviewed in the case studies. The reasons instead seem to have become consequences of having made the collections catalogues available on-line.