Collection pixels

By digitising our museum and library collections, Museums of History NSW can interpret and provide access to a rich array of items that offer fascinating insights into our material history.

Providing virtual access to museum collection items is a vital part of exploring and engaging with our cultural heritage. The desire to visit and see objects imbued with history is complemented by high-quality digital images, which can travel the world with the click of a button. The benefits of this have been demonstrated clearly in the past two years, when our sites have been closed to visitors for extended periods of time due to public health restrictions. Virtually engaging with visitors enables us to transcend physical borders and invite a wider audience to discover these tangible traces of our past.

For more than ten years, the Collections & Access Team has been gradually digitising our collections through professional photography and scanning. The images are added to our digital assets management system for our curators, librarians, and exhibition and content producers to interpret in programs and stories, and can be provided to museum professionals, academics and members of the public around the world.

During the 2021 COVID lockdown period, we rapidly expanded our digitisation program through an ambitious project that included both traditional and digital museum collection management practices, and high-end photographic production. The project has enabled us to professionally photograph an estimated 200 additional objects and digitise 24,000 pages from our library collections. Our internal digital image library has been upgraded to streamline workflows and improve discoverability.

Off the shelves!

MHNSW’s collections include a diversity of formats – from a coffin (1934) to 1830s friendship albums – held in stores and on library shelves, or displayed on the walls, side tables and mantelpieces of the house museums. The project has provided a wonderful opportunity to delve into the collections and bring objects out in front of the camera.

To select items for digitisation, the new Collection Digitisation Project Team works closely with curators, librarians and other colleagues who interpret and care for MHNSW collections and sites. In the case of some objects chosen for the project, this may be the only time they’ve left the collection stores, while other objects have been digitised before but the images no longer meet our visual and technical standards.

Collection close-up

The team considers the best approach to safely digitising each item. This decision is informed by an assessment of the item’s format, condition, size and visual qualities, as well as its location. Digitisation may simply involve documenting each side of an object, or it may require additional photography to capture details of manufacture such as makers’ marks and construction, or – for printed items or manuscripts – any fold-outs or inscriptions. The team also considers how the object will be presented for the camera, and supports are sometimes created before the shoot.

Collection photography requires high-resolution cameras to accurately capture colour and details, and also, ideally, a white studio background and neutral flash lighting.

MHNSW digitisation staff work with photographers to assess how to portray the significance and individual characteristics of each object placed before the lens. Photographing a gentleman’s pocket watch (c1816), lavishly set with pearls and diamonds on blue enamel, involves a different approach from capturing the reflective brown glaze of a simple ceramic jug (c1969–72), a large hand-shaped convict-era wooden mallet, or a fragile and frayed silk valance with embroidery (late 19th century). Artworks and paper-based items require a precise set-up: the object’s surface must be perfectly parallel with the camera and lit evenly from each side to render the resulting image uniformly sharp.

Many unique items held by the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection – including 19th- and 20th-century trade catalogues, illustrated manuscripts and bound sheet-music volumes – feature quirks in construction or collation that can pose challenges for photographic reproduction. A special approach is required to photograph items with vivid colour plates, luminous gold print, illustrations in pencil and paint, embossed pages, collage, fold-outs or loose pages; interleaved samples of textured wallpapers, flooring materials and wall-finishing samples; or a tight, fragile spine binding.

Special attention

Additional considerations and planning are also involved when digitising objects on display in the house museums. These items may have furnished rooms for decades and are key to our interpretation of the spaces, and therefore the visitor experience. Some objects may require stabilisation or specialist conservation before being digitised. Others are simply too large or fragile to safely deinstall, transport or handle. For example, several large-scale artworks adorn the walls of the entrance hall, dining room and drawing room at Vaucluse House. These include a c1825 portrait of Major D’Arcy Wentworth, younger brother of William Charles Wentworth, the owner of Vaucluse House. The work is large and heavy with an ornate moulded gilt frame, so it was photographed in situ by carefully bringing the studio set into the elaborately furnished and dressed dining room.

A number of costume collection items were also selected for digitisation. These fragile and often highly evocative garments, constructed as early as 1851 and as recently as the 1980s, were assessed and prepared individually. Ideally, they would be carefully dressed on mannequins specially prepared by conservation experts; however, the condition of each garment guided how they were presented for photography. An external specialist conservator assessed the condition of the textiles, and the robustness of seams and components, and worked alongside curators and collection and digitisation project staff to prepare the objects and realise the final photographs.

Search and discover!

Image files are added to our internal digital assets management system. Recent system updates have improved processes for file handling, management, description and discoverability. We now have a cloud-hosted storage system with the latest software functionality, making digital assets more discoverable for internal users and external collaborators. Our updated digital assets management system is integrated with the collections and library information systems, allowing it to draw collection information from the source records, ensuring consistent data.

We are now a model for other institutions who are looking to update their digital assets management systems and migrate their systems to the cloud, and our work was recognised with a 2021 Fotoware Media Management Award for innovation in working with media files.

This assemblage of digital assets is a window into our vast holding and represents content from across our properties and library collections. Existing in one central location that transcends the physical sites where objects are held, it enhances storytelling and interpretation and supports the discovery of new connections. The ongoing digitisation of our collections will allow us to provide rich and layered interpretations of our places that can be shared with audiences near and far.

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Holly Schulte

Holly Schulte

Former Curator Digital Assets

Holly explored the extraordinary potential of digital imaging technology alongside the enduring appeal of analogue photographic collections. She was responsible for a range of collection related tasks with a focus on photography, digitisation and digital asset management. Her research interests address photography, collections, image making and associated technology.

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