Digitisation of cultural heritage can be a crucial tool in today’s efforts towards the conservation, study and promotion of European cultural resources.
From fire and flood to war and neglect, cultural resources are under threat all over the world. Recent blazes at Notre Dame and the National Museum of Brazil have highlighted the need to record this unique heritage for future generations. And conservation experts are increasingly turning to digital technology to document the unique artefacts, monuments and sites in their care. This not only supports any future restoration challenges, but the digitisation of cultural heritage also increases public access.
The National Trust began digitising its fabulous collections (over 300) about twenty years ago. In partnership with the Royal Collection, a new system was created and installed in 2009. It is now used daily by hundreds of staff and volunteers in both organisations across the UK. And in December 2011 the website was launched, providing vital public access to over 1 million online items.
Data were first captured locally, taken from the Trust’s traditional inventory cards. New digital photographs were added and each item was checked, marked and counted. Eventually all the entries were merged into the one new system.
Each National Trust collection is different, a personal creation reflecting the lives and characters of individual people. Now we can begin to see and appreciate the collections held by the Trust together, as a vast National Trust online museum, through which we can chart developments in taste, technology and society from the 16th century to the present day.
There is no simple methodology for establishing costs-per-hour of digitising artefacts. At this scale, it was not cheap and cost the Trust many millions. It also required hundreds of staff and volunteers to load the data. And a suitable collections management system to hold the inventory.
Evidence of success
People use the website for pure enjoyment, to find an illustration for a piece of school homework, for more advanced academic or professional study, or even to entertain friends on Facebook!
Now every item has a unique inventory number so staff know exactly where it is located at over 300 properties within 10,000 rooms or spaces.
And it’s a great way to talk about the items in the National Trust’s collection when a visit isn’t possible – or to whet people’s appetite to see the real thing.
From conceiving the idea in the late 1990s to delivering the website at the end of 2011, the project was a lengthy one, and is still ongoing! Some delays were experienced due to the complexity of the requirements and the need to ensure maximum functionality.
Potential for learning or transfer
The project is far from over and the National Trust plans to continue gathering new information and stimulating new research. Thus each phase of the project has provided insights and information which could be shared with others around the world.
The C-19 pandemic this year has seen cultural venues everywhere take their work online. Since the start of outbreak, visits to the Paris Louvre’s website have exploded, going from 40,000 to 400,000 per day.
And when its properties were closed, members of the public were still able to explore the collections in the Trust’s care.
Through articles and virtual exhibitions to social media posts about writing letters, spring cleaning or celebrating VE Day, the Trust’s accumulated know-how in using this vast online resource has great potential for transfer. Along with its experience of virtual content driving actual visits. (The Trust's website had 263,000 visitors this Easter, compared to 753,000 last year when its properties were open.)