Institutional valuation of digital collections, the case of the Netherlands

Trilce Navarrete, Netherlands

We all know that investing in infrastructure is not sexy. Everyone wants to be associated with the gorgeous new exhibition and not with the grunge work required before hand. Why is that?

Museums are institutions that collect, research, preserve and exhibit. In order to exhibit, the other activities need to have taken place. The budget allocated for exhibitions is always the greater.[1] In this information age, digitization of collections is closely related to exhibitions. Unlike all other museum activities, digitization rarely has an earmarked budget.[2] Yet all the exhibition work (including online presentation of collections) depends on a sound digitized collections system: the information infrastructure.

Valuing the information side of collections is reflected in the structural allocation of resources towards digital activities, to not only include the registration and photographing but also documentation and dissemination.

Emerging technology allows creative ways of using and reusing content, yet for it to work the content must be first made available digitally. This process still remains largely labor intensive. Unlike library content being automatically catalogued upon production, museum content must be identified and contextualized manually. That is because objects are polysemic.[3]

Google has clearly identified the value of the information held in heritage institutions and has actively approached digitization (Google Art Project being most relevant for museums). What do museums do? How much do they value their information infrastructure?

This paper will look at the case of Dutch museums and their digitization practice to discuss a) level of institutionalized investment towards digitization and outcome, b) valorization of the digitized collections based on use, and c) implications of emerging trends.

[1] Johnson and Thomas (1998) ‘The economics of museums: a research perspective’ in Journal of Cultural Economics. Kluwer Academic Publishing. 22(2-3):75-85.

[2] Several international surveys have struggle to estimate the actual cost of digitization because of the lack of institutional digitization budgets, see NUMERIC and ENUMERATE EU projects.

[3] Cameron (2007) ‘Beyond the Cult of the Replicant – Museums and Historical Objects’ in Cameron and Kenderdine (eds) Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage. A Critical Discourse. Massachusetts MIT, 49-76; Hooper-Greenhill (2007) Museum Studies. An Anthology of Contexts. Main: Blackwell Publishing, 556-675.