One of the mottos that museum curators swear by is “there is no substitute for the real thing”. Nothing can compare with being in the same room as an artefact from hundreds of years ago or examining the patina of a well-worn piece of furniture.
So, a digital image will always be second best then? Well, no. You see we have to take extra care to protect the rare and sometimes valuable artefacts that we look after. This can sometimes affect your experience as a museum visitor. For example, we put objects behind glass in display cases or behind protective barriers. We keep the light levels low to stop artwork fading. And wouldn’t you just love to pick up that teapot and check out the maker’s mark on the base? Well sorry you can’t. Museum, remember. Frustrating, isn’t it?
This is where digitisation comes in. This site isn’t meant to replace a visit to one of our fine museums but it offers something different, something unique. Here you can explore museum objects in your own time, view them from angles you can’t when they’re on show, plus you have access to thousands of artefacts that aren’t even on display!
So Let’s Digitise the Collection – wait what, the whole thing?
The North Lanarkshire Museums collection contains some 27,000 objects. That’s a crazy number to digitise and it would take years to photograph and scan them all. So, we decided not to go down that route.
We made a decision early on to go for quality over quantity. Every object shown here had to have at least one image displayed. The amount of information attached to each object varies quite a lot and that’s because we know more about some objects than others. The website gives us way more space to tell you about an object than we ever could in a museum exhibition.
Studio to Go
We had to decide where to photograph the collection. A photographic studio is a carefully organized space where you have full control over the lighting, background etc. We were very lucky that Summerlee Museum has its own fully-equipped studio in the Photomedia facility. In reality though, it wasn’t always practical to move museum objects to the studio, so we set-up temporary studios in the museum stores and in other places like the Conference Room at North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre.
So what did we need? Here’s our tick-list for a temporary museum photographic studio, just in case you’re thinking of setting one up:
- Background (cloth or sheets of paper)
- Camera and plenty of memory cards
- Tripod: very important, especially if you are using continuous lighting not flash
- Lights with modifiers: ideally you want to be able to light the background independently of the object
- Grey card/colour target: you can use this when correcting colours in Photoshop later
- Sticky tape and card: always useful when you need to improvise to control your lighting
- Plenty of space and tables for objects that are waiting to be photographed or waiting to be put away
- A photographer! Very important, this one: most of our photography was done by Jim, our Documentation Assistant but a lot was also done by Rita, our brilliant volunteer, several other volunteers and David, the CultureNL Photography Development Officer. As part of the project, Rita was able to get some extra training in studio photography. Without all of their skill and hard work this project wouldn’t have been possible.
Away with the Pixels
The objects were photographed at a higher resolution than they are displayed here because we don’t want to slow the site down. We have safely archived the original photographs and as technology improves (hello 5G) we will be able to increase the size of the images on the site without having to go back and photograph the objects again.
We used a grey card and colour target to control colour balance. Colours look different depending on the colour of the light that shines on them. For instance, fluorescent lights are towards the blue end of the spectrum and tungsten towards the red. A colour target lets you correct for this afterwards as long as you record RAW files when taking the photos.
Audio & Video
We don’t just look after museum objects. There is an oral history archive, a treasure trove containing hundreds of hours of recordings of people talking about their lives, their families, work, community life, wartime experiences and more.
Many of the recordings are on old audio cassette tapes and minidiscs so we had to copy and convert them into mp3s that we could play on the web. Many of the stories on this site have snippets of oral history in them, available now for the first time since they were recorded often decades ago.
Form an Orderly Q(R)
Over the next few months you will see lots of these little squares called QR Codes appearing around our sites, on or next to museum objects. Scan one with your mobile device and you will be transported (in a manner of speaking) to the record for that object on this site. That way you will have the best of both worlds: the real object in front of you and the digital magic at your fingertips!
Have a look around and let us know what you think.
About the Authors
Justin Parkes has been Industrial History Curator for CultureNL since 2008 and Jim Craig has been Documentation Assistant since 2009.