Uploading the Whole Museum

digititalizationWith a ceremonial click with a foot pedal, the last of the 40,000 items of 2-D art being uploaded for free public use was digitally photographed last week.

Starting Jan. 1 the whole of the Smithsonian’s repository of Asian art, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will be available for noncommercial use online in high resolution and without copyright restrictions.

They are the first Smithsonian and only Asian art museums to so release their collections virtually.

Museum officials who organized a media presentation of the completion of the backlog photography last week said they assumed it would be scholars and Asian art aficionados who will mostly use the resource.

But they were also throwing out ideas for the intricate and often colorful patterns they’d been shooting: laptop backgrounds, digital wallpaper and actual wallpaper, posters, T shirts and lots and lots of phone cases.

The kinds of things, in other words, that would never have been imagined by the artist behind this ceremonial final object, a 44 x 31 cm illustration from 1600 Iran.

“It’s part of the democratization of knowledge,” Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, said at the event.

“We’re poised at a digital tipping point, and the nature of what it means to be a museum is changing,” he said in a statement released by the museum.

But why, I asked him, would people ever want to go to the museum again if it’s all at their fingertips at home?

“What access to the collection does is intensifies people in taking the trip to the museum to see the actual object.”

Some of the work online  may have been seen at the museum for a limited time, due to their fragility or sensitivity to light. But, officials say, 78 percent of what will go on line New Year’s Day have never been on display in any way.

Ninety seven percent of what goes on line will be in very high resolution, such that a bit of a work could be blown up and made into a poster. Four percent will be in merely high resolution.

For John Tsantes,the soon-to-retire head of imaging and photographic services at the Freer and the Sacklery, it represents the completion of a transition from the acrid smells of a darkroom, and 8 by 10 camera and a fridge full of film to a fully digital studio, the dismantling of the dark room and the return of lunches into the fridge.

It took the digitization team of six 18 months to devise a list and tackle the work, at first capturing 300 images a week. But through a new rapid recapture pilot project, they were getting up to 800 images a week (the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, using the same process, even has a conveyor belt.

And yet even with this moment marking the final digital image, the clicks will go on, says Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries.

Indeed, a light table with a circular turntable was taking 360-degree images of a vase for the 3D collection they are still shooting (those online will be able to examine the pieces in a way unthinkable in a museum — zooming in, turning it around, examining it very closely.

“This is just the last object from our list,” O’Callaghan said. “We’re still acquiring pieces all the time. So we’re never really done.”


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