The Collections Trust’s Digital Asset Management for Museums conference is the first of its kind. Granted, other workshops and seminars have focused on the topic, but never has a conference devoted itself exclusively to the investigation of managing digital assets within the museum sector. Because of this, the Collections Trust is ahead of everyone else and I applaud them for it.
In the following section I share points I found interesting from each speaker. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive conference report. If you attended the event, you may want to skip down to the concluding remarks where I summarize my general impressions of the conference.
Nick Poole (CEO, Collections Trust) opened the event by describing the overarching goal of a museum as bringing together functions within the museum around the end-user. Digital asset management, he explained, lies at the heart of this intersection. Andrew Lewis (Acting Head of Digital Strategy), following Poole’s lead, argued that museums must think of how their technology is used. Lewis charged the audience with finding value in all data. For example, don’t settle for counting ‘likes’, analyze user data. ‘If it’s worth writing, publish it’ Lewis said. Being that DAM connects people with data (and increasingly to each other), it is crucial that museums learn to manage types assets they may not be accustomed to collecting.
Now that the case for digital asset management had been made, it was time to turn our attention to how to create a DAM plan. In what would be an oft-repeated statement, Poole declared that DAM had little to do with technology, but with people and processes (herein lies his remark about cake and beer!). Before launching into the development of a DAM proposal, you must ask several scoping questions:
1.What are you hoping to achieve?
2.Who are you doing it for?
3.What do they need?
4.How will it benefit your organization?
5.Who are the main people who need to be involved?
6.Do the people in charge have the skill to know what they’re doing?
7.Why are you doing it now?
8.What would ‘succeeding’ look like?
The answers to these questions would support change management. So will cake and beer when you are celebrating those ‘quick wins’ along the way to implementing a DAM. He continued by making the case for identifying use cases, auditing your assets and existing systems, identifying stakeholders and allies, developing a business case, creating a plan, and gradually rolling out your DAM. Poole concluded by pointing out that a DAMS implementation isn’t finished when it goes ‘live’. Create a community to foster ongoing success: train users and listen to what they’d change about the system. Many points from Poole’s talk may be found in the Collection Trust publication Spectrum DAM.
Paul Miller (IT Projects and Business Process Manager, Royal Collection) took the stage and walked us through the deployment of a DAM at his institution. User permissions became tricky when various curators declined to have their collections shared across the museum. What was his solution? After much deliberation, he made assets either visible or invisible in the system. About 250 people now use his DAM. Do I have that figure right? Wow.
The first Q&A panel followed Miller’s talk. Overlapping functionality between systems was on people’s minds. What happens when a digital asset becomes a collection object (as opposed to a surrogate for a physical item in the collection)? Nick Poole suggested integrating systems, which could then share metadata about the asset. Paul Miller elaborated on this idea a bit further by stating digital assets and their metadata should go into the DAMS (that’s what it’s built for!) while information about physical objects should go into the CMS. The issue of how much metadata to pull from the CMS to the DAMS was raised. Paul Miller suggested that only metadata that supported discovery should be crosswalked. The question of balancing open access with the need to monetize digital assets was posed. Nick Poole mentioned a study (link downloads file) that demonstrated museums make very little money monetizing their digital assets.
Tom Bilson (Head of Digital Media, Courtauld Institute of Art) presented his case study of a recent DAMS and CMS deployment at his institution. You can read more about his views in my recent interview with him. Worthy of mention was his analogy, “an API is like opening a door into your Collections Management System instead of knocking a hold into the wall.”
Daniel Burt (Freelance IT Consultant/Developer) raised the specter of security when he mentioned The Pitt Rivers Museum was often a target for hackers. In his case study, he described a ‘primitive’ approach whereby a security wall was erected between the internal (DAMS) and external systems (Content Management System and Website). Burt mentioned how the museum chose to standardize their images to the TIFF format.
A panel followed on the heels of this last statement. As expected, much time was spent discussing the merits of various formats. Choosing formats and filenames is often a contentious issue and the panel discussion bore that out. Again, the commodification of digital assets was raised. Andrew Lewis suggested that rich media should be used as marketing tool to drive the public to your collection.
After lunch, Marc Boulay (Photographic Archivist, University of St. Andrews) launched into a description of his DAM, showing how user access forms the core of his strategy. Linking between various digital assets (I.E., essays, interviews, and images) enriches the user experience and builds momentum for his service.
David Walsh (Head of Digital Collections, Imperial War Museum) was a welcome speaker for me, bringing candidness to the proceedings. His description of the three types of DAMS users included the old timers. These curmudgeons are set in their ways, and are entirely unreceptive to anything new. However, Walsh argued, they are usually the ones with the most institutional knowledge and are irreplaceable. Therefore, efforts must be made to entice them to adopt a DAMS. Among the suggested methods to win them over: show them how a DAMS will make their work easier. When lamenting the ongoing battles over which format or file naming convention is superior, he declared, “If I was being polite, I’d say people weren’t digitally literate. If not, I’d say they were muppets with no idea of what they want.” That’s what I call a zinger.
During the penultimate panel Q&A, someone asked about the first steps a museum should take towards DAM if they had little money to spend. Marc Boulay argued for making a case for DAM to the administrators, showing how much money would be saved. David Walsh supported this view by recommending parties interested in pursuing a DAM define what they want it for. He cautioned museum staff to avoid over ambitious plans.
Nick Poole guided attendees through the process of how to budget for a DAMS. The actual costs are much higher, he stated, than advertised. You must account for services, integration, and data migration. Poole also observed that trade-off on price is usually based on flexibility. If you’re ready to accept a system ‘out of the box,’ with little to no customization you can expect a lower price. But beware; you get what you pay for.
The last panel discussion focused on DAM finances. This was of particular interest to me. How can museums pay for these expensive initiatives ($100K in some instances)? Rather than asking such a general question, I chose to ask: have there been any examples of museum consortiums that have used their buying power to defray the costs of a DAMS? None immediately came to mind, but costs could be shared across multiple museum departments if they were brought into the DAMS fold. Gael Dundas (Head of the Department of Collections Management, Imperial War Museum) suggested combining a DAMS implementation with another program, such as a digitizing initiative. Nick Poole offered the University of Oxford’s Aspire consortium as a successful attempt at a funding collaboration between academic museums.
During one of my conversations with other attendees, an IT manager mentioned his museum’s need for someone to lead their digital strategy. This begs the question: who should guide a museum’s DAM effort? Unless they have the wherewithal to create a Digital Media department, should IT lead the charge?
Let me say this about file formats: keep it simple. Preserve raw files and, in addition, choose only a few of the most widely adopted formats to normalize to. Let the heated discussion start!
Although it was never explicitly stated, there seemed to be a tug of war between openness and asset commodification. Do museum digital assets want to be ‘free’? What monetization model can be developed to fund a museum’s digital preservation efforts?
Speaking of… digital preservation is a subject that is often ignored for the more popular (or visible) aspects of access and monetization. This reflects poor long-term thinking. Digital preservation is integral to digital asset management. Choosing what to collect, how to store it, and how to make it accessible are also central aspects of digital preservation. The main concept that separates digital preservation from DAM is the goal of ensuring that data is preserved over the long term. Museums must treat their digital collections as they would their physical ones: they must be inventoried, stored in adequate locations, catalogued, and made accessible to the museum’s users. Incredibly, several museums I’ve been in contact with have conceded a lack of any formal digital preservation strategy. For institutions that make it their job to preserve important cultural heritage, I think the neglect of digital preservation is entirely antithetical.
The approach to maintaining digital items into the future is dissimilar from preserving physical objects in one important way. Digital objects are ephemeral in nature, requiring intervention as close to the time they are created as possible. Whereas a marble bust will survive for centuries in the poorest of conditions, most digital files are generally expected to last for a short period of time, sometimes as little as five years, without action. It is because of these, and other, reasons that I was surprised that only one person, David Walsh, mentioned the OAIS model. Digital preservation was on people’s minds, however. Before the conference began, Nick Poole replied to a tweet (calling for a discussion on the subject), stating that it is a much bigger issue than could be covered at the conference. Perhaps, but it deserved more attention than it received at the event. At next year’s DAM for Museums conference (attendance seemed to suggest there would be one), I hope the Collections Trust will offer a digital preservation strategy workshop or at least assemble a panel to discuss it. I don’t mean to single out this conference for missing an important ingredient in the management of digital assets. Conferences about DAM have notoriously ignored digital preservation in the past. This tendency must change.
The same could be said about metadata. Besides being the subject of one or two questions, structured data about data was never the center of any speaker’s presentation. Is it an issue? Perhaps not as much as it is in the corporate sector. After all curators, archivists, and librarians (most of those who’d interact with a DAMS in the museum) are already familiar with schema, controlled vocabularies, thesauri, etc. However, the aspect I would have expected to hear about is the process by which to attain collective agreement on these same aspects. Another idea for a panel for next year?
Much thanks goes out to the Collections Trust for organizing this conference. In particular, I would like to thank Nick Poole, John Woolley, Timothy Keen, and Lucy Douglas.
Still want more? You can find many of the event tweets on my Storify page.