After the success of institutions of higher education such as Middlebury College, Lawrence University, Bowdoin College, and Bucknell University in managing digital collections from their campus museums and galleries with Shared Shelf, Artstor is now making its multimedia collection management software available to museums. If you would like to try Shared Shelf at your institution, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1 212-500-2421.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art was the first museum to adopt Shared Shelf, and we’ve invited Evan B. Towle, their Librarian for Digital Collections and Services, to share his experience.
Shared Shelf in the large museum
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been exploring the use of Shared Shelf within the museum environment for roughly a year and a half, introducing it in stages. In the first stage, “study images” for upcoming exhibitions were delivered through the Shared Shelf and Artstor tools to our corps of volunteers so they could study for upcoming exhibitions at home. In the second stage, archival exhibition views were cataloged into Shared Shelf to test its ability to represent these materials alongside similar installation shots from peer museums in Artstor, and they were further shared through Shared Shelf Commons. In the third stage, we explore Shared Shelf as tool for managing all non-object museum assets. These include archival photographs, event photography, recorded lectures, portraits of executives, and views of our various museum sites.
The initiative is driven by the Library and Archives, and implemented with the philosophy that to a museum, the museum itself is the principal patron. Every step balances the needs of various departments – photography, graphic design, publication, the press office, the education department – to produce and access digital materials quickly to facilitate the work of the museum. It also maintains the library ideal that information is to be shared as freely as possible and to wherever it is likely to be sought.
The unique problem of digital asset management in a museum
Deployment of digital asset management has been a difficult hurdle in every organization because unlike the library functions, there are no pre-existing workflows to be enhanced by applying a fairly uniform tool, such as an Integrated Library System (ILS). A library has always been able to catalog and circulate materials, develop its collection, and arrange materials in a meaningful sequence; an archive has always been able to process collections and create finding aids, and these processes are fairly standard across institutions. Implementing an ILS simply improved those analog processes, making them faster, more comprehensive, and more reliable. Not so for the work around visual and digital material where no pre-existing analog workflow can be emulated or enhanced. It must be built.
Much of the work, therefore, was organizational rather than technical – the museum had to become a digital asset manager before a piece of software could enhance any function. It required the Philadelphia Museum of Art to reorganize departments as well as routines. Where Rights & Reproduction had been an adjacent function to the Photography Studio, they are now split. The provision of all images to all constituents falls under the new Digital Collections and Services arm of the Library and Archives, leaving the Photography department to focus on excellence in photography. Photography is now solely a creator of digital assets rather than manager and distributor of them. With improved delivery of images and no internal charge for them, end user departments no longer need to silo materials from which to draw, and image queries receive the same service that reference questions do.
Enter Shared Shelf
With the organization reshaped into one that can meaningfully manage digital assets, we built our Shared Shelf third stage project – the one into which any non-object asset could potentially be placed for internal discovery and access as well as potential deployment into other environments. While we rely on our Collection Management System (TMS from Gallery System) to manage the images related to works of art in the collection, it’s ill-suited to manage or deploy other museum assets; Shared Shelf, however, is less relational and can accommodate any media as an end in itself.
A record was developed that could scale to include many types of constituents related to an image, such as curator, photographer, or performer. It also contains fields related to traditional archival arrangement so that digitized archival material can comingle with recent photography. Digital videos and sound recordings can be accommodated with the same full record. However, to make data entry simpler, and to catch an asset at the moment of creation, we developed specialized cataloging screens for the photographers and videographers. These employ the most basic data required for an object: photographer, date, title, site. There are additional fields that allow a photographer to describe an image in greater detail or add contextual information. The site field is a list of controlled terms to ensure all museum sites are described using the same language, for example Mount Pleasant rather than Mt. Pleasant. A “published in” list allows us to locate images used in previous publications such as the annual report. This is employed by freelance and staff photographers as a means to finalize and deliver photography, and they “publish” the images to the Artstor Workspace for organizational viewing. Data are later refined by professional library staff members.
Exhibitions and installation have a different “Photographer Entry” screen that likewise captures the most essential information about a shoot – date, curatorial department, title of the installation, name of the photographer. Photographers only see their own entry screens, likewise for videographers entering video files.
Finally, study images employ data exported from our Collection Management System using a Crystal Report formatted to Excel, so the data are identical in both locations.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s adoption of Shared Shelf has proven to be a success. The program is providing the museum with a better view of the content of our non-object images. No longer are anonymous files inside other anonymous files; they are a visual and searchable record of our institutional history. We can now see our architecture, galleries, visitors, how a department or curator’s exhibition work has evolved over time and how different audiences engage with special programs. We can study that information to inform our work. And most critically, we can deploy the digital assets to help draw and excite both new and faithful audiences.