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Reimagining Collections: Building digital ecosystems for the modern museum

What does the future of digital collections look like? Terentia recently hosted a panel discussion as part of the MuseumNext Digital Collections Summit to discover what reimagining collections management could look like and specifically how museums can build the digital ecosystem to support this endeavour.

Among the panelists were Adam Quinn, Digital Product Manager, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Martha Diaz, Chair of Archives, Curatorial and Educational Affairs at Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), CEO of Hip Hop CommUniversity and Senior Civic Media Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.

According to Quinn, bespoke projects can get to that granular level where they can be hyper specific. But these are often built by a third-party. They have this single experience and purpose, so when the project is done, what happens?

A more holistic approach

The dedicated team goes. The project may not be maintained in the same way and so, it begs the question whether the project should have happened or if a more holistic approach should have been taken.

“Bespoke digital products can be both really great, but also quite frustrating,” he said. “They’re good because they’re hyper specific and built by a third party who has a lot of capabilities and can throw everything at a single experience.

“But then that single experience may only have a short shelf life because of this. And I think the challenge with digital bespoke products is that they’re hard to update.

“There is no internal capability to change and update so museums lack the technical capabilities to do the updating themselves, so you’re relying on something after the development team walks away.

“Sometimes this is okay as what’s been developed is robust and it doesn’t break down, it’s been tested over time. The trade-off is they are locked down and that’s a challenge for the museum.”

Connecting systems

This leads to a sense of inflexibility especially when thinking of the longer-term and the future of museum collections. It also means that when addressing the organisation in a wider context, the technologies to be able to connect systems, or the bespoke project, might be lacking.

“Going forward we need to develop connected systems and tools and think about what our requirements for the actual content management system are as well,” said Adrian Cooper, Chief Product Officer of Terentia. “Who does this work? Can we leverage AI and machine learning to help with the gathering and organisation of some of that content?

“In terms of the flow we need to increasingly consider not only this traditional model of inside out, such as publishing things, but also thinking about volunteers and researchers or crowdsourced ways of gathering and managing content and how we keep it updated.”

Strong digital infrastructure

Without a strong digital infrastructure, it’s difficult to be flexible and can be a drain on your resources when doing what should be the simplest of tasks, never mind putting together a full exhibition.

Martha Diaz said that it was nearly impossible to execute the UHHM’s pop-up museum without the right tools.

The UHHM is currently under construction and the pop-up museum, The [R]evolution of Hip-Hop, which launched in December 2019 in The Bronx, was the first chance for the museum to showcase parts of its collection.

“It was a nightmare because we didn’t have a digital asset management system, we were literally working with 100 spreadsheets, folders with images in a Google Drive or Dropbox and we had information all over the place,” she said.

“We had four guest curators and we had people all over the country contributing and researching, so it was really difficult to manage.

“Following the digital transformation with Terentia, we now have a workflow that’s efficient that everyone can contribute to. The whole team can upload, we can see artefacts in real time, and we can place them in a digital virtual exhibition before we actually install the exhibitions.

“And for us it’s an immersive experience now, it allows everyone to participate and to have access to the collection. I can imagine teachers using it with their students so they could learn in the classroom. Researchers and curators will be able to create their own exhibitions: it really is a gamechanger and it becomes like a multimedia library that everyone has access to.”

The right tools and mindset

Digital transformation must begin with not just the right tools, but a mindset that allows for an organisation to evolve.

This helps address managing projects, workflow efficiencies, see artifacts in real-time, place artifacts into virtual exhibitions before they’re installed in a physical experience. The possibilities are endless.

The right digital infrastructure will allow others to tell new stories, add to existing stories and artifacts.

“We are building those tools to help manage digital assets, engage with social platforms, create digital storytelling and connect educational platforms,” said Neal Bilow, CEO and Founder of Terentia. “We are really focused on this community and how we collaborate for the greater good.

“The challenges and opportunities of creating and maintaining sustainable, expandable and collaborative digital ecosystems to support and be your organisation’s collections foundation. That’s the future of collections.”

The infrastructure:

  • Cloud-native platform purposely built for the cultural sector
  • Digital asset management
  • Collections management and storytelling technologies
  • At the heart of Terentia’s mission is building a community of institutions who are interested in collaborating in the next generation tools for culture.

Building a sustainable robust product

Quinn says what excites him about this new infrastructure is the idea of building a sustainable robust product that allows museums to deliver different types of information that empowers curators, educators and storytellers to use the museum’s material and deliver it into the galleries and beyond.

“When I think about digital transformation, for the Cooper Hewitt, it’s telling great design stories and imagining what that looks like,” said Quinn.

“What does it take to tell a great story about design – that should drive what’s happening digitally. I think that there are and have been certain limitations that we found with what types of content we can deliver and where we can deliver it.

“We need connected systems and to be really thinking about whether we are able to deliver collections content.

“I think we can poke the museum beast a little to see how much we can borrow from the greater digital world to tell a great story – are you just limited to your own collection content? I think it’s a big question and finding ways to tell those great stories and empowering storytellers and educators to grab that content and be able to put it where it needs to be for audiences that’s really exciting to me.”

Creating a smart museum

Not being constrained to a single museum collection and being able to tell a broader story about your specialist subject is something that Diaz and her UHHM team are already contemplating.

“We imagine the Universal Hip Hop Museum having all of the hip hop collections from around the world so this is a global opportunity and so imagine Cornell’s hip hop collection and the Toronto’s north side hip hop collection and our collection and all the many collections around the world together in one place where we can all access it.

“With this technology we can easily share information and I love that you can instantly share it to social media, you can even use it with AR, AI and VR technology, so we’re really creating a new smart museum and that’s all possible because of this new infrastructure.”

Find out more about Terentia, and their work here.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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