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Terentia: creating digital infrastructure and ecosystems to manage museum collections, assets and create experiences

Toronto-based Terentia officially introduced itself to the world in February to assist museums and the wider cultural sector in their digital asset management, collections management and storytelling capabilities.

Taking its name from Terentia, an influential woman in ancient Roman culture who dedicated her time and funds to the arts and her community, the company believe this name embodies its mission and drive to support museums and culture organisations.

We are the infrastructure that museums need to gather and manage all their content and engage in digital activities

Neal Bilow

Neal Bilow, CEO and Founder of Terentia, says his background in digital asset management was originally within the media and entertainment industry. He became involved in the museum sector as he was impressed with, and personally impacted by, the meaningful work it did and wanted to improve its infrastructure to succeed digitally.

Developing a coherent digital infrastructure

Search functionality of the Terentia DAM: assets in the system are Open Access items

Through conversations with cultural professionals Bilow realised that the museum, and larger cultural sector, was suffering from the same challenges in digital asset management that the media and entertainment industry had experienced a decade earlier. That was they didn’t have the necessary infrastructure where organisations could manage and share their digital assets.

“Honestly, it made me upset because of the critical role museums, libraries, and so many other cultural institutions play in filling the education gap, especially for disadvantaged youth.” he says.

“These organisations act as sources of discovery and inspiration. I wanted to take my knowledge and expertise, find the right team and collaborate with these organisations as a way of giving back.”

To fulfil this goal Terentia has built a platform intended to be an intuitive, highly configurable and fully integrated software toolkit to help cultural organisations manage collections, digital assets and tell more stories.

“What’s important is to create experiences – you need that core set of digitised elements, metadata and the associations to go with them,” says Bilow.

“We are not exhibition creators but we are the infrastructure that museums need to gather and manage all their content and engage in digital activities.”

Creating community and affordability  

Folder view/functionality of the DAM: assets in the system are Open Access items

Terentia’s core is its cloud-native SaaS platform, that offers digital asset management, collections management and storytelling technologies.

“We’re highly focused on “community” and how we can all collaborate for the greater good, meaning that features and functions that are built into our modules are immediately available to all in the Terentia community.”

Terentia do this by continually working to make the system highly configurable as opposed to highly customised. The benefits of this configurable approach to museums is affordability as historically they have had to pay the high costs of professional services to create customised solutions only to find themselves unable to afford upgrades.

“The museum and cultural sector have a community that really genuinely wants to lift everybody else up. So, we thought, how do you create a company that’s part of that ethos, and embodies that same concept.

“Yes, we are a for-profit company, however, our museum and other cultural partners become part of the Terentia community and they get all of the new features that we build. That’s why I believe that we can collaborate and grow together. It was so important to me because the industry will thrive with and because of partners who are willing to take this approach.”

Overcoming museums’ challenges to digitally transform

A screen shot of the Terentia platform showing assets from the Universal Hip Hop Museum

A screen shot of the Terentia platform showing assets from the Universal Hip Hop Museum

Bilow says overcoming the challenges to digital transformation involves museums thinking differently about their digital ecosystems and users and focus on specific problems they are trying to solve.

He points to a report released by the Knight Foundation in October 2020 that says this requires the need to develop the “muscle and mindset” that is appropriate to the speed and level of transformation that an institution is going to move towards.

This means clearly identifying where an organisation wants to “go” as part of this journey and focusing on how you bring people, culture and technology together successfully to do so.

“Our digital ecosystems should be connected, scalable, collaborative, agile and contextualised. This allows for the development of a service-based mindset and culture to provide a holistic approach to developing strategy.”

Services at an organisational level include:

  • Getting your collections data online
  • Sharing content with your partners
  • Print on Demand Image Services
  • Video on Demand partnerships or Crowdsourcing Projects

“And then we need services at the software application level, which is where Terentia comes in.”

One concern that stifles the progress of digital transformation, says Bilow, is about the investment in the legacy systems that have already been made and not wanting to start again from scratch.

While at the same time, the digital teams (responsible for the website, for example) are having to create shadow databases of information and assets to facilitate their needs.

“To that point, we believe in “leveraging your legacy” and therefore do not need to perform standard “rip and replace” projects.  We call it “connect & collect” where we pull from those legacy systems to create a new cloud store of data, one service at a time, with built-in openness and extensibility.”

The effects of COVID-19

Bilow says COVID-19 has thrust digital into the forefront and this has highlighted the fact that some museums have previously only engaged with their audiences with a ‘what’s on at the museum’ or promoting a new exhibition but not really engaging them in a digital experience.

“One of the biggest problems was museums couldn’t get access to the content. We saw some amazing digital projects museums did around the world – one of my favourites was the security guard at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He took over the Twitter feed and became a tour guide as he walked around the museum and became an internet sensation.”

“Not everyone can get to a specific location but they still want to be part of it, consume, and discover and that’s the opportunity museums have more than ever. The idea is to build content and engage with people on a global level, which is really exciting.”

He says the pandemic has shone a light on digital transformation and has allowed cultural management to actually think about what this would mean.

“Now we are starting to see that unfold. The problem is we’ve previously been overwhelmed as digital transformation has always been made out to be this huge event.”

Cloud-native solutions 

Jobs/workflow tasks running in the Terentia DAM system; assets in the system are Open Access items

Jobs/workflow tasks running in the Terentia DAM system; assets in the system are Open Access items

One thing museums can do is begin looking at cloud-native solutions of which Terentia is a platform built for that.

“We believe in leveraging the legacy, finding ways to aggregate the content into the system to make it easier for museums to do things with it.”

That can be as simple as getting the content into a system, he says, to allow marketing departments easier access to help promote the content on social media.

Or it could be how do you use a cloud-based solution to easily share that content with fellow researchers or other museums.

“We can help build systems that have rights and licencing and have exporting capabilities to reduce museums’ time, cost and effort to allow them to explore new models. We can automate some of the processes. We believe that creating the technology to allow museums to do that gives cultural management the opportunity to explore new areas.”

This doesn’t always have to be revenue generation: it could be new partnerships or new research collaborations or the ability to easily send items to educational platforms.

Terentia is currently working with a museum to build a platform for them to deliver the curriculum for 8 – 12-year-olds and give teachers access to peer rated packages.

It uses its external sharing links, which are highly secure so the teachers are able to get the content they need and the museum is able to update the assets.

“At Terentia we believe that as a community we can build strong, flexible and highly configurable products that can meet the highly specific and individual needs of each cultural institution.”

Critical digital structure

Terentia provides a critical digital infrastructure that allows museums and other organisations to engage audiences in new ways such as to have easier access to collections for more discovery, educate by being able to easily pull assets and stories for a virtual exhibit or even to set up a digital community within a video game.

As well as this there is always the potential to generate new sources of revenue, for example, something as simple as being able to better connect assets for ecommerce possibilities.

“We already have multiple partners that we’re working with and so many more who are interested in collaborating and being part of what we’re doing.

“This to me is a huge achievement and shows that what we have created at Terentia is something that museums want, need, and deserve – a technology partnership that provides that critical infrastructure, but is there to ideate and collaborate along the way.”

Universal Hip Hop Museum partners with Terentia

An artists impression of the new Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is set to open in 2024. Image courtesy of UHHM

An artists impression of the new Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is set to open in 2024. Image courtesy of UHHM

One of Terentia’s recent partnerships has been with the Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), which is a new museum being developed in The Bronx, New York City.

The museum – which plans a soft opening in 2023 to celebrate 50 years of hip hop and a grand opening 2024 – is currently processing more than 30,000 objects and are actively expanding its Collection through acquisition and donations such as Snoop Dog’s green bike from one of his music videos.

Terentia will be a platform for UHHM to manage their assets as well as their collections management information. Terentia becomes the critical digital infrastructure that will allow the museum to fulfil its aims.

“The UHHM is beginning its digitisation process and that will mean bringing its content and metadata associated with its collection into the Terentia system. And as that grows, we will be helping them with the population of their website through our API (Application Programming Interface).”

Bilow says hip hop education is growing in the US and Terentia is envisaging what it means to tell stories about the museum’s content and facilitate their educational plans.

To do this they need a core platform that offers that digital infrastructure to allow them to manage the content, which then gives the ability for people to engage with it.

“We will manage the platform and allow for better discovery of assets and this is where technology such as machine learning can be brought in. That could be oral histories that have speech to text, so we can get a transcript of it or lyric sheets.

“Using Azure Media and Cognitive Services we can work on object recognition and as this continues we will train more of machines to help with this. And museums can then extend part of their collection to researchers.”

Terentia is also working on a new Storytelling product. Storytelling is powered by Terentia in collaboration with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Terentia will be giving a talk at MuseumNext’s Digital Collections summit from October 4-6 along with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the Universal Hip Hop Museum on collections and storytelling.

Martha Diaz, Chair of Archives, Curatorial and Educational Affairs at UHHM, CEO of Hip Hop CommUniversity and Senior Civic Media Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, will also be talking at MuseumNext’s Digital Learning Summit from October 18-20.

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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