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The future of museum collections is cloud

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

Adrian Cooper is the Chief Product Officer for Terentia, a digital asset management, collections management, and storytelling platform for museums and cultural institutions that uses cloud-native systems to manage digital collections and utilise them to their fullest capabilities.

Here he talks to MuseumNext about his journey from the original digital transformation in the late 1990s to the latest cloud-native technology and what’s required of museums to digitally transform in the 2020s.

What is your background in technology and with the museum/cultural sector?

I came into cultural heritage back in 1988. I joined the Royal Opera House as a consultant and then became their first head of technology. I was part of an original digital transformation: the shift from paper-based systems to using computers for the very first time.

That’s where I started thinking about applying technology from a business perspective and I think that’s been the trajectory throughout my career. I always focus on the problem and believe that solutions should never be led by technology.

After eight years I moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum as head of technology and stayed for four and a half years. I was then headhunted by Gallery Systems to run their European Operations before setting up my own technology consultancy in 2003.

As a consultant I’ve worked all over the world advising organisations such as the National Gallery, Science Museum, Tate and the BBC—primarily focusing on digital projects.

How did you become involved with Terentia?

Last year, just before lockdown, while working on a project for National Galleries of Scotland to research and recommend a new public engagement technology stack, I began looking to see if there were any new suppliers and systems in the cultural heritage space.

That’s when I was put in touch with Neal Bilow at Terentia. We talked about the challenges with the legacy systems and opportunities in the market. I was invited to help with developing the strategy of this new start-up company and it took off from there.

This is exactly what I wanted to do – be at the helm of envisaging and developing a whole new technology platform for the sector.

What does your role at Terentia involve?

My role is to envision and then oversee the development of a next generation suite of collections-based products. We think of it as a platform where everything is integrated, flexible and accessible through a comprehensive API.

It’s about rethinking how collections management, digital asset management, workflow, and digital content publishing tools work together to meet the needs of 21st century museum operations.

As a new company we have a fantastic opportunity to think holistically about some of the core challenges museums have been experiencing to manage and publish collections-based content. And how we can utilise new cloud-native technologies and machine learning to assist.

Deep collaboration is core to our approach and so I spend a lot of time working very openly with our partner clients. As Neal and I are both experienced consultants we understand the value of transparent and iterative collaboration and it’s a fundamental part of our way of working.

Why is mindset important when museums embark on digital transformation and how can Terentia help with that?

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

I often talk about the need for a mature digital mindset. It’s about developing a way of looking at the problems or goals with a broader perspective. It’s not just about thinking of a new system or technology, it involves rethinking overall processes from end to end.

The digital transformation of any one service is likely to involve multiple existing systems as well as teams from across the organisation. Museums have traditionally adopted a more siloed (or departmental) approach to developing requirements and building systems.

At Terentia we are developing a platform that natively offers full integration between core elements that were previously separated (collections and digital asset management). And we are extending this to include a comprehensive toolset for multi-platform content and publishing (storytelling).

What technologies do you use to achieve a digital transformation and how does Terentia guide museums through the process?

At Terentia we’re lucky to have started from scratch. We don’t have what’s known in the business as technical debt, so we’re not starting from a position where we are bringing lots of older technologies that work in a certain way and can’t integrate.

We are completely cloud-native and use a combination of technologies and services that were designed specifically to operate in the cloud. One of the key advantages to this is the ability to handle storage or processing on a dynamic basis.

With on-premise systems you have to anticipate and fix the RAM or storage. Procurement, installation and management of these physical machines then takes time and lots of effort.

We can also quickly configure and use existing cloud-native services for machine learning and AI-based processes. This might be using machine vision services to automate image processing and generation of tags. Or automatically creating a text transcript from video on upload to the system.

What does data harvesting and leveraging the legacy mean exactly?

Data harvesting is a controlled method to automate the ongoing transfer of data from one system to another. At Terentia we tend to call this a connect and collect service.

We use this to connect to existing data sources (such as an on-premise system) and pull the data into a cloud-native data repository. Once in the cloud we can then transform, link or enhance the data as needed.

Leveraging the legacy is a core component of the Terentia strategy. We are building new systems but our strategy is to offer pragmatic ways for client partners to handle the migration from their existing on-premise systems.

We recognise that museums have invested a lot of time, money, and effort (in some cases over more than 20 years) in building the systems that they have. Our approach is to leverage what has been built and find practical ways to evolve towards a more modern infrastructure at a pace that suits. We don’t want organisations to have to ‘rip and replace’.

So data harvesting is a component of our leveraging the legacy approach. Connecting to on-premise systems and pulling data into the cloud allows our clients to take advantage of cloud native services such as machine learning without having to fully migrate.

What is the future of collections management?

That’s a big question! But overall it’s about providing an integrated platform that enables new ways of working, improves efficiency, drives engagement and increases revenue.

This next generation collections management space must promote collaborative working (between teams and organisations) and a joined-up approach to managing data. It needs an architecture that allows us to reduce data duplication.

Future systems need to include tools that enable non technical users to create or configure workflows to manage processes for ingesting, manipulating, reviewing and delivering collections metadata and assets for a purpose.

Next generation systems need to be well designed and easy to use – reducing the need for training and increasing the likelihood of adoption.

Users need to be able to search and access collections-related information from a single source within their institution rather than having to cross reference data from multiple systems.

What are the benefits of open access, how is it changing the way museums see their collections, and what is its background and future?

Traditionally museums were very fierce about controlling access to their images because it was a source of income. However, the time and money on the policing and management images meant that the benefits were actually marginal.

By freeing up the digital assets through Creative Commons licencing (where it’s free at the point of use, to different levels from CC0 to CC4) it allows you to expand the ways the collection can be shared and used.

Opening up access to digital assets has been shown to widen the appeal of your museum by allowing people to be creative with your content, which in turn drives people back to your museum.

The museums who have joined the Open Access movement have also hugely benefited from brand recognition and funding opportunities as key funders are now demanding Open Access.

So it’s been totally the opposite of what people thought it might be, and it’s not really a loss of control because the assets are still under a licence, but it is a more open licence that permits this reuse.

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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