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Why should museums invest in digital condition reporting? 

A chunky lever arch file tucked in a packing crate, annotated sketches, and handwritten commentary are all pretty common examples of condition reports and the mainstay of many museums.

Your condition reports might be written by volunteers or conservators, art handlers, or curators, and it’s a good bet that your approach to condition reporting is as unique as your collection.

Condition reporting is not a particularly glamorous task, but a well-written report contains a wealth of expert knowledge and insight. How can we move this from the lever arch folder and make the best use of this process?

Keeping it simple

Museums have been pushing their approaches to condition reporting for a long time. Back in 2009, the V&A reported on the results of their digitization project.

‘With over 3000 objects leaving the Museum last year, as loans or as part of touring exhibitions, the preparation of such condition statements can be time consuming. It is estimated that the completion of 3000 reports requires the equivalent of 1.25 full-time conservators.’

The solution that they found was simple and elegant – using Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office to create image led reports that reduced the need for annotation and was accessible for a wide range of users. The result was tangible: ‘Within four months, savings and efficiencies had been made to such a degree that a successful business case was made to make the [Content Reporting Administrator] post permanent’.

And an in-house solution is still a common response to the need for improved condition reporting processes. In their March 2021 webinar, the ARCS suggested PDF Expert and Notability as two potential platforms for creating an in-house system, and it’s easy to understand why these should be recommended – both are easy to use on tablets (and so great for adding images) and flexible and so can be readily customized.

In addition, platforms such as PDF Expert can often be integrated with existing collection databases – further improving workflows and enriching data.

Richer data by design

The potential to integrate digital condition reports with other systems is exciting. For this, you need a robust platform that can work together with your other technologies – and to collaborate with other organisations, for example on touring exhibitions.

There’s a selection of off-the-shelf services available to help you achieve this goal, including Horus Condition Report, Articheck and Art Report.

Services such as these offer the potential to invite other users, so their usefulness in touring exhibitions is clear. These systems ensure that information is securely stored, and that reporting is consistently completed. And the ability to integrate with your other digital technologies shouldn’t be overlooked.

‘In the museum environment, there was once only a CMS, Microsoft Word, and email, with most processes still happening on paper. While we have seen a slow uptick in the use of technology, we’ve also seen this turn into a ‘hodgepodge’ of customized systems that cannot be updated and, put simply, fail to keep up with the technology being used in other sectors. Rather than always being behind the curve, could museums instead be early adopters of tech? Turning to agile, niche technologies that they can constantly tweak according to changing customer needs?’ asks Articheck.

And so this is where you may well have a trickier time with an in-house solution. By using such a service, it’s easier to integrate your condition recording with your wider digital strategy – and to access deeper insights.

Annika Erikson, the Founder of Articheck, explained, ‘We went from everybody doing condition reports their own way, to, now we’re trying to create a standardised way of approaching them. And along the way we get a lot of people saying ‘Oh but I want to do it this way’ and ‘I’m used to doing it that way’ … but wouldn’t it be great if we were all speaking the same language? And then we had a beautiful standardised set of data that we can then question, and get insights from, and do analytics from.’

And Annika should know, her work in establishing an international industry standard for condition reporting earned her a place on Artnet’s New Innovators List.

Condition reporting as part of a digital strategy

What if condition reporting was part of an integrated, organisation wide information resource?

On a basic level, if museums follow the thinking that an image-led condition report is more robust, they will be taking a lot of images. This photobank could be used to help populate a digitised collection.

But of course, the benefits go much further. The One by One Phase Two Report, asked asked how museums can deliver a framework for digital literacy.

It found that ‘participants felt that most existing frameworks lacked clarity of purpose. They also felt that the frameworks lacked obvious connection to many of the contexts of current museum work, particularly museums’ focus on audiences, creativity and storytelling, and to their social and civic purpose. This last point in particular is important. In seeking to better articulate digital skills and literacy needs, it’s easy to get caught up in their operational or business purpose – for example, how museums might foster innovative practice or create new business models. It’s vital to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, identifying the particular socio-political-cultural values that are driving the need to develop museum digital skills and literacy in the first place.’

And building agile, integrative systems is so important to this. Integrating digital systems gives the opportunity to extend our understanding, and find the best ways to tell our stories and engage our communities.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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