Online collections and online exhibits offer opportunities to share the resources of a museum, archive, or library with a much larger audience than can physically visit the institutions. This is one way technology helps cultural institutions become more democratic and increase access to the information they hold.
This week, I was asked to put myself in the shoes of an archivist or museum professional and contemplate the process of setting up an online collection or exhibit. What challenges would I face? What steps would I take? I came up with a very long list of considerations, and, having never actually been involved in a project like this, I’m sure there are more aspects of which I am not even aware.
Even with my limited knowledge, I think I can list some of the major points that the Board of Trustees and staff should keep in mind throughout the process of creating a digital project.
Consider… your resources
Any project involving technology is going to come at a high cost. Before moving forward with any planning, cultural institutions will likely have already secured funding through grants or generous donors. The man-power behind the project is also important. Planning and executing such a project will take the staff’s time and may require hiring additional staff. Training your staff on new technology would also take time and possibly money. The institution would have to pay for software and websites used and equipment such as scanners and cameras.
What kind of digital project should you create? A museum or archives should first consult their mission, as they should with any endeavor, to ensure decisions are made with the institution’s purpose and goals in mind. Once topics and or collections are chosen to be the subjects of the project, a format must be chosen. To make digital images of collections available for researchers to explore for their own uses, a digital collection would be appropriate. A common platform for this type of project is Contentdm (See an example from the WLA here). If the institution wants to curate and interpret a collection, an online exhibit is the way to go (Here’s one using Omeka and a unique one from The Historic New Orleans Collection). With new technology always being developed, staff should assess each option and find one that is useful for both the institution and its audience.
If you create an online exhibit, seeking involvement from the community and those related to the exhibit’s topic during the planning stages will add great value to your project. You may also include ways for your audience to interact with the exhibit and contribute their own stories or reactions in some way. Other considerations would be how you will publicize the new project, how it will interact with the physical setting of the institution (will there be an accompanying physical exhibit or a designated place to access the online exhibit in the building?), and how related institutions might be involved in the projects.
It is also important for institutions to constantly evaluate their actions. Managers should consider planning to get community feedback during the development stages and should definitely make a plan for evaluating the success of the digital endeavor after the project is completed.