B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N

of the American Society for Information Science and Technology           Vol. 30, No. 5               June/July 2004

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Becoming Digital
by Ken Hamma

Ken Hamma is assistant director for Collections Information, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Senior Advisor for Information Policy, J. Paul Getty Trust. He can be reached at khamma@getty.edu

Art museums are and traditionally have been about conserving, curating and exhibiting works in permanent collections and about presenting special exhibitions. Museum audiences expect these activities, which are the basis of responsible collections management. They are the key opportunities for education and interpretation of collections and are frequently the basis for income generation through ticket sales and periodic membership drives and through related transactions in bookstores and restaurants. These activities tend to drive institutional resource decisions in the direction of managing physical assets, not in the direction of comprehensive cataloguing, full digitization of collections and union lists of artists.

It should be no surprise, then, that the number of museums with websites is large, but the number of museums that have integrated digital knowledge management functions into their organizations is still relatively small. If we wish seriously to evaluate the potential for museum participation in federated digital libraries, or more immediately the benefits of responsible data management in museums, it is clear that the creation, maintenance and delivery of digital repositories cannot be considered in isolation from the physical needs and traditional opportunities of the collections being represented.

These traditional needs and opportunities remain, even if the digital surrogates that may support these functions become available for other purposes, purposes that may achieve greater interoperability among libraries, museums, archives, research organizations and digital production groups. How to achieve greater integration of digital assets for research or other purposes while fully supporting the physical needs and traditional uses of collections is not an easy question. Simply posing the question, however, is a critical first step, because grounding the creation and maintenance of digital assets in the institutional goals of exhibitions and education, preservation and interpretation, seems to be the key strategic opportunity for museums. Such a strategy can inform management practices that will, under the best circumstances, generate experience that can in turn clarify and refine strategic vision.


  • All valuable opportunities are in a museum's existing strategic goals. Technology as a medium should conform itself to fit within those goals.
  • Aside from widely used communications and information technology advances like e-mail or a new version of desktop applications, for which there are other deployment criteria, the reasons for adopting or implementing new technologies should begin with and continuously be evaluated against the museum's strategic goals. There are many opportunities to employ technology to extend and enhance the realization of strategic goals. It is the museum leadership's challenge to choose from among those opportunities based on the broader institutional trajectory and to create clear expectations for evaluation based on both financial and programmatic effectiveness.


  • Management must involve a strategic understanding of technology.
  • Selecting technology leadership (in the form of full-time staff or project consultants) requires as much if not more attention to the prospective leaders' willingness to engage with the interpretation of works of art, for example, as to their technology skills. By the same token, as technology matures and changes and continues to become an integral part of almost everything we do, museums should expect to find and to demand from training programs a rising level of technology skills among those trained to work in museums. The days are long past when it was necessary to hand off leadership of technology-related projects to dedicated technology staff because no one else in the institution understood the requirements and issues involved. Also long past are the days when this aspect of museum management, like all others, did not have as one critical outcome a role in reshaping the institution's strategic goals.

  • Managing digital assets is a new activity.
  • Creating and managing digital assets and publishing digitally are new program activities that will add to the bottom line of a museum's expenses and thus should be required to add value to the institution. At the core of long-term institutional value, museums should expect to build over time a repository of intellectual property based on their collections. This repository is likely to include interpretative materials and scholarly research. It will as likely be made up of various media including text, images, video and audio. Individual projects or program aspects such as a digital audio guide or a website may or may not be required to contribute to the value of this core repository. Core digital resources, however, hold value over time and should be planned specifically through the exercise of a data model or functional analysis of the total institution's production and use of information. Just as an institution would not lightly undertake development without a full analysis of needs and prospects, no institution should undertake being digital without a similar full analysis.

  • Managing digital assets requires new skills.
  • Information management requires skills new to most museums, which almost certainly means staff newly hired or reassigned to cover these functions, a point also emphasized by Baca and Coburn in this issue. At least in scope, if not in staff positions, this realignment is over and above the more obvious needs for infrastructure and technical support. It is a good sign that more and more of these titles are appearing in the classified ads of Aviso, the newsletter of the American Association of Museums, such as the recent ad for a Manager of Collections Documentation Services at the National Museum of American History. A few examples of these new positions and skill sets follow:

    • Application manager. This person ensures that the appropriate staff members in all departments have training and a single point of contact for, to pick one example, use of a collections management system. The application manager provides direction on editorial issues relating to museum data, is the contact with the application vendor, leads the museum's participation in user groups, and so on.
    • Data standards administrator. This person ensures good cataloguing of the museum's collections, follows data standards and community vocabulary development, finds ways to accommodate variety and personal preferences while at the same time promoting the creation of consistent data, creates and maintains authority files, and, working with the application manager, implements and promulgates best practices.
    • Digital asset manager. This person understands the management of non-text and complex data files to extend the efficiency of text files to other information types that museums traditionally use, such as images and video. The digital asset manager follows the development of industry standards in file types and their management, ensures the long life of digital media and manages migration of digital assets to ensure their long-term preservation.
    • Web analyst. In addition to staff or outsourced contracts for production and design, this person manages the evaluation of the fast-growing communications and transactions venue serving all aspects of a museum's activity. The Web analyst understands statistical analysis of how resources are used as well as the too frequently overlooked understanding and analysis of usability.
  • Managing digital assets may require changes in organizations.
  • Adding information management as an integral part of a museum's routine activities will or should change the organization with the addition of at least some new staff, new skill sets and a new management effort. Even in a zero sum budget, the only choice involved is about how not if that change will be received and integrated into the organization's activities. The change within an institution may be small and consist only of a rewritten job description to ensure that rights management and policy for images extends also to digital images coming into and leaving the museum; or it may be large and envision collection information management as separate from but supporting its traditional home in the registrar's office, or the wholesale conversion of a film photo studio to digital capture with the attendant need to manage the resulting stream of bits and bytes instead of slides and transparencies. In either case, managing the change will be a persistent, ongoing task. The appearance of new opportunities based on the relatively rapid pace of change in information technology and management requires a heightened indeed, a new awareness of managing change in everything from the organizational chart to budget to staff expectations and the ability to deal with change.


Making information management pay off requires good project planning, the best cataloguing that the institution can achieve and fearless cost benefit analysis from start to finish.

  • Because all things seem possible, or "easier," with information technology, information management projects must have carefully set and monitored goals, good project management and clear analyses of needs and audiences. How many projects have failed to achieve success because of agendas eventually overloaded to the breaking point? While many museums have created websites over the last decade, because that was the decade in which websites were created, how many of those sites are understood to be anywhere near optimally designed for the motivations of an identified audience or set of audiences with known needs and information-seeking behaviors?
  • All information management projects inherently have short-term, project-specific results as well as longer-term cumulative value. An exhibition website, for example, may be seen initially as having value for three months, shortly before, during and after the physical exhibition to which it is related. But the information assets that are created for that website, including images, object descriptions and narrative elements, may well have long-term value in collection documentation and interpretation and should be readily available for re-use and recycling. But these assets can only have residual value if they are well catalogued and managed, easy to access and not in danger of being lost because there is no preservation strategy in place.
  • Collection management systems for museums range in price from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars, fully implemented. There is no direct correlation between cost and value that extends naturally to every museum. An analysis of a museum's information management needs and the expectations of those needs being met are the best guides to selection of a collection management system of appropriate value for a given institution.
  • Finally, museums must be prepared to pose and answer questions based on new management strategies that are both permitted and required by digital media, as well as being based on a new kind of "visitor." If the development of an exhibition website costs $60,000 and is seen on line by 10 times the number of people who visit the museum galleries for the same exhibition, is that a good use of resources? If the data for the website is also the basis for a hand-held guide in the galleries during the exhibition, and the website is then visited during the five years after the exhibition closes by 100 times the number of visitors who saw the original exhibition, does that make it a better investment? If by virtue of thoughtful planning, management and preservation strategies, the images used in the exhibition website also become a permanent part of the documentation of the collection, does that make the initial investment in a comprehensive website more worthwhile? Does that make it a better investment than a printed exhibition catalogue?

Who should think about all of this? Where does it start? Given institutional behavior patterns, the chances of this kind of digital asset creation, management and preservation strategy rolling out from the top of the organization down are slim to none. Much more likely is that someone (or more than one person) in the middle of an institution's organizational chart and in the middle of a project will understand the set of opportunities that are unique to that particular museum. If that person or team decides at that moment that taking on the bigger picture is worth the effort, the institution will benefit in many ways and for a long time to come.

What can help? Case studies, unquestionably. There is no end in sight to project reports and documents purporting to outline best practices in a world where "good enough" is usually difficult in itself. There have been more proposed standards to select from over the last two decades than anyone might implement in a lifetime. And except for relatively small, focused organizations that too frequently find themselves preaching only to the choir, the museum community's professional membership organizations have very nearly utterly failed in this area.

The one bright spot, it seems to me, that is currently developing in the space that bridges good practice, standards and implementation in a day-to-day production environment is the Cataloguing Cultural Objects project sponsored by the Visual Resources Association (VRA). While this project will likely prove to be among the most useful developments in this area, the encouragement for more museums to take advantage of this type of guidance and invest in standards-based collection documentation needs to demonstrate financial and mission benefit and needs to examine the associated management and production decisions. We need case studies that analyze our own institutional behavior, both successful and unsuccessful. Because so many current efforts rely on grant funding, we need to document and examine the engagement levels of leadership in creating long-term value from opportunity funding. We need to dissect and understand good and bad decisions and their consequences in the information management production environments that museums have created. We need to be able to document value and to do so in a way that suggests that this kind of value can be replicated and re-purposed.

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