A History of Digitization: Dutch Museums

The current challenge is to balance production and distribution of heritage content, in addition to finding optimal solutions to position it in the information market. After 50 years of digitization, the goal remains: to ensure unrestricted, sustainable and reliable digital access to Europe’s cultural and scientific knowledge.

It turns out, Dutch museums began exploring adoption of computers in the 1960s. The first subsidy to support a project was granted to a small maritime museum in Vlaardingen and this placed the maritime network in the forefront of digitization. One of the goals of the maritime network was to allow remote access to collections (first publicly demonstrated in 1985). In the 1980s, national committees were formed to develop thesauri and to homogenize registration (based on the UKs object registration card). By the 1990s, a nation wide program to digitize collection management was launched, increasing the availability of computers (which initially were used for administrative purposes, later for collection management). With the spread of the use of the Internet in the 2000s, the use of computers to allow remote access to collections was again visible and people realized the value of all the strenuous data input.

Museums launched websites (the Teylers Museum being the oldest Dutch museum was first to launch a site in 1994). Digital technology also enhanced museum imaging. A first digital catalog was developed by the Amsterdam Historic Museum in 1998 (though never published online) yet, surprisingly, 3D visualization technology (such as holograms available since the 1950s or CAD models available since the 1970s) were only explored later on (the Museum Gouda being one of the early adopters of 3D scanning in 2008, the Stedelijk Museum launched an AR exhibit outdoors in 2010). More recently, 3D imaging has enabled engagement through immersive environments, with archaeology institutions at the forefront (such as the work found at the Allard Pierson Museum and the meSch project).

Since the start, digital technology disrupted organizations at the core: new skills called for new staff and work processes had to be redesigned, the first registrar position was advertised in 1990 by the Boerhaave Museum and the first digi-street for 3D mass digitization was set up in 2010 by Naturalis (to digitize 37 million objects). New forms to communicate with the public transformed the distance between objects inside and outside the museum, so that online exhibits were designed by the educational department (such as the 1991 ARIA by the Rijksmuseum) and eventually collections were liberated to allow open reuse (such as those found since 2008 in Wikimedia from the Tropenmuseum).

All the newness brought about additional costs, which were initially supported through special grants and programs by the government but eventually required new forms of resource allocation, including the use of the crowd to rise funds or to improve collections online (as in the public/private initiative of Many Hands from 2010). Also, the huge initial cost related to adopting technology in order to reap potential benefits led to new networks and alliances, initially to harmonize terminology and later to develop strategies for long term access to digital collections (which has been the work of National Coalition for Digital Sustainability since 2007). The coordination of digital activities at national level has been led by SIMIN (with periods of greater engagement), and across the heritage sector by DEN, formed in 1996.

The vision driving all the work, the investment and the enormous effort was drawn in different policy papers, at national level but also at European level (e.g. the 1994 Bangemann Report to build information infrastructures based on public/private partnerships, the 2000 Lisbon Strategy to use digital content to fuel a dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy, the 2005 Digital Libraries Initiative to accelerate dissemination of heritage content online). In 2004, and in the context of the Dutch EU presidency, a plan was developed to enable citizens to have unrestricted, sustainable and reliable digital access to Europe’s cultural and scientific knowledge, sharing this knowledge would contribute to establishing the knowledge economy. This plan would inform the Council of Culture in the following decade. Efforts were visible in the various reports mapping the growing digital activities in the heritage field, culminating in the European survey Enumerate mapping the growth of the digital collection, its access and its costs (first launched in 2008 and currently part of Europeana). The availability of data to inform policy can allow a more targeted action.

And so, Dutch museums continue to use the best available tools to support their work, that of collecting, researching, preserving, disseminating, and communicating the great collection of humanity’s knowledge. Digital technology has provided a number of challenges and, more importantly, a great potential to position collections three clicks away from any query and to populate the growing networked information space. As consumers value digital collections by the content as well as by the information service delivered (or package), which in turn adds knowledge value to the collection information, it is no surprise that much attention and resources are given to developing new packages (e.g. website, social media, app) with limited content (less than 10% of collections are published online yet all Dutch museums have at least one website).

This unbalance is supported by a policy that favors immediate innovative results over infrastructural development at all levels of the funding chain. Finding (and funding) the balance between production and distribution is certainly not easy, particularly because digitizing content and presenting it online is not sufficient: finding optimal solutions to position heritage content in the information market is the current challenge of each and every museum, together with policy makers.

On December 2014 I defended my PhD successfully. You can read the book online or you can contact me to purchase a paper copy (€15). The beautiful cover design was made by Max Kisman.

You can read more about the early years of digitization and the work of MARDOC here.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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