Digitisation in the Deep South

Project Ark’s premise is deceptively simple: fund and bring together a small specialist digitisation team to catalogue, image and pack Southland’s small museum collections in a strategic and co-ordinated way.

This is underpinned by sound collection cataloguing, packing and storage practice, using the eHive collection management software and its online publishing feature.

Packing box from Wyndham Museum

Sounds easy enough but reflection is an important part of practice, a chance to assess what works and what doesn’t. This blog reflects on Project Ark’s two year pilot from 2018 to mid-2020 during which time we worked with 12 small museums across Southland to create 4,800 published and 560 unpublished online collection records. These are now available on the emerging regional database ‘Museums of Southland’, NZ Museums and individual, password protected, CMS catalogues for each Museum.

The pilot was funded by a heritage rate levied by Southland’s three Councils, which is pooled and governed by the Southland Regional Heritage Committee, with representation from each Council and support from a professional advisory group.

The pilot team comprised two cataloguers, a photographer and a collection packer. There were two phases to the project, for the first 6 months the team travelled to one museum each fortnight and digitised 50 objects selected by each museum. Our kit comprised of a laptop each, a high resolution scanner and photography equipment recommended by the imaging teams at Auckland War Memorial Museum and Te Papa. We leased a station wagon, transported our mobile photography studio in a horse float and lived in each community during the working week.

Victorian mourning brooch Gore Historical Museum, 1871. Loss, grief and hair are interwoven in Janet McNab’s brooch. In 1871, tragedy struck Janet and her husband Alexander when five of their children, all under the age of six, died within three weeks of each other. The tragedy intensified six months later when they lost a four day old baby boy. Inside the brooch, encased in glass, is the plaited hair of Janet’s deceased children; an outward expression of her inner loss. This object is a reminder of the realities faced by colonial women and a glimpse into their emotional realm.

For the remaining 18 months we partnered with the volunteers at the Wyndham and Districts Historical Museum to catalogue, image and pack its full collection. This collection was selected because the museums was in an earthquake prone building that was at risk of demolition, so its collection had to be relocated within five years.

Early on, we identified that foundation resources were required. Thankfully Vernon Systems Limited (VSL) partnered with us to develop a set of eHive Cataloguing Standards, which are available for all eHive users.

Paul, Leisa and the team at VSL have a highly collaborative ethos which made this task a joy.

National Services Te Paerangi (NSTP) also came on board via a regional support partnership and enabled three Expert Knowledge Exchange sessions (EKE):

• The first provided a copyright assessment framework. Te Papa’s Victoria Leachman brought her expertise to this and graciously provides ongoing advice. This advice subsequently extended to Creative Commons assessments with the majority of participating museums adopting open access and reuse via a CC BY Creative Commons License. These frameworks have worked well in practice and are used every day.

• The manager of Te Papa’s imaging team, Mike O’Neill, provided studio photography training especially for tricky, highly reflective objects. Huge thanks to Mike for this.

• The third knowledge exchange session developed a significance assessment checklist in conjunction with National Services Te Paerangi’s Judith Taylor. The tool is useful but has an inherent weakness in that it does not readily feed seamlessly into eHive or a searchable database. The pilot team also felt it was subjective and time-consuming.

This object speaks strongly of Southland’s deep sense of community. It is a photograph of Joe Clarke shortly after his hut was built at Waikawa in the late 1880s. Known as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, Joe ferried children down the estuary to the Spit School at Curio Bay. The Waikawa community built the hut for Joe to live in during his later years. This same sense of community, of building a community of collection care, is the basis of our work for Project Ark.

Indeed, a major finding of the pilot project is that we need a more effective significance assessment tool that will allow museums to search across collections with respect to the significance to help in exhibition selection processes, de-accessioning and curatorial work. Going forward we are entering the key significance assessment into eHive and have invited NSTP to work with us to refine the assessment tool and create resources to support museums to process their less significant material. Where we identify objects with little to no significance, we catalogue to a skeletal level, note it as CFD (consider for deaccession) and safely pack it to a holding level, for evaluation by the host museum.

The challenges of the ‘first 50’ exercise were chiefly logistical. Some museums needed more support than others in selecting their first 50 objects. Often this required multiple decision points whereby the team categorised the provenance of objects according to three levels – partial, known, full and then identified their significance on a community, regional and national basis to help better manage crucial decision points. Coming into a new organisation, setting up our equipment and working with a new group of volunteers for a short period was productive but intense and the first 6 months passed in a blur for the team.

Wyndam Museum storage unit

Over the first year at Wyndham, the pilot team became largely self-managing while I, as co-ordinator, took a secondment to another project. They accepted this challenge and developed a strong rapport with the volunteers at Wyndham.

Approximately 12 volunteers worked two days a week to scan and catalogue the collection of 1,380 photographs. One volunteer also invested hundreds of hours to organise the museum’s accession records and reunite provenance with objects. Another volunteer acquired strong packing skills from working alongside our collection technician. This collaboration was a real strength of the pilot. For example, during the first COVID-19 lockdown the volunteers reached out to the wider community by phone, email and social media to share relevant collection items and invited comments to enhance the records. Key volunteers are now confident in cataloguing and packing new acquisitions.

We left Wyndham Museum with a well-ordered, imaged and packed collection. The pilot team can be proud of this achievement. As we packed up the photography gear, it was clear that more support was needed on this front to support these museums to continue to digitise their collection.

Another key finding was the need for an eHive-compatible database to help work-flow to process objects according to type and size. Working in batches of like objects also speeds up cataloguing. As a result, this is now firmly embedded into our practice. It takes a significant amount of time to complete a full inventory but we have concluded it is necessary.

The independent review of Project Ark also reinforced the necessity of partnering with iwi while cataloguing and working with Taonga Māori, so the taonga can be catalogued, described and classified through a Māori lens. For example, a new type of eHive record for ‘Taonga Māori’ may replace the current ‘Archaeology’ type used by the Pilot as this would better encompass the meaning and mana of Taonga. Additionally, it will allow cataloguers to include information around tūpuna and publishing rights.

We are now working with Te Hikoi Museum in Riverton over the next two years with the support of Southland’s regional heritage rate and the balance via a Lotteries Environment and Heritage Committee grant. Since the launch at Te Hikoi, we have invited the Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka to partner with us when we work on the taonga here; this has been graciously accepted and we’re looking forward to working closely with the Rūnaka.

David Luoni
Project Ark Co-ordinator

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