Week 2: Measured in miles and megabytes

Aside from my ongoing projects, it was organised for me to visit the University Archives held in Brunswick (off-campus) for a day with Sophie Garrett,co-coordinator of the archives repository.

With approximately 12 miles of shelving, the University Archives holds a considerable amount of material. Its collections do not only house documents pertaining to the university, but manages and provides access to the historical records of Victorian businesses, trade unions and other community and cultural organisations, as well as the personal papers of many individuals prominent within them. They are currently preparing themselves for the arrival of their latest acquisition, the Germaine Greer Archives. Having been born in Melbourne and educated at the university, the acquisition of documents that span almost six decades of her influential life is an exciting prospect. It is almost without doubt that they will be a heavily accessed aspect of the collections.

Archives, especially those associated with a university, have the constant pressure of needing to be user-friendly, easily navigable, and accessible. With changing conservation techniques and with new acquisitions those criteria can be quite challenging to meet. It takes a dedicated team to be updating the collections, their locations, and the online database to make sure access is possible.

So, onto a man called Essington Lewis. Born in 1881, he was an influential Australian industrialist, working primarily in steelwork and munitions. He was a man with an overwhelming desire for order and predictability, insisting on punctuality and obedience that made his businesses successful. A product of this anal behaviour were countless diaries, notebooks, lodgers, pictures, receipts, and cash books relating to both his personal life and public businesses. There are 179 boxes and 51 microfilm rolls associated to him at the archives, it is a considerable amount of material that had to be sorted. My job was to do an inventory check, put material of the same type together, re-arrange the shelves, create lists of the material, swap it into the museum standard acid-free storage boxes, and update the database (KE-Emu) about what was held and its location. It was so rewarding undertaking a task from inception through to completion, and knowing I have assisted the archives in a (seemingly) never-ending digitisation project.

Essington Lewis


Essington Lewis (picture credit: http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an24166205)

The benefits of digitisation and the technological age in terms of conservation are well known. When a collection becomes digitised it becomes easily accessible for mass consumption, and protects the item from the detrimental effects of handling and overexposure. Digitisation also satisfies two current cultural attitudes: 1) that everything should be available at the click of a finger, 2) the digitisation process allows for media to be more readily transferred to modern technologies (interactive boards, ipads, etc) that increase levels of engagement.

However, what is not often discussed is the strain this is putting on institutions. Digitisation and technology is fantastic for those that have the resources to utilise it effectively. At the archives, the struggle to drag a pre-technology collection into a digital age is a painstakingly necessary one. Similarly, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art they are dipping their toes in the digital water by purchasing three iPads, but self-admittedly wish they could do more. The speed that technology is advancing does not harmonise with the rate of funding, and time that is needed to install technologically complex exhibition material.

Technology gurus like to claim that the digital revolution is leading museum makeover with the potential to transform dusty display cases into cutting-edge cultural attractions. Visitors are being promised, and are getting used to, adverts for multi-sensory, immersive experiences that can cater to an individuals interpretive needs. Look at my blog if you need an example, Screen Worlds was fantastic and I raved about it. However, is that what I want from every heritage institution? Personally, it is a categorical ‘No’. Their use of interpretive media was reflective of their collections, and I believe there is a danger in the current trend.

Institutions need to look at digitisation and technology by assessing exactly what they want out of it and how it will fit into their organisation. There is no use shovelling thousand of pounds into something that will end up being a glitchy gimmick touch-screen device that people prod violently then disengage with. How will it be paid for? How will it be updated? How will its successes (or failures) be measured? What should be aimed for is a visitor that comes away thinking “that was a great museum experience” rather than “that was a great digital experience”.

With so many current technologies and with future ones being developed, the possibilities for digital expansion for museums seems endless. Furthermore it has been interesting to see how these issues do not only affect commercial museums but university collections. It is especially interesting when you consider that the collections are for both research and enjoyment, have limited resources, and are aimed at 18-21 year olds (typically the most difficult demographic to satisfy) from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Given these circumstances, to what degree do you employ digitisation and technological engagement over such varied collections? Something to think about!


Further information:

http://www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/archives/ – University of Melbourne Archive

http://gallery.its.unimelb.edu.au/imu/imu.php?request=multimedia&irn=1592 – Some of the information I uploaded for the archives regarding Essington Lewis (to prove that I actually do work and don’t just talk theoretical heritage nonsense!)

*edit* After writing this blog, a really interesting article was forwarded to me regarding the issues with collections advancing into the digital age: http://www.museumsandheritage.com/advisor/news/item/3545?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Advisor+newsletter+5+Aug&utm_content=Advisor+newsletter+5+Aug+CID_74f4dedc4e6d87dff72d68edc9c79f5f&utm_source=Email%20Campaigns&utm_term=Museums%20in%20the%20Digital%20Age%20widening%20engagement%20or%20creating%20organisational%20conflict

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