Originally published in What’s inSight Magazine, Winter 2013. Subscribe to What’s inSight by becoming a member here.
Digitization is the big buzz word in archives and museums these days. We can digitize documents, images, sounds, even whole objects and we can share them on the internet, in our galleries, in on-and off-site educational programs and in our reference room. The Royal BC Museum even has a 3D digital printer that uses high-tech laser scans to produce replicas of almost anything.
But is a digital facsimile really an exact replica of the original? Digital copies are created using a finite number of data points. These points represent samples of the surface of the original object. The more data points, the higher the resolution of the digital copy. It is impossible to gather every possible data point, so what you have is actually an approximation of the original, not an exact copy. There are many other reasons why a digital replica is not identical to the original: the colour might be a little different depending upon the calibration of the equipment; the texture can be slightly smoother or rougher, due to the method by which the software fills in missing information; the sound may be a little fuzzier or missing certain registers due to equipment limitations; even whole parts of the original might not be reproduced, by choice or by accident. These copying deficiencies are why it is so important to retain and preserve the original.
This is where the relationship between digitization and conservation comes in. Museums and archives do not seek to replace the original (except in very Conserving Collections in a Digital Age rare circumstances when the original object faces imminent demise), but rather to make copies as accurately as possible, even though they are incomplete.
Preservation copies of original materials may be made to save what is left of a rapidly deteriorating object. An example is magnetic sound recordings, which have a short lifespan. Many videotapes have an expected life of 30 years, less if they have not been stored and used in ideal conditions. Digital copies of videotapes and sound recordings may be the only surviving record in the near future. As you may have read in the previous editions of this magazine, cool storage can prolong the life of magnetic media, but because it cannot be frozen, the deterioration is only delayed, not halted. Adding to this problem is the obsolescence of formats and playback equipment. Who remembers reel-to-reel tape recorders, eight-track music players or vitaphones? Even if the recordings survive, what use will they be if the machines required to play them no longer exist? For these reasons, digitization may represent the only means of saving large segments of our media culture.
Digitally reconstructed animation of a Chinese Freemasons’ lantern as it may once have looked.
The conservator’s role is to facilitate digitization, to help make the collections more accessible. In rare cases an archival record or museum object is not appropriate for digitization. An item may be so large and/or heavy that it cannot be scanned or photographed safely with existing equipment. In the case of books, the text may extend into the gutter of the spine, so that the only way of exposing the information is to remove the binding – something rarely done, especially if it means damaging a historic book. If an item requires significant conservation work, digitization may not proceed until there is sufficient project time and funding to do the work.
Conservation is often the first stop in a digitization project. Before an original record is digitized, a conservator will inspect and assess it to decide if it can go straight to the imaging studio or if it needs some minor repairs or preparation first or requires stabilization treatment before digitization can take place. Simple preparatory work might include surface cleaning to prevent the spread of dirt to other parts of the object during handling or to make details of the surface clearer. Occasionally a complex conservation treatment may be necessary before digitization. Broken bindings should be repaired and leather with red rot requires consolidation. Loose and torn pages must be secured, areas affected by mould should be cleaned and may require repair. Powdery or flaking pigments need consolidation. Rolled documents and textiles may require humidification for flattening before digitization and custom supports are usually a must for three dimensional objects. The conservator may suggest specific support and handling techniques be used during the digitization process. A collection manager or preservation specialist may be required to assist or, in extreme cases, conservators may do all the handling themselves.
Conservation and digitization are related in other ways too. For example, digital facsimiles can be used to analyze and even enhance the original for research and presentation purposes. Conservators have used laser scanning and reflectance transformation imaging to examine and measure minute details of objects, including clues to manufacturing methods and changes due to use and deterioration. As discussed above, 3D printers can also be used to reproduce objects so that they can be shared with more people and in vastly different locations and for different purposes, without compromising the original – an effective preservation strategy.
The Chinese Freemasons’ lantern arrived at the museum and archives in such dilapidated condition that even heroic conservation treatment methods could not restore it to its former glory but could only stabilize what was left. Further restoration would have been based on guesswork, and therefore not appropriate. Fortunately, a digital representation of the lantern as it may have once looked when the moving parts rotated, the coloured lights were illuminated, and the paints and textiles were vibrant, presents the viewer with an amazing likeness of something that no longer exists. Digital imaging has also been used to replicate the unsalvageable decorative plastic film on the lantern, replicating the original pattern on a new, more stable Mylar material. The Chinese Freemasons’ lantern does not sit well on a flat surface, but rather is supported and secured with lead weights. In the future the Royal BC Museum hopes to use laser scanning and printing to build precisely fitting supports to cradle fragile objects on exhibit or to pack them gently inside a shipping crate.
Clearly, conservation and digitization are intrinsically linked in the world of museums and archives. The next challenge facing us is just how we are going to conserve all the digital information we are creating.