Category Archives: Digital Curating

Preserving the digital

From physical to digital to…?

At Bristol Culture we aim to collect, preserve and create access to our
collections for use by present and future generations. We are increasingly dealing with digital assets amongst these collections – from photographs of our objects, to scans of the historical and unique maps and plans of Bristol, to born-digital creations such as 3D scans of our Pliosaurus fossil. We are also collecting new digital creations in the form of video artwork.

Photo credit Neil McCoubrey

One day we won’t be able to open these books because they are too fragile – digital will be the only way we can access this unique record of Bristol’s history, so digital helps us preserve the physical and provides access. Inside are original plans of Bristols most historic and well-known buildings including the Bristol Hippodrome, which require careful unfolding and digital stitching to reproduce the image of the full drawing inside.

Plans of the Hippodrome, 1912. © Bristol Culture

With new technology comes new opportunities to explore our specimens and this often means having to work with new file types and new applications to view them.  

This 3D scan of our Pliosaurus jaw allows us to gain new insights into the behavior and biology of this long-extinct marine reptile.

Horizon © Thompson & CraigheadThis digital collage by Thompson & Craghead features streaming images from webcams in the 25 time zones of the world. The work comes with a Mac mini and a USB drive in an archive box and can be projected or shown on a 42″ monitor. Bristol Museum is developing its artist film and video collection and now holds 22 videos by artists including Mariele Neudecker, Wood and Harrison, Ben Rivers, Walid Raad and Emily Jacir ranging from documentary to structural film, performance, web-based film and video and animation, in digital, video and analogue film formats, and accompanying installations.

What could go wrong?

So digital assets are helping us conserve our archives, explore our collections and experience new forms of art, but how do we look after those assets for future generations?

It might seem like we don’t need to worry about that now but as time goes by there is constant technological change; hardware becomes un-usable or non-existent, software changes and the very 1s and 0s that make up our digital assets can be prone to deteriorating by a process known as bitrot!.  Additionally, just as is the case for physical artifacts, the information we know about them including provenance and rights can become dissociated.  What’s more, the digital assets can and must multiply, move and adapt to new situations, new storage facilities and new methods of presentation. Digital preservation is the combination of procedures, technology and policy that we can use to help us prevent these risks from rendering our digital repository obsolete. We are currently in the process of upskilling staff and reviewing how we do things so that we can be sure our digital assets are safe and accessible.

Achieving standards

It is clear we need to develop and improve our strategy for dealing with these potential problems, and that this strategy should underline all digital activity where the result of that activity produces output which we wish to preserve and keep.  To rectify this, staff at the Bristol Archives, alongside Team Digital and Collections got together to write a digital preservation policy and roadmap to ensure that preserved digital content can be located, rendered (opened) and trusted well into the future.

Our approach to digital preservation is informed by guidance from national organisations and professional bodies including The National Archives, the Archives & Records Association, the Museums Association, the Collections Trust, the Digital Preservation Coalition, the Government Digital Service and the British Library. We will aim to conform to the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model for digital preservation (ISO 14721:2012). We will also measure progress against the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NSDA) levels of digital preservation.

A safe digital repository

We use EMu for our digital asset management and collections management systems. Any multimedia uploaded to EMu is automatically given a checksum, and this is stored in the database record for that asset. What this means is that if for any reason that file should change or deteriorate (which is unlikely, but the whole point of digital preservation is to have a mechanism to detect if this should happen) the new checksum won’t match the old one and so we can identify a changed file.

Due to the size of the repository, which is currently approaching 10Tb, it would not be practical to this manually, and so we use a scheduled script to pass through each record and generate a new checksum to compare with the original. The trick here is to make sure that the whole repo gets scanned in time for the next backup period because otherwise, any missing or degraded files would become the backup and therefore obscure the original. We also need a working relationship with our IT providers and an agreed procedure to rescue any lost files if this happens.

With all this in place, we know that what goes in can come back out in the same state -so far so good. But what we cant control is the constant change in technology for rendering files – how do we know that the files we are archiving now will be readable in the future? The answer is that we don’t unless we can migrate from out of date file types to new ones. A quick analysis of all records tagged as ‘video’ shows the following diversity of file types:

(See the stats for images and audio here).  The majority are mpeg or avi, but there is a tail end of various files which may be less common and we’ll need to consider if these should remain in this format or if we need to arrange for them to be converted to a new video format.

Our plan is to make gradual improvements in our documentation and systems in line with the NDSA to achieve level 2 by 2022:

 

The following dashboard gives an idea of where we are currently in terms of file types and the rate of growth:

Herding digital sheep

Its all very well having digital preservation systems in place, but the staff culture and working practices must also change and integrate with them.

The digitisation process can involve lots of stages and create many files

In theory, all digital assets should line up and enter the digital repository in an orderly and systematic manner. However, we all know that in practice things aren’t so straightforward.

Staff involved in digitisation and quality control need the freedom to be able to work with files in the applications and hardware they are used to without being hindered by rules and convoluted ingestion processes. They should to be allowed to work in a messy (to outsiders) environment, at least until the assets are finalised. Also there are many other environmental factors that affect working practices including rights issues, time pressures from exhibition development, and skills and tools available to get the job done. By layering new limitations based on digital preservation we are at risk of designing a system that wont be adopted, as illustrated in the following tweet by @steube:

So we’ll need to think carefully about how we implement any new procedures that may increase the workload of staff. Ideally, we’ll be able to reduce the time staff take in moving files around by using designated folders for multimedia ingestion – these would be visible to the digital repository and act as “dropbox” areas which automatically get scanned and any files automatically uploaded an then deleted. For this process to work, we’ll need to name files carefully so that once uploaded they can be digitally associated with the corresponding catalogue records that are created as part of any inventory project. Having a 24 hour ingestion routine would solve many of the complaints we hear from staff about waiting for files to upload to the system.

 

Automation can help but will need a human element to clean up and anomalies

 

Digital services

Providing user-friendly, online services is a principle we strive for at Bristol Culture – and access to our digital repository for researchers, commercial companies and the public is something we need to address.

We want to be able to recreate the experience of browsing an old photo album using gallery technology. This interactive uses the Turn JS open source software to simulate page turning on a touchscreen featuring in Empire Through the Lens at Bristol Museum.

Visitors to the search room at Bristol Archives have access to the online catalogue as well as knowledgeable staff to help them access the digital material. This system relies on having structured data in the catalogue and scripts which can extract the data and multiemdia and package them up for the page turning application.

But we receive enquiries and requests from people all over the world, in some cases from different time zones which makes communication difficult. We are planning to improve the online catalogue to allow better access to the digital repository, and to link this up to systems for requesting digital replicas. There are so many potential uses and users of the material that we’ll need to undertake user research into how we should best make it available and in what form.

 

How to make two 120FT cranes talk to each other

Here at M Shed Bristol, we have some great working exhibits from the bygone era of Bristol Harbour’s industrial past: steam engines, steam boats, steam cranes and more. But the most recognisable and iconic are the four great towering electric cranes standing over 120 feet above the old docks.

As the Industrial Museum was being transformed into the present day M Shed Museum two of the cranes would strike up conversations with each other, entertaining and informing passers-by of what they could look forward to seeing inside the new museum. However due to renovations and movement of the
cranes they fell silent again…

A few years later, due to popular demand I was tasked with bringing the cranes back to life!

To get these cranes talking was going to require rebuilding the whole audio and lighting system and recording new scripts. We were fortunate enough to have Alex Rankin, from our M Shed team, lend his penning abilities for the new scripts and Jacqui and Heather to voice the new crane characters.

To record the dialogue, we arranged to meet in a nice quite corner of the L Shed store room. It’s a vast store, full of so many objects that there isn’t enough space to have them on permanent display. With both Jacqui and Heather sat at opposite ends of a table, I set up a pair of good quality condenser microphones. Each plugged into their own separate channel on my external sound card, an Akai EIE 4 channel usb sound card with great preamps and phantom powered for the mics. This in turn was hooked up to my MacBook and copy of Logic Pro. I recorded through each script a few times and was able to compile a seamless recording from the various takes. Once finished, I hard panned each channel left and right so that when each voice played back each would have its own speaker, left or right – crane 1 or crane 2.

To start building the new AV system, I searched around the vast L-Shed stores and work rooms to find what was left of the old system. I then decided what could be re used and what new equipment would be needed. I had been informed, by our volunteer team for the working exhibits, that everything had been removed from the cranes themselves; this meant starting from scratch.

The cranes themselves would need a loud speaker system for the voices and the crane cabs would need different coloured lights to flash in time with the talking as this helps to animate the cranes. That part was relatively easy. It meant scaling the cranes and bolting speakers to their underside and mounting lamps inside the cabs. I’ll be honest, I was helped by the Volunteer team and a huge mobile diesel powered cherry picker!

 

The hard part was how to feed the power and audio cables to the cranes. After some investigation it turned out that below the surface of the dockside was a network of underground pipes which lead to the base of each crane to feed their power. The great volunteer team once again worked miracles and fed over 600 combined meters of audio and lighting cables for me. This all led back to the clean room in their ground floor workshop. With all the cabling done I just needed to build a lighting control and audio playback system.

 

 

My design solution, using what kit I could find and a few new bits, was to use a solid state compact flash media player, graphic equaliser, audio mixing desk and power amplifier for the audio.  To have the light flash in time with the dialogue, I used a two light controller with a light to sound module, similar to what a DJ might use to have their disco lights flash to the music!

By having the audio go through the mixing desk, I was able to take an audio feed for each channel and direct them to lighting controllers. By recording the two voices in stereo, with each voice on its own left or right channel, it meant i only needed one media player and could easily control each channel on the sound desk. The graphic equaliser allowed me to tweak the speakers to acoustically fit their environment.

I looked at randomising the audio or having it triggered by people walking past, but with the amount of people who pass outside M Shed the cranes would be chatting away, non-stop all day! I decided to create a long audio file of about 3 hours with the different recorded scripts and random intervals of silence. These ranged from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, so it always comes as a surprise when they start talking to each other.

The results are really effective. It is always fun to see people being caught by surprise as the cranes light up and start a conversation and to see them stop and listen in on what they have to say.

 

 

My Digital Apprenticeship with Bristol Museums

My name is Lacey Trotman and I am currently in the fifth week of my Digital Apprenticeship with Bristol Museums. Having left college this June completing a 2 year A levels course in History, Art History, Sociology and Film Studies, the summer was spent searching for the right role for me. Despite College pushing for students to attend University – and many of my friends doing so, I felt the pressures of study and exams to degree level were not for me at this time. I chose instead to look at apprenticeships as it gave me a chance to put my skills into practical use in a real world setting.

Since starting on October 4th I have already begun to work on various projects broadening my range of skills and understanding: tackling the Discovery Pens, writing ‘How to’ guides, resizing images, composing surveys, working on the online shop, diving into the fast paced world of social media and editing blogs for the Museum website.

My first impression is that it’s an amazing place to work, with many opportunities to
undertake and progress.  It’s also clear to see that there is a lot of work going into such an institution with many more departments behind the scenes than I could possibly have imagined.

I have always loved visiting museums and galleries. As a proud Bristolian I feel Bristol Museums provide some of the best in the country. Growing up, family holidays were full of excurst-michaels-mountsions to castles and places of historical interest. Most recently, we visited St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Our seaside cottage faced the historic site making for picturesque views at all times. With Poldark loving parentbarbara-hepworths we also visited the historic mines and ruins of work houses on the Cornish coast. Cornwall was also the home to legendary artist Barbara Hepworth, one of my key artists to feature in the Art History exam I completed this year; so I was thrilled
to see an original piece by her on our day trip to St. Ives.  Even better is that a few weeks after starting this apprenticeship, Winged Figure was newly installed in the gallery confirming this is definitely the best place to work!

Throughout my childhood I visited all the venues that come under the Bristol Museums canopy. My first trip to The Red Lodge Museum, was with Primary School. I remember being asked by the staff if I wanted to dress as Queen Elizabeth I for the class picture, but afraid of the spotlight I volunteered my best friend instead! Blaise Castle was always a childhood favourite of mine and I can also remember visiting the old Industrial Museum with its variety of transport, planes and trucks. However I banksywas delighted when the new M Shed opened offering fun and interactive features for free. I have not yet gotten over missing the iconic Banksy vs Bristol Museum exhibition or Dismaland, just 40 minutes away in Weston. With such strong links to Bristol, Banksy is a favourite artist of mine. Recently he paid my old Primary School a visit leaving a large mural on their classroom wall.

The next two years fill me with excitement and expectation. The addition of a marketing qualification will add further qualifications to my growing C.V.  I hope to excel in my role growing in both confidence and ability; I am keen to ensure I make the most of this experience and hope that all I have to offer will been seen as a positive addition to the hardworking Digital Team.

Digital Curating Internship – an update

By David Wright (Digital Curating Intern, Bristol Culture)

Both Macauley Bridgman and I are now into week six of our internship as Digital Curating Assistants here at Bristol Culture (Bristol Museums) . At this stage we have partaken in a wide array of projects which have provided us with invaluable experiences as History and Heritage students (a discipline that combines the study if history with its digital interpretation) at the University of the West of England. We have now been on several different tours of the museum both front of house and behind the scenes. Most notably our store tour with Head of Collections Ray Barnett, which provided us with knowledge of issues facing curators nationwide such as conservation techniques, museum pests and the different methods of both utilisation and presentation of objects within the entirety of the museum’s collection.

pic from stores

In addition we were also invited to a presentation by the International Training Programme in which Bristol Museums is a partner alongside the British Museum. Presentations given by Ntombovuyo Tywakadi, Collections Assistant at Ditsong Museum (South Africa), followed by Wanghuan Shi, Project Co-ordinator at Art Exhibitions China and Ana Sverko, Research Associate at the Institute of Art History (Croatia). All three visitors discussed their roles within their respective institutions and provided us with a unique insight into curating around the world. We both found these presentations both insightful and thought provoking as we entered Q&A centred on restrictions and limitations of historical presentation in different nations.

Alongside these experiences we have also assumed multiple projects for various departments around the museum as part of our cross disciplinary approach to digital curating.

Our first project involved working with Natural Sciences Collections Officer Bonnie Griffin to photograph, catalogue and conserve Natural History specimens in the store. This was a privileged assignment which we have perhaps found the most enjoyable. The first hand curating experience and intimate access with both highly experienced staff and noteworthy artefacts we both found inspiring in relation to our respective future careers.

David Wright
David Wright – Digital Curating Intern

Following on from this we undertook a project assigned by Lisa Graves, Curator for World Cultures, to digitise the outdated card index system for India. The digital outcome of this will hopefully see use in an exhibition next year to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Indian independence in a UK-India Year of Culture. At times we found this work to be somewhat tedious and frustrating however upon completion we have come to recognise the immense significance of digitising museum records for both the preservation of information for future generations and the increased potential such records provide for future utilisation and accessibility.

We have now fully immersed ourselves into our main Bristol Parks project which aims to explore processes by which the museum’s collections can be recorded and presented through geo-location technology. For the purposes of this project we have limited our exploration to well-known local parks, namely Clifton and Durdham Downs with the aim of creating a comprehensive catalogue of records that have been geo-referenced to precise sites within the area. With the proliferation of online mapping tools this is an important time for the museum to analyse how it records object provenance, and having mappable collections makes them suitable for inclusion in a variety of new and exciting platforms – watch this space!. Inclusive of this we have established standardised procedures for object georeferencing which can then be replicated for the use of future ventures and areas. Our previous projects for other departments have provided the foundation for us to explore and critically analyse contemporary processes and experiment with new ways to create links between objects within the museum’s collections.

id cards

As the saying goes “time flies when you are having fun”, and this is certainly true for our experience up to date. We are now in our final two weeks here at the museum and our focus is now fervently on completing our Bristol Parks project.