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Harvard’s barcode revolution: the University makes plans to digitise its huge art collection

By 2007 Harvard will be able to track the collection digitally, and everything will be accessible

Cambridge, Ma

Museum staff, imagine this scene. You are standing in a warehouse. It is huge, yet too small. A quarter of a million objects teeter on crammed shelves. You are in charge of temporarily removing these objects—with care to avoid breaks or cracks—so the building can be expanded. You will then return each item to its newly assigned spot. Behind you, face stern, stands your Registrar—who wants to know where each painting and pot is every second of the day. On the wall? In a glass case? What gallery number? How long in the packing room? How long on the freezing-cold loading dock and in the truck? Who touched it? When exactly did the crack in the second-century BC Iranian pot occur and where is your record of its removal, packing, handling and reinstallation, required by the insurance agent who is refusing to pay for repair and muttering the dreaded words, “violation of the public trust”?

You fumble. There are no records. Not quite yet... You have only paper and pen to record each handling of an object, and it will be 33 months more before your tiny staff can input the details in the museum computer. Which is as antiquated as the Iranian pot. It sinks in. This is a nightmare you will never, ever climb out of.

Enter Richard Benefield.

This is not a warehouse; it’s the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM).

And Mr Benefield’s got barcodes.

Mr Benefield, Deputy Director of HUAM, is supervising the museums’ anticipated massive move to a new location, as yet undetermined, of a quarter million objects during renovations of the Fogg Museum.

Only three US collections, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are said to hold larger collections. Not only must HUAM move and reposition all of these items; it is also the leading US teaching art museum, dedicated to giving researchers access to its objects. Faced with the tracking requirements of the impending move, and mindful of HUAM’s desire to get its collections online for study, Mr Benefield and others at Harvard devised a system which allows one swipe of the object’s barcode (a separate barcode tag accompanies each object wherever it goes) to record every move of the item instantaneously, in HUAM’s electronic collections information database.

It’s efficient. It avoids human error, which could enter the wrong accession number and confuse the Registrar. It saves manpower when HUAM brings objects out of storage for researchers, who can now use the database to pre-select one or two paintings to be moved to a study room rather than 12 for a first viewing. And since HUAM’s academic mission means frequent movement of objects for study, the barcode tracking system will have a purpose long after the move.

The barcode system did not exist when Mr Benefield came to HUAM in 1999. In the 1990s, under the stewardship of James Cuno, HUAM had tripled its staff, almost quadrupled its endowment, and increased its collections, yet failed to keep up in museum technology. But if HUAM was technologically behind, Harvard University was not. It awarded $1 million for the museums to develop digital image technology in conjunction with the Harvard College Library. About $2.25 million in supplemental funds from the Carpenter Foundation of Philadelphia, plus other sources of funding have helped push the project forward.

Mr Benefield ran with the task, beginning with Chinese objects in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. From that start, HUAM is now digitising its entire collection, with a goal of placing images and text for all objects on an electronic database for use within the museums and by outsiders online, to be complete by 2007.

HUAM now has its own director of digital information and technology, Sam Quigley, who is currently president of the Museum Computer Network, a nonprofit organisation of computer, web, and digital professionals which aims to further museum goals through computer technologies, and manages four departments within the Harvard museums, including digital photography studios and staff.

The digitisation process has let HUAM verify its inventory count (249,099), and is creating a visual record of the total collection, raising new research opportunities. “As occurs at many museums, many objects at HUAM had never been photographed,” Mr Benefield says. The process is creating “a single high quality digital image, or set of images, for each object once and for all”, which will minimise movement of objects to photography studios.

Given “our larger commitment as a university museum to teaching and research, and the size of our collections, it is very important to have as much of this information available on the web as possible”, Mr Benefield says. “We serve students and scholars, giving access to collections and information on a level above a civic museum.” Once the images are online, the rewards for art research are enormous, he says. Anyone will be able to search HUAM’s collections to make comparisons.

Connections that are possible only in a virtual world could arise, for example, in the area of Islamic manuscripts, which were often ripped apart and sold. “If you could digitally put together the missing pages online, you could recreate the entire manuscript,” Mr Benefield muses. “Scholars and collectors from around the world could add images and see what the manuscript once looked like.”

The barcodes and the online images, when combined with the sheer size of HUAM’s collections, make the scale of Harvard’s efforts enviable to others in the field.

The Harvard website is “very elegant,” says Leonard Steinbach, Chief Information Officer of the Cleveland Museum of Art, with a touch of longing. “For Harvard to put up so much information about 88,000 objects, with over 40,000 images, is extraordinary. At a time when museum walls have begun to dissolve in order to serve public needs, this sets the bar a level higher and challenges other museums around the world to make their collections as available.”

Other museums are also on the same track as Harvard. According to HUAM’s Sam Quigley, the National Gallery in Washington DC already has 100% of its collection online with complete text records, and more than 5% illustrated by images. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has barcoded and imaged its entire prints collection, and has more than 82,000 records and images online. The National Gallery in London has 100% of its collection online, all with images, but its collection only includes about 2,600 works. “Within academia, only the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University in the UK, with about 110,000 object records online, is in the same league with HUAM,” says Quigley. “Most university museums have only a few thousand images online, if any.”

www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/collections

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Harvard’s barcode revolution'