DIGITISATION – IS DITSONG MUSEUMS OF SOUTH AFRICA READY FOR THE 4TH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION?

By Sandi Mackenzie – March 2020

 

FAILING TO PLAN IS PLANNING TO FAIL

Having been present in many meetings, workshops and presentations of programmes connected with the digitisation of museum heritage objects, I did not consider looking at options for something suitable for DMSA requirements, an onerous task.

However, on starting the research into this area I found that Digitisation has been a thoroughly researched and broadly discussed issue not only amongst South African academics, archivists and library specialists, but it has been debated both technologically and philosophically throughout institutions in Africa, as a continent and internationally.

  1. WHAT IS DIGITISATION?

Techopedia defines digitisation as the following:-

Digitisation is the process of converting analog signals or information of any form into a digital format that can be understood by computer systems or electronic devices. The term is used when converting information, like text, images or voices and sounds, into binary code.

  • Objects are not included in what the definition of digitisation covers.
  • Digitising flat documents, diaries, letters and even books etc is a far easier task than digitising heritage objects.
  • Whilst medals, insignia, vases, dolls, furniture, bones, butterflies etc can be digitised from a 360* virtual view of the item, a 39.1 ton Churchill Infantry Tank Mk IV with measurements of 7.44m x 3.25m x 2.49m is unlikely to be digitised without sophisticated and highly advanced and prohibitively expensive equipment.
  • Such a task, with the current digital equipment that suits small objects, would mean photographing hundreds of pieces of the tank, feeding them into a computer and assembling them into a unit that fits the item.  The dimensions of the tank would have to be fed into the computer for the 360* picture to be finished.
  • Consider this :- I have Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper . The original painting.  I cut it into 10 pieces and I stick it together again.  Will this stuck – together -painting be the same as the original painting?  No it would have lost some intrinsic authenticity, some small detail, some continuity from the original painting.  Would this not be the same when photographing and digitising large objects? Unless one unending streamed footage of the object can be taken, we are losing some of the originality of the object.
  • The Smithsonian employs a computer engineer and a mixed media sculptress to develop and manufacture equipment for specialised digitisation projects in their museums. These two staff members go on site and develop computers that match the usability, data visualisation, AR/VR and simulation of the objects needed to be digitised. These fabricated pieces of equipment totally cover the object and digitise as a MRI would scan the brain.  This type of availability of expertise and funding for raw material for manufacturing these machines and capturing metadata would be unaffordable for any institution in South Africa.  Few people worldwide have computer systems with the capacity to download such images. Digitising would then not even serve the purpose of sharing information, only of storing information. Would the cost justify the end results?
  • In the case scenario of DMSA, with widespread sites, the objects would have to be moved and cranes and loaders would be needed to be used to lift and transport the objects. again at huge expense.
  • How else could the interior of a vehicle/object and engine with electrical wiring be digitised? DNMMH currently uses Webcam drawings to record the interiors of large objects which results in the same end product of portions of the object being photographed.
  • At DNMMH photographic records are kept of each stage of the restoration and conservation projects which include dissembling the object, rustproofing it, fabricating pieces to complete it, assembling it and painting the correct Insignia markings on the aircraft and painting the aircraft itself the right colour.
  • These records give complete images and dimensions of the internal and external parts of objects. One of this type of recording restoration projects at DNMMH is The Scout Experimental RAF SE 5a Bi-plane.

  

  1. DECISIONS WITH REGARD TO CRUCIAL ISSUES SURROUNDING DIGITISATION HAVE TO BE MADE NOW?
  • We have to choose certain items to digitise? Specialists in the variety of collections would have to make these decisions and there are 5 000 000 objects in DMSA to choose from.

OR

  • We need to find an external partner who has an expandable budget.

OR

  • We accept the electronic records already established through GRAP 103 and restoration and conservation projects as being sufficient electronic record of any large or fragile object.

 OR

  • We use funds to rather establish a virtual museum computer

OR

  • We use funds to increase our Restoration and Conservation projects and protect the source of our digitisation

 

  1. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DIGITISE?
  • Definitely not one of the following categories of objects
  • Large objects would be impossible to digitise thoroughly.
  • Fragile objects might be damaged in an attempt to digitise them and might cost us more in preservation in the long run than had they been left alone and just photographed in situ
  • Objects that already have mass exposure electronically would not serve any purpose by being digitised by DMSA. The product is already in the market place.

 

  1. WHY ARE DIGITISING OUR COLLECTIONS?
  • To preserve our collections in a format other than their physical presence, for recording purposes and should destruction of the original object happen, an intact record of the items will survive.
  • To be able to present an object in the digital form rather than in the physical original form, so that continual handling of the object and correlating deterioration of the object does not occur.
  • To distribute knowledge more widely thereby making resources available to ALL people regardless of their economic position in life.
  • To generate funds for sustainability of the organisation.

 

  1. HEREIN LIES OUR FIRST CONUNDRUM
  • If we wish to distribute knowledge to all people and we wish to promote sustainability of our museums by selling these digital images, the minute we charge for access to the material, are we not deliberately depriving the poor access to the information?
  • Are only those who can afford to access our data bases going to be able to find and use the information?
  • We have begun constructing the same discrimination barriers along lines of economic well – being that were in place before. So then do we not charge at all for something that will have cost us huge resources to record?
  • Can we afford to not charge when we are mandated with becoming self – sustaining?
  • Are we going to spend a very large budget that is going to be completed a quarter of the way and then collapse from lack of funds, which will then take us back to where we were before the project started? (This has already happened three times in DMSA’s short existence).

 

  1. WHO WILL PHYSICALLY IMPLEMENT THIS WORK AND PROCEDURE FOR DIGITISATION?

The following is the kind of staff structure that will be required to complete this project FOR DMSA with 5 000 000 Objects to digitise as identified at the Smithsonian:-

TECHNICAL ENGINEER OR PROGRAMMER WELL VERSED IN THE PROGRAME BEING USED
DATA BASE SPECIALISTWITH A KNOWLEDGE OF CULTURAL HISTORY NOMENCLATURE TO CHECK CONTENT OF LABELS , WATERMARKING AND LAYOUT OF ANYTHING PUBLISHED VIA ELECTRONIC MEDIA
DATA BASE SPECIALIST WITH A KNOWLEDG OF MILITARY HISTORY NOMENCLATURE TO CHECK CONTENT OF LABELS , WATERMARKING, AND LAYOUT OF ANYTHING PUBLISHED VIA ELECTRONIC MEDIA
DATA BASE SPECIALIST WITH A KNOWLEDGE OF NATURAL HISTORY NOMENCLATURE TO CHECK CONTENT OF LABELS, WATERMARKING  AND LAYOUT OF ANYTHING PUBLISHED VIA ELECTRONIC MEDIA

 

DATACAPTURERS X 9

THIS IS UNLIKELY TO HAPPEN BECAUSE:-

  • We have just been through a realignment that is R10 000 000 over budget
  • There are to be no increases in staffing at the institution
  • There is no funding for additional staff
  • Public Service salaries have been frozen

 

  1. WHERE WILL THE FUNDING FOR THIS PROJECT BE FOUND?
  • INTERNAL FUNDERS
    • DSAC has just had to hand out an additional R10 000 000 for the funding of the realignment at DMSA and has made clear no further funding is available for additional staff.
    • In 2017/18 DSAC heavily supported the Performing Arts with hundreds of millions of Rands as opposed to Libraries and Archives being given less than R1 500 000.
    • This project is not the primary focus of the Department nor the South African Government.

7.1.4   DSAC itself only owns a megaphone for digitisation of audio films, tapes and recordings.

  • EXTERNAL FUNDERS
    • Organisations like the Mellon Foundation with $6 100 000 000 in trust for furthering education and opportunities for student grants.
  • ITHAKA Foundation set up with Bill and Melinda Gates’ money in a trust and used in South Africa.
  • CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH EXTERNAL FUNDING:-
  • Who owns the copyright of the digital records?
  • The donor of the object?
  • The institution that holds the original object?
  • The funder of the project?
  • The business completing the digitisation?
    • The latter problem occurred with the Ithaka project and copyright remained with the digitiser.
    • In DMSA the company that completed the electronic listing of DMSA’s collection lists as per GRAP 103 declared we had to pay them annually to gain ACCESS to the records.

 

  1. RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH DIGITISING MUSEUM OBJECTS
  • Damage to the original object with the handling of it for digitisation
  • Theft of the original item could occur and replacement by forgeries may happen during the process of digitising, if these are small objects
  • Technicians doing the digitisation learn inside information about the whereabouts of the objects which can be used for later thefts of objects.

8.4 Power outages in the country occur frequently and often without warning.  Entire sections of digitised material may be lost and will have to be repeated which could cause fruitless expenditure.

8.5 In the case of digitising large objects power outages could occur half way through the digitisation and additional costs will be incurred when starting again.

8.6 The technology and equipment used for digitisation will have to be replaced every five to ten years as these will become obsolete and unusable within that period.

 

  1. POLITICAL DETERMINATION AND STRATEGY
  • Whoever pays for the equipment required will decide what is digitised.
  • Whoever manages the organisation digitising the objects will make the decision as to what is digitised.
  • Whatever political party is in control will decide on the importance of objects to be digitised.
  • The person who actually digitises the object will decide how important digitisation of the whole object is, either by default or lack of training.
  • An example of this is the metaphone purchased by DSAC for the digitisation of the Treason Trial of 1956, instead the Ahmed Timmol tapes were digitised due to the court case being reopened. This was a political ad hoc decision made by the government.

 

  1. COLONISATION

10.1     One of the main concerns of the democratic government of South Africa is that the history of South Africa changes focus from colonising history to the recording of the actual indigenous people’s history.

10.2     If an external foreign funder or supplier of digitising equipment or funds to purchase digitising equipment is involved in this project, South Africa will effectively be digitally colonised by the supplier or funder.

10.3    Replacement and upgrading of the equipment will have to be done on a five to ten year basis.  Each time in order to preserve the digitisation already at our institutions we will have to go to the original funder to renew funding or lose access to our records.

 

  1. PROGRAMMES UTILISED FOR DIGITISATION (NOT FOR LARGE OBJECTS) PER CURATOR OR DIGITISOR

11.1 Digital camera                                               R  5 000

11.2 Gaming laptop for processing                       R 30 000

11.3 Agisoft software                                             R 56 000

                                                                           R105 000 per digitisor

 

  1. CONCLUSION

12.1 Digitisation of large objects is not a viable proposition.

12.2 Digitisation of objects already on electronic media is not necessary.

12.3 Ownership of, access to and copyright of the digitisation is essential.

12.4 Digitisation will always follow the ruling governments plans

12.5 If overseas funders become involved in the issue of digitisation then digital colonisation will most likely occur.

12.6 Would the same funds used in digitisation not be spent in Restoration and Conservation of the original objects?

12.7 Strategic Planning in deciding how to implement this project is essential.

12.8 Digitisation of smaller objects is affordable now.

 

  1. BIBLIOGRAPHY

13.1 Anderson, Stephen The Challenges of Digitising Heritage Collections in South Africa, Department of Library and Information Science, UWC, 2014

13.2 Asogwa, Brendan Eze  Digitisation of Archival Collections in Africa for Scholarly Communication: Issues Strategies and Challenges, University of Lincoln, Nebraska 2011

13.3 Google Academic Research Engine – Digital Asset Management

13.4 Google Academic Research Engine –  Digital Obsoletion

13.5  Google Academic Research Engine – Digital Preservation

13.6 Manzuch, Zanaida, Ethical issues in Digitisation of Cultural Heritage, Journal of Contemporary Archives Studies, Vol 4 Governance of Digital Memories: Yale University, Newhaven, Conneticutt. 2017.

13.7 Carnegie Corporation of New York, National Research Foundation: an audit of South African Digitidation Initiatives : ongoing and planned, Pretoria 2009.

13.8 Pickover, Michele, Patrimony, Power and Politics: Selecting, Constructing and Preserving Digital Heritage Content in South Africa and Africa, Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Johannesburg,2014.