Tools for the Future session
The afternoon of the second day was given to contemplating the role of recent technology in the museum environment, and what the future may hold.
Making the iPad Work for the Registrar
Perhaps usually regarded as a device for entertainment, email or social media applications, Brent Mitchell gave an interesting demonstration of how the iPad is used in different ways at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, USA.
Firstly he explained how the device is used for Condition Reporting purposes. From a basic template, reports can be easily created and then amended as necessary in PDF Expert. The user was able to magnify images, take new photography, highlight specific areas and make detailed annotations in several different colours making it simple to track changes. (Copies of) these documents are saved online using Dropbox with relevant staff having access.
Secondly, Brent outlined how the iPad could play a role in exhibition administration. Filemaker Pro was used to manage and link all additional files, photographs, notes and other consolidated information to the objects. There were different tabs relating to the crate; packing; installation; venue; courier, etc. and pop-up menus to standardise terminology. Objects could be connected with exhibition floor plans, layouts and there were useful checklist functions.
Lastly he mentioned a whole range of other relevant apps and accessories that could be used alongside those above, naming Trello; My Measures; Printer Pro; and Eye-Fi as being particularly useful.
There were clear benefits to using the iPad for registrar tasks in this way (clarity; speed; ease of use; mobile workflow; flexibility), as well as some obvious disadvantages (expensive outlay; Wi-Fi dependent; camera quality; technology glitches; user training), and it would be up to individual institutions to make a decision on whether it was appropriate equipment at their museum.
Drones Might Fly – Is the Sky the Limit for Technology in Collections Management?
In the subsequent talk, it was down to Sheila Perry from the National Galleries of Scotland to present an entertaining – and sometimes whimsical – look at the relationship between machinery and the museum. Is it always a good idea to pursue the latest technology in collections management?
There were three key topics of discussion:
– Do the benefits of storing collections in mechanical or automated storage systems outweigh the risks and costs?
– Are there advantages of using modern labelling and object tracking regardless of the type of storage?
– How many collections management tasks could be completed remotely or without human interaction?
The first question was answered through several case studies: Kardex vertical storage solutions at the National Gallery of Scotland; the robotic newspaper retrieval system at the British Library (Boston Spa); and the Kiva warehouse robots used by Amazon.
The main benefits of increased capacity, improved environment and better tracking were countered with doubts over the fallibility, reliability and disaster recovery. The conclusion was drawn that ultimately all of these systems rely on the accuracy of the original input data, i.e. the basic documentation and object marking, and ultimately there was always the chance for human error.
The response to the second question focused on smaller self-contained pilot projects within museums, like the cataloguing, packing and bar-coding of the portrait miniature collection at the National Galleries of Scotland. The Otago Museum in New Zealand was also highlighted as the only institution to have trialled RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) on their collections (and staff!) to remotely track and automatically update object movements.
Finally, in the last question, the future was contemplated. With Google launching a driverless car, we were asked to perhaps imagine a driverless fine art transport carrier. Would there be courier guidelines for un-manned vehicles? Or maybe object transport via drone or robotic quadruped (BigDog) was the way forward? Perhaps the future would be devoid of ‘real’ collections altogether, these having been replaced with replicas, or time-based media collections: a limited one-time-only opportunity to see museum objects.
In summary, with all the technological developments and resources available to museums, it is important to use these effectively, and in a manner appropriate to the task at hand. Good collections management should be prioritised and should be at the forefront of any potential development project – do not ignore the essential groundwork. It is also useful to have advocates for progress in your institution, someone pushing and looking forward.