Digitising the Museum at Central Saint Martins

Untitled photograph by Fagner Bibiano, 2008

Untitled photograph by Fagner Bibiano, 2008

For many years now the prevailing message to the cultural and heritage sector is that digitising collections is good. Good for access, good for reaching out to new audiences and good for communicating with young people (who if you believe the rhetoric are completely disinterested if it doesn’t come with an app). Judy Willcocks, Head of CSM’s Museum, asks ‘Should we be celebrating or commiserating?’ 

Digitisation certainly has its advantages. Since the late 1990s the Museum at Central Saint Martins has photographed and scanned more than 5,000 objects and published them in a searchable online catalogue. This allows people all over the world to discover what’s in our collections and – though a digital surrogate can never be a substitute for the real thing – it allows users who are unable to pay us a visit, the opportunity to study objects from afar. At its best, digitisation can even facilitate the entry of an object into a worldwide arena of academic exploration. A really high density digital image can enable the international research community to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of objects and place them in a wider context.

Another good thing about digitisation is that it can help signpost users to your collection. The Museum at CSM is a tiny museum with an even tinier revenue budget, certainly not enough to cover the costs of more traditional marketing methods such as adverts in the paper or billboards at the tube station. The fact that the Museum’s collections are out there on the web does a huge amount to raise our profile. As well as having our own searchable online catalogue we have posted a significant amount of our digital assets on VADS – the Visual Arts Data Service. Through the VADS website we know around a hundred thousand people a year access our collections and we know that a good number of our visitors – whether from inside the College or further afield – found us because they did a Google search.

Those are the positives – more people are reaching our collections, the web is providing us with a cost effective way to reach new audiences, and researchers from all over the world are engaging with us in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible without digitisation.

Dandelion Rose Gold by Hazel Clucas, silver and rose gold, 2006

Dandelion Rose Gold by Hazel Clucas, silver and rose gold, 2006

But, there is always a but…

Digitisation isn’t perfect, and on the bad days its beginning to feel as if the digital is taking the place of the actual. For a generation of young people brought up in a virtual world, tangible experiences can be dismissed as irrelevant, labour intensive and old fashioned.

Students at Central Saint Martins have tremendous workloads, so it’s tempting for some of them to steer clear of research activities that are more time consuming. Since the advent of the ubiquitous smartphone an image of most things is just a touch screen away, so you Google, skim read, save to favourites and consider the job done. But digitising an object flattens it out, robs it of subtlety and texture and gives viewers just a single way in, rather than the multiple viewpoints offered by real time engagement.  A digital image cannot communicate the delicate impression of letterpress, the deliciously raised surface of a screen print or the quiet shimmer of gold leaf on an illuminated manuscript. Walter Benjamin talks about the magical significance of a work of art – its ‘aura’. Sadly an aura doesn’t show up on a flat screen.

Digitisation can also make things look better than they do in reality. A good photographer will spend time setting up the right composition, selecting the perfect angle and working with the light to show an object to its best effect. The result can be to make a tawdry, grubby or damaged artefact look rather smart, which is misleading for the end user.

Blue teapot by Richard Slee, ceramic, c1969

Blue teapot by Richard Slee, ceramic, c1969

So if digitisation is so imperfect, why are museums still so focussed on digitising their collections?

For curators who want to make their collections widely accessible, there simply isn’t any better way. We live in a world that is fast, global and democratic and digitisation is all of these things too. When digitisation is used as a companion to real life engagement with collections it becomes a good thing. Mass digitisation has made a huge contribution to global visual culture and empowered users to search across collections, make new connections and synthesise information from disparate sources. At CSM, we simply couldn’t manage our 4,000 students visiting the physical museum, nor could the objects withstand such a level of scrutiny.

With this in mind, the Museum at CSM has spent the last six months working with curator Sarah Campbell and photographer Jet to photographs hundreds of additional items from the Museum’s collection – all work made by students in the last 20 years. Information about these items has been added to our catalogue which will be published via a new user interface called E Museum in March 2014. The new catalogue will enable users to search the collections using key words and themes as well as exploring the artists and designers behind the objects. Users will be able to log in and create their own lists of favourites, and search across other University collections for the first time.

Log on, be inspired, but don’t forget to come and see things for real!


Interesting links and references


Wellcome Trust Digital-Material Relationships   http://digitalpresent.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2013/06/06/wellcome-trust-souzou-workshop-digital-material-relationships/

Emerging digital-materiality workshop   http://digitalpresent.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2013/06/14/emerging-digital-materiality-workshop-discussion-one/