Credit: Smithsonian Institute

Credit: Smithsonian Institute

The Smithsonian museums house over 138 million objects, yet 99% of those objects remain in storage, inaccessible to the public. In this context, they saw digitization as key — to make the information in their collections more readily available as well as to preserve a record of them. Given the massive volume of their collections, however, the challenges they faced were not insignificant. Manual, individual scanning would have entailed literally hundreds of years of work — clearly not a workable approach. As a consequence, they developed a different strategy: a conveyor belt scanning system capable of automating many scanning tasks. With this, they were able to scan over 260K objects in their numismatic collection within a period of three to four months. Plans for an expansion of the scanning to further/other collections are in the works.

Of course every object presents a different kind of challenge for digitization. Flat items are relatively unproblematic, but what about three-dimensional ones? Which view(s) will one choose or might one be obliged to choose? How would automation work in this respect? And what are the implications of attempting to achieve “permanence” via a digital medium? Without a doubt, such digitization projects — especially when undertaken by major museums that have budgets to match their size — have the potential to greatly increase a certain kind of public accessibility. The possibilities for scholarship certainly appear intriguing. But the shifts in types of knowledge that can and/or will be generated shouldn’t be overlooked. As one curator points out, the new image scans are such high resolution that they show details we would be incapable of seeing with the naked eye. In other words, this next-generation digitization creates the possibility for a new type of “fact” — even if it was not one perceived or intentionally focused upon at the time of the object’s making.