Mass digitisation at the National Galleries of Scotland

Ashley Beamer and Terry Gould

The National Galleries of Scotland ‘Digital Engagement Strategy 2014–2018’ marked the beginning of some exciting change at the galleries when it was first published in 2013. The statement below was its primary message:

“Working collaboratively, National Galleries of Scotland will create meaningful, enjoyable and participatory digital experiences, to engage audiences with our collection, increasing reach, reputation and revenues through artistic excellence.”

The Galleries has over 90,000 permanent collection and long-term loan artworks, but in 2014 only 10% of them had digital imagery in our Digital Asset Management System (DAMS). On top of that, just 6% of those images were available for the public to view on our old website. The images in the DAMS at that time had been taken by staff and procured from external photographers; with an array of different formats, colour management standards, sizes, metadata, and more to contend with. There was a need to take a much more holistic approach to the digitisation of the collections, ensuring that every work was covered and the digital assets created were standardised and of the highest possible quality.

Work Packages

We started the project in June 2014. Our first deadline was to have the photography studios set-up by the end of the year. Meeting this goal invoked a pressing need to map out the work, procure the equipment, plan the photography processes, implement any technical requirements, recruit the staff, and build the studios, all in a six month period!

One of the benefits of being a latecomer to collections digitisation was that we were able to conduct a quick audit of how similar organisations had done it. We spoke to the Tate, the National Museums of Scotland, Moma, the Royal Ontario Museum, the John Rylands Library, and a few others to gain some insights into what worked and more importantly what didn’t work so well.

A critical decision was around the equipment used to capture the artworks. It was imperative to us that we handle the artworks as little as possible and that the digital assets would be usable over an extended period (so artworks do not have to go through capture again). After assessing the options available, we decided to go with medium format cameras and specifically the XF Phase One camera system with IQ180 digital backs. The digital backs provided high-quality raw images of 80 million pixels per image with incredible and highly accurate colour capture.

645DF+ and IQ180 Phase One system

We procured equipment to set up two photography studios next to the areas where the majority of 2D collections are stored. This was important, as it was desirable to ensure the journey of artworks from storage to studio was as quick, safe, and simple as possible.

2D photography in studio at the Scottish National Gallery
Photography tent studio at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery library

A crucial part of the project was to set up an end to end digitisation process ahead of work starting. When devising this, the aim was to automate as many tasks as possible, to maximise throughput. The simplified version of this process is mapped out into the following steps:

Step 1 → Curators and registrars create the batch lists of artworks and catalogue the objects to an appropriate level

Step 2 → Export the list from the cataloguing system and take the artworks for that day to the photography studio.

Step 3 → Assess and photograph the artwork adding the necessary metadata to the captured files (in our case this was the unique identifier assigned by the galleries for that artwork)

Step 4 → convert the raw file to a master uncropped tiff and a cropped TIFF.

Step 5 → move the three versions of the image to their separate ingestion folders on the network. An automatic process then creates a new record in the DAMS and transfers the three files into the filestore as the different variants (matching up by filename and the identifier in the metadata). Finally, the DAMS can use the id to query our collections database, adding relevant artwork information to the asset record, so it can be easily identified and located in the system and uploaded to the website.

Step 6 → quality assurance of the images, to ensure they ingested correctly and meet the standards set out for image quality, resolution and metadata.

Step 7 → Once the previous steps are complete; the copyright team are then able to pursue clearing the images with rights holders and assigning the correct rights information to each asset. Finally, images that are cleared can be flagged for output to the website and are transferred using an automatic process.

The priority when devising this process was on streamlining as much as possible, making sure that the photographers could focus on the actual photography, rather than being bogged down in processing and managing image files.

HLF Skills for the Future

Alongside this, we were also running a sister project called Skills for the Future, a Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project between ourselves and the National Library of Scotland. This project aimed at providing young people (aged 16–24) with the skills they needed to work in the cultural heritage sector, with a specific focus on collections digitisation.

The first phase of this project saw the recruitment of 6 trainees who received classroom and in-situ training in the digitisation process and the gallery activities which contributed towards it, including cataloguing, conservation and art handling, copyright and creating digital content. Once the trainees completed this taught aspect of their training, they were able to join the digitisation team, assisting the two newly hired experienced collections photographers in the studios.

HLF Trainee in studio

“I think that this traineeship has been extremely beneficial because of the hands-on nature of the job. We have learnt by doing, and getting to be so close to the great works from the collection is an exciting experience.”

Emilie Carruthers, HLF Skills Trainee

The first six trainees finished their placements in May 2016, and each of them has found employment in the cultural heritage sector and are pursuing their careers. The second batch of trainees began in the autumn of 2016 and are due to graduate with their qualifications in June 2018.

Trying Things Out: The Pilot

With the equipment in place and studio spaces set up, the extra software development for the DAMS done, and a full team of photographers and trainees raring to go it was time to see if the processes what we had come up with so far were going to work.

The pilot batch included 3000 artworks, which took the photographers and trainees around three months to complete. The batches were designed to test the capabilities of the equipment and the processes, including a selection of artworks that spanned from 15th-century drawings to contemporary photography, with sketchbooks, pastels, photographs and albums all thrown into the mix. In the end there were no significant issues uncovered, and the pilot was considered a success.

What astounded us at the galleries the most was the images that were output from the IQ180 digital backs. You could zoom into them using the Phase One Capture One Pro Software and see the tiniest details from subtle brush strokes to minute detail barely visible to the naked eye, all with the highest degree of colour accuracy. Staff at the Galleries were now able to use the digital images on a day to day basis; reducing the need to access the original artworks, and any risks associated with retrieval and movement. This reduced exposure, in turn, helps to ensure their preservation, only coming out when necessary, or when there is an opportunity for display to the public. These images can also be used to let the public have the ability to get a closer look at artworks which cannot be shown in the gallery for extended periods, such as our more light sensitive and fragile collections.

Olive Trees, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh
Olive Trees with zoom

When the Digital Engagement Strategy was first written, the Galleries Trustees were keen to see the entire collection photographed within ten years. After the success of the pilot project, we were able to calculate and report back that it would be possible to achieve this target in half the time.

With the pilot complete, the studios in the Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery pressed on with their first official batches, kicking off the steady journey towards digitising the rest of the collection. As of October 2017, 60,000 artworks have now been digitised and ingested to our DAMS, a far jump from when we first set out in 2014.

Website development and digital transformation

The digitisation programme was only the starting point to ‘opening up our collections’ and implementing a wider digital transformation across the Galleries. For the public to begin accessing the artwork images digitally, we also needed to build an architecture and framework to publish the records and images online. The previous website had limited capacity in this area, with only 6% of our collections online, and a complete overhaul was required, so our main digital platform was fit for our audiences.

The development of this new site took place alongside the digitisation of the art it is designed to present. When the new collections site launched in July 2016, we were then able to publish 92,000 data records, with around 30,000 of these having images that users could (depending on the copyright status of the artwork, ) explore through zoom, share on social and even download smaller versions for their personal use. As the digitisation project continued past this launch, the number continues to climb on a daily basis, with the last count (October 2017) being just over 55,000 artworks with images online.

Looking Ahead: Sculpture

With the 2D photography over halfway complete, we have turned our attention to the 3D works held by the galleries. There are around 2500 sculptures in the collection, distributed across all of the gallery sites as well as in our collection stores. We were also motivated to start moving into this area of the collection a bit sooner, with the launch of the ArtUK sculpture project, funded by the Public Catalogue Foundation.

An additional photographer, with experience in sculpture photography, joined the team, and extra equipment was ordered to create a portable studio. This setup allows the digitisation team could go to the sculptures, rather than the sculpture coming to the studio (given the issues around size and weight when moving these around opposed to works on paper, this was the more practical solution). The sculpture in the National Galleries collection ranges from small fairly flat works such as cameos and reliefs that can be captured on a copy stand, to larger movable sculpture which needs a plinth in-studio, to our largest artworks and installations, which require photography to take place in-situ.

James Tassie, Robert Adam, 1728–1792. Architect, 1792
Antonio Canova, The Three Graces (Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia), 1815–1817

The sculpture project is due to commence in early 2018 and will run for approximately two years. With the paintings already largely photographed, the entire National Galleries of Scotland collection will, therefore, be photographed by 2020.

We were excited to be a part of the digital transformation that was happening at the Galleries and keen to see the images in the public realm.

Phase 1 of our website transformation focused on the design and development of the Collections Website to get these newly digitised images online for the public to enjoy.




Projects and reflections from the digital team

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Ashley Beamer

Ashley Beamer

Online and Social Media Manager, Royal Ontario Museum

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