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Grant supports open source path to manage digital assets

Digital asset management software helps museums manage burgeoning digital collections, but at high cost. A new open source DAM could change that.

Museums are increasingly relying on digital media to do their work, but many curators are still searching for answers when it comes to managing rapidly growing digital collections.

Digital asset management (DAM) software provides tools for organizing rich media, and for managing copyright -- but it can be cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of smaller institutions. One museum is looking to address that issue and create potential collaboration throughout the field.

A few years ago, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts(MIA) implemented Virage MediaBin software (now owned by HP) when it became unwieldy to store photographs on CDs and external drives. That collection has since grown to roughly 200,000 high-resolution photos and 5,000 audio files, with 120 new videos annually.

MIA director of media and technology Douglas Hegley described modern museums as media production houses, where DAM technology plays a role in various tasks, from preserving oral histories to creating exhibit materials.

With an eye toward sharing this technology, the MIA is nearing completion of a grant-funded project to develop an open source digital asset management system that would provide a common framework for the field.

SearchContentManagementrecently sat down with Hegley to discuss how DAM software helps MIA solve unique problems and how it could spur future collaboration.

What role does DAM play in museum operations?

Douglas Hegley: We use DAM to create an indexed archive of media production, which our staff can use to access assets. Historically, those assets were professional photos of the collection or from events. Now you see museums thinking about video, audio, marketing materials and content elements that come from multiple channels, like in-gallery experiences. We're producing digital media at a rate that's unprecedented in our industry.

Does this create new challenges?

Hegley: We have to find effective ways of organizing, cataloging, accessing and deploying all the assets. We have a story that's sort of an internal metaphor for this problem, which we jokingly refer to as the 'mystery of the missing map.'

Several years ago, a graphic designer was hired to produce a huge wall map of Africa for the museum. It was very effective. But museums switch exhibits, so it was eventually scraped off the wall and repainted. Five years later, somebody suggested we reuse that map, but nobody could find it. Another graphic designer was hired to produce something we already had, but couldn't find. Telling the story of the missing map is illustrative of the often ad hoc nature of asset management.

Do you have other uses for DAM?

Hegley: Exhibits historically have pamphlets or guidebooks or paper labels next to each work of art. [These resources are created] digitally in many realms. Labels and signage are still printed on paper, but they're born digital, which means you can store them, sort them and search through them. Using digital tools to improve interpretation and speed of publishing is a real advantage for museums.

How might you use your DAM system in the future?

Hegley: We are in the final sprint of a grant project through the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to reexamine digital asset management and look at alternate systems.

We're trying to remove the problem of assets being created, only to disappear into somebody's hard drive. We want to embrace a wider range of content types -- video, audio, multimedia, charts, diagrams and maps. We wanted to come up with a model of minimal -- but meaningful -- metadata and a tool set that's good enough to be utilized by many cultural organizations.

This project has taken us a long way toward understanding what metadata is effective and how to implement it. We've brought it to a point where a lot of organizations could use it for basic asset management.

We're doing this in an open source system because the vast majority of museums in America are very small and can't afford to buy enterprise-level DAM tools. [By doing this in an open source way, we have the possibility of sharing the information.]

Are you moving toward greater centralization of information?

Hegley: You can have multiple systems. You just need to make sure they're open and there's some way for an API [application programming interface] to reach into each of them. Any image of art displayed on the museum's WordPress website is pulled dynamically from the back-end DAMs through a series of APIs calls that we've written.

We're also replacing our current constituent management system and putting all of our customer, donor and ticketing information into Salesforce. We need to go omnichannel; it's what people expect now.

Where are you storing all of this data?

Hegley: Right now we're using primarily on-site storage. We have to evaluate cloud services and I think ultimately that's the way to go -- it's not like we have trade secrets here.

Part of the issue has to do with workflows. It can be painfully slow to download large images from the Internet. I think we're going to eventually look at some information lifecycle management practice, where we store less commonly accessed assets in the cloud, and maybe the more commonly accessed and stored locally. That's something we'll have to look at.

Could this new technology open the door for resource sharing between museums?

Hegley: With sharing assets, I think the museum field is trying to sort out how it would work across our systems. Most of us have systems that are proprietary and internal only.

I was at a museum a few weeks ago that put a lot of money into a big art gallery project. One of the outcomes was a mobile app, which you can use around the museum to get content, but you can't use that app anywhere else. It seems like we could collaborate in a more effective way, build some tools that would be more ubiquitous and [adhering] to some basic standards. I think the hardest thing would be getting people to imagine it and to work together.

Douglas Hegley will speak about MIA's open source project at the DAM NY conference in May. For further information on attending the DAM conference, contact Chris Smout at [email protected]

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