RIT study benchmarks quality of digital archiving in American museums

August 19, 2005

Scientists from Rochester Institute of Technology have discovered a wide range of quality in the digital images being produced by American museums, libraries, and other cultural-heritage institutions and unfamiliarity with scientific protocol in the use of digital photography and color management.

Roy Berns, the R. S. Hunter Professor in Color Science, Appearance and Technology, and Franziska Frey, assistant professor in the School of Print Media, led a two-year study that included a comprehensive survey of museum practices, a detailed scientific evaluation of digital practices at several institutions and the development of a national conference to discuss the state of digital imaging and roadblocks to move forward. Their study provides new insight into the use and quality of digital imaging by American museums to catalogue and market their collections.

"Digital imagery is increasingly becoming the main medium for accessing American artwork," Berns says. "These digital surrogates are used by scholars and students, alike, beginning in childhood. Our goal is to help create imagery of the highest possible quality".

"Throughout the project, we worked closely with the photographers in cultural heritage institutions," Frey says. "This approach ensured that we were clear on the tasks facing the image creators. In a future step it will also make it easier to help implement new workflows that take full advantage of what digital photography has to offer".

Previously, museums used film photography to capture images of their artwork for publication in catalogues, books, art history texts, magazines, posters, and promotional materials. Many institutions are now moving to digital imaging due to the higher quality of digital photographs and the greater flexibility computerized archives allow.

"Digital imaging is still in its infancy and there is a lack of experience and knowledge in how to produce the best images," Berns adds. "Our research will hopefully provide a standardized process and a better understanding of what a quality image should look like."

Berns and Frey's study was principally funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They are planning to use their findings to push the quality in digital image production to a higher level through creating and promoting measurable tests and stricter protocols for image capture. A complete list of key findings and future research initiatives are attached to this release. You may also access the full report at http://www.cis.rit.edu/museumSurvey/.

Key Findings

  • Imaging will be mainly digital in the near future.
  • Museum imaging was output driven (e.g., printed publications and the Internet).
  • Library and archive imaging was focused on creating semantic-based image archives.
  • Selection criteria for camera systems were determined primarily by subjective criteria, word of mouth, and technical support rather than objective measures.
  • It was possible to develop a single experimental procedure to evaluate the objective quality of a camera system.
  • The ideal photographer has 10-15 years experience photographing cultural heritage and in-depth knowledge in information technology and art history.
  • Workflows varied widely.
  • Procedures and workflows were not well documented.
  • Color management was not used to its fullest capabilities.
  • Differences in lighting were one of the main factors leading to aesthetic differences in archives.
  • Aesthetics were often deemed more important than scientific rigor and reproducibility when imaging.
  • Most institutions included visual editing in their workflow, adding significantly to the total time required from setup to archiving a digital master.
  • There was not a well-defined digital master that would enable cross-media publishing and that could also be used in scientific imaging.
  • Digital preservation isstill in its infancy.

    Suggested Future Research

  • Establish a user group devoted to imaging, archiving, and reproducing cultural heritage.
  • Hold periodic informal conferences for information gathering and sharing.
  • Develop a practical characterization test method.
  • Incorporate characterization data into a metadata structure.
  • Develop and test a system calibration protocol.
  • Define quality criteria based on objective and subjective metrics.
  • Establish a testing service.
  • Establish an informal imaging inter-comparison.
  • Research and develop new imaging systems.

    Rochester Institute of Technology

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