A lot of work goes on behind the scenes in order to achieve online access. First, collection objects need to be catalogued into our museum database. A quality catalogue record is very important, ensuring the object or image is fully retrievable in a variety of ways including being searched by author, key word, year of production, or subject.
The Museum’s Collection Online platform uses AI technology to enable users to search by colour or by subject tag, even if the tagged term is not included in the formal description. Our online platform is also pre-populated with terms and curated to highlight collections that users can click through without needing to type one single word. The ability to digitally ‘browse’ the collection is a departure from searching through a traditional catalogue.
Sometimes we will take on a special project to make one of our substantial collections more accessible to the public. In 2010 we underwent a major project to rehouse, catalogue and digitize over 151,000 of our glass plate negative photographs. This ended up taking seven years to achieve. The fruits of this project are now available to view on our Collections Online where they continue to provide an invaluable resource.
Through our interactions with the public we can see the benefit this online resource is having for researchers such as genealogists, authors, students, artists, and whānau seeking a connection with their ancestors or their environment. The online platform also enables access to a wider audience including those that otherwise might not be able to visit in person. During the COVID-19 related shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, online access to collections allowed the collection to remain open while the museum doors were closed.
What gives our collections added value is the information that we have about them, which helps us to tell a story about each of the objects. Unfortunately some of the collections that we have received in the past included minimal information. This is especially true for our studio portraits, which comprise the majority of our glass plate negatives. The information that was inherited with these generally all came from within the contents of the studio’s index book, which typically recorded only a surname along with the studio’s photo reference number.This seems inadequate to us today. But to understand this is to consider that the photographic studios were just a business and were not accumulating the negatives for genealogical purposes. All these studio’s needed was to be able to retrieve the negative when someone came into the studio to request prints and, with our relatively small population in times past, a surname would usually suffice.
And that’s where we need the public’s help.
With our Collections Online, the data that we have on each object or image can be enhanced by the public adding their own identifications to the records. This is easily done by clicking on an ‘Add Comment’ button beneath each image and submitting information such as a date, Christian name, place name, an amendment to the recorded information, or sometimes even an interesting story about the subject. The information that is added to these online records will stay with the listing, allowing other researchers to benefit from it, and this data will eventually be uploaded into our own database system. We have received many invaluable public contributions that have restored the identies of photographed individuals and objects.
Our online collection is an ever growing resource. Thanks to the efforts of our collections team we recently hit 160,000 records online! So why not have a look at nelsonmuseum.co.nz. You may be surprised by what you find online, and through your comments, you might even be able to contribute to this valuable record of Nelson Tasman history.
Article written by Darryl Gallagher, Senior Curator – Photography, Nelson Provincial Museum