Institute of Historical and Cultural Anthropology

Yannick Opalla: The digitization of cultural heritage in the museum

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Thomas Thiemeyer

This dissertation explores digitization practices in museums. Most large museums undertake the difficult task of digitizing their collections, aided in recent years by new technological developments. Specifically, the emergence of specialized software, higher server capacities, and high-resolution scanners and digital cameras, in conjunction with personnel trained to use these new technologies, has impacted the digitization process. In this context, digital copies of objects are both tools to be used daily by museum staff as well as objects to be displayed on museum websites or meta-platforms such as Europeana or the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.

Publications in the field of museum studies claim that this new wave of digitization could lead to a democratization of the museum with unprecedented potential, albeit possibly at the cost of loss of control and authority over research findings linked to digital objects.

The legal and technical difficulties surrounding digital publications on the internet have already been studied in various publications. Publications that address the actual practices and processes of digitization, however, are still few. Following the conviction that the digitization of museum collections is a unique form of digitization, I use empirical research and analysis to come to an understanding of the complex daily interactions between staff, objects, scanners, cameras, and the many other actors involved in the process of digitization in museums.

I focus on two specific aspects of digitization in museums. Firstly, I analyze digitization as a non-linear process. I investigate the roll of actors in the transformation of an object from analogue to digital. One of the special features of the digital in the context of the museum is its potentially high number of forms and uses. Datasets can be created, edited, copied, or deleted within seconds. This begs the question of whether there is such a thing as a finished digital object.

Secondly, I contextualize the process of digitization within museum studies. Questions about the authenticity of museum objects, the correlation between knowledge, information, and resources, and the special role of the picture should be contemplated within the discourse of digitization. Last but not least, I analyze the role that concepts of (digital) cultural heritage play in this process.