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Artifact Digitization Best Practices

Several best practices exist for file formatting, sharing, and metadata creation when digitizing a museum's collection of artifacts. Many of these best practices have been standardized by the US government through the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the National Archives. When it comes to technology and process, there's less of a one-size-fits-all model -- depending on budgetary, personnel, and time restrictions, different techniques may be required. Museums also have access to a growing number of 3D digitization services ranging from affordable to quite expensive. Read on for my full rundown of this info.


The US government has a set of resources for artifact digitization with the Library of Congress maintaining fellowships and educational resources for these purposes. It publishes an annual list of recommended file formats for various media types and this list is ranked by preference and includes metadata guidelines. The US Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative has several lists of best practices as well, depending on artifact type.

The Smithsonian has the most succinct distillation of the file formatting and metadata best practices recommended by the government and:

"Images: 6,000 pixels along the long axis (minimum 600 ppi), RGB uncompressed TIFF format.

Audio: Uncompressed Broadcast Wave Format (BWF; WAV), 16 bit depth, sampling rate of 96 kHz or 44.1 kHz for spoken word
Video: MPEG 4:2:2 and MJEPG (MXF wrapper)."

Finally, the National Archives offers a list of general best practices for museum collection digitization and these have been quoted verbatim as follows:

"Digitize at the highest resolution appropriate to the nature of the source material and to avoid re-digitizing and re-handling of the originals in the future.
Digitize an original or first generation (negative rather than print) of the source material to get the highest quality image.
Create and store a master image file that can be used to produce copied image files and serve a variety of current and future user needs.
Use compression techniques and file formats that conform to current technology standards — particularly those in the cultural preservation areas.
Create backup copies of all files and store on servers that have an off-site backup strategy.
Create meaningful and intuitive metadata for image files or collections.
Store digital files in an appropriate server environment.
Document a migration strategy for transferring data across generations of technology.
Plan for future technological developments."

These guidelines are as close to industry-standard as I could find with the government's recommendations "based on several professional standards and best practice guidelines." They seem to be applicable outside of government-run institutions as well.


In general, the process to digitize a museum collection involves scanning images and objects and uploading those scans to a computer. However, based on an institution's budget and personnel, different technologies might be more useful. Options include overhead scanners, flatbed scanners, and even digital cameras.

Librarians at Colorado State University tested their $55,000 overhead scanner against a $4,000 DSLR camera and actually found that the DSLR gave better results with many document types. This British guide shows a similar setup, as the DSLR setup is more portable and less space-intensive. They recommend "a fixed lens with a focal length of 50 to 60mm" and conveniently, this type of lens often comes standard with a DSLR.

The British Museum is a leader in digitizing its collection of 3D objects. While more specialized technology for this purpose exists (laser scanners and 3D scanners), the British Museum is using a technique called photogrammetry, which involves using software to stitch together pictures from several angles into a 3D model.

A review I found links to several photogrammetry software suites with similar results, the most accessible of these is Autodesk. Autodesk's ReCap (reality capture) software runs $40 a month or $300 a year for a single-user license and it also has a free trial available. I also found two pay to view articles that discuss advances in and best practices for 3D object digitization, which could be of use.

Some museums are also beginning to experiment with VR and AR for digitization, but this technology is too new to have associated best practices.

Finally, the EU, through a joint project, created an archaeology-focused scanning software suite called Presious. This software can speed up the artifact scanning process through predictive imaging and can even show the missing pieces of broken objects.

One additional note: while this guidebook doesn't touch on digitization best practices specifically, it does seem like a good resource for putting together an overall digital strategy for a museum and might be worth reading.


The US government has aggregated a large set of best practices for digitizing artifacts, including recommended file formats, metadata, and sharing practices. There's less of a standard when it comes to technology and process for digitization, but a few basic techniques will be generally applicable (scanning with overhead or flatbed scanners or taking images with a digital camera). Several software suites exist for 3D object digitization, the most accessible of which is Autodesk's ReCap photogrammetry software package.
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Artifact Digitization ROI

While there is no pre-existing information to fully answer your question, we've used the available data to pull together key findings: The return on investment (ROI) for digitizing an artifact collection depends on many factors, and as a result, we could not find a public source that attempts to assign a dollar amount. However, the non-financial ROIs for digitizing artifacts are numerous: Rare artifacts become accessible to those unable to travel to see them personally, modern indexing techniques make digitized artifacts more accessible even to researchers who might overlook pieces in smaller collections, artifacts can be examined without the risk of damage and even repatriated to their original owners without losing the information that they represent, and digitization preserves the artifacts and their knowledge not only for scholars, but for the children of the cultures that produced them.
Below you'll find an outline of our research methodology to better understand why information you've requested is publicly unavailable, as well as a deep dive into our findings.

Normally, we attempt to conduct all of our research from articles published within the past two years. However, restricting ourselves to that time period proved both unfeasible and unnecessary in this case: Unfeasible, because many of the best articles on the subject came from the writings of scholars and experts, who often have long publication cycles. And we found it to be unnecessary because while the precise details of the technology have changed in the last two years, the anticipated benefits of large-scale digitization of artifacts have been discussed in the academic community for over fifteen years, and have remained remarkably consistent.
"The digitization of artifacts offers an attractive alternative solution to preserving the historical information embodied in the spatial and textural qualities of artifacts." Many organizations around the world, including the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), the Virtual Heritage Acquisition and Presentation (ViHAP3D) project in Europe, and the Salzburg Research Institute (SRI) in Austria, are promoting research into the digitization of cultural artifacts, especially as 3D digitization techniques, and particularly non-contact techniques such as laser scanning and photogrammetry, continue to improve. As we will show, they have very good reason to be enthusiastic about this technology.
Of course, digitization requires time, manpower, and equipment & storage costs, especially of large collections where "comprehensive digitization may take years or decades." The costs of digitization and its benefits must be weighed against each other, "resulting in a traditional Return on Investment (ROI) calculation." After an extensive search, we were unable to find a case study published publicly in which an ROI was presented. Even companies attempting to sell libraries, museums, and universities on the benefits of digitization do not attempt to advertise either costs or monetary benefits for their services. In fact, a paper presented at the 2014 annual conference of Museums and the Web lamented that even then, "no clear criteria have been proposed for evaluating the impact of providing online access" to digitized collections.
The Digital Transitions Division of Cultural Heritage has published a white paper about two years ago which proved to be one of our best resources. Though it discusses maximizing the ROI in digitizing a collection at length, including having a three-page worksheet listing the factors that need to be considered, they do not attempt to discuss the issue in terms of real money.
However, many articles have been written about the non-financial ROI to be gained in digitizing an artifact or a collection. Below are some brief overviews of the top benefits.
Digitizing a collection of artifacts in 3D enables museums to display those articles online, "increasing public awareness and accessibility to the cultural artifacts." Where once very few had the time and resources to travel to view a collection at a particular museum, university or other institution, digitization "profoundly broadens access by lowering the barrier to entry for discovering and examining Cultural Heritage collections." This will allow for "new insights and discoveries from any viewer, not just the select few with physical access to the originals. "
"No matter what handling procedures are put in place, physical handling of an object always causes degradation of its condition." Not so with digital copies, which can be accessed by thousands or millions of people all over the world without losing a pixel. Moreover, a digital copy serves as a kind of insurance: Even if the original is lost due to a natural disaster or human error (or malice), the information the artifact represents will still be safe. For example, "mitigating the risk of losing valuable information and records ... due to decay and passage of time" is the motivation behind the current collaboration between Digital Divide Data, Amazon Web Service, Intel, and the National Museums of Kenya "to digitize one of the largest collections of Archeology and Paleontology in the world."

As an additional benefit, museums can safely display a replica for the public without fear of the original being damaged or destroyed. For this reason, "Collections that are not duplicated at other institutions," which contain unique artifacts, "can be considered to have a higher ROI for digitization."
Digitization not only allows remote access to artifacts and collections, but thanks to modern indexing and text searching techniques, allows researchers to discover material buried in smaller collections that previously they would never have become aware of at all. Moreover, the very act of digitizing an artifact sometimes leads to new discoveries. Graham Haber, official photographer for the Morgan Library & Museum, notes, "There are things that the camera can see that the eye can’t see. Often, when I’m photographing objects and working with the conservation team, we’ll see things that they didn’t realize were happening."
Digitization will enable culturally-sensitive artifacts to be repatriated to indigenous tribes while still allowing scholars access to the information contained in the artifact. The first example of this would the return of the so-called "Killer Whale hat" in 2017 to the Tlingit tribes in Alaska after 3D imaging was used to create a replica for further research and display. Indeed, some experts expect that digitization will not only provide a means for outsiders to appreciate other cultures, but a means for those cultures to preserve their own history and traditions. Several Tlingit clan leaders "even had their crest objects digitally scanned for archival purposes at the 2012 conference."
However, digitization techniques are not perfect. For example, in the Killer Whale hat, "hair attached to the whale’s dorsal fins and abalone shells designed to represent water proved challenging to scan," forcing researchers to work with less accurate data in those small sections.
There are also concerns that digitization could result in culturally sensitive artifacts being treated lightly. "When an object is easily reproduced, what happens to the original’s value?" Consequently, not all parties may wish for 3D models of the artifact in question to be available online. This turned out to be the case in regard to the Killer Whale hat. In respect to the Tlingit's cultural property rights, the Smithsonian will not make the hat's 3D model available for download. The ethics of digitization and replication of artifacts were discussed and debated by experts in a series of five round table discussions in 2017, one hosted by the Smithsonian. However, the difficult ethical questions still remain open.
While a financial ROI analysis for digitizing a collection of artifacts depends on too many factors for even experts in the field to make blanket statements, the intellectual and cultural ROI cannot be understated. From giving both scholars and laymen greater access to the past to enabling artifacts to be repatriated while still preserving the knowledge that they represent, digitization is opening up incredible new opportunities for mankind as a whole.
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Museum Digital Team Size


The average size of the in-house digital team in medium size museums (200-500 employees) in the United States is 11-20 members, working full time, which is about 7% of the overall full-time staff. This number of digital team members and their percentage of the overall staff is derived from the following findings.

A survey conducted in 2014 on the average number of full-time team members in the digital departments of different-sized organizations, reported:

— For organizations with (200+ total staff) the average full time digital team size was 11-20.
— In organizations with (51-200 staff) and (21-50 staff) the teams typically had 3-5 staff.
— The vast majority (68%) of smaller organizations (1-20 staff) have digital teams of 1-2.

The following museums are living proof of cultural institutions that have 200+ total staff and about 11-20 digital team (based on the 2014 survey):

Brooklyn Museum
Minneapolis Institute of Art
— The Cleveland Museum of Art
— The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Whitney Museum

The history of Digital Departments inside cultural institutions

As stated by The Met, the structure and naming of digital departments in cultural institutions like museums varies from one museum to the other within the United States of America.

Besides the variance in structure and naming between museums, other important factors like the scope, organizational design, job titling and reporting hierarchy vary as well.

This variance has occurs because almost each museum has its unique strategic vision, funding, Human Resources issues, middle-management tensions, leadership preferences or recommendations of an external consultant. As these variances continue today, there is no standard or best practices for digital departments within museums and other cultural institutions.

How museums meet their digital needs

Museums can look to other museums with digital experience or to companies that were born "Digital" - Google, Twitter, Netflix - to asses their digital needs and how to meet them.

According to The Met, the success factor of digital departments in digital companies' comes from the strong team cultures they have developed. Their cultural values speak to impact, moving fast, having courage, and transparency. Providing their teams with the psychological safety to deliver transformation is a part of their culture.

What makes museums fall short in this point is the delivering change — which is the main function of digital departments in digital companies — and that change is risky and museums are risk-averse.

Digital Functions required by Museums

Product Management is the most prevalent digital function delivered by digital departments across multiple museums in the United States of America.

Some digital functions are vital by some museums and not very crucial by others, such functions include:

— Production of Multimedia Content
— Management of Website Content
— Editorial Services for Online Content
— IT Services
— Email
— Collections Photography/Imaging
— Digital Marketing

The basic structure and size of digital teams

Structure of the team.

As the digital needs vary from one museum to the other, the structure of the digital team varies from one museum to the other and from one organization to the other.

To achieve the optimal digital structure, a museum or an organization needs to define 15 key digital vital roles which are divided into three conceptual teams: the Digital Business Team, the Digital Technology Team and the Extended Business Team.

The Digital Business Team has the following roles:

— Digital Business Vision Owner
— Product Management
— Program Management
— User Interface (UI) / User Experience(UX)
— Content Development

The Digital Technology Team is made up of these roles:

— Front End Development
— Back End Development
— Data
— Infrastructure
— Quality Assurance

Extended Business Teams have the following roles:

— Marketing
— Product and Pricing
— Operations
— Business Development
— Customer Support

It is important to note that the last functional area are extensions of existing teams within a museum or an organization, and may not be in the direct line of reporting for the digital team.

In a survey conducted in 2014, it was confirmed that — regardless of the size of the digital team in an organization/museum — the most common full time roles of the team were:

— Strategy/Digital director
— Content Development
— Social Media Engagement, and
— Project Management

This survey is conducted every two years and is designed to help digital leaders strengthen the business case and increase the impact of their digital programs.

Size of the team.

The appropriate size of a digital team varies greatly based on multiple factors as follows:

— Focus and goals of the institution (museum)
— How large their communications department is
— Responsibilities within digital (i.e. whether they do fundraising, content, technology, etc.)
— The team’s structure (i.e. hybrid teams tend to be smaller, with digital roles distributed throughout the organization).

The Four models of managing digital at a museum or an organization

There are four models of managing digital in a museum or an organization:

— Informal Model
— Centralized Model
— Independent Model
— Hybrid Model

The most progressive organizations are learning to be like the web: they distribute digital staff across key departments, with a core group of experts that lead key initiatives, set up frameworks, and connect the dots while supporting others to lead. This organized but distributed leadership is known as the hybrid model. This model is challenging to pull-off in hierarchical institutions and requires collaborative leadership and thus, it is rare.

For mid-sized businesses or cultural institutions like museums, where they don't have the luxury of large digital teams, the Independent Model is the most prevalent.

This model sees multiple centers of digital leadership established, with digital roles sprinkled throughout the institution. It is because some departments run high-performing digital functions (often with their own brands, sites, and social networks) that are protected or isolated from the rest of the institution, while others with less digital functions delivered, struggle to get the attention of an over-taxed and under-resourced central digital team.

This model can create a competitive rather than collaborative culture, can end up duplicating resources, and—with no strong digital services group looking after the whole and how it all fits together for the audience—can contribute to the confusing user experiences (with subsequent low actions and conversions) found on most institutional websites.


To wrap things up, the average size of the in-house digital team in medium size museums (200-500 employees) in the United States is 11-20 members, working full time, which is about 7% of the overall number of full-time staff.

The size of the digital department is determined by the focus and goal(s) of the museum. Most museums in the United States of America embrace the Independent Model in managing their digital team.

Thank You.
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Web Overhaul Timeline

The average timeline of a complete web overhaul for a business or an institution will take an estimated span of three months to one year. This timing will also depend on the resources available that are involved in the typical web re-design project stages such as digital strategy planning stage, design, and until the completed stage. Actual overhaul of the websites of museums such as the Nasher Museum of Art, Barnes Foundation, and other establishments, took an average range of three months to one year before completion.


Overhauling a website needs to happen in several stages, based on a strategic digital approach in order to be more effective in delivering the right message to its audience.
The basic stages that should be included in the website plan are the following: discovery and planning the digital strategy, design, development including content building, beta-testing and launch. The digital strategy formulation stage typically takes around four to six weeks depending on the complexity involved and the approval timing of the decision makers. Architecture selection and building will take another two to four weeks. Actual re-design can be completed in four to six weeks if there are no changes in the previously approved strategy. Content building and overall development that includes research, testing, and approvals, need another six to ten weeks.
Specific task details and iterations may also extend the initial timing by weeks or months. One of these time-extenders include user experience research, review and potential re-write of content to ensure that the message fits the company’s brand and purpose for the website. Other important content factors to consider are SEO, SEM, and the migration time of the content from the old to the new website.
Other factors to consider when estimating the time are the availability of resources who need to perform the critical milestones, iterations that may need to be done if there are design changes from the clients and if testing results are not satisfactory, timing and complexity of the internal company approval process and potential redo of the project if the completed website is still not satisfactory for all the key stakeholders.
Time allowances of several days to a week may also need to be included to account for finding the right resources like the web developer and for unexpected issues like system downtime, unavailability of resources, force majeure and other problems.


For the Ford Theater, their web re-design project took beyond the average three months to one-year time frame. Together with a web development firm, they have developed a five-year digital strategy to account for the complexity involved in building a comprehensive website that will deliver their target use and institutional goals. Their five-year plan involves the basic stages of a typical web re-design project but they have focused as well on executing specific task details and standards to address the challenges of their previous website. These challenges include user frustration with their website, misalignment of digital goals across departments, lack of resources, and ineffective visitor data collection, among other issues. To solve this, they have ensured that their vendors are all well-selected, resources are aligned on the deliverable, priorities are understood, design and architecture elements are well analyzed and signed-off, user testing are robust and management are on-board. Lessons learned on this are also gathered after the project.
In the case of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, it was inferred that the overhaul of their website by the Cuberis website designer took five months to be able to incorporate the target website features. The overhauled website was able to deliver the requirements centered around the museum’s large museum selections menu, iconography-based navigation, slideshows and events calendars.
Another Cuberis’s client is the North Carolina Museum of Art, that caters to teachers and students’ art education. Cuberis has delivered their web overhaul project within an inferred timing of one year. The re-designed website was built around the relational content model that is best for linking students, teachers and artists to art videos, lesson plans, and other content. The site also has a search feature to easily find the right art content and categories, dynamic thumbnail cropping for easy focus during art lessons, adjustable templates based on content, and a Wikipedia integration for seamless art information updates.
With the Victoria and Albert Museum, their website re-design release timing will happen in stages. There is no specific information available but there was a mention by a museum employee that they have started small and just released a basic re-designed website, presumably within months. However, it will take them a year to release the fully overhauled website to accommodate for their rich content and for a more robust search tool to be incorporated.
Actual website overhaul for the Barnes Foundation took seven months. Prior to that, they have spent five months before finding the right web design company, which they considered as a very critical part of the process. Their new website has a design that has a goal of putting visitors first, having an immersive feel, opting for modules instead of templates, and choosing a practical content management option.
The re-design for the Andrew Jackson Hermitage website can be inferred as taking a few months only due to a time constraint imposed by the opening date of their new exhibit. Nevertheless, the critical elements will be put in place within the allotted time. This includes a revamped logo, new visual branding elements, and a design that can handle the expected traffic surge.
Website overhaul timelines of other businesses also averages from three months to one year depending on budget, complexity, skills and knowledge of the resources involved and other factors.

Typical timelines for various store types can also be taken into account when planning on building a website. For e-commerce sites, average timing is six months to a year, and can be longer if there are changes. Basic business websites for small stores that only need their sites to appear during searches will take two to three months. For major highly customized sites with many features and integration, the average timeline is two years.
Re-designing a website for a business or institution will take three months to one year on the average, and usually involves planning, design, development, testing and launch stages. The timing is also dependent on considerations such as complexity, content and design elements, task iterations, and other critical milestones based on several museums and businesses case studies.

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Multi Lingual Websites

For the purpose of this research, we looked at the websites of 207 institutions in LA including 36 museums, 58 educational institutions, 11 libraries, 9 NGOs and 93 non-profits. Overall, approximately 6.28% of such websites are bi-lingual or multi-lingual. The list and number of total sites in each category and links and number of bilingual or multilingual sites are listed below. These are used to calculate the percentages in each category and as a total.

Percentage of multilingual/bilingual sites: 17%
Out of 36 museums in LA, gathered through two lists ( 1, 2, 3) there are 6 that have bi-lingual or multi-lingual websites. These are:
1. The Natural History Museum: English & Spanish
2. La Brea Tar Pits & Museum: English & Spanish
3. Hollywood Bowl Museum: English & Spanish
4. Homestead Museum: English & Spanish
6. Natural History Museum: English, Spanish, Chinese

Percentage of multilingual/bilingual sites: 18%
Out of 11 libraries in LA, 2 had bilingual websites:
1. Los Angeles Public Library: English & Spanish
2. West Hollywood Library: Can be translated to 12 languages apart from English

Percentage of multilingual/bilingual sites: 3%
From a list of 58 educational institutions, two are bilingual.
1. LOGOS Evangelical Seminary: English & Chinese
2. Hebrew Union College: English & Hebrew

Percentage of multilingual/bilingual sites: 11%
Out of 9 NGOs in LA, gathered from 2 lists (1,2), only one has a bilingual site:
1. CAST: — Eng & Spanish

Percentage of multilingual/bilingual sites: 2%
Out of 93 non-profits in LA, only 2 are bi-lingual:
1. Tree People — English & Spanish
2. Libros Schmibros —can be translated to 14 languages


In conclusion 6.28% of institutions based in LA have websites that are bilingual or multilingual. Educational institutions and non-profits are least likely to have multilingual sites.

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