Société des musées du Québec

If museums were icebergs…

Françoise Simard, director of réseau Info-Muse

Iceberg CC BY-ND Brad Saunders

If museums were icebergs, exhibition spaces would be the visible part!

According to an American study published in 2016, on average the public only has access to as little as 5% of a museum’s collection. In fact, the vast majority of collections are inaccessible, tucked away in storage, thus representing the submerged part of the iceberg.

But why is it that museum collections are so well protected?

Due to the fragility of materials, their venerable age or what they’ve “endured,” some pieces in a collection cannot be exhibited. They therefore need to be conserved in monitored environmental conditions. If safeguarding remains firmly rooted in the mission of any museum, diffusion and showcasing constitute a mandate that is equally fundamental.

So, how do we reconcile protection and access to museum heritage?

A question that specialists in the field have long been asking themselves… One solution lies in digitization, which would ensure access to accurate depictions of objects. In opening a virtual window into carefully conserved treasures, from the most minuscule to the most monumental, from naturalized specimens to Medieval parchment, conceptual sculptures and archaeological vestiges, this technological advance also favours the democratization of museum collections. In addition, digitization represents an unavoidable part of the documentation process for collections, in tandem with consistently updating inventories and catalogues, and computerizing textual information. Therefore, by decreasing the need to manipulate objects in a collection, particularly to study them, digitization improves long-term protection.

Today, the digitization process is no longer limited to capturing a static image with a scanner or taking a photo with a digital camera. Museum artifacts can now be seen in their full splendour thanks to 3D digitization, like at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

We can observe 18th century planetary functioning at the History of science museum in Geneva, listen to the sound of an ancient harpsichord in the collection of the Cité de la musique in Paris, or even admire the 3D modelling, produced by the British Museum, of the Rosetta Stone, the trilingual stele dating back to the 11th century B.C., enabling Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt.

Moreover, more and more museums are showcasing parts of their digital collections on their websites. While viewing images online will never replace the experience of direct contact with objects, it constitutes an interesting replacement solution that is free and accessible at all times. After all, it is an exceptional experience to admire treasures from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Musée de la civilisation or Musée d’art de Joliette, attend a demonstration of the functioning of a locomotive conserved at Exporail, The Canadian Railway Museum, to learn a little more about the ceramics and glassware collection at the McCord Museum… And what about the opportunity to explore Morning Star, Alex Janvier’s painted mural adorning the dome, reaching a height of seven floors and covering 418 m2, in the Haida Gwaii Salon at the Canadian Museum of History? The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam now offers virtual visitors a panoply of high resolution digitized artwork.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that well before the advent of open and connected data, the Société des musées du Québec created, in 1991, the Info-Muse database, a centralized repertoire of Québecois museum collections. With over a million postings, it’s a resource that is accessible to all and showcases information and digital images from 140 museums and related organizations.

Many similar initiatives exist today. On the European side, the Europeana portal provides access to millions of objects, artwork and archives from museums, libraries and other European archives. To give you an idea of the breadth of content, it’s possible to search through European collections on fashion, World War I or on sports history… And thereby discover the submerged part of the museum iceberg!