Digitisation at the Maritime Museum: Part 1

This is part one in our series on digitisation at the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui A Tangaroa. The series is written from a photographer/digitisation tech viewpoint. Over the course of this series, we'll write about how we digitise our collection, the wider process around digitisation and how we (the Digitisation Team) interact with the rest of the organisation.

By Andrew Hales & Katherine Meeten | 29 November 2021

How do we best share our collection and make it accessible to everyone?

Many of the Maritime Museum's collection items must be stored in dark, climate-controlled rooms, typically at a closed location off-site. Even if we could guarantee these conditions within the museum's public galleries, we simply don’t have enough space to put everything on display.

The Maritime Museum has over 3 million taonga in our collection, ranging from the Auckland Harbour Board archives to heritage vessels, tableware to pieces of furniture - even personal histories from maritime professionals and explorers. We have a strong desire to share our collection, to show people how broad it is and how much information it contains, and we’d like people to learn from it and enjoy it as much as we do.

Fortunately, digital cameras, clever software, affordable computer storage, and the ability to have records of our collection in a digital database, means we can now turn our physical objects and archives into digital surrogates; a version of the object or archive that exists digitally but retains all the meaning and value of the original. These can be easily shared via our website and other avenues. Copies of fragile letters can be emailed to researchers, school children can discover parts of the collection not on display, and maritime enthusiasts can explore our history from anywhere in the world.

At the end of 2020, the museum launched the Digitisation Project with generous support from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board. We hired specialist staff, purchased the required equipment, and in February 2021 we digitised our first objects and archives. In the first six months, we digitised more than 5,000 objects and archives and created nearly 20,000 images.

Some of our "Digi Project" staff are new to mass digitisation, while others have worked on similar projects at institutions throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. Our different backgrounds have brought together a wonderful mix of skill sets and knowledge and we’ve been allowed the freedom needed to be innovative. The problem-solving and ingenuity with equipment and systems brought to the project has resulted in a journey we feel is worth sharing alongside our collection.

As a smaller institution with limited space and resources, we’ve had to be quite creative with how we do our photography, how we handle our objects and even how we interact with the rest of the institution. We hope that we can help others in a similar situation, and we welcome your feedback, we’re very open to sharing what we do.

We’d like to start by simply sharing some of our favourite images of the collection that we have digitised so far. These images were all chosen by members of the Digi Project team and we hope you enjoy them. If you'd like to find out how we created them, look out for the rest of the series as we post it over the next 12 months.