• Long-Term Archive and The Museum

    About 10 years ago I was invited to tender for magnetic tape storage for a certain military museum in Canberra. They have bombers and submarines and tanks on display and even more large hardware in warehouses around the ACT but there are almost innumerable, small, irreplaceable artifacts as well. The majority of these items will never be displayed because of the lack of space, some are too fragile and some will decay to nothing. The museum had decided to create high quality photographs of everything to be stored and indexed electronically and archived. (Forever?) We have examined earlier the challenges of keeping electronic data for eons but let us look at some issues that came up much more quickly than you might expect.

    Firstly, high definition photos in the ‘naughties’ meant about four megapixels per picture. Today my phone has an 8MP camera and professionals use much greater definition so in just ten years the museum must be thinking, “Could we have done better?” or “Should we photograph them again?” In both cases the answer is complicated by the huge amount of time and effort that was expended. Still it is interesting to think that most of the artifacts are 60 to 100 years old and in the ten years since the photo program began, they haved only aged another 10% while the photos are almost obsolete.

    What about digital photography itself. It has changed. Maybe the photos should have been shot in 3D or perhaps using one of those New Lytro cameras. https://www.lytro.com/camera Perhaps they should have been recreated using 3D printing or maybe we should wait for colour 3D printing.

    The point is that when considering long term archiving you must deal with the unknown. Technology changes more quickly than the archived items will age. Will maintaining the archive data be more costly and time consuming than preserving the actual artifact? Do we conserve a photo of the Mona Lisa or concentrate on keeping the canvas. Food for thought.

    Mike Sparkes is author of the blog Obscure Aussie and an IT storage expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

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