Looking through a lens: preserving and presenting the past through digitisation
This HLF funded project at Kendal museum has digitised three fascinating collections. Over 6000 images have been taken, making these previously unseen collections accessible to everyone through digitisation. Kendal museum received funding to digitise the collections and then share the collections in different ways. The herbarium and two mineral collections were selected for digitisation as they have significant importance to Cumbria; the collectors were local men and there is a rich archive of material to illustrate their stories. Digitisation is a way of preserving the collections. High resolution images have been produced, accurately preserving the collections for future generations. The collections were well documented and cared for but the problem was how to share them.The herbarium is very fragile collection of over 4000 sheets making it difficult to display. Images are very useful way to access a large collection easily. The second year of the project has focused on sharing the collections to inspire people to connect with nature. The main aim of the project is to make the collections accessible, recognising the value of Kendal museum as a library of information to study Cumbria’s botanical biodiversity as well as illustrating the mining industry and rich geology in Cumbria.
The mineral collection from the Lake District and the North of England is the largest and most extensive collection in Cumbria.
Two dedicated collectors Bill Shaw and John Hamer collected rare minerals which provide a history of the mining industry in Cumbria.
John Hamer hailed from Ingleton and he filled his house with mineral specimens. After his death over 2000 finely preserved specimens were discovered in his house. The collection also contains spectacular crystals from around the world including Brazil, India and Mexico.
Bill Shaw grew up in Coniston. Following a long history of working in mines Bill became an engineer. The Shaw mineral collection was purchased in 2012 using an arts council grant when the Keswick mining museum was closing.
The Martindale herbarium collection contains over 4000 specimens of flower plants, mosses, grasses and ferns collected locally in Cumbria, as well as specimens collected further afield in Germany, Hungary and America.
Joseph Martindale was from Staveley, where he was a school master at the local school (1859 – 1902). His main interests were flowering plants and lichens. He went to great lengths to collect and identity species from Cumbria.
Martindale was an honorary curator of botany at Kendal museum and was the president of the Kendal Natural History Society.
The collection contains rare specimens such as the Lady’s Slipper orchid which was once wide spread in Cumbria but is now absent from the area. The herbarium has significant ecological importance as it provides a record of the flora found in the Lake District in the late 19th century. The collection also has a significant local social history, documenting the friendship between Martindale and local Botanists who formed the ‘Three Legged society’. They would meet up to discuss their findings and also politics. They often wrote letters to each other and interchanged specimens, and some of the letters are stored at Kendal Museum.
In September 2014 the Image Preservation Studio was set up from scratch in a space that was previously used as an archaeology store.
A digital work flow was planned to produce high resolution RAW files to digitally preserve the collections. These files were then converted into TIFF and JPEG files, suitable for website display and presentation. A time scale was set out to digitise all three collections in twelve months.
Tony Riley was employed as the Digital Imaging Scientist; he had previously volunteered in the museum and was an expert photographer with a particular interest in colour science and accurate image reproduction. Rachel Petts was employed for one year as the Collections Intern working closely with the Digital Imaging Scientist to assist with collections care and digitisation. Volunteers and students were also a key part of the digitisation process.
Kendal museum is a teaching department of Kendal College, and as such students from the Museum and Gallery skills course have been very involved with many aspects of the project. George Platt, a previous student and photographer, was later employed to digitise the herbarium.
As it would take thousands of images and many hours of work, it was important to plan how and where to store images. This was thought out at the grant application stage, to ensure long term management to safely store and secure the images.
The Collections Assistant Intern organised and prepared the collections for digitisation. This involved improving the storage and display of the collections, organising collections data, movement of objects and collections care.
Collections data was in spread sheet excel format which was collated and imported into Modes Complete, a collections management database used at Kendal Museum.
A low resolution JPEG image was added to the records, providing museum staff with an excellent reference tool for the collections.
Restoring the herbarium
The herbarium is stored in its original mahogany cabinets presented by the Kendal Literary and Scientific Institution in January 1855. The collection was well documented as the herbarium sheets had been transcribed by volunteers over three years from 2005 – 2008. A unique number was added to the herbarium sheets to identify and link with the image file. Storage was improved by creating new paper folders and archival tissue paper was placed between each sheet to protect specimens. The original folders were kept and stored in the cabinet with the collection.
The herbarium and mineral collections posed different challenges for digitisation, requiring a different camera and lighting set up.
The Martindale herbarium collection contains over four thousand sheets of pressed plants. The Hamer collection contains 1324 specimens of minerals, rocks and fossils.
The Shaw mineral collection contains 190 specimens.
Image capture began in October 2014, starting with the Hamer mineral collection.
Minerals are 3D objects varying in size and aspect so the camera set up was adjustable to take this into account. The minerals were digitised according to locations in the store or display cabinets. Minerals were organised according to size for the most efficient work flow in order to minimise changing the camera position. One image was taken per mineral due to the twelve month time frame of the project. The minerals on display were the last to be digitised to limit disruption to the public display, also at this stage the digitisation work flow had been perfected.
The herbarium required a completely different set up, the camera was in a fixed position and the collection was digitised to the Metamorfoze standard.
Metamorfoze is the National programme for the preservation of paper heritage; the name Metamorfoze is derived from the term for transformation. It is set out by the National Library of the Netherlands and the National archives. Metamorfoze standards provide a set of guidelines for photographers to create preservation images of heritage artefacts. The quality of the image is measured using the following criteria: colour space, white balance, exposure, noise, illumination and colour accuracy. Following the Metamorfoze standard is a scientific process; it is designed to control the factors which affect the image quality.
This results in a high quality image creating a snap shot in time before further deterioration occurs. The Metamorfoze quality requirements enable the photographer to produce an image which has a very close relation to the original object. Creating high quality preservation images will reduce the need for handling as information can be gained from the digital image.
As part of HLF funding a consultant was hired to help the Image Preservation Studio achieve the stringent targets. Colin White the former head of photography at the National Gallery in London came to help set up the equipment and develop our understanding of the daily start-up process required to achieve the standard. The start-up process involves measuring colour and resolution targets as well as profiling equipment to control for errors.
Feedback from Colin White after his visit
‘It should not be underestimated the achievement of pushing the (relatively) budget photographic equipment at the Kendal Museum to its practical limits and undertaking to match guidelines designed for equipment of far higher specification. It is a credit to the museum to undertake to use a system many large institutions find daunting and hard to implement.’
Digitisation of all three collections was completed ahead of schedule in August 2015. With an abundance of images available the second year of the project focused on sharing the collections in different ways to engage with the community. Various projects and outreach activities have also taken place in the first year, during the digitisation process.
One of the main ways of sharing the collections is on a newly developed, purpose built website, which launched on the 4th December 2015. www.kendalmuseum.digital is an online platform with two main functions. The front end of the website is visually stimulating and packed with information about the history of Kendal Museum, the collectors’ stories, fascinating facts, the science behind the collections and an events calendar.
The second function of the website is an online database of images and data for the mineral and herbarium collections. The website has been designed for easy use by scientists, educators and artists alike, users can search several fields such as scientific name, location or mineral colour. The website enables users to see the collections in fine detail, as there is a zoom function. Images can also be downloaded for non-commercial use under the creative commons licence.
The exhibition promotes the digitised collections of Kendal Museum and encourages people to learn more by visiting the website.
The touring exhibition is made up of pop up banners designed by photographer George Samuel Platt using images of the mineral collections and herbarium, together with informative text about the project and collections. Also included are banners designed by local artist Janette Philips. The art work incorporates the same images to inspire colours, patterns and textures.
The exhibition has toured various venues in Cumbria throughout 2016 showcasing the collections.
Venues include Kendal Leisure Centre, Kendal Library, Kendal Town Hall, Westmorland Shopping Centre, Carlisle Archive Centre, Wray Castle, The Beacon Museum Whitehaven, Carlisle and the Ravenglass Steam Train Museum. The exhibition aimed to reach the widest possible audience, to encourage more people to engage with their heritage.
Redisplay of the Hamer mineral collection
Another aspect of the HLF funded project was recruiting volunteers from the community to help to redisplay the Hamer mineral collection. The entrance to the small gallery has been designed to look like a mine entrance. Many more minerals and archival materials are now displayed.
In September 2015 a modern art installation titled A Weird Aperture – and Weird Echoes of Water, 2015, a digital video by Kate Morrell opened at Kendal museum. The exhibition had been commissioned by Legion TV, a contemporary arts organisation in London, in collaboration with Kendal Museum. The works resulted from a period of residency in Kendal Museum, in which the artist had the opportunity to research inside the Museum stores and archives. The film takes the museum’s digitisation project as its focus, examining questions about the implications and possibilities that arise when sharing digital collections. The film also documents the conservation, interpretation and digital reproduction of the specimens, within the hands of the museum staff.
In the film a male voice reads fragments from The Caves and Potholes of High Craven: Nature’s Grottos by J. L. Hamer, July 1934. The original text is one of six notebooks handwritten by John Hamer, donated to the museum along with the minerals. Hamer provides a vivid account of potholing and caving in Yorkshire and Cumbria – describing his solo, subterranean adventures.
A Weird Aperture considers digitisation as a system for revisiting and highlighting objects, histories and their collectors, from many different perspectives. The set-up of the digitisation studio acts as an apparatus for extracting buried histories and background contexts, which surface in the process.
Student projects display
Kendal Museum is a department of Kendal College offering a Museum and Gallery Skills, Level 3 Diploma. The course provides a very rare opportunity to gain an occupational qualification in a working museum. Students were very involved with many aspects of the project, helping with collections care, digitising the collections and planning outreach activities.
To complete their designs, exhibitions and display module students produced mini exhibits to make collections more visible and accessible in the museum. At the start of the project only two herbarium sheets were on display. The mineral collections are on display in an upstairs gallery, which is unfortunately not accessible to everyone.
Mini exhibits displaying a selection of minerals and archive material made the collections available to a wider audience and has been used at events.
To bring the herbarium to life for museum visitors students have built planters with plant species from the herbarium collection. The planters are covered with boards displaying herbarium images designed by a marketing and social media apprentice. Herbarium images provide a great way to display the collections outside. A mini exhibit highlighting the digitisation process, comparing herbarium images with a real herbarium sheet, was also put together by students.
Photography workshop – George Platt
George Platt was the digital imaging scientist employed to digitise the herbarium collections to the Metamorfoze standard. The project has generated a lot of interest from local photographers. A workshop was run by George to publicize the project, inform about the digitisation process together with photography skills. The one day workshop was for adult amateur photographers, there were presentations on basic photography and the project. Then in the afternoon there was a practical element putting learning into practice, taking photos around the gallery. George aims to establish a network of local photographers linked with the museum.
Lectures by local experts
Ian Hodkinson and Alan Steward produced a book about the Three Legged Society after carrying out extensive research using archive material at Kendal Museum. Ian Hodkinson is a retired Professor of Ecology and Entomology at Liverpool John Moores University. Allan Steward is Hon. Treasurer and a founding member of Levens Local History Group. Ian delivered an informative talk about Local Naturalists and the Early Kendal Museum Plant Collections. Sharing the collections highlights the relatively unknown amateur botanists in Cumbria and their contributions to science.
Mike Dewey is a member of Westmorland geological society and Cumbria GeoConservation. He has carried out extensive geological mapping in Cumbria and his knowledge helped with cataloguing the Hamer mineral collection. He gave a talk about the mining industries carried out in Cumbria since Queen Elizabeth 1. Mike covered iron ore deposits, copper mines and lead mines in the county. It was also an opportunity to handle collections and learn about the digitisation project.
Collections Trust digital isn’t different
A talk promoting the digitisation project was delivered at the Collections Trust Digital isn’t different workshop in Manchester. The presentation shared our experiences and detailed how, as a small museum, we managed to digitise the collections and share our collections in different ways.
As part of the project there was funding for a museum and gallery skills student to undertake arts award training Discover and Explore level. This is a creative approach to encourage children and young people to appreciate and interact with museum collections.
The Education officer and students developed the content of the arts award to promote the digital collections, delivering sessions in local primary schools to year 3 classes.
The children had an introductory lesson about museums and collecting. Children found out about the minerals of Cumbria and their importance.
At the museum there was geology workshop where children could discover the secrets hidden in rock patterns and learn how the formation of rocks makes different patterns. Children also created art work in response to the visit.
This has continued into year 2 of the project.Two more students have undertaken the art award training and continued the relationship with local primary schools to run more arts award sessions.
Young Archaeologist club at Kendal Museum
There is a well-established, very popular Young Archaeologist Club at Kendal Museum. Two sessions about the digitisation project and the mineral and herbarium collections were incorporated into the programme. One session titled The Natural Elements in Archaeology investigated how plants are used in archaeology; children did practical activities such as creating their own flower presses, planting seeds and examined pressed mosses and flower books from the collections.
There was also a session titled Be a Miner Day, where the young archaeologist learnt about the types of rock and minerals in the Lake District. Children could write a diary excerpt as a miner, take part in a quiz and do a starburst rock cycle.
More Outreach activities
There have been many activities in year two of the project to engage the local community with the project and the fascinating collections held at Kendal museum. There has been a seed planting event at the local shopping centre in Kendal to promote the digitisation of Kendal museum’s collections by encouraging community participation in seed planting activity.
In May 2016 there was a ‘Be a Miner’ family activity day. There was a series of activities to appeal to a range of ages and interests, including a mystery mine tunnel, examining and identifying specimens from the museum collection and a craft activity.
The day was fun and informative for families and anyone interested in uncovering the rocks and minerals of Cumbria.
There was also a one day artist workshop for people to come and be creative using the plants and minerals as inspiration. The workshop was led by a local artist and student on the museum and gallery skills course. The event uncovered the digitised collections participants explored natural dyes made from plants and minerals and studied plant fibres used in textile construction. Activities included weaving, printing and card making.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia workshop sessions took place in residential homes in Kendal. Using herbarium images, pressed flowers from the museum garden and mixed media to create collages. The workshop was put together by museum and gallery skills students after attending a Dementia and The Arts awareness day organised by Prism art and theatre by the lake in Keswick.
Conclusion and sustainability
The first year of the project was successful; both the herbarium and mineral collections were digitised ahead of schedule. There are preservation images digitally recording the collections, with reference images securely stored. All images are available on the website and can be downloaded; it is a fantastic reference tool for researchers, artists and educators. Collections have been shared in lots of ways including a touring exhibition to venues in Cumbria. The collections have been used as a source of inspiration for family activities, lectures, artist and photography workshops. The two year project has combined the different skills of museum and Kendal College staff, students and volunteers to make this ambitious project a success.
As the project comes to an end Kendal Museum will continue to work with local groups in the community. The website will be a long term resource which will be updated with new information. There is on-going sustainability for the image preservation studio as it is run as a freelance business by George Platt, www.Georgesamuelplatt.com offering services such as digitisation of museum collections, image restoration and consultation.
Treasures at Kendal Museum. 500 copies
0H-14-00348 Looking Through A Lens: Preserving and presenting the past through digitisation
Concludes with the publication of ‘Treasures at Kendal museum’
This is a FREE printed/high quality publication with superb photography taken in the Digital Imaging studio at KM which the HLF project has enabled
It tells the story of the HLF project at Kendal Museum which has helped us to achieve our mission statement
‘To share our heritage collections and site, pioneering occupational teaching and community engagement’
This publication is given free of charge, to all participants in our HLF project, approx. 200. And will continue to be distributed to the general public and museums in the North West, as a marketing and advocacy tool.
Treasures of Kendal museum has three main sections
1. How the HLF project has enabled us to share collections that cannot be seen by the general public, with the continued work of the Digital Imaging Studio
2.The travelling exhibition to spread the story of these collections through the community.
3.The guide to the galleries and collections on the KM museum site through key specimens. It serves as a bright and attractive visitor guide to Kendal Museum, It leads the visitor into asking questions/seeking further information to the galleries and collections.
It also encourages our visitors to participate in our on-going volunteer projects
With particular thanks to:
Tony Riley. Digital Imaging Scientist
George Platt. Digital Imaging Scientist
Rachael Petts Collections Assistant
Lucy Passman Collections Assistant
The Staff at Kendal museum
All the volunteers and supporters, too many to list individually, who
have given their time and expertise so generously
Management and students of Kendal College, Kendal Town Council, South Lakeland District Council and private donations
Finally HLF for their support and belief in our project.
Carol Davies AMA Museum Curator.Manager
Rachel Petts Museum Collections Assistant
‘To share our heritage collections and site, pioneering occupational teaching and community engagement’
Telephone: 01539 815597