Digitising the collection of Bristol Culture, the city council's art and culture service

Bristol City Council has teams of staff and volunteers working to digitise its collection of objects and art, bringing these historic items to a wider audience. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - digital technology section of our online Culture Hub.

Bristol’s museums and galleries have a combined collection of more than two million items. When the council began its three-year digitisation programme, 95 per cent of them were not yet fully catalogued or photographed.

Over the last two years, Bristol Culture (the council’s arts and culture service) has begun digitising as much of the collection as possible to make it more accessible to the public. Teams of volunteers and staff digitise the objects then input the data and photographs into one unified platform, using a ‘COPE’ approach (Create Once, Publish Everywhere). As well as ensuring that the public can see as many of the objects as possible, the council needed to know exactly what was in its collection so that the items could be properly looked after. Digitisation meets both these objectives.

Impact of the project

Combining expertise from the digital team with research into user needs enabled the council to design the best approach. The digitisation teams ensure that objects are documented well enough to be made available to the public, both online and in the galleries and museums through the collections management software.

Two years into the project, the council has doubled the number of digitised records held on its objects. Most records are made available online by default. Bristol’s ‘collections online’ platform (http://museums.bristol.gov.uk) had 90,000 unique page views in the year to March 2017. There are now 200,000 digitised records, representing about 10 per cent of the total collection. There are varying degrees of digitisation depending on the object (so, for example, a collection of 1,000 flies may be catalogued as one object with basic data), but there are individual records for anything that could potentially go on display or be loaned to other institutions.

The project has removed the ‘silo’ depositing of information on objects which was caused by previous technical constraints. The council can now publish the information everywhere, such as on its website, in-gallery kiosks and TVs at the touch of the button, which will ensure a greater take-up by the public. The increased availability of information has already led to more enquiries from the public and specialists. The only costs, in addition to existing staff time, have been increasing the capacity of the server and improvements to the public-facing website, paid for from the digital budget.

Looking to the future

A growing data collection means Bristol needs to increase its digital storage capacity to make it fit for the future. Other changes to the technical infrastructure are needed too – for example, network and storage constraints make safe backing-up problematic for all but the best-resourced museums and galleries.

Bristol is beginning to look at mass automation, both of the digital process itself and using artificial intelligence to help identify what is contained within a photograph. The team plans to roll out user-friendly gallery guides that work on any device and utilise the digital collection, bringing information closer to the public.

Key learning points

  • Focus on the needs of the end user, rather than the council, as ‘discoverability’ is essential for uptake.
  • Work with multiple teams to ensure the speediest action plan can be produced.
  • The paper trail is as important as the photo itself. If it cannot be found, it may not be worth photographing the item in the first place.
  • There is some commercial value to selling media rights, but this is small – councils should expect a return of £10,000 or less per year.

For further information contact Zak Mensah, Head of Transformation: zak.mensah@bristol.gov.uk or Mark Pajak, Head of Digital: mark.pajak@bristol.gov.uk


This case study has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England