Interview with Nynke van der Wal (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, June 25, 2012

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is the most important art museum in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The museum houses a highly diverse collection, from medieval to contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on art from the Netherlands. Some of the most famous artists whose work is on permanent display in the museum are Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt, Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent van Gogh, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. As part of the DCA project, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen will create digital reproductions of works by artists such as Christo, Panamarenko, Tobias Putrih, Peter Struycken, Ger van Elk and Thomas Schütte.

Rony Vissers of the PACKED vzw (Brussels), the centre of expertise in digital heritage that is coordinating DCA, talked to Nynke van der Wal (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) about the project's progress at her museum.

1. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the DCA project
2. The desired results
3. The internal organisation of the contribution to the DCA
4. The project's progress
5. The schedule for the digitisation activities
6. A brief interim evaluation
7. Disseminating information about the project
8. The support provided

1. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the DCA project

PACKED: What is your role at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and what are your tasks related to the DCA project?

Nynke van der Wal: I am head of the documentation centre. As DCA project leader I oversee the project as a whole in the museum. I am responsible for making sure that deadlines are respected, for external reporting and attending plenary meetings and workshops.

PACKED: What does Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen hope to achieve by participating in the DCA project?

Nynke van der Wal: Our goal is twofold: on the one hand we want to make a new part of our extensive collection available online and on the other we want to eliminate the backlog in registering, conserving and photographing our collection.

The collection comprises approximately 140,000 objects. We could never exhibit them all in our museum at the same time. We really want to make it accessible to the public so we are trying to do so online. We already have two websites that present part of our collection online. In total 5,000 objects are accessible via our Online Collection and ALMA. ALMA was a previous project that mainly focused on the digitisation of prints, paintings and small objects. In DCA we are exclusively focusing on three-dimensional works, mainly installations, sculptures and assemblages.

To eliminate the backlog in terms of registration, for the DCA project we are following the Boijmans-Basic principle. This basic registration consists of a number of fields that must be completed so that a record can be approved or 'validated'. This means that we verify all elements of the description for each selected artwork step by step and add to it if necessary. A quality photographic image also accompanies the description of each artwork. Because the DCA often involves larger and more complex artworks, documentation related to how the objects are assembled and their condition must be provided in addition to the details needed for the Boijmans-Basic principle.

PACKED: Your list of artworks to be digitised includes a number of film and video works. Do you just photograph the set-up of these artworks or do you also digitise the films and videos that are part of them.

Nynke van der Wal: Because the films and video works selected for DCA are part of an installation, we photograph the works as a whole. Digitisation of the films and videos is not part of DCA. Though they are digitised in conservation projects.

PACKED: I noticed that your list also includes a series of artworks by artists that are often considered to be American, such as Man Ray, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik.

Nynke van der Wal: That's right. In fact nationality was not a criteria for us when selecting the artists and artworks. The works by these artists have been part of our museum collection for a long time. Over the years they have become part of the European cultural heritage.

Modern and contemporary art are indeed art forms that easily transcend boundaries and by this I mean not necessarily in terms of content but also geographically. Such as Nam June Paik, who was born in Seoul. He first studied in Tokyo and then in Munich. In Germany he came into contact with composers such as Stockhausen and Cage and met artists such as Beuys and Vostell, who were to influence his work. Though he moved to New York in 1964 he was a professor at the Arts Academy in the city of Dusseldorf from 1979 to 1996. Man Ray was an American artist born to Russian-Jewish immigrants who spent a large part of his career in Paris. Sol LeWitt was also born in the United States to Russian-Jewish immigrants. He worked in Italy for a large part of the 1980s. Claes Oldenburg was born in Stockholm but moved to the United States when he was very young as the son of a Swedish diplomat. So it is often difficult to draw a clear line.

(c) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Sign post to the museum room where artworks are being digitised in the framework of the DCA project. The room is accessible to the public. © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

2. The desired results

PACKED: What results does Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen hope to achieve by participating in the DCA project?

Nynke van der Wal: Firstly, after the ALMA project we hope to gain experience in digitising a different type of artwork, namely contemporary three-dimensional artworks in highly diverse formats.a Secondly we hope to review the descriptions of all the works that are to be digitised and add to them if necessary. This includes developing new formats, as part of DCA, for the descriptions of how these works should be assembled and their current condition. In this respect, participating in DCA follows on from our participation in the Inside Installations project, which conducted research into conserving and exhibiting installations. In Inside Installations we conducted research into conserving the Notion Motion installation (2005) by the Danish artist Olafur Eliason. We enter the full description of the artworks in TMS, including the description of the composition and the condition. If possible and necessary we will consult the artist on this subject. Thirdly, we hope not just to describe the works’ current condition, but if necessary also to improve it using conservation techniques. This may even result in the entire piece being restored before it is photographed. Fourthly, we naturally want one or several high-resolution photographs of each artwork.

PACKED: Did you create templates for the descriptions of the assembly and condition of the works yourself or did you use previous ones from other projects such as Inside Installations or Matters in Media Art?

Nynke van der Wal: We created them ourselves but they are based on existing models.

PACKED: It is evident that you try and enter as much information about the artworks as possible in TMS. We regularly see that this is saved separately to the data in the electronic collection management system. For Inside Installations, for example, S.M.A.K. and the Tate developed a structure for describing installations that also uses interviews with the artists. The files that are part of this structure are not saved in TMS.

Nynke van der Wal: Yes for us it is important to enter the information in TMS because then it is easier to search through and reuse the information. Everything is in digital format and is saved together. Along with the team responsible for the restoration of paper works, we have already developed a way of entering and exporting condition reports in TMS. We want to build on this and develop an equivalent for three-dimensional installations. If afterwards it appears that the TMS system does not adequately lend itself to the process we can always export the entered data to another solution.

3. The internal organisation of the contribution to the DCA project

PACKED: You already mentioned the conservator's involvement in the digitisation project. Are any other parties involved in implementing the project?

Nynke van der Wal: Yes, various departments of the museum are very closely involved. Besides a conservator and a trainee conservator, the core DCA group also includes two registrars, the TMS application manager and a trainee. The museum departments involved are: the Collection and Research sector, the Presentations sector, the Marketing and Communications department and the Finance department.

The conservator doesn't just approve the descriptions and digital photographs that have been taken but is also briefed in advance about how the work should be assembled. The Documentation Centre comes under the Collection and Research sector just like the Conservation and Restoration department, which is also involved in the DCA project. I also work closely with the application manager, who prepares the inputs, and the photographic manager. The Presentations department is responsible for assembling the artworks in the exhibition hall. This department includes the technical service, among others. The Marketing and Communications department is involved in disseminating information about the project. I work with the Finance Department for the external reporting on our contribution to the project.

PACKED: Are any external parties involved in implementing the project?

Nynke van der Wal: Yes, our photographer is not employed by the museum but is subcontracted. Furthermore we are in touch with a number of artists including Guido Geelen and Mels van Zutphen, to gather information such as the use of materials and composition methods.

PACKED: Do you think that Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen's participation in the DCA project will lead to changes in the museum itself?

Nynke van der Wal: The most important change is that, due to the extent and duration of the DCA project, cooperation between various people and departments is closer than before. The cooperation in itself is already inherent to the way our museum works, but the nature of the cooperation has changed as a result of DCA. This has led to positive results in our museum. The involvement of various members of staff and departments requires considerable consultation and effective definitions of responsibilities.

PACKED: The success of a digitisation project often depends on embedding it in the establishment's general policy. How is the DCA project received by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s management? Is everyone aware that the museum is participating in this project?

Nynke van der Wal: The management is very much involved in the digitisation project. It also considers the project to be positive, as an essential component of museum business. The museum staff are also well informed about the DCA project. To a great extent this is due to the fact that a large number of the artworks are digitised in a museum room. This creates visibility, which would be reduced if the works were just digitised in a depot.

(c) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Preparing the digitisation: front/right Skull (carving no. 10) (Adam Colton, 1986), middle/left Lederhosen 
(Maria Roosen, 1995) and in the back Work, Green and White (Krijn de Koning, 2004). © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

4. The project's progress

PACKED: We are now more than halfway through the DCA project. Have you been confronted with any unexpected problems?

Nynke van der Wal: The project is more extensive, intensive and complicated than we originally thought it would be. This is due on the one hand to the often complex nature of the artworks that are being digitised and on the other to the various locations where the works are stored, some of which are off-site. Digitisation not only takes place at different locations but artworks must also be regularly transported in order for them to be digitised. This requires considerable logistical preparation and proper planning. The latter is necessary because, for example, the photographer is only available on certain days and therefore the artworks must be assembled on those days so they can be photographed. Because some works have not been assembled for a long time we first have to verify that they are complete and in a decent condition before they can be digitised. The whole team is needed to assemble the works. The team varies according to the specific knowledge required to do so.

PACKED: Have any other unexpected events occurred?

Nynke van der Wal: During the project we changed photographer. We didn't view this as a problem though, but rather as a change that contributed to improved results.

PACKED: What is your experience of the agreed timing for the project?

Nynke van der Wal: In our digitisation plan we divided the work into seven segments. These segments were determined according to the locations where the works would be digitised: a museum room or a depot. In practice this division appeared to work fairly well. Sometimes we have to be flexible if unforeseen circumstances arise and digitise a few pieces more or less. This happens for example when it appears that a certain piece has been selected for a particular exhibition in our museum. In which case we aren't going to assemble the artwork in the depot to digitise it and then disassemble it once more only to reassemble it in the allocated exhibition hall. The digitisation will then be carried out during the exhibition in the museum room.

What's interesting is that we have integrated the entire digitisation workflow into our TMS system with the help of 'worksets'. These 'worksets' are compiled in the same way as online purchases using digital shopping baskets. Information or warnings can also be added to the different 'worksets' for the people who will carry out the digitisation process. Only one person in the museum is authorised to make changes to the 'worksets', and that is our TMS application manager.

5. The schedule for the digitisation activities

PACKED: As the project leader we asked all the partners to compile a brief digitisation plan. Is it a useful tool?

Nynke van der Wal: Yes it was useful when establishing the timing for the different segments. Meanwhile we have also implemented the digitisation plan in TMS, which means I don't have to refer back to it very often any more.

PACKED: How did you approach the task of defining the technical parameters?

Nynke van der Wal: For digitising works on paper we use the Metamorfoze guidelines.b Though these guidelines do not really apply to one-on-one for large three-dimensional objects; it is difficult to use them for taking digital photographs of the latter.

Small art objects can be photographed against a white background created by a roll of paper in a depot but this is not possible for large three-dimensional artworks. For these kinds of pieces it is barely possible to use a colour chart, to give one example. However we still try to obtain a photographic image that does the artwork justice. This means that the photographer takes into account the properties of the room and the light when preparing the pieces for digitisation. We always involve the conservators in this process. They determine how and how many times the artwork is photographed. If it contributes to a better understanding of the piece then photographs will be taken from two or more angles. This means that we often have two or more photographs of each artwork.

With regard to technical parameters such as format, compression, image size, resolution and colour space there are few differences compared with the approach used for digitising other works.

PACKED: How do you think you are doing at the beginning of the second half of the project?

Nynke van der Wal: I have a good feeling about our schedule. I am also confident that we will manage to digitise everything in good time. Of course we might have to make a few small changes in the next few months, for example if a particular piece is not available for digitisation. We will then be obliged to replace it by an equivalent piece. If we replace artworks in the list of works to be digitised we make sure that nothing changes with regard to the shortlist of artists included in the agreement with the European Commission.

(c) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Preparing the digitisation: back/left: Zonder titel - SPH. 89 en C.T. 55/15, R. & S. 63855, P.B.C. ’C’ (Guido Geelen, 1989) © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

6. A brief interim evaluation

PACKED: What is your assessment of the past seventeen months?

Nynke van der Wal: In our case it has gone well. Though I should mention that we are not completely on schedule. Respecting the deadlines as specified in the planning remains a challenge. The project creates a great deal of pressure and sometimes it would be better if we could work on the project in a more relaxed manner. Sometimes we have to disassemble an installation more quickly than we had hoped and planned because the space where the digitisation was being carried out must be cleared for another activity.

What gives us the most satisfaction is the result. As I already mentioned we are doing more than simply making digital reproductions. Participation in DCA also involves eliminating the backlog that exists in different but closely linked areas.

PACKED: What lessons could be learned from the work that has already been done?

Nynke van der Wal: Once again it is clear that when carrying out this kind of digitisation project, the planning, communication and definition of responsibilities is extremely important. When the project file was being prepared for the European Commission funding round, the selection of artworks to be digitised was made under considerable pressure from a timing perspective. This is now causing problems. With hindsight it would have been better to have had more time for the selection process.

PACKED: Do you notice any differences with other large-scale digitisation projects you have been involved in, for example the aforementioned ALMA project?

Nynke van der Wal: The greatest difference with ALMA lies in the levels of cooperation. With ALMA more external parties were involved, including photographers, a web developer and a designer. This required effective agreements on the responsibilities of the various people involved.

7. Spreading information about the project

PACKED: How do you spread information on the DCA project?

Nynke van der Wal: An important aspect of spreading information about our participation in the DCA project is based on the fact that a large part of the digitisation work takes place in a museum room that is accessible to the public. We have placed an information notice about the project in the room and on the window facing the street. In the museum visitors can also consult a list which provides an overview of which artworks are going to be digitised and when. They can also browse the DCA brochure and take a copy home.

Another interesting activity is 'Pak een stoeltje met...' ('An audience with…)'.c The DCA project has also been discussed in detail at these events.

Furthermore the DCA project is mentioned on our website and we have also distributed a press release. And there is word of mouth advertising too of course. We mention this project in our contacts with other museums.

PACKED: Was the decision to create the digital reproductions in a museum room accessible to the public to a large extent made as part of the process of spreading information?

Nynke van der Wal: The decision was predominantly a pragmatic one. In the first instance we looked for an available space. At the same time choosing a museum room accessible to the public is also in line with our public policy. We are happy to grant the public a look behind the scenes. This was also the case during the ALMA project. But I also remember the restoration of Salvador Dalí’s three large panels, Landscape with a girl skipping, from 1936, which was carried out in public in one of the exhibition halls in the summer of 2010. That was the first time a restoration project was carried out in public at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. It is important that the public witnesses everything that goes on in a museum, and that the museum visitors have an idea of what is involved in managing, conserving and displaying a collection.

PACKED: Do you get any feedback from the public with regard to the digitisation activities?

Nynke van der Wal: In conjunction with 'Pak een stoeltje met...' ('An audience with…)' I hear very positive feedback about DCA and that people are interested in the project.

PACKED: Do you have any recommendations for improving methods of spreading information on the project?

Nynke van der Wal: Yes, first I would like to propose that the DCA website features a different DCA partner every couple of weeks which also presents its work. An interview could be published as part of this. Secondly I would like to propose that the identification of information on the DCA website be examined. Is the information optimally indexed by search engines such as Google? Could this be improved?

(c) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Mentioning of the DCA project in the museum room where artworks are being digitised while accessible to the public. © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

8. The support provided

PACKED: What do you think about the support provided to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen by the various work package managers and the project managers for the implementation of the project?

Nynke van der Wal: I am satisfied with the support we receive. On the one hand there is administrative support, such as for interim reporting. I believe this support is much needed. On the other hand there is the more substantive support. I have already used the deliverable 4.1 Digitisation workflow description for digitising the selected artworksd a few times myself.

Sometimes I find the different deliverables very extensive. Perhaps a more user-friendly way could be found to publish information and guidelines. Furthermore I would like to propose that you examine whether more support could be organised for settling copyrights. Information exchange between the various partners on this issue would also be welcome. Considering that, due to its relative newness, all contemporary art is still subject to copyright, all organisations are involved in this issue. The copyright can present a stumbling block for museums when making collections accessible online to a wide audience.

a The ALMA project links images of pre-industrial objects from the late Middle Ages up to the nineteenth century to depictions of similar objects found in paintings and prints of the period. Therefore a number of paintings and prints were digitised in this project. Currently the ALMA databank includes approximately 2,500 objects, 300 paintings and 2,000 prints from the museum's collections.
b Metamorfoze is the national programme in the Netherlands for the preservation of the paper heritage. It is a joint venture between the National Library of the Netherlands and the National Archives and was set up on the initiative of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The Metamorfoze guidelines were written for the mass digitisation of two-dimensional materials such as manuscripts, archives, books, newspapers and magazines. These guidelines can also be used for digitising photographs, paintings and technical drawings.
c For several decades the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen organised guided tours entitled 'Pak een stoeltje met…' ('An audience with...'). This tradition has now been resumed. Every Wednesday lunchtime visitors can view art with a member of the museum staff such as a conservator. Often one artwork is discussed. It is like an exercise in observation.
d This deliverable is currently only available to partners of the DCA project, but over the remaining months it will be reworked based on the partners’ experiences and be made accessible to the public as deliverable 4.2 Guidelines for an A-Z digitisation workflow for contemporary artworks.

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