Introduction to WheatonArts
WheatonArts and Cultural Center (WACC) in Millville, New Jersey, was founded as Wheaton Village in 1968. The 45-acre campus is home to the Museum of American Glass, the Creative Glass fellowship program for artists and the Down Jersey Folklife Program. WheatonArts’ mission is to “engage artists and audiences in an evolving exploration of creativity.” The mission is “advanced through the interpretation of collections and exhibitions; education initiatives and culturally diverse public programs; residencies and other opportunities for artists.” It’s unsurprising that WheatonArts would be eager to partner in a project to improve and advance their digital preservation program. The Center’s underlying vision is to make creativity more approachable and accessible. Digital preservation ensures that collections are interpretable long term and available to more students, scholars and of course, artists.
The (Digital) Collection
The Museum of American Glass (MAG) at WheatonArts presents the history of American glass from the colonial period forward and much of its contemporary glass art is the work of artists during their time as fellows in WACC’s Creative Glass fellowship program. Included in the collection is documentation of their process. The permanent collection of 3D artifacts exceeds 22,500 pieces, of which over three quarters have been photographed and saved as preservation and access files.
So far, digitized artifacts (objects) account for nearly 5 GB of content. Through digitization of photographs, negatives and other papers (photos and archives in the parlance of PastPerfect), the staff has produced an additional 33 GB of digital content. Nearly half the photographs and negatives have been digitized but together with other records, the Museum has processed 11 linear feet of physical archives that are currently being digitized. There are also 116 digitized videos which, at 165 GB, claim the lion’s share of the museum’s current storage needs. That’s over 200 GB created through in-house digitization and growing. These figures do not account for born-digital artworks and documentation of creative work being done at the Center.
The Museum uses PastPerfect as its collection database and digital objects are stored there on WACC’s server and backed up to an NAS hard drive. Objects are also stored on the registrar’s office hard drive and an additional hard drive she takes home. That’s four copies in different locations in the same geographic region. Space issues on the server have created backup failures between PastPerfect and the NAS, but it’s still unclear what types of files are backed up from PastPerfect when things run smoothly. Hopefully some of these questions can be answered in a future meeting with software support staff and WheatonArts IT. Whether, as part of institutional storage (on the server), file fixity information is being generated needs to be determined. Prior to storing files in PastPerfect, objects were kept on multiple media and platforms and staff have made heroic efforts to unify the collection. Only a limited number of museum staff have access to the digital objects; four, excluding IT.
What’s left to be collected?
Most preservation projects involve a bit of catch-up on digitization and MAG is no exception. The museum will want to represent its permanent collection of 3D objects and make them more findable but there’s a world in the archives that could set the digital collection apart and bring WheatonArts attention from more disparate groups than it already enjoys.
One intriguing aspect of WACC’s mission that informs its collection policy is the accumulation of documentary evidence of creative work done by artist fellows. Making this material cohere in a digital collection will be the digital surrogate for the approach and access to creativity that a visit to the studios or participation in the onsite educational programs offered by the Center is meant to provide.
A member of staff suggested that the “real work” will begin when they’re ready to tackle the attic trove. In addition to the Center’s history, the undigitized material in storage documents the history of glass art and craft and pottery in New Jersey. In addition to the Wheaton Glass Company—WheatonArts is its namesake—archives, the Whitall Tatum, Stangl and Fulper archives are all in the care of WACC. A significant aspect of the labor, economic and cultural history of the state can be understood through this collection. Books, maps and surveys of Cumberland County and the City of Millville in the Center’s collection will be a boon to local historians and genealogists but haven’t been inventoried due to lack of resources for such an undertaking.
One thing at a time, but it’s clear that eventually, WheatonArts can expand its reach with these records and have a digital collection that not only represents the objects in the Museum’s physical collection, but through the inclusion of these other objects, actually complements that collection. That’s significant. In my experience with two organizations and their digital collections, neither does much to truly expand the profile of the institution and bring a new type of user into the community. Their collections, while exciting, are too circumscribed for that. WACC has a real opportunity here.
Resources are limited, as they are most everywhere, but there is enthusiasm for a strong digital preservation program at WheatonArts. The curatorial staff commenced digitization with best practices in mind and have a good working inventory of their digital collection. They are willing to commit regular staff to the work for at least a few hours a week (including, perhaps, some job re-description) but can rely on volunteers and unpaid interns as well. Furthermore, leadership is keen to realize the potential benefits; social media outreach, for example.
The staff are humble about their efforts but if we attempt to map their program, so far, onto the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) levels of digital preservation, we see that WheatonArts is already engaging with all five categories of Level 1 and at least the File Formats requirements of Level 2. That’s a great place to start and proof of their commitment but somewhat uneven, because that’s the nature of the beast. Digital preservation begins, at best, with a well-reasoned game of catch-up. To make digital preservation truly sustainable at WACC, we’ll be looking to advance the program with concrete storage and file integrity options for budgeting purposes.
Digital preservation is a big ball of wax and the staff recognize that. Here are some of the “grey areas” they described to me: “ownership/control, sharing and access, whose digital space is being used, how information should/could be organized, clarifying copyright, etc.” In my museum job, I encounter the same concerns and they cover the spectrum of digital preservation/curation priorities. Hopefully this project will help sharpen the contours of those issues at WheatonArts and even resolve a few.