With DAM, do museums still need Collections Management Systems?

  • 18-Jan-2013

Museums both large and small have been among the earliest adopters of Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems. As curators of tangible, real objects -- ones that are often ancient, sacred, or one-of-a-kind -- museum DAM teams have a uniquely curatorial approach to their digital assets.

One discussion I often find myself having with museum IT groups, usually in tandem with advising on their DAM selection or implementation project, is regarding "CMS" -- which in the museum world more commonly refers not to Content Management System but Collection Management System. The purpose of the CMS is to catalogue museum objects' various metadata, such as the object's location in the museum, exhibition history, whether or not it's out on loan, where it's from, the era and place it's from, and other relevant information. Often a bespoke system, the CMS is sometimes managed by someone who designed a complex database for museum object data several decades ago. It is too often bereft of a user-friendly interface, slow to search, and the bane of museum curators' lives.

Oftentimes the metadata about museum objects are the exact same metadata that's relevant to the pictures of, or the multimedia related to, that object. But those pictures and multimedia aren't stored or available in the CMS, they're stored in a DAM. What I've seen when analyzing museums' DAM needs is that curators, scholars, museum directors, and others want to find object data as well as digital assets by the same criteria -- and they don't want to toggle between two systems to get all the information they need.

Which begs the question: why maintain two separate systems at all? Why not maintain all the metadata about the object itself in the DAM system, and have all the related digital assets available at a glance, at the same time?

Some of the world's largest museums are working towards this goal, and so far the biggest hurdle I've seen with our museum subscribers is that loan tracking of objects is not an "out of the box" feature of DAM systems. Loan tracking typically requires a complex workflow that your run-of-the-mill DAM system won't manage effectively out of the box. But, with the workflow capabilities of the enterprise DAM tools improving, this challenge could be increasingly easy to solve.

To be sure, a DAM system is not a technology designed for museum collections management. But as we in the DAM world talk more about the relationships between tangible objects and digital assets, the capabilities of DAM systems are evolving in the directions that facilitate the connections we need between the physical and digital world. Media companies with video vaults -- Betamax video cassettes or film reels in the basement -- face a similar challenge. Are you using your DAM to manage tangible objects? If so, please join the conversation.