#65: Isabel Meyer on digitizing Smithsonian collections & making them available for educational use

Isabel Meyer is the branch manager for the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), and she talks about the process of digitizing different collections within the Smithsonian to better support its mission of “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

isabel-meyerThere are over 157 million objects in the Smithsonian’s overall collection with over 5 million of them having been digitized within their DAMS. This accounts for just over 3% of their total collection, and their in the process of prioritizing the digitization process and making those assets more widely available.

She mentions the Smithsonian Collections Search EDU site that has over 8.6 million catalog records of museum objects, library & archives materials with about 15% of those that have images.

There’s also the Smithsonian X 3D site, which is currently in an early beta that contains over 20 3D-scanned objects available for download and for non-commercial, personal or educational uses according to their Terms of Use. One particularly interesting example is this 3D laser scan of a Wooly Mammoth

Isabel says that this is an expensive process, and they’re trying to get more funding to make these objects available. Hopefully at some point, VR developers will have greater access and ability to create immersive experiences that include authentic artifacts our our digitized cultural heritage.


  • 0:00 – Intro – Digital Asset System manager at Smithsonian. Digital representations of all of their collections. Capturing more and more objects. Currently at 5 million digital assets. Being used by all 19 museums, 9 libraries and the zoo.
  • 1:43 – Total Objects in Smithsonian is 157 million objects, but doesn’t include event photography and other objects. Probably around less than 3% of it has been digitized. In process of prioritizing what should be digitized.
  • 2:44 – Getting access to digital objects. How do you collaborate or get access to some of these objects. Their DAMS is behinds a firewall. Determining what should be made publicly available. Greatly expanding this portion. There was a lot of reluctance at first. Have expanded tools. Smithsonian Search site at http://collections.si.edu/search/ Sketchbot Robot that draws images in the sand, and want to make that code made available.
  • 5:30 – Copyright may have expired, but Smithsonian owns copyright of the digital version, and make available? Making high-res scans available according to their terms of use and clears for distribution.
  • 6:44 – Tracking metadata within their digital objects. Different categories of metadata, and their DAMS is integrated with their collection management systems. Metadata is embedded within the asset.
  • 8:00 – Announcement of museums that will be releasing objects. Have an existing 3D site with 20+ objects available. It’s an expensive process, and trying to get more funding to make these objects available at Smithsonian X 3D. There’s a rapid capture initiative.
  • 10:04 – What would you hope would happen with this cultural heritage. Don’t know what the possibilities are yet. Researchers, educators and creating new artwork.
  • 10:55 – Potential to collaborate with Smithsonian. Would need to go through the Public Affairs office.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.938] Isabel Meyer: My name is Isabel Meyer, and I'm the branch manager for the Smithsonian's Enterprise Digital Asset Management System. The system manages and stores a wealth of various digital assets. We have an images department. We have what started out as a system for photography of our events, and it has since expanded into digital representations of all of our collections. and that's an area of big growth where we're capturing and digitizing more and more of the objects that we have to make them more publicly available. We also have lectures, we have digital artworks that we're storing, we have audio, we have recordings from our Smithsonian Folkways. as well as recordings of various interviews and different types of lectures. We have, oh my god, every day I look at what's been ingested on a daily basis because we add thousands of things per day and I'm constantly amazed to discover all the things that we have and we're adding. We're currently at about almost five million digital assets. We started at about 24,000 when I took over the project about five years ago. And as I said, we're loading, just the growth has been phenomenal. It's currently being used by all of our units. We have 19 museums, nine libraries, the zoo, and they're all adding content daily. So it's amazing.

[00:01:42.974] Kent Bye: Well, and how many total objects are there in the Smithsonian that are then in the process of getting digitized?

[00:01:49.239] Isabel Meyer: Well, the figure that is frequently quoted as the number of objects in our collections is 157 million objects. Now, those are objects that are actually museum collection or sessioned objects, but that doesn't really include all of the objects like the event photography. Those are not considered collection objects. So the number is probably much, much greater than that. The percentage of those that has been digitized is probably less than 3% at this point. And digitizing that number, you know, not everything will always get digitized. So we're going through a process of identifying what are we going to digitize, prioritizing what needs to be digitized, you know, things that are at risk, things that are popular that fit within the Smithsonian strategic initiative of what do we want to make available. So it's a big job.

[00:02:43.963] Kent Bye: And so being an inspiring virtual reality developer, you know, it gets me really excited that there's the potential of having access to these digital objects to be able to use within some sort of virtual reality experience from independent developers. I'm curious, what is the process of either collaborating with the Smithsonian or getting access to some of these digital assets to use in different experiences?

[00:03:07.880] Isabel Meyer: Well, the digital asset management system is behind a firewall. So all of the assets that are contained with it, just like our physical collections are stored in warehouses, they're not all available to the public. So we're going through the process of determining, it's up to each unit to decide what do they want to make publicly available. And, you know, the good news is that we are expanding that greatly. When I first took over this system, there was a lot of reluctance at first, mostly out of not understanding, you know, how these objects, how these physical digital assets were going to be used. But as we've expanded tools, you go out to the collectionssearch.edu site, you'll see that there's more and more content being made available. One of the really exciting areas of growth, I think, is we had a discussion last week with our registrar from the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design, which is one of our museums in New York, and they recently acquired an artwork called Sketchbot. And it's comprised of hardware and software and imagery. And what it does, it takes either a picture of someone's face and it can be captured in real time or a picture that was taken. The software reads that image. and it translates that to a robotic arm that then draws that image in the sand. And again, this is really, it's wonderful to watch. There's a video on YouTube that you can go watch if you do a search on Sketchbot. What's exciting about this work is that it's HTML, it's Python code, it has several other source components. And what the museum wants to do is make that source code available to the public so that developers can take it and build other artworks using that same code and expand on it. So I think that's one area where we will see a lot of growth, where we are going to get digital artworks, then we can share and we will still retain that original artwork, but then we can sort of let it loose and see what artists, developers, what other people think of that they can do with that and expand and build on.

[00:05:29.632] Kent Bye: And so it seems like you've got quite a few objects, whereas the copyright of the individual objects may have expired, but the process of you digitizing them, then the Smithsonian owns the copyright. And I'm curious if there's any plans to have any creative commons or public domain access to make some of these digital assets available for people to use within virtual reality experiences.

[00:05:53.258] Isabel Meyer: Since we are making a lot of our digital assets available in high resolution, that's another initiative that a lot of the units are embracing. They're going to be available for download and how they're used, I think it'll be up to the person that's downloading them as to how they want to use them. Of course, we're not putting only things that have cleared copyrights or that are owned by the Smithsonian and therefore part of that Creative Commons license are made available and You know, for anything more specific beyond that, I'd have to, you know, direct you to legal counsel on those. That's not necessarily an area of my expertise. Whatever the units approve has already been cleared for distribution and, you know, if it goes out of the system and we export it and we make those derivatives available, they're for use.

[00:06:44.044] Kent Bye: And one of the challenges I think that was pointed out to me is that there's a certain level of metadata that you're trying to track in terms for each object of where it came from and, you know, the rights and stuff. And so is that metadata expected to then travel through these digital objects through wherever they go out and whenever they're released into the wild?

[00:07:02.847] Isabel Meyer: There's different categories of metadata, and one of the really exciting things is that our digital asset management system is currently now integrated with some of our collection management systems. So we have several different components within the Smithsonian that manage collections. So all the metadata about the accessioned object for the artworks are in something called TMS, which is the management system. And we have recently built an integration where The asset itself, whether it's an audio, video, or image, is loaded into the dams. The metadata, such as which the holding unit, which museum owns it, any copyright information, any contact information about that asset, that metadata is then picked up and brought over with the asset into the dams. And then when we export it, that metadata is also embedded within that asset. So it will always travel with it, and we can always identify the source.

[00:08:01.066] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you alluded to a couple of nights ago that there was going to be an impending announcement where there's going to be various museums that are going to start releasing more digital assets out into the world. So I'm curious what you can tell me about some of the format and types of, you know, specifically as to whether or not there are 3D objects that may be available.

[00:08:21.153] Isabel Meyer: Actually, we have a website now with our 3D objects that are being digitized. And there's, I think there's about six or nine, I can't remember the exact number, that we have the files available for download. So you can download and you can print your own woolly mammoth from that site. And it's very, very, very cool. And there will be more objects that are added to that site, but it's very expensive to go through that process. So I know that there's an initiative of fundraising as to how we can get more funds to do more of that type of work. We're also in the rapid capture initiative where we're identifying certain collections that we want to make available. For example, our American History Museum has a numismatics collection of currency plates that they're going to start capturing. And that's also a very interesting project because as they're scanning these objects and digitizing them in high resolution and making them available, there's also a transcription service where we're releasing them to amateur experts out in the field that can come in and start helping to tag these objects. So they're helping add that metadata. And then once that collection is complete, then that's released and made available. So you'll be able to, as we get better and better resolution and we make those available, you can really zoom in on the detail down to where some of the ceramics, you can see all the cracks and for researchers it's very valuable to see that detail.

[00:10:03.156] Kent Bye: And finally, with the process of digitizing all of these artifacts and objects, what would you hope to see be realized in terms of how this is getting access to more and more people to this type of cultural heritage?

[00:10:16.744] Isabel Meyer: I think it's so exciting because we just don't know exactly what the possibilities are yet. I think these are wonderful things to be used in education, for researchers, for creating new artworks, for publications. So I think that it's only going to be limited by the creativity of the person that's receiving or that any particular object, any particular asset is going to spark the imagination of the person that is looking at it or downloading it or interested in it.

[00:10:54.032] Kent Bye: And if there was some independent developers that were out there that were interested in helping do a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to help with digitizing stuff, what's the best place to send them to to coordinate that type of collaboration?

[00:11:09.198] Isabel Meyer: I would have to say they would probably need to contact our public affairs office would be the starting point, as they would have to clear any initiative in that direction. And then they would manage which unit you would need to contact to work with, you know, what's available that would fit under that. So I wouldn't say contact me. Or you could contact me and then I would try to put you in the right direction. So. Great. Well, thank you. Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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