Culture is future » Innovation and digital


Always Further - Ambitions and limitations of digitalization projects

Every year since 1996, the Ministry of culture has been issuing a «call for digitalization projects », which aims at financing the digitalization of research material and collections, so as to make them accessible online. The forecasted budget for this project is of 3 million euros for the year 2012. This policy of the Ministry is part of the Europeana project, a digital library aiming at gathering and making available online the European cultural heritage.

Other projects of the same spirit include that of the digitalization by the French National Library (BNF) of all its documents - now accessible on the website Gallica - or that of the British Library in partnership with Google Books.

With this increasing number of digitalization projects, can we think that cultural resources will soon all be accessible on the Internet?

When it comes to Museums and the research material they own, the question is more complex, and the amount of material available on their website is subject to high variation. In France for instance, the website of the Musée d’Orsay features thorough information on each work of art: a reproduction, a commentary, its history, and bibliographical references... However, many museums’ websites are still lacking that kind of information, and only present the most well known elements of the museum’s collections.

The French Ministry of culture also created a search engine, Moteur Collection, which one can use to browse through the all the collections preserved in France.

Let’s take the example of the Painting Department at the Louvre museum. Its research center has files on the paintings owned by the Louvre, as well as broader material on old painting. Although the research center is (to some extent) opened to the public, its material cannot yet be accessed online.

For some of the paintings concealed in the Louvre, both a reproduction and a short commentary are available online. On the other hand, the Graphic Arts department has published an online inventory including 140 000 works of art. However, it’s not much for the most visited museum in the world.

According to Stéphane Loire, curator at the Painting Department in the Louvre, head of its research center, this situation will not change anytime soon: the resources of the research center will not be accessible online in the near future. With between 2 and 3 million images, digitalizing the resources would not only be a titanic task, but it would also raise issues concerning copyright: a lot of the documents concealed in the research center concern works of art privately owned, making it legally impossible to publish them online.

Therefore, the priority of the Louvre for the moment is the development of MuseumPlus, a new system of management of the collections. It will also include digital research resources, but is designed to be accessible internally only.

Giving free access to cultural resources via the Internet is a very exciting idea, but it has some limitations. Legally, it would necessarily mean committing copyright infringement at some point, which the State cannot afford to do. Technically, the digitalization output has to be of sufficient quality, which given the huge amount of documents involved in the process, would mean spending a lot of time and money.

In conclusion, we should maybe raise another limitation: no matter how good the digitalization, it will always be emotionally more intense to look at a work of art for real than through a screen.


A contribution of the Ecole Polytechnique/Camille Rosay

Translated by S. Georges