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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Building a digital museum
British Museum (pixelated image)
The nation's museums have more exhibits than space to display them in - so 50m of National Lottery money is being spent on an ambitious scheme to digitise vast amounts of our hidden culture and put it online for all to see, writes Giles Turnbull.

Buried in dark vaults, cellars, and musty store rooms all over the UK are thousands, perhaps millions of historical and cultural gems.

Ancient documents and books, archaeological records and finds, old photographs and drawings; all of them consigned to years in storage because there simply isn't anywhere to show them to the public.

Bricks at the Tate
Space is at a premium in museums
Combined, they represent the heritage and culture of the nation, and are of incalculable value.

Efforts have now started to take some of this heritage - fragments of fascinating data - and digitise them for posting on the internet.

On the internet, there is no need to limit the exhibition space. Putting the nation's cultural heritage on the web means that the information it contains will suddenly be made available to millions of people.

Years of work

The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) is one of the bodies set up to dish out Lottery money to worthy causes.

Bletchley Park computer
Computers themselves are becoming museum pieces
Its NOF-Digitise is one such cause, designed to open up access to millions of historically important documents which would otherwise be rarely seen by human eyes.

It's an ambitious project which will take several years to complete, although the first batch of digitised information should be ready before the end of this year.

Digitised information will be categorised into three broad content areas:

  • Cultural enrichment: information that reflects the heritage of a community, region or country, including fine or performing arts, design or media

  • Citizenship in a modern state: information that helps people to access services, including information on their rights and obligations in society

  • Re-skilling the nation: helping people to enhance basic literacy skills, and understanding of other information such as science, health and IT

"The intention was to build a library of freely-available learning materials across our three themes," says Chris Anderson, NOF's head of programmes.

Laptop user
Space is not a problem with computers

"Our primary function is to provide access to material that people would otherwise rarely see, not to preserve it.

"But it's true that one outcome of the project will be to preserve, in digital format, some delicate documents that might not otherwise survive in the long term.

"The project materials are intended for use on the internet but that does not mean that they won't be used elsewhere, such as on CD-Roms or in-situ digital displays in museums."

In total, the organisers expect to generate more than a million different content items, such as texts or images. There will also be 400 specially-designed "learning journeys" to help people find their way through all the information.

Searchable feature

To make sense of it all, NOF will build an internet portal, much like many of the existing web search engines. It will offer searchable access to all the digitised documents.

Laser disc player
Laser disc technology is now outdated
The portal will not be ready for some time yet, but it is already possible to search the NOF-Digitise site to find out more about the organisations taking part.

Putting the entire project on the net should provide some protection from the perils of advancing technology.

It emerged recently that all the information gathered for the 15-year-old BBC Domesday Project was no longer accessible, because the technology for reading the 12-inch video discs it was stored on had become obsolete.

Plans have already been drawn up to try to prevent a repetition of that problem.

Setting standards

"We were aware of the Domesday video disc saga when we were planning the project," says Mr Anderson.

"In order to future-proof the material as far as possible, we have established a set of technical standards based on advice from experts."

The standards focus on two main areas.

"We will use open standards so that nothing we produce will be dependent on specific technology, or installed proprietary software or plug-ins.

"Also, we'll ensure that the standards used offer maximum potential for migrating all the digital material to new and developing internet technologies as they emerge."

While the web pages themselves may get out-dated, the original digital archives - the millions of photos, scans and e-texts - will be digitised to a high standard to make sure they can be re-used, or presented with new web technologies, in the future.

See also:

27 Mar 02 | UK
The internet. Volume One
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