1906p664%20ophelia%20 %20head%20study
19 Mar 2021

Digitising Birmingham Museums Trust's works on paper

Hello, my name is Ayesha, and I am Collections Digitisation Assistant on the NPO Rapid Digitisation Project.

The project aims to catalogue the entire collection of works on paper; over 30,000 objects, from 2018 until the project ends in 2022. This is a lot of works to catalogue, photograph and sometimes scan. For the first two years of the project I had a lovely team of volunteers working with me to achieve this, and they have been a huge help to the project so far.

Ophelia - Head Study, by John Everett Millais
Ophelia - Head Study, by John Everett Millais.

The first part of my week focuses on cataloguing objects. Cataloguing means recording the vital basic information for every work, making it easier for curators and researchers to come across the works in a database search and immediately know more about the art we have in the collection. Often this data is already there but hasn’t been updated in a while or is not standardised. We update the categories to be standardised, such as drawing or print, as well as listing medium, materials, dimensions and condition for every object.

Kennet by William Morris
Kennet by William Morris.

After cataloguing a certain number of works a week, I then move on to photographing the objects. I have two lights, and a camera on a stand, facing downwards with which I photograph the works. The project is in its third year and I would like to say by this stage I have the photography process down to an art, but sometimes I come across objects that make me have to have a think about how to go about it. Objects can be unexpectedly reflective or may not lie flat. Some of the books in our collection don’t like to remain open or flat which can be challenging. On the other hand, books that remains open and flat by itself are quick and easy once you have book lined up under the camera.

Study of a Sleeping Cat by William Holman Hunt
Study of a Sleeping Cat by William Holman Hunt.

So far, with the help of my volunteers, I have digitised approximately 12,000 works. I went into this project with some background knowledge of Birmingham Museum’s works on paper but after seeing 12,000 up close means I have definitely been able to broaden my knowledge of all things paper. Choosing favourites are incredibly difficult. It is no secret that Birmingham Museum houses an amazing collection of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper, so it will not be shocking that some of my favourite works that I have photographed include Millais’ Ophelia – Head Study and Morris’ Kennet. But personally, I love cats so William Holman Hunt’s Study of a Sleeping Cat was a joy to come across. Photographs of these works and more are available on the Digital Image Resource website - go take a look!