Did you know that on average, over 95% of most museums’ collections are not on public display at any given time?
With so many historic and important objects in storage held in the “public trust,” museums everyday are faced with the question of how to share their thousands, or sometimes hundreds of thousands, of items with the rest of the world.
St. Joseph Museums, the St. Joseph, Missouri-based complex that encompasses six museums and houses over 200,000 historic collections, faced the same struggle, only able to display 3% of their collections in their physical exhibit space.
“If we have over 200,000 items but we only display 3%, how do we show our members, our donors, and our community why it is important to invest in St. Joseph Museums?” asked Sara Wilson, Executive Director of St. Joseph Museums.
Their struggle was exacerbated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and their already high volume of research requests began to skyrocket. These research requests required experts at St. Joseph Museums to personally venture into their collections, find the objects in question, and then answer the query related to the object. Although museums and their staff are enthusiastic to meet these needs, it can be a time-consuming and laborious process, and team bandwidth becomes a bottleneck.
“People were at home looking for things to do and were accessing our educational programs digitally,” said Wilson. “They began asking us questions about our collections more and more, and we started having to field 2-3 research requests a day.”
St. Joseph Museums is in their 95th year of operation and has a collection of more than 200,000 items, including the Harry L. George Collection—one of the largest and best-documented Native American Collections in the United States. Because of its size and significance, that collection alone resulted in frequent research requests.
Streamlining the research process
Traditionally, facilitating collections research is a time-consuming task for museum staff. With limited budgets and small teams, many museums are unable to meet the growing demand for research access to their items. For example, the various requests St. Joseph Museums received were often broad—some even requiring their staff to pull over 100 items at a time to fulfill the request of researchers.
St. Joseph needed a solution that would allow them to serve a greater interest in their collections without the challenges of simply staffing more experts. So rather than sending more team members into the collections and then communicating what they found digitally, they came up with a pivot: bring the collections themselves to the digital space.
“We needed to find a way to make our collections more searchable online!” said Wilson, and she and her staff began working toward digital research access.
They calculated that creating an online research portal that provides access to collections could save them hundreds of staff hours every year, and also empower outside researchers to access the collections information they need on an independent, self-serve basis.
While St. Joseph had already digitized a small portion of their collections, this new move required not only much greater digitization, but a change to who could reach the digital assets. Previously, their digital collections were stored on an internal-only CMS, only accessible to their staff. During the digital overhaul, the organization migrated to a new system called CatalogIt to digitize more of their collections and publish them to the web, making them public-facing and accessible to researchers.
Self-service access to collections
Their previous limitation quickly lessened as they published a whopping 22% of their collections, or over 40,000 unique items, online in 2021.
Additionally, after making their collections available online in a self-service capacity, the nature of their requests changed immediately for the better. While digitizing their collections, the team also added relevant, searchable metadata that could help guide or give feedback on what was available to researchers in real time. “Now people have access to see what we have in our collection,” said Wilson.
The team at St. Joseph discovered that when researchers are able to search online for what they’re looking for by subject matter, collection type, material, or era, this created efficiencies in the research process. They were able to then narrow down their search requests to only the specific items they required additional information about or needed to see in person, saving the collections and curatorial staff significant amounts of time compiling data and pulling collection items.
But the project hasn’t ended at 22%. At St. Joseph Museums, when a new research request comes in for something that has not yet been digitized, the staff can remedy it quickly and easily. “We can go straight to that archival record to digitize and upload so the researcher is immediately able to access [it].” Not only does this save time, but the digitization process also reduces the need to physically handle collections, protecting them from unneeded wear and tear.
Organizing collections into virtual galleries and exhibits
St. Joseph also learned that showcasing a museum’s collections online with a CMS that enables web publishing also allows for remixing the way items are sorted and displayed. The ability to curate digitized collections into organized groupings online is a major consideration – think of creating virtual “galleries” and online exhibitions.
For example, St. Joseph Museums created virtual galleries grouped in a variety of ways. Their basket collection alone includes over 1200 items, so they created an organized folder in which the public can explore them, read the details, and browse photos of the historic items.
Because St. Joseph Museums encompasses multiple organizations, they also created individual groupings for items belonging to their corresponding organizations, including a virtual gallery for the Black Archives Museum and for the Glore Psychiatric Museum. Organized web publishing not only allows researchers and the general public access, but it also enables your local and global community to learn more about your collections and better connect with your mission.
Engaging with community, creating a legacy
St. Joseph Museums found that publishing their collections to the web helped them engage with their community and even crowdsource information from those who donate items to the museum or the general public. “People can go online and help identify people in some of our photographs that have not already been identified,” said Wilson, for example. “The more people who see [our digital collections], the more likely they are to help us build out the history of our community.”
As of 2022, St. Joseph Museums had over 45,000 items in their collections published to the web for the public to access when and where they need it, and the organization continues to digitize and publish more of their items every day with their team of staff and volunteers.
Creating an online, self-service research portal makes museum collections more discoverable to the public, saves hours of staff time, and helps organizations widen the scope of access to collections that are generally in storage and out of the public view.