The World Wide Web has become the de-facto platform for a variety of cultural heritage resources in recent years. A powerful democratic tool, it allows us to access digital heritage from Museums and heritage institutions around the world. Here, collections can be displayed without the limitations of physical space and location. On the Web, there are no small Museums or large Museums. Its a level playing field where beautiful interface design, creative showcasing of Museum collections, access and participation by community can propel former insignificant and buried collections into the midst of contemporary culture and into conversation about in town.

The Land of a thousand lakes, Finland has over 1000 museums! And a majority of them are small and remotely located beyond urban limits. A handful of heritage Museums are funded by the National Board of Antiquities (Museovirasto) that are deemed to be of national significance. Besides the few, there exist many others both privately owned and run by small town administrative units and Community administration. In their assets is the under-mentioned and understated cultural heritage of Finland that awaits funds and resources for digitization. These small museums and heritage institutions need in the future help with archiving their collections and guidance with setting them up on the digital landscape. This is a future challenge for the Cultural sector and the Finnish Government to build frameworks for the emancipation of this heritage and provide citizens access to it on the Internet.

Towards this goal of online presence, the challenge that small Museums face is that of the optimal digitization of its collections in context of limited human resources, funds, time and direction. Only the big and the large institutions are currently able to dedicate resources to this process and even then it would take several years before all 2d and 3d artifacts are comprehensively documented and available in digital format for visitors and researchers. Museums were built to house collections in physical environments and not situate them in cyberspace. The strategies to engage online audiences and communities with the Museum Collections are still evolving, and several approaches could be formulated. Here, Museums with smaller but significant manageable collections have an advantage and that too a sustainable one.

An optimal digitization strategy could be designed for small Museums in Finland after plotting the aims, objectives, infrastructure, and digital engagement aspirations. This strategy is depicted in the diagrams above.
Why the Crowd? Is it possible to harness the crowd? In circumstances when museums and heritage institutions face the squeeze of funds allocated for digitization of their collections, it is time to look at other approaches and resources, i.e. the Museum’s own community, mechanization of tasks via robots and crowdsourcing the tasks. As outlined in the diagrams, at first the small museum needs to make a realistic assessment of its resources and niche. It then needs to identify its target communities and start communicating and engaging with them. A thorough inventory of its collections could also be the first step in understanding the underlying themes of the museum. With this, its engagement with its own community could be better identified. Designing Community Theme Days should be the next part where the Museum’s themes and its Community could be overlapped and strengths of engagement noted. These Theme Days could be the starting point for allowing the Community to help with the digitization process.

Simultaneously, the museum should start building an Open API (Application Programming Interface) framework/skeleton where all its constituents such as its personnel, physicalities, Community members, Collections etc. could be charted digitally. Along with this, a design for an Online User Interface is developed that would become the future face of the museum that is also synchronized with its Digitized Thematic Collections with the Museum’s physical space. Beyond and behind the interface, the idea is also to build simple open archives and database structure that is openly accessible to the public and easy to interact online, that includes the increasingly popular “Meta-tagging” by community.

Open source should be the keyword here for all Small Museums that includes use of open source digitization Robots, open source Software that are freely available and operating systems such as Linux. This would help in reducing the costs of placing the Museum’s collections onto the online world.

Creative Commons is also becoming the future way of storing cultural heritage that is accessible to anyone around the world. See the example of several GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) institutions (http://wiki.creativecommons.org/GLAM). Following the examples of several GLAMs, the digital collections of the Museum should be thus ideally embedded into the Culture Commons.
Note: The contents & images of this post: © Samir Bhowmik 2013 Permission needed from Author to reprint, distribute and disseminate. You may request Hi-Res PDF.