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A Negative to a Positive


A Negative to a Positive: Using flickr to Manage Photographic Collections Online

Many small museums have vast repositories of photos. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) was looking for a low cost and easy access technology solution to make its collection more accessible and visible to the public. By using flickr, the most popular photo-sharing site, the museum solved two challenges that many small museums face – a way to share photographs with visitors and a way to organize and catalogue them.

The Glass Plate Negative Project


This project began with a set of more than 200 glass plate negatives that were donated to the HKMM from the Hongkong and Whampoa Dock Company (HWD). These plates date from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960’s. HWD was the one of the largest dockyards in Asia and an important ship builder throughout the 20th century. The images on the plates capture the people, places and events that defined this important era and help to show how Hong Kong, and its port, developed into the world city that it is today.

In 2010, the museum photographed each glass plate on a light board using a standard point and shoot digital camera. The images were all stored on the museum’s server and shared using email or by burning them to a disk.  While this system was perfectly workable, file sharing was difficult and much of the collection was not readily available to the general public. Flickr proved to be an ideal solution because it is easy to use, inexpensive, and allows for advanced categorization and cataloguing.


Benefits and lessons learned

Here are some of the highlights and lessons learned that I hope other small museums can use to manage their collections.

Organizing Collections and Sets – flickr provides a three-tiered system of organizing its photos. Collections are the most comprehensive category for the photos.  HKMM identified major categories such as “ships by type,” “collections by material type” and “collections by gallery.” Sets are narrower and are intended to represent only a portion of the larger collection. The museum created sets such as “models,” “photographs” and “passenger ships.” These sets fit under the larger collections tent. Lastly photos are organized at the individual level with tags. Tags can describe a number of individual characteristics.  An item can have virtually unlimited number of tags.

What makes this system dynamic for the museum is that a digital object can exist in multiple sets and collections at the same time. The digital world defies the physical world principle of one object in one place at one time. And the digital object does not have to be copied multiple times in order for this to happen.

(Figure 1)

(Figure 1) A visitor in the Photography set may discover a glass plate negative of a ferryboat. But they may also find it if they were searching in the Carrying People set. By providing multiple access points for the visitor to explore the museum’s collection it allows the visitor to access this interactive reference in a manner that appeals to their learning style and manner of exploration.

Exif – Flickr allows the Exchangeable Image File Format to be modified. This means that museum can change the default time stamp that is placed on many digital images to be set to the historic date that the original was taken. Flickr also allows photographs to have the “Circa” or “Taken Sometime in X Year” to be placed on the file in cases where the exact date is unknown. The photos can also be geo-tagged.

These features allow for a more complex archive of images. It allows unrelated collections to be brought together by having the commonality of a similar creation date or location tag. Many locals may be familiar with the devastating typhoon of September 1906. By changing the exif metadata on the historic photographs to that time period it allows all of those images to live digitally together. And it allows visitors to see photographs taken at the same location throughout the years. This is especially dramatic for Hong Kong because massive land reclamation projects around the port have dramatically changed the landscape.

Hyperlinks to the Positive – Although viewing the digital image of the glass plates is interesting, what is really spectacular is being able to view the positive image as well. Flickr allows all descriptions of the items to written in HTML so a viewer can find an image that strikes their curiosity and with one click go back and forth to the positive image. Because the negative image doesn’t reveal a great deal of the individual detail of the photograph the hyperlink connecting the two provides the further exploration that museums often seek to encourage.

Cost – A Pro Account that allows for unlimited downloading of photographs and short videos is $24 for one year. Since the museum does not currently have an online photographic collection connected to its home domain, this represents a cheap solution to bringing the photos to light. But like the free dog, it is important to remember that the real cost of the flickr solution is to have dedicated staff available for the daily feeding and walking of your digital pooch.

I encourage everyone to explore some of the images that have been made public on the museum’s flickr page.

Robert Trio is the Project Officer for Technology at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Please feel free to contact him with questions and comments.



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