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Archives and Museum in the Digital Age

Digital Age

I am pleased to announce a training class that I will be leading in August.

It focuses on Archives and Museums in the Digital Age. The course is being offered through the Hong Kong Archives Society.

Here is a brief outline and detailed information:


Museums focus on three core objectives:
preserving their collections, education and exhibition of objects and ideas. Museums in the digital age have been transformed by technology in all three areas. Perhaps the most dramatic area is in the way that they share information

Archives focus on preserving documentary heritage. At present archives are searching for digital solutions to archiving
 and how to implement online sharing of resources.

This lecture focuses on practices and ethical issues surrounding digital platforms and how they museums and archives interact with the public.


  • Definition of a museum and archives
  • Digital cataloging
  • Digital Asset Management Systems
  • Social Media
  • Intellectual Property Issues


  • Discussion – how are museums and archives different from other cultural institutions
  • Exercise – physical cataloging verses digital cataloging
  • Demonstration – How to apply metadata to an object
  • Explore – different social media platforms
  • Discussion – what needs to be considered when addressing IP issues?

Course Details

Course Code : 2015_AM_02

Date   :  August  8, 2015

Time   :  2:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Venue : 14/F, On Lok Yuen Building, 25-27A Des Voeux Road Central, Hong Kong

Course Fee :  HK$400

Teaching Medium   :   English

Speaker   : Mr. Robert Trio, Museum Consultant

The Hong Kong Archives Society will award a certificate of attendance to participants.
Enquiries : please email to hkaspd@archives.org.hk  or at 5401-7262.

Registration : Please complete the Registration Form (Word) / Registration Form (pdf) email the form(s) to hkaspd@archives.org.hk, and send it to Hong Kong Archives Society, PO Box 8374, General Post Office, Hong Kong together with a cheque made payable to “Hong Kong Archives Society Limited”.

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Digital trade routes

My TELDAP poster

Digital trade routes

One of the great aspects of being based in Hong Kong is that it is geographically located in the right spot. Since the days of the China Trade, its location as the crossroads of east and west gave this location the unique distinction of where goods and more importantly ideas converged.

As the project manager for the Hong Kong Maritime Museum’s digital exhibition, We are like vapours … I took advantage of these ancient trade routes to bring together a group of talented practitioners to help the museum reopen to the public with one of the most dynamic and inspiring digital exhibitions ever to hit the Hong Kong scene.

In March, I presented a poster at the TELDAP conference in Taipei in support of this year’s theme, International Partnerships. Preparing and assembling the information for this session helped me to outline the key pieces of this exhibition.


Approximately two years ago, I was approached by the Director of the Maritime Museum to prepare a concept for an exhibition based on one of the most significant pieces in the collection, a Qing scroll called Pacifying the South China Sea. This scroll is 18 meters log and 55 centimeters high. As an interpretive piece for a museum, it is wonderful. The scroll tells the story of pirates, sea battles, love and betrayal. It would be a suitable major motion picture staring Chow Yun Fat.

But the nature of the scroll being so large and also so fragile made it a difficult object to display in situ. Most of the details and symbolism are lost in the fine detail that is only appreciate if one is holding the object in their own hands and at an arm’s length.

Based on some previous digital forays, I began investing other scroll exhibitions that used a digital platform. In the end, I prepared a brief that had several elements: digital projection of the scroll, key scenes animated to add clarity of the storyline and using vapours superimposed on the scene. Vapours were chosen because there is an early Chinese history that attributes a quote to one of the key pirates of the narrative, Zhang Bao in which he states, “We are like vapours” in order to illustrate this fleeting moments of his actions and how they will soon dissipate in time.

The challenge

Ideas are great. But in the end, it takes experience and best practices to make a concept a reality. The most important moment in this process was when I met Sarah Kenderdine at City University of Hong Kong.  Over the past few years City University’s ALiVE laboratory has broken new ground in the area of augmented reality and immersive experiences.

Sarah and her team proved to be the missing link of the project. The museum formed a partnership with City University to create a joint project combining their expertise in the area of digital media and the museum’s expertise in the history and significance of the scroll.

The second piece or port of call was Kyoto University. Kyoto scanned the scroll at an amazing 1200 dpi and extreme color fidelity. I have already written a little about this experience in my article Extreme Digitization.

Lastly, I traveled along the Digital Silk Road to Poland. In Poland the museum hire i3D to give the scroll new life. They created a series of 55 animations and created the programming that allows the scroll to digitally be seen by the visitor. One of the most difficult things about the presentation is that there are 5 separate projectors in the presentation. And the presentation is always scrolling, so the action does not just occur on one spot of the 360° screen but the entire surface.

The animation also had to be done in such a way that that the original artwork had to be respected. In the end the scenes were done in a 2D format that make the characters look like Qing Dynasty figures in action, not 21st cartoons.

Lessons learned

The museum benefited from having a talented team of international partners. Each partner brought an energy and expertise and could not have been produced in-house by the museum. This combined strength yielded a result that was greater than the parts.

Lastly, the sustainability issue: partnerships are based on relationships. And the relationships formed by the museum will help serve as the platform where many more exciting projects can grow.

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Extreme Digitalization

One of the 20 scenes that make up the scroll

It is considered one of the highlights of the museum. Measuring nearly 18 meters and painted almost two hundred years ago, the Pacifying of the South China Sea scroll offers a unique learning opportunity to visitors at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Each section comes with a caption, this one translates to ‘Coastal Defence forces map out their strategy’

An unknown Qing painter divided the scroll into twenty individual scenes. Each section is marked by four Chinese characters originally intended to allow the viewer to carefully follow the story as they unrolled the silk fabric.  The scenes depict pirate ships, Han troops, battle scenes, rich pageantry, everyday life, and celebration. The scroll chronicles events that took place over a two-year period and the painting accurately shows the changes from spring to summer and autumn to winter, with the foliage on the trees and the garments of the people depicted on the surface moving through time. The story tells how Chinese piracy was subdued in the early 19th century by the forces of the Emperor.

The length of the scroll makes it a difficult piece to display in its entirety.

The Challenge

I was given the charge to take this wonderful object and create two digital exhibitions that would accompany the original in the new galleries of Pier 8 Central. One of the reasons that a digital interpretation was chosen is because of the limitations of the original piece. It was recognized that because of its length, the museum would not be able to show each of the twenty scenes at any one time. Also the painting depicts a complicated story filled with symbolism that without interpretive pieces to accompany the different sections, the nuances and the meaning of the scroll would be lost to the visitor. Lastly, because of its age and fragility, the original may not be able to be displayed indefinitely.

Content is King

As with any project, the core beginning of creating an exhibition is starting with good information. One of the fortunate things is that the events of the early 19th century and the problems of piracy in the Hong Kong area are well documented. In particular there are primary sources like , History of the Pirates Who Infested the Sea From 1807 to 1810, written by Yung-Lun Yüan in 1830 that help make sense of this complicated story.

It was only when a great collection of data was brought together about the people, places and the events that the scroll shows, that a digital interpretive plan could be laid out. Without the hard work of historians like Dr. Stephen Davies, who first began unravelling these pieces years ago, this project could not have been possible.

The Two Projects

Concept drawing of the 360 presentation by City University of Hong Kong

I hope to write more about the details of the two digital projects that are being prepared for the exhibition spaces. But at this time, both are still being in the works. But the general idea is that the first project is to create a 360° theatrical presentation in which visitors will encounter animated sections of the scroll along with lighting and sound effects. The second project involves creating a digital touch screen of the scroll with hotspots that highlight the meaning of each of the different characters and scenes.

Before theses two projects could proceed however, there was a realization that better digital copies were needed. The scroll was originally photographed seven years ago and although high quality tiffs were created, the quality was still not high enough for animators to create seamless transitions of movement. And the touch screen demanded that visitors would have the ability to see a pimple on the end of a person’s nose, even though many of the characters on the original piece are less than a 1cm high. Truly one of the reasons that this scroll is such a treasure is that each section is carefully painted with fine detail and accuracy. Many of the minute details have never been fully appreciated or shared with the public. And that is why a 100% digital scan of the scroll was necessary.

The Importance of Having Good Partners

When undertaking a major digitization project, it is important to work with professionals. The museum was fortunate to make contact with Dr. Ari Ide-Ektessabi of Kyoto University. He is one of the leading figures in marrying advanced technologies and cultural heritage. His expertise includes not only producing higher resolution and dpi of cultural objects, but an advanced manner of color representation. His team just recently completed scanning the original blueprints of the RMS Titanic.

Masks and gloves are worn in order to protect the fragile scroll

Fragile objects like the Qing scroll cannot be unrolled on a daily basis. That means each time it is brought out for examination, the work done on it has to count.  Dr. Ide-Ektessabi’s techniques include non-invasive procedures that do not harm the scroll. It was upon his recommendation that the scroll was to be captured at an amazing 1200 dpi. Simply put, for every inch of the scroll there would be 1200 pixels created in a lossless digital file.

For example, an iPhone has 326 pixels across its width which means a figure on the scroll which is a quarter of inch wide would fill the entire screen at perfect clarity without any enlarging or pixelization. Now imagine what that means in an application in which a high definition monitor or a four-foot projection is employed. The possibilities become limitless.

The scroll was scanned at 15 cm at a time. In all, it took over 150 individual passes to capture the entire length. In all 100GB of data was collected. With each pass the quality was checked. Curatorial staff of the museum immediately became engaged in the project as more images came to light. Some details less than an eighth of a centimeter high had never been noticed before, but now displayed on a large monitor the minute details came into focus. Perhaps only the original painter had only known these details existed before now?

This type of scanning will not only provides the museum with a high quality archival digital copy of the scroll but a mechanism for scholars all over the world to study even the smallest detail. It will be an important resource for the museum for years to come.

These characters are less than 2 inches high on the original scroll


Digitization will never replace the original but this technology should be seen as an equal partner. Digitization projects that focus on a higher quality capture will allow cultural institutions to promote research, preservation, display and presentation. By unlocking the digital world, the originals will hold a higher level of relevance in collection by increasing access to their knowledge.

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Museums and Make-Overs

Are Museums in Need of a Make Over?

The Known and Unknown

When one names the city of London, one’s mind naturally thinks of great cultural and historic sites. Whether it is the British Museum, Tower of London or Trafalgar Square, it has been argued that these are not sites that belong to London alone, but to the world. Beneath the list of the well-known however, there is the list of the obscure and hidden.

Leighton House Museum

A recent trip to London afforded me the opportunity to visit one of these lesser known sites, the Leighton House Museum. The museum was the home of Frederic Leighton, one of the best known 19th century British artists. And although I like to fancy myself a museum goer and someone who is knowledgeable about art, he was a character that I was not familiar with.

Why I Love House Museums

Walking into the entry hallway of the house, one is hit with sensory overload. There are rich fabrics, elegant tiles, wonderful paintings and a sense that Leighton has just stepped out and that he will be back at any moment. A striking stuffed peacock on the stair’s landing eyes one’s every move as to say, “Yeah – I am watching you.” Historic houses have the ability to capture time and place in a way that even the best galleries cannot.

And even though it was a Saturday, I was the only visitor in the home. This luxury afforded me the opportunity to really explore uninterrupted. But I did find that there was not a single seat for sitting or a single interpretive guide that aided my visit. For the life of me all I wanted to do was to sit next to the bubbling fountain, underneath the beautiful ceiling and contemplate art and the other muses. But I could not because in part I was exhausted from a 12 hour flight and the peacock was really starting to give me the hairy eye ball.

Where I Found Comfort

I left the museum and wandered not too far to a coffee place called Starbucks. They offer a variety of espresso drinks along with an assortment of pastries and other snacks at a reasonable price. In comparison to the museum, this place was packed. Conversations were wild. And though it was crowded, there was plenty of comfortable seating and free wi-fi.

Make-Over Session

As I sat there trying to recharge my batteries I caught an usual scene. Two women sat near me, each taking time to apply make-up to the other. How strange I thought. The scene really made me pause.

What Do Museums Want?

I am not arguing that museums should strive to set up a Clinique counter on site but what I do ponder is, “How can museums create an environment where two women would feel comfortable enough to have a make-over session in public?”  What has Starbucks done to create an atmosphere where one feels so welcome, so free to come in? Customers are using the space as a second home. Sure – their coffee is good but that is only part of the equation. After all if that were the whole answer, then Starbucks would be a walk-up counter.

Consider the two spaces: The museum is filled with great art that inspires. Starbucks is filled with cheap reproductions of contrived imagery. One is a local landmark that is unique to this neighborhood in London. One can be found in every community of the world. One is not being used fully by its community. One is a community centerpiece.

In the book, Great Good Place, the author argues that places can be used by people in ways that have nothing to do with their original purpose, such as coffeehouses that double as a make-over counter.

What is Right for Museums?

Leighton House Garden

Not every activity is right for every museum. Museums have to build relationships in their community that are aligned with their mission and strategic goals. But this does not mean that museums can’t take chances. There are ways that fringe activities and programming may lead to meaning experiences for both the museum and the visitor. Chances are like gateways, until one walks through it, one is still on the outside. Museums can beneifit by just getting people to walk through the gate, that is the first step.

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Going Mobile

Mobile Makes the List

The New Media Consortium has just recently published this year’s Horizon Report for Museums. The report has become an important benchmarking tool for museum professionals to gage which technologies are on the cutting edge and which are to make an impact within the next few years.

I was proud to serve on this year’s Advisory Board for the report, which included museum professionals from all over the world, representing museums from all different sizes.

Not surprisingly, one of the important trends identified by the report was the use of mobile technologies. Mobile platforms have become a mainstay in people’s lives. In my community of Hong Kong, people are more likely to access information from a mobile device than a traditional desktop or laptop. Why? It is a combination of low cost for hardware, service plans and the convenience of on-demand content at one’s fingertips.

Mobile Web or Customized Application?

For museums, one of the most important questions is how to utilize the mobile platform into a viable interpretive tool. There are many issues to consider. Content – is an obvious first consideration. For if a mobile program is built upon poor content, then it doesn’t matter how well executed the mobile technology is.

Another important consideration is whether museums should consider a mobile web version or an application. These two choices have more in common than differences. It is like comparing frozen custard and ice cream. The App definitely has the higher percentage of butter fat. Which is to say the App has a better potential to create a dynamic user experience by using more advanced technology features.

Mobile Web: When viewing content on a mobile device it is sometimes difficult to read long articles because the user is constantly finger swiping back and forth. But some web sites are more user friendly. They utilize a type of sniffing technique where the web content management system (WCMS) is capable of detecting that the user is using a mobile browser and thus returns the content in a templated form that fits the mobile device. These templates ensure that all the content is properly sized and that it all fits within the width of device. These sniffers are not iPhone or Android exclusive and it requires no additional content creation by the museum if one’s museum site is being delivered through a WCMS that supports this function.

Applications: Commonly referred to as Apps, applications are specifically programed to a type of platform software. Common platforms include the iPhone, iPad, Android and the Samsung Tablet. One important consideration to remember is that when developing an App is that an application that is created for one of these systems will not work on the other. Even products from the same company such as Apple will not necessary work. Most iPhone Apps will run on the iPad but not the other way around. At best a developer can use the same content in all devices but all the programming is going to be different.

Applications that Work

Although this is not an exhausted list, I have put together some key points to help museums consider whether or not developing an App is worth it or not. Basic Apps can costs up to $20,000 to develop. And museums may need to develop to two Apps in order to satisfy both the iPhone and Android users. If the  proposed App is not utilizing one of these points than more than likely a mobile web version will suit one’s needs.

  • The Device’s Capabilities

In addition to web browsers and cell phones, many mobile devices have a growing number of other functionalities. These include cameras, geo-location detection, gesture based sensors, and tactile navigation.

Apps that take advantage of these other features have the ability to make a much more dynamic experience for a museum visitor. The one common element that all of these features have is that the user is an active participant in making the content change, interact or be manipulated.

Augmented reality and gesture based Apps are on the cutting edge of what museums are doing today. These features can usually only be achieved by building an application specific to a certain mobile platform.

  • Premium Content

Apps cost money. One can browse the App marketplace and find a wide range of prices. Some are free and some can cost up to fifteen dollars. But in addition to providing a little revenue for the museum, Apps that cost money also create a mechanism to allow users to access premium content of the museum’s collections.

One model approach is to provide basic content with a no cost App. Users can get the look and feel of the program before they choose the cost option. Museums may consider this approach for specially designed tours based on the tradition museum audio guide.

  • Exclusive Experience 

Many museums are moving to the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach. This concept is based on the idea that users bring their own mobile, download their own content and are responsible for the maintenance and charging of the device, opposed to the museum. One of the most significant costs associated with mobile tours is the personnel costs associated with renting the devices out.

But museums may want to create an experience for visitors that can only happen on site. This may mean that the museum has an arsenal of mobile devices available to the public. And these devices have been specifically programed to the museum’s site alone.

Apps are also good option for museums that may not have a good Wi-Fi system or if they are located in a broadband blackout area. That is because Apps can have all the content loaded onto the device and they will work regardless of whether or not they are connected to the web. One drawback is that it can make the App quite large in digital bytes.

Pushing Content

Whether a museum chooses to go the mobile web or App route it is important to consider that at a number of basic sections of the web site that should be mobile friendly. This includes the About Us and the Location portions. Visitors to museums that are out and about looking for the next big thing to do on their vacation will appreciate content that is delivered cleanly.

Mobile devices are only getting better. And it is conceivable that will become more and more dynamic making stand alone computers obsolete. Museums regardless of their size should consider how mobile fits into their larger strategy to provide the rich content that their museums hold to the public.

One of the best resources to learn about more Mobile Use and Museums is the Smithsonian’s Mobile Wiki.

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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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