Het Nieuwe Instituut has been working on digitising the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning for more than ten years. That process has now undergone considerable professionalisation and acceleration as part of the six-year Disclosing Architecture programme, which focuses on preserving the collection and making it more visible. Digitisation is the starting point and prerequisite for numerous projects designed to make the architecture collection more visible and accessible.
The process of digitising the National Collection began ten years ago with a single AGFA A4 scanner in the office of what was then the Netherlands Architecture Institute, one of the Het Nieuwe Instituut’s predecessors of. With the recent transformation from simple scanning solution to full digital lab, all the equipment required for digitising the collection and processing the images has been brought together in a single optimally equipped room. Because of the rapid development of professional camera systems and the flexibility they offer, we have replaced all our scanners with cameras. In addition to speeding up and simplifying the recording process, the new system ensures higher image quality and safer handling of archival items, many of which are fragile.
The new Phase One iXG camera is equipped with an ‘autocolumn’ that automatically raises or lowers the camera to the correct height to take a picture at the desired resolution. The intuitive PPI assist and auto-cropping functions of the Capture One software allow automatic focusing and cropping of the image. The Phase One medium-format camera with 100 megapixels makes it possible to digitise larger surfaces. For example, architectural drawings measuring up to 150 cm can be digitised in a single shot. There is also a special set-up for digitising transparencies, including glass negatives and slides. Working with multiple camera set-ups makes it much easier to digitise collections that consist of many different materials and formats.
Although this system allows us to work more quickly, care and quality remain paramount. Small projects can take a relatively long time due to their specialist nature or specific requirements. For example, high-quality digital images were made of the Van Doesburg collection both before and after restoration, enabling conservators to assess any damage to the originals after they have been exhibited or loaned to other institutions.
In order to achieve the broad access to the collection that is Het Nieuwe Instituut’s aim, digitising archival materials is a prerequisite because it eliminates the necessity for physical consultation of the materials, which means that the originals remain in better condition. It also enables and stimulates online use of the collection.
Digitisation is therefore linked to numerous projects within the Disclosing Architecture programme, such as the development of a new collection interface, the improvement of the current search portal, content donations to Wikimedia Commons, and making the collection available to other parties through linked open data. In addition, copyright and licensing declarations are linked to the files, so that it is clear how the materials may be used. Digitisation of the collection contributes to two important principles, diversity and network formation: items in the collection can be approached from a variety of perspectives and users can discover new connections between them.
It is not feasible to digitise the entire collection of several million documents, and neither is this our goal. As such, Het Nieuwe Instituut’s curators must decide which archives have greater priority. Various factors play a role in this, such as the physical condition of the materials, a particular archive’s social relevance, user demand and the relationship with other archives. These are questions that come together in the project Rethinking the Collection, which deals with the attribution of value and meaning, and which develops new ways of looking at the collection with the help of speculative, critical and artistic research.
Digitising the Archive of Cora Nicolaï-Chaillet
A large part of the archive of interior architect Cora Nicolaï-Chaillet has recently been digitised as part of the Disclosing Architecture programme. Almost seven metres of archival materials have been translated into 9490 digital files. The digitisation of this archive, one of the few archives in the National Collection created by a woman, fits with our ambition to reveal non-dominant perspectives in architectural practice.
Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg
Curators Koehorst in 't Veld on the importance of digitisation
An essential shift is emerging in the way we view digitisation, according to the designers. As Toon Koehorst says, “For the time being, the image of a purely technical task dominates. But we believe that the essential impact is linked to the cultural value it contains. Because digitisation provides access to all possible links and networks. Such a layer is indispensable to achieve fundamentally different access to heritage. We see Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg as a plea to look for multiple voices in opening up archives, by establishing connections between collections and involving the public in the interpretation of the stories that then emerge.”