The Natural History Museum’s Dippy the Diplodocus is going to go on tour.
Dippy the Diplodocus has greeted visitors to the Natural History Museum since 1905. Cast from the bones of a giant creature unearthed in Wyoming in 1898, Dippy is a major attraction for the NHM. These massive dinosaurs originally roamed the earth around 150 million years ago. Like many a star in their twilight years, Dippy is going to be touring the UK for the next three years, to amaze old admirers and gather a new group of young fans.
But museum assets can be fragile. It has taken nearly 12 months to prepare for its journey mainly because of the extreme care required with the packing-up of this delicate plaster of Paris cast – all to ensure its safety. Everything will have to be catalogued, digitised and annotated and protected to ensure that Dippy survives and returns home intact. Just like other aging stars perhaps!
Whether museum assets are physical pieces, like Dippy, or digitised content, such as photographs, documents, audio or video recordings, they need to be stored correctly. And also catalogued so they do not get misplaced, and people can find them. Most museums exhibit material based on the space they have available (or can afford to heat!). Usually, they have lots more in store. Some archivists say, “It’s like an iceberg, most material is hidden from sight, stored safely but not visible.”
The digital revolution has made this problem both better, and worse for some cultural artifacts. Better because precious, fragile objects, like photographic negatives, can be digitised and preserved, at a much lower cost of storage on a server, and made freely available.
Worse, because digitised materials without a good indexing (the metadata), search and retrieval system, are basically invisible, so are like undiscovered dinosaur species. That’s not a good thing to happen, especially when it is preventable.
The cultural sector can use these digital assets to entice new visitors, help researchers find what they are looking for, and enchant a new generation of children who will grow up to be scholars in their own right, just like Dippy will be doing when the dinosaur tours the UK.