October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: What The Modern Museum Should Expect From Its In-House Photographic Studio

James Stevenson, Victoria and Albert Museum, United Kingdom


Photographic Studios have traditionally made 2D images of objects in their collections for publications, catalogues, PR and support for academic research and conservation. Production of these images has been as a response to specific projects such as exhibitions and has rarely been focused on an attempt to interpret the collections as a whole. Digital imaging and the production of a greater variety of multimedia now enables image makers in museums to play a more central role in the interpretation and universal view of collections. It is my belief that the in-house photographic studio should adopt the greatest variety of imaging techniques now available to them to tell the museums story with these forms of media. To concentrate solely on the creation of 2D images is shortsighted and creates the risk that image making will become the remit of the IT specialist. The authors view is that image making should remain the responsibility of the photographer, the person who understands the fundamental principles of lighting, but one who must adopt the full range of multimedia techniques to tell the museums story. The final consequence of adopting, understanding and exploiting new media technologies also allows for the possibility that the modern photographer can reasonably attempt to make images of the whole collection held by the large museum: Something that was impossible in an analogue world.

Keywords: photography, imaging, multi-media photographic studio, museum


The museum Photographic Studio is faced with a substantial change to the way it operates because of the tremendous changes to the technological and social environment in which museums find themselves. New forms of image making are a consequence of the demands of new museum visitors who have been brought up with digital toys and digital education practices. This paper is written in the context of the changing museum, a museum which is not just a collection of objects but a place for a contemporary dialogue about its collection and the relationship with the society of which it is a part. For the purposes of this paper the term museum can be used and interchanged with gallery, library and any other type of cultural heritage institution. However because of the author’s experience, the museum, as a collection of objects, is the primary focus. The context is also an international one where the visitor is no longer local to the physical building but a world-wide figure who can see into the museum from anywhere in the world via their computer screen.

Within the Photographic Studio the traditional, analogue work practice of creating an image and leaving it to other museums professionals to decide its use, as they feel fit, is no longer sustainable. The new imaging professional should have a care and regard for the right type of image format to suit a wide range of uses and to be actively involved in the care and subsequent use of that image.

This vision of a modern imaging professional in the cultural heritage sector is based on over 30 years experience as a photographer coupled with 22 years as the manager of Photographic Studios in two of the UK’s National Museums.

This paper looks at the historical precedents that illustrate photographic practice in museums and proposes that new forms of imaging technology are very much the remit of the photographer. It then sets out a view for a management and working structure which it is believed will help achieve the goal of a fully integrated museum Photographic Studio which practises and provides a growing number of multi-media formats for the museum to use.

Historical Overview

The V&A Photographic Studio is probably uniquely placed to observe the extended use of photographic technology as applied to the imaging of cultural heritage objects. The V&A was founded in 1857 but even before that the first Director Sir Henry Cole and the photographer Thurston Thompson had planned for the use of photography to promote the museums collection to its widest possible audience (Physick, 1975). 1857 was only 17 years after the announcement of the Calotype and Daguerreotype photographic processes by Fox Talbot and Louise Daguerre. Cole and Thompson’s foresight in adopting new technology is a lesson in taking a risk and offering new media to a museum public unaware of its full potential. Since the start of image production in the Photographic Studio, a continuous record of every negative, print, colour transparency and digital file made by the department, apart from the obvious occasions of loss and damage over such a long period, has been kept. From 1856 to 1995 every black and white photograph made by the Photographic Studio was printed and collected in creation number order in bound albums known as guardbooks. These volumes allow the student to study this unique historical progression. The change in material and processes used over that time from 1857 to the present day can clearly be seen and studied. This continuous record illustrates several things.

  • Change in photographic camera, film and print technology
  • Change in photographic style
  • Change in the way that lighting has affected the viewers response to objects

It also gives the viewer an impression of the type of image demanded by the Photographic Studio customer in the museum. Most images are of objects but it is surprising how many other images there are. For example in the very early days, in the 1850’s and 60’s there are many images of trees. This seems surprising alongside museum objects but the museum had an educational remit even then. A portable image of a tree was felt to be an essential requirement for the aspiring artist and designer. Prints were sold to the public who used them as forms of inspiration for further works they made. Such examples such as staff portraits, records of events and pictures of work activity are emphasised or repressed, when you view different periods of images in the record of the black and white images (Ingelvics, 1997).

The Traditional Work Of The Photographic Studio

A quote from one of the V&A’s first senior curators emphasises importance of the role of the Photographic Studio: “Perhaps the most valuable characteristic of this extraordinary process being the perfect accuracy with which objects of art can be copied….” (JC Robinson, First Curator of the V&A, 1856 (Physick, 1975).

Copying works of art is the basic service of the Photographic Studio to its customers and the success of the studio within the museum still depends on this. After considering the historical overview of the museum Photographic Studio, a judgment can be made as to the usual set of photographic products made by most museum Photographic Studios. A comparison of these traditional products, to those now possible with developing imaging technologies, will comprise the remainder of this paper.

Apart from some exceptions as has been illustrated, the traditional work of the Photographic Studio can be listed as support for:

  • Collections’ management, including security
  • Museum publications and catalogues
  • Promotion of the museum
  • Image sales and publication in externally published books and catalogues

Within an analogue framework this has been as been produced in the form of prints and transparencies; items which in the present day are increasingly becoming redundant. Photographic Studios made negatives and transparencies and from them prints and duplicate transparencies which were passed to curators for their collections management uses, curators or the publications department for use in books and publication reproductions. In some cases there was a Picture Library which mediated with external bodies for image sales. At the V&A we are fortunate that the Photographic Studio always remained the archive department for the master image; the negative or the transparency. In many museums and galleries this was not the case and all photographic material was passed as finished work to other departments for them to manage, or not as they wished. In my view this is a fundamental error in image management.

Another consequence of this passing over of image analogue material to other museum professionals is that the quality of reproduction in books and catalogues was relinquished by the photographer and left to authors and publishers to make decisions on image quality. The result of this is that the intention of the photographer is often misunderstood or ignored in the final published view. In the very early days of photography photographic prints were made in multiple copies and pasted into the finished published work.

Figure 1
Fig1: Pasted photographs in the book; Expositions of the Cartoons of Raphael;
Richard Henry Smith, James Nisbet & Co; 1860.

The creation of the finished image in this case was closer to the vision of the photographer. When photo-mechanical reproduction was developed, it was the printer who determined the look of the image in the book. This state of affairs has continued to almost the present day. It is only within a digital framework that the photographer has now become an essential part of the pre-print work cycle again. For the last decade there has been a difficult state of affairs where printers have slowly lost their ability to control the quality of reproduction within their own closed-loop workflow. The digital photographer has re-taken responsibility for the preparation of finished image files and is now fully in control of image quality.

Collections’ management, has become a more responsible activity in recent years. The pasting of prints into bound ledgers alongside museum object details is no longer seen as an efficient means of managing collections. The digital collection management record is now common and the application of an image to the object record is considered essential (NI Audit Office Report,2007). A consequence of analogue collections management records is the growing internal archives which need to be managed. As an example, within the V&A when an object was photographed as many as five prints were made for use in different archives. There was one for the guardbook central image archive, one for the collections department own archive, one for the Picture Library subject index, one for the museum visitor subject index and one for the clients primary use, research, publication etc. In a digital workflow there need only be one single image file held centrally for access to any museum user. With the proliferation of these paper archives is it easy to see the issues for the modern museum where space is often at a premium and is a major cost overhead for any institution. Digitisation of these historical archives is an issue for the museum and a costing exercise should be made of the space needed for paper storage.

Another activity of the Photographic Studio has been the production of lecture slides for academic colleagues. The manufacture of 35 mm or earlier 3 ½ inch positive slides for projection was a major task for photographers. At its height in the early 1990’s the V&A Photographic Studio was making 30,000 slides per year for this use. Added to this were the slides made by lecturers themselves. When competently made these represented cultural objects well, when made badly, or when they were old and dirty, something that they can become very quickly, the experience for the audience could be terrible. Once again the individually owned archives of these slides can be of a tremendous size, and can be a overhead for their digitisation and continued use. How many collections of 3 ½ lectures slides are now considered as objects themselves?

New Demands From Clients

These uses of analogue images have in recent times changed within a growing digital environment. The development of the digital camera and scanner has coincided with the use of the PC and easy to use software by the museum community. Most importantly has been the ubiquitous use of the web as a means of exchanging information which has had such a dramatic effect on the dissemination of the story of museum collections. Electronic collections’ management, easy to use and search databases and the web has resulted in a more rapid and efficient exchange of data within and between museum communities and visitors. The museum photographer must respond to this. In the main this has been achieved by the use of electronic cameras rather than analogue ones and indeed it is digital imaging technology which has allowed the photographer to produce new services and products to enhance this new electronic community.

Collections Management

For collections management, as has been seen, there is a now general demand for images of the collections in their entirety. For many small museum collections this can be achieved. The Petrie Museum at UCL London UK has attempted this with volunteer staff and has got close to a digital image of every object (http://www.petrie.ucl.ac.uk). Whatever the merits of the quality achieved it has at least fulfilled the collections management requirement. With a collection of objects which is in the tens of thousands, the metrics of determining whether this can be achieved can be calculated and a project to achieve it managed. For the large collection, and at the V&A we have a collection considered to be 4 million objects, this is a considerable task. In a situation such as this digitisation of discrete parts of the collection is a sensible approach. It is a situation such as this where the Photographic Studio can take its own lead. If we take the example of the photography of an album of objects, such as a scrapbook, it has been common that the pages requested by curator or other client have been the only ones where an image has been made. In the days of analogue photography where 5x4 inch colour transparencies have been made, then a single page of the object could not unreasonably cost in materials up to £10 per shot. In a digital context, if capitalisation of the equipment is taken into account, the material cost is negligible. It is this situation where the photographers can now take the decision, based on their use of available time, whether to digitise the whole object while it is in their care. This is based on the opportunity cost of balancing the time taken to undertake digitisation of the whole object against the cost of moving the object on multiple occasions. By doing this the Photographic Studio can, from its own actions, add value to the collections management process while undertaking a customer request for project work.


The modern museum is also a place of social activities. Most large museums, particularly in the UK, are places where people visit not just to see the collections but to take part in a whole range of other events. At the V&A this includes contemporary fashion events, alternative contemporary art performances, dance and music performances as well as corporate and social parties.

Figure 2
Fig 2 : Fashion in Motion event in the V&A Raphael Cartoon Court.

The Photographic Studio has to respond to these activities from two points of view. It must record them for posterity and make images available for reports, lectures and seminars. However it must also participate in the promotion of these for future events in order to attract an ever-larger audience in the future. The skills needed to make great pictures from events such as these is a different set of skills to those needed to make images of cultural heritage objects, and photographers with these skills needs to be recruited in order achieve this.

Conservation Support

The Conservation department is a service department in the museum which can demand special imaging techniques from the Photographic Studio. New imaging technologies can help in the analysis of cultural objects and successfully monitor treatment processes. The range of tasks that the Photographic Studio can offer includes:

Multi-spectral imaging

  • X-radiography
  • High-resolution imaging
  • Macro and micro photography
  • Polynomial Texture Mapping

The Web and the On-Line Museum

By the far the most significant change in the use of images is to tell the story of the collection via gallery interactive displays and the museum’s Web site. It is in these areas where new digital technologies show their greatest benefit. The delivery on screen of museum content easily adds an extra dimension to the way that images are viewed and that is by the element of time. It is not insignificant that newspaper Web sites increasingly contain content which is video in its origin. Many printed newspapers are showing a declining readership but at the same time a dramatic increase in their on-line readership (Diane Smyth, 2007). The press photographer of the future may well use a video camera from which still images can be made if needed (Dan Chung, 2007). The use of the newspaper Web site is becoming similar in its delivery to that of the television news broadcast, and the similarity of the two is easy to see. It seems to me that the museum photographer should be aware of this trend and there are several new image formats which allow them to do this.

Figure 3
Fig 3: Guardian Web site with video content

A major driver for these new ways of viewing information comes from the way that young people use media. Most children are completely at home in a digital environment, are comfortable with digital devices for both games and communication and use the Internet as a primary source of information. New museum Web sites should now be considered as virtual galleries and places where young people will naturally go for information. Virtual museums and galleries in Second Life (http://secondlife.com), as representations of the real museum may be natural places for exhibitions and out-stations to be sited. Museums have a responsibility to make the information they place on their new virtual galleries as accurate as possible. Within the wider Web they also have the responsibility to moderate and validate data held on public user-created sites such as Wikipedia. The use of museum created images on these sites helps verify this information.

New Opportunities

When you observe the museum visitor walking around the gallery and viewing objects in cases and on the wall, you can see that they rarely remain in a static position. Their head moves from side to side and their posture also moves as they change their viewing position to interpret what they are observing. There is a front, back, bottom to an object which the visitor often wishes to see and there is also a surface texture or reflectance which, depending on the lighting in the gallery, can effect the viewer’s impression of that object. If you recognise that the viewers attention is that of a moving viewpoint, and I would suggest that this is also the case when viewing a 2D painting, then the use of a 2D image can only ever be a less than successful reproduction of the object. The fixed viewpoint, selected by the photographer during photography of the object, is a subjective view decided upon by the photographer to best show their intention or that of their client. This single viewpoint can only ever be a partial representation of the object. Within a digital framework and with a viewing medium which has a time element inherent within it, there are many new techniques that the photographer can use to show objects to their audience in a novel ways. In much the same way that photographers adopted colour images in the 1940s and 50s, I believe that it is beholden on them now to adopt these new image techniques. With these new techniques they can show objects in a way closer to the viewers real experience and in a way that places them within a temporal context.

New formats generally contained within the catch-all phrase ‘multimedia’ can help achieve this intention. The computer screen, another name for a television, is a more versatile medium than the print. Some of the new formats for representing cultural objects are now within the capability and range of the photographer’s list of products. They are inexpensive and can be undertaken on any common desktop computer. These new formats include:

  • Quick Time rotational movies
  • Quick Time panoramic views
  • Video
  • Polynomial Texture Mapping

It is reasonable to add the recording of sound to this list, as an adjunct to video, but also as a media format in its own right.

Video is well established, as a medium. The difference, from twenty years ago, is that now it is a cheap form of image making compared to the manufacture of movies. Anyone with a small format digital-video camera and cheap software such as Apple iMovie can make reasonable movies. The museum photographer should be in a position to exceed the amateur with their ability to control light and stage a scene. While full feature length movies may still be the preserve of the specialist, short video sequences telling short succinct stories should be a reasonable expectation of the museum Photographic Studio. Quick Time movies and panoramas are in essence video sequences. Because they are often made with a high-resolution camera the individual image files can have a multiplicity of uses outside the video sequence. QT movies also have the ability to be hyper-linked to other data such as museum’s collection management systems. It is also fairly easy to make short sequence animation scenes which can illustrate the operation or short movement of an object. For a piece of furniture the action of doors and drawers can easily be shown in a way where the viewer can interact with the sequence at their own pace.

Figure 4
Fig 4: Animation sequence in Quick Time of fritware kalian.

Polynomial Texture Mapping is a new technique developed by Hewlett Packard. (http://www.hpl.hp.com/ptm). This technique allows for a fixed view of an object to be made but one where the viewer of the image can control the angle of the incident light. Such a technique allows an object to be seen by both raking and flat light by the movement of the computer mouse. In such a way a viewer can highlight or subdue surface detail. This technique has particular relevance for the conservator. Its delivery over the web can form the basis of a portable condition report.

Figure 5
Fig: PTM of Donatello roundel relief, The Chellini Madonna

Added to these can be the more expensive and demanding techniques of:

  • Ultra-high resolution
  • Multi-spectral imaging
  • x-radiography
  • 3 dimensional image modelling

Ultra-high resolution images have always been possible with analogue film but restricted to a single viewer of the transparency or print. Digital technology allows for high-resolution images to be distributed over the web, therefore allowing many individuals to analyse an image in detail. In the way that we have seen that the Victorians studied the prints of trees, to be able to see in detail old master paintings can allow the art historian, both scholar and amateur the opportunity to make new decisions about objects.

Multi-spectral imaging has also been available with film, but the digital medium allows for greater control and analysis. It is now possible for the conservator to selectively virtually subtract items such as paint varnish or to view objects in infra-red or ultra-violet radiation. The Centre du Recherche et Restauration de France, and Canada’s National Research Council carried out extensive high-resolution multi-spectral analysis of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, showing effects on the painting never realised before. Such analysis would have been impossible in a traditional invasive way. (NRCC, 2004)

The other new format, which is still in its mid-stage of development and is still a difficult technique to realise, is the creation of 3 dimensional models of objects. There are some cheap and easy to use 3D modelling software packages and these are within the capability of any Photographic Studio to undertake (http://www.3dsom.com). These are suitable for use on Web sites and can in many instances add an extra way for viewers to appreciate the object. However the ability to make high quality 3 dimensional image models, which accurately represent the object metrically and in true colour, is still difficult to achieve. Equipment to make highly accurate models is expensive, with complex software and also demands a lot of effort and experience to create a single model.

The thing to consider with 3D image modelling is that one day, at some unknown time in the future, the production of 3 dimensional images will become as common as 2D images are today. The impetus for this may well be development of the 3D television set. How far we are from this is still difficult to say. However already in production are the next generation of 3D movies. Stephen Spielberg is actively engaged in a new series of Tintin films currently being made with 3d imaging technology (New York Times, 2007).

The Photographer In The Pre-Print Production Cycle

Responsibility Of Colour Management

Accurate colour is a highly important and significant issue for the digital photographer. Over the last few years all museum photographers have come to terms with the issues of monitor calibration, camera and scanner profiling and accurate colour printing. In an analogue film workflow the control of accurate colour was a combination of optical filtering and the ability of the colour-processing technician to keep their proprietary processing machines within photographic manufacturers tolerance. For most photographers colour processing was undertaken by external laboratories, hence the critical aspect of colour management was out of the photographer’s control. Litigation against laboratories for poor colour processing control was not uncommon between labs and their clients. Now all colour control is back within the photographers’ normal workflow and this has placed an extra responsibility between the photographer and their clients.

This is most clearly demonstrated by the new relationship between the photographer and the fine art publisher. It is common now for the digital photographer to supply a set of guidelines alongside their images when sending them to printers. These guidelines state the characteristics and profile of the file, its working colour space and resolution and maximum output size (http://www.updig.org). In the most discriminating occasions the files are accompanied by a set of proof prints. These prints are produced under standard lighting conditions. It is the intention of the photographer that the printer should match their colour output to the proof prints, when viewed under the same lighting conditions and when produced to a recognisable print profile.

Much development regarding pre-print standardisation is currently being undertaken, an example where the Photographic Managers of several major North American museums are taking the initiative in setting the agenda and playing a senior management role within their institutions.

Operational Framework

Any section in a museum needs a framework of principles and policies in which to operate. These define the operational and service agreements provided by the Photographic Studio and allow other departments in the museum to understand the range of products, the measures of production and the limitations that photographers apply to the creation of reliable images of cultural heritage objects. These frameworks exist in the form of documents held in museum wide access files. They should be treated as working documents which change as circumstances demand. New staff should be made aware of their existence and new members of the Photographic Studio presented with them as part of their induction packages. A typical set of framework documents is suggested below.

Style Policy

This dictates the creative style used by the Photographic Studio to interpret cultural heritage objects. It is a general lighting guide discussing basic principles of shadow, form, colour of background and definition. It also defines file formats and sizes which are used to create image and multi-media assets. As well as setting the standard for the Photographic Studio to maintain it also assists none professional photographers in making the best of their more limited equipment.

Preservation Policy

This policy would often be determined in conjunction with the IT department. The image or media part of the document defines the image file, off-line storage method, off-line storage media and colour working space. The IT part of the document defines the back-up regime of the museum, the maintenance contracts for server hardware and storage area network structure. Protection of the analogue image archives should also be addressed in this document.

Ethical Policy

This document defines the extent to which potentially invasive post-production software techniques can be used. It defines the reversibility of actions on the digital file. It also sets the regime for colour management and pre-print standards adopted by the Photographic Studio.

IPR Policy

The intellectual property of the multi-media assets made within the museum, both by its own staff and by third party agents, is defined in this document. It has a relationship with the IPR controls on objects as recorded within the collection management database.

Cost Statement

This document records the cost of production, for both material and labour, and defines the rates of production of standard service items. It is used in project and resource planning.

Service Level Agreements

Regular and repetitive work for internal clients is covered by these agreements. They are used to define the reasonable deadlines and products which the Photographic Studio produces for its clients.

Procedure Manuals

These are documents, available to all staff in the museum, as guidance and operational manuals for Photographic Studio owned databases. They should give advice on searching for assets and how to load your own assets to corporate systems. They should also support training sessions offered to non-imaging staff to make the best of their own cameras, and how to make simple multi-media programmes such as Power Point shows etc.

Project Guidelines

These are temporary documents which set the agenda, timetable and scope of an individual project. They include such items as personnel working on a project, their responsibilities and project management structure. Agenda and framework for Project Group, Steering Group and Working Group meetings are also included.

Digitisation Programmes

The production of specific digitisation programmes, usually based on externally funded initiatives, has proliferated and museum Photographic Studios have participated in these. It is obvious to state but it is the ability to use digital camera technology which has enabled these projects to be possible. The use of the digital camera has increased the fulfillment time for image production in the museum Photographic Studio. At the V&A Photographic Studio on average the production time is 2.5 times what it was with analogue photography. However the workflow is also considerably improved by the general infrastructure within the Photographic Studio. The preview image on screen has become the Polaroid of the future. With the addition of a calibrated monitor attached to the digital camera the photographer can see their final result moments after the picture is made. No longer does the photographer have to place their film through a chemical process to then view the image on an often uncalibrated light source. Not least is the cost of the digital workflow compared to that for analogue photography. After capitalisation of the equipment the material cost of image production is essentially negligible. As an example, the following project to photograph the V&A’s collection of jewellery shows how much improvement has been made. Over a period two years over six thousand images of jewellery have been made. Using our previous method of analogue photography the material cost for this volume of images would have been £44,000. The total cost of the digital camera set-up to undertake this work was £25,000. Payback on the purchased of the equipment was realised in about 14 months. However using analogue photography the time taken to create the current volume of six thousand images would have been five years. Taking performance gains such as this into consideration a more complete recording of collections even in the large museum can be contemplated. Another current project to photograph twenty four thousand pieces of ceramic can with confidence be started and a reasonable deadline calculated.

There are a range of digitisation projects each of which demands a different approach from the Photographic Studio to accomplish.

  • The solid object collection
  • The flat object collection
  • The archive of analogue images

Solid Object Collection

When digitising the collection of three-dimensional objects, then traditional photographic skills and approaches are required. These need the expertise and experience of the object photographer in the Photographic Studio to be accomplished. They are undertaken with a digital camera and require lighting, and backgrounds as defined in the Photographic Studio ‘Style Policy ‘ document. Solid objects will also include items such as paintings and books where there is a three-dimensional element to the object, even though the image made may be a of a two-dimensional surface of that object. In these cases it is the handling of the object during the digitisation process which is the limiting factor.

The Flat Object Collection

The flat object collection can be managed in a different way to the three-dimensional object in that sometimes it can be undertaken on a flat-bed scanner. For the purposes of this type of project the two-dimensional object should be defined as one where there is no specific surface texture to the object and where it is truly flat not with a curl or warp as may be found in a vintage photographic print. There must be nothing on the surface of the object which could be damaged by the physical contact of the lid or glass of a scanner.

In my opinion these types of project are still best undertaken with a camera on a dedicated copy stand. Any form of contact with an object is potentially damaging. Coupled with this is the variety of size of object which can be faced with these objects. Above A3 size (297mm x 420mm) scanners can be extremely expensive to purchase and are out of the range of what most museums can afford. Time to digitise the object is also a factor with the pass of a flat-bed scanner over a large object taking up to several minutes to achieve. In comparison the digital camera can make an image capture in just a few seconds. When faced with many tens of thousands of objects to digitise then the use of a camera over a scanner may mean a considerable saving of time.

Who undertakes this type of project however can be varied. Within a certain context this type of image making can be considered as ‘slavish’ copy. Once the parameters for the image required are determined, a workflow structure established and a project definition completed then the unskilled ‘photographer’ can be used to align the object on the copy stand and press the button. In a situation such as this the Photographic Studio becomes the quality assurance mediator. It is responsible for controlling the workflow, image standards and archive policy. It will also control the metadata associated with the image record of the object. In a large project or a series of such projects, in the large museum, then this may be the only sensible approach to undertake and complete such work. The Photographic Studio in this situation acts as a manager to the project rather than the supplier of the labour. This may be the future of Photographic Studio in the near future where simple image copying is required rather than full photographic creative skills.

The Archive Of Analogue Images

Scanning is usually the method of choice when digitising transparencies or negatives. Scanning equipment is designed with this medium in mind. Photographic print archives are still best digitised on a copy camera system as described above where that the surface of vintage photographs can be a particular characteristic of the object. Very early photographic prints can be fragile and it easy to crack the surface of an albumen print by placing them on a scanner.

Where there is a choice between scanning the print or the negative from which it originates then a decision needs to be made. Is the final digitised image a representation of the interpretation of the image in the print as made by the printer, or is it a truthful copy of the original image at the negative stage? If made from the negative, then it is digitised as a positive or negative image? These issues must be determined before the project commences and be noted in the Project Plan. Different situations will determine the approach, and will depend on the local needs of the museum. Either could be the correct approach depending on the final intended use.

Management Position

Digitisation programmes have raised the profile of the Photographic Studio to that of a core department in the museum. Funding bodies are expecting museums to make more and more parts of their collection visible in a virtual way. In the UK museums are set targets by funding bodies, among these targets is the visibility of the collection on the museum, or its partner’s Web site. Digital images on the museum Web site are a major element of this. This raises the question; should the image of the object be treated as an object on the museum balance sheet? And if so how does this affect the status of the manager of the Photographic Studio? If the representation of the collection has a growing value akin to the collection itself then the Photographic Studio becomes in effect a digital curatorial department. If that is recognised then maybe the manager of the Photographic Studio should be seen as a curatorial head of section. Does this mean that the Manager of the Photographic Studio should be a member of the Museum senior Management Team? Well maybe sometimes it should. Regardless of such titles I believe that there is the opportunity for the Photographic Studio to adopt a more central role in the planning of museum projects. If there is a programme of digitisation which is key to the museum’s core function, then it only seems right that the Photographic Studio be core to this. Happily in many institutions this increasingly seems to be the case. However the history of Photographic Studio in museums has not always been this way. The history of them often highlights times when the Photographic Studio was seen as a purely service department at the beck and call of other museum managers. Anecdotal evidence shows this at the V&A, from the core position of Thurston Thompson in 1856, to a moribund atmosphere in the 1980’s, back to one where the Photographic Studio once again plays a major part in planning the imaging component of key museum projects.

In order to plan both technical and structural development it is important that the manager of the Photographic Studio takes a strong management position. They should do so based on a sound understanding of the developing process of image making, how to get the best out of existing and new staff and also an understanding of the mission of the museum.

Working Relationships

Key to efficient project planning is the relationship of the Photographic Studio to its companion departments. This has to be proactive one coming from the Photographic Studio. It does to a large extent depend which museum department the Photographic Studio is a member of. In my experience in museums I have seen the Photographic Studio be a member of Public Affairs, the trading company, and Collections Services. I feel that it is best placed alongside other museum collection service departments such as IT, Conservation, Technical Services, Collections Management, Design Studio etc. In this way it is in a direct dialogue with other services it will rely upon when undertaking core museum projects. When a proposal for a project responds to a client’s request constructively, then a process of planning follows it. If this can be undertaken efficiently by all of the members of the teams responsible for its delivery, then a greater chance of success can be achieved.

For the photographic manager the primary requirement within a digital workflow is the need to manage quality, style, format, and preservation as well as the usual management issues of production, completeness and use of personnel.

Image Research

In order to remain competitive and to take advantage of the developing imaging techniques it is useful if the Photographic Studio adopts working relationships with imaging scientists. There are many opportunities to do this. The Photographic Studio can become a training partner with local photography colleges, a place where students of photography can spend a period gaining work experience, something which in the UK is a common part of a student’s education. For post-graduate students the Photographic Studio can be the place to develop imaging projects where the student can produce a finished piece of work which can be used within the museum. The opportunity to provide real projects for students to work on is something which the departments of imaging and computing science in Universities actively seek.

Another opportunity to participate in image research and development is provided by funded research projects. National and European research funding opportunities exist within the cultural heritage sector. In my experience research partners welcome the chance to work with museums that provide real scenarios on which to wrap research ideas.

The Photographic Studio Manager

Should the manager be a photographer? I believe that it is essential for the manager to understand fully the basic principle of photography and what is needed to achieve the basics of good photography - lighting. Without an appreciation and knowledge of what is needed to make a quality creative image it is impossible to lead other creative people. All of the fundamentals of digital imaging technology are based on principles of photography. What is in front of the lens is the same as it has been since the 1840’s. A bad digital image cannot be made good by the use of post-production software, but a well lit and well composed digital image will enable the viewer to appreciate the object.

Ideal Studio Structure

The successful Photographic Studio must have a team of skilled and committed photographers who have the skills to provide the new range of services needed by the modern museum. Young graduates in photography are starting to be well trained in these new skills but the established ones have to be prepared to learn them. I can only speak from personal experience but I have found that if photographers are given the opportunity to fully engage with digital imaging then they quickly relish the change to their workflow that is offered. I know of few who would wish to go back to analogue photography.

I would like to suggest a structure for the Photographic Studio which would provide the museum with a service operating to its maximum effect. It would be possible for only a few museums to achieve this but as an exercise it illustrates the range of tasks and responsibilities necessary to provide a contemporary service offering the full range of digital products, archiving and preservation, retrieval and research and development for the future.


Position on the senior Management Board with the responsibility to interpret the museum demands of its service; manage the resources of the Photographic Studio and to plan and propose new technological developments for the future.

Office Administration

Manage and co-ordinate administration within the Photographic Studio. Manage inventory, purchases and client requisitions and paper trail of workflow through the production cycle. Produce reports and analysis in order to effect future projects. These will include client demand, volume of products and variance against deadlines.

Cultural Object Photographers

Photographers who specialise in descriptive and creative images of the cultural heritage objects within the museum.

Social Documentary Photographers

Photographers who specialise in the making images of the institution, its premises, activities and events. These photographers are people rather than object focussed.

Technical Photographers

Photographers who specialise in scientific techniques to support analysis and object research using techniques such as multi-spectral imaging, polynomial texture mapping, microscopy and x-radiography.

Multi-media Producers

Photographers who specialise in none two dimensional-imaging techniques. These will include 3D image modelling, Quick Time techniques, computer assisted design, video, sound recording, Flash and web design.

Analogue Digitisers

Photographers who specialise in scanning and copying analogue image originals from within the museum archives.

Post-And Pre Production

Photographers, who manage the images, refine and structure them in the work cycle between the image creation, database storage and customer delivery and prepare them for publication.

Quality Control

Photographers who check the quality image creation around all areas of the museum, both in terms of style and format. This includes images made by the Photographic Studio and by curators, conservators and other staff within the museum. They also monitor and repair the quality of images from third party sources used by the museum in its publications and activities.

IT Systems Administration

An IT specialist who manages the databases controlled by the Photographic Studio. This includes the inventories and workflow systems as well as permissions administration and technical support on the corporate asset management systems.


Person responsible for the efficient management of the analogue and digital archives held by the Photographic Studio.

Metadata Cataloguers

Cataloguers who add keywords and data to the asset management databases managed by the Photographic Studio. They validate and maintain links between image and multi-media assets and other corporate databases in the museum such as collections’ management, libraries and project planning.

Picture Researchers

People who aid and assist both staff and academic and public visitors to find the images they require held within the Photographic Studio image and multi-media archives and databases.

Image Rights and Reproduction Licensing

Sales staff who manage the usage rights and licenses for the museum image and multi-media assets for their use by third party clients outside the museum.

These sections need to be separately managed by a set of Team Leaders, the format of which will of course depend on the local number of staff available within the Photographic Studio.


With digital technology the Photographic Studio in the modern museum has an opportunity to produce more images of its collection, a creative interpretation of the museums activities, more temporal media products and to have them seen by more people than ever before. The V&A website attracts over 12 million visits per year, almost all viewing examples of the Photographic Studio work. The opportunity to do this comes with the responsibility to engage proactively in museum core projects, to initiate work projects and to be innovative in the use of new imaging techniques. To do this the Photographic Studio should foster and engage in strong working relationships with fellow service departments which share a common goal. If the Managers of Photographic Studios recognise these responsibilities and opportunities then the position of the Photographic Studio in the museum is central and key to the success of the museum’s mission. To remain solely providing two-dimensional images for clients is I believe a mistake. The market will change, as it has done many times in the past, and in order for image clients to tell their stories they will always seek out the best media with which to do so.

It is the demand from funding bodies and the inquisitive and discerning visitor, both on site and virtual over the Web who are creating these new demands of images and multi-media. My argument has always been that in order to achieve this it must be the Photographic Studio who are best placed because of their creativity and lighting skills to do this. Believing that digital imaging is a part of an IT responsibility just because it is electronic in origin is to me a mistake. The central skill of the photographer is the ability to use light to make a creative image and interpret the object, whatever medium is used.

The museum should use the imaging skills available in its Photographic Studio, foster it and development its management structure to meet the new needs of the museum visitor and provide it with the resources to investigate novel imaging techniques to make new ways of viewing and studying objects. Combined with an effective structure, creative individuals and employing novel technologies then the interpretation of cultural objects will become a richer experience for the museum visitor, wherever they may be in the virtual world.


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Physick, J. (1975). Photography at the South Kensington Museum. London: V&A Publications.

Smyth, D. (2007). News on demand. British Journal of Photography, Vol. 154, Number 7622, 21-22

Waxman, S. (2007) Top directors see the future, and they say its in 3-D, 22nd May 2007, New York Times on-line edition; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/movies/22dime.html?ex=1185854400 &en=e76c1c194f0ff2a7&ei=5070

Cite as:

Stevenson, P., What The Modern Museum Should Expect From Its In-House Photographic Studio, in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/stevenson/stevenson.html