Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Continuing to Digitize Our Collection—from Home

June 13, 2020

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In an ironic twist, one of the artifacts we were able to digitize remotely during the pandemic is this roll of toilet paper, on exhibit in Your Place in Time in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

If you’ve visited our Digital Collections lately, you may have noticed they now feature more than 95,000 digitized artifacts. We’ve previously written about the process we use to digitize artifacts—as you might suspect, it involves lots of close physical contact with other human beings and with the artifacts themselves. Right now, during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, this is not possible: some of our digitization colleagues whose work requires campus access are on temporary unpaid leave, and others whose work is more computer-based continue working from our basements, dining rooms, and dens.

Still, between March 14 and May 22, we added almost 3,300 new artifacts to our Digital Collections—all in the 10 weeks since decamping from our offices. But how can we continue to add new items to our Digital Collections without access to the actual collections themselves?

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Hallmark ""Owliday" Wish" Christmas Ornament, one of more than 700 Hallmark ornaments added to our Digital Collections during our remote work.

A lot of the answer is infrastructure. We’ve been digitizing our collections in a consistent way for almost a decade now, and over those years have built out a robust system to support adding hundreds of new items to our Digital Collections every day. Our collections database is available to us from home, and we have automated processes in place to pick up new items daily. We can do research on items, and add this information to our database, from home. But what about the images?

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A very modern-looking textile from a 1900-1901 sample book, digitized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we left campus, there were many objects we’d imaged in the last few months for ongoing projects that hadn’t yet been put online. We are continuing to work through this backlog, adding the images to our collections database and updating our cataloging so they can be reviewed and flagged for online use. Some notable additions in this category since mid-March are more than 700 Hallmark ornaments from the sizeable collection we acquired last year, nearly 200 items digitized through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship (including trade cards and textile sample books), and more than 150 artifacts digitized through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

In addition, we have a number of collections that were already in digital format, whether natively or digitized by the collector, when they came to us. A sizeable example is the Dave Friedman Collection, which was partially scanned by Dave Friedman before being donated to us. There are now more than more than 32,000 auto racing photographs and documents from the Friedman collection in our Digital Collections—including the more than 1,000 we’ve added remotely.

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One of the many Dave Friedman Collection auto racing images we've added to our Digital Collections during the pandemic. This one shows the Chevrolet Corvette C1 driven by Dave MacDonald in the Production Sports Car Race before the 4th Annual Grand Prix for Sports Cars in Riverside, California, in 1961.

We also are lucky, as an institution in its 91st year of existence, to have a sizeable backlog of older images that are often quite acceptable (or can be made acceptable, by some strategic Photoshop work) for online access. We always prefer to get a new image of an artifact when possible—but during the pandemic, that has not been possible. So we’re combing through the existing images we have, whether those are scans of old black-and-white images from our first few decades, 20th century slides that were scanned later on, or images taken on 35mm film that have been transferred to digital format.

In this last category, artifacts with legacy images, to date we’ve had a couple of top priorities: 1) artifacts being utilized for our extensive series of online content and programming, and 2) artifacts that are on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—since you can’t see these in person right now, you’ll at least be able to see them digitally! Since we left campus, we’ve added nearly 200 objects on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation to our Digital Collections, bringing the total number of artifacts on exhibit in the museum that you can also see in our Digital Collections to more than 2,300—check them all out here. The recently added artifacts are mostly in Your Place in Time and Made in America, ranging from a Coty face powder box to an eight-track tape of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Next, we plan to tackle some of the many artifacts on exhibit in Greenfield Village, as well as items brought into our collection in the last couple of decades.

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Weaving You Can Wear, one of many books in Your Place in Time digitized recently from existing images.

Across all these categories, there are thousands of artifacts we can add to our Digital Collections without access to our collections—and we will continue working through them until we can safely return to The Henry Ford’s campus and are back up to full capacity. In the meantime, we invite you to dig into our Digital Collections to revisit your old favorites and maybe turn up some new surprises.

If you aren’t sure where to start, you might check out some Expert Sets we recently completed. Our curators selected artifact highlights from our collection in a number of focus areas, namely:

You can also find all of these sets, plus a search box and other ways to jump into the collection, on our Digital Collections homepage. Happy browsing!

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

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