Interview with Giovanni Benigni about Digital Asset Management
(Duration: 10 minutes 40 seconds)
How are you involved with Digital Asset Management (DAM)?
How does the Vatican Museums’ Digital Transformation project involve Digital Asset Management?
What are the biggest challenges and successes you have seen with Digital Asset Management?
What advice would like to share with DAM professionals and people aspiring to become DAM
Henrik de Gyor (0:00): This is Another DAM Podcast about Digital Asset Management. I’m Henrik de Gyor. Today I’m speaking with Giovanni Benigni.
Henrik de Gyor (0:08): Giovanni, How are you involved with Digital Asset Management?
Giovanni Benigni (0:12): Well, before starting, I have just to say that I’m speaking on my own, of my personal experience in the Vatican. All the opinions expressed not necessarily reflect ones of the institution.
Giovanni Benigni (0:32): That said, I started working for the Vatican Museums at the end of last century. And in the early 2000s, I directed for the Governorate of Vatican City State several software development projects related to image storage and retrieval systems. But such projects, unfortunately, at the time had no fortune for several reasons that would be too long to say here, and went into oblivion. Moreover, since coming to Museums, I dealt with several software systems used to catalog and store images, without any direct connection to our CMS. Also, since the advent of digital high-resolution imagery had just been conserved on file shares, without any way to retrieve it, other than using [file] path and file names. So since then, my obsession has been to put all the information we had in a single system to get to a single access point directory of everything. This is shortly how I started my involvement with DAM in the Vatican.
Henrik de Gyor (1:50): Giovanni, how does the Vatican Museums’ digital transformation project involve Digital Asset Management?
Giovanni Benigni (1:57): The digital transformation project of Vatican Museums started some years ago with a larger, seemingly never-ending, technical renewal project involving all our seven kilometers [~4.35 miles] of galleries and working spaces, and all the systems from communication to remote surveillance, access control, networking, and so on. In this framework, we started several projects as, for example, the 3D scanning project of all said spaces, that is now completed, and a long-awaited scanning project of our historical pictures on glass plates strongly wanted by our new director, Dr. Barbara Jatta. It appeared immediately that for the pictures we needed both a new cataloging system and long-term storage to accommodate forever their digital copies.
Giovanni Benigni (2:15): And fortunately, I had a good experience with what we shouldn’t do. We looked for solutions offered by big tech, but it seemed not likely to be valid ones, because although they were flexible, and metadata rich, generally stored the images on database blobs. And I had a good experience with blobs and I knew that were not good for large files that we needed to store. That’s why we started to search for a solution that wouldn’t store large files on a blob, but just on disk on shares, on other support, but directly, physically on disks. And we identified among a large number two possible products, [a] commercial one and an open-source project.
Giovanni Benigni (3:47): The first appeared to be more aimed at companies that had to manage images for commercial purposes, while the open-source seemed built for research institution libraries, and for sure, museums, because, also, it was validated by the Musées de France. It gave us a good perspective to be able to use it satisfactorily, and, most important, being an open-source platform, it was inexpensive, which is a word always loved by management.
Giovanni Benigni (4:18): So we started a test and we had a nice surprise. It appeared every day more and more suitable to contain every information we already had. And a new possibility arose. Finally, get to a unique access point for every artwork-related information in our possession. It was my dream coming true. So, in brief, we started migration. First moving existing CMS data to the new catalog, followed by images and all the other conservation and historical data we had. Today, we are still ingesting images, the last 100,000, more or less, audio files, conservation and analysis reports, and we are planning to ingest also videos starting from the most recent digital, going back to older on tapes. Here we could open another chapter, talking about formats no more easily readable, like Betacam.
Henrik de Gyor (5:20): Giovanni, what are the biggest challenges and successes you’ve seen with Digital Asset Management?
Giovanni Benigni (5:26): We have a very ancient museum. Our history starts a few centuries ago, more or less. You can well imagine how much information we have accumulated in such a long time. One of the biggest challenges is being able to digitize the answer pictures and documents in our possession. Their quantity exceeds any idea you may have, for sure. And this reverses in time necessary to do the scanning because the items must be handled with extreme care, must be cleaned, and so on. Moreover, you know, it was 1997, and I had just joined the Museums, when I first heard about a project for scanning our ancient photos on glass plates. Well, we definitely have been able to start such a project only in 2017. Twenty years later. And although the scanning job is being practically completed today, the curator still has to check all the archival information related to them and this takes a lot of time. We are going a bit slow in this moment. Really for we have moved objects, entities, and all the assets into a unique system, where everything is directly related to inventory items with meaningful relationships, now searches are simpler and more efficient, although people have had to get used to a new way to enquire. The new CMS uses Lucene syntax, and there’s a faceting capability, so people today, unlike before, when they had to ask our inventory to make searches, now they are able to make top-down searches and, listen, they are able to find for themselves what they are looking for. And this is a really big step forward, together with the capability to see in a glance the documents, pictures, analysis, and so on in a single application. Finally, I can say that the new catalog has made possible a true collaboration between departments that today they can easily share information of every kind about inventory objects without printing paper or sending emails, but directly inside the catalog using the sharing capabilities of the system.
Henrik de Gyor (7:59): Giovanni, what advice would you like to share with DAM professionals and people aspiring to become DAM professionals?
Giovanni Benigni (8:05): Well, I think that if you want to get out alive from a DAM project, you must build your project on a strong metadata base. So take your time to think and rethink and rethink it as many times as you need to be strongly convinced it will work. Really, this is not as hard as it seems, because the hard work to reduce data to a common structure will be limited to no more than 15 metadata [fields], but you must take it into consideration very seriously.
Giovanni Benigni (8:44): Second, you must define DAM and long-term preservation policies. When I say DAM policy, I say policy about ingestion, about acquisition, about tagging, about descriptions, and so on, also about vocabulary. This is crucial, to pass onto people the concept that they must follow the rules. Otherwise, you will have a fantastic system filled with objects without any capability to find what you’re looking for.
Giovanni Benigni (9:23): Third, drop an eye to interoperability, because for sure you will need it internally to develop products based on your assets. For example, our system has a built-in IIIF server, which makes it possible to superimpose more than one image and then, for example, we have visible light, infrared, X-ray images, and we can superimpose and look to particulars by switching immediately from one layer to another, and this is very useful. Very useful for curators, for restorators, and also for the public. So, interoperability, I think should be a must. And that’s all.
Giovanni Benigni (10:20): Indeed, if you are crossing over troubled water, feel free to contact me. Thank you.
Henrik de Gyor (10:26): Thank you, Giovanni. For more on this, visit anotherdampodcast.com.
If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email me at email@example.com. Thanks again.
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