Having spent an afternoon with the Imperial War Museum (IWM) Head of ICT Ian Crawford at its Duxford campus, I’ve realised that war doesn’t run on courage, the supply of boots, or even the giant machines in the museum’s collection.
It runs on paper.
Armed forces cannot function without the sea of administrative documentation that accompanies it to zones of conflict, and alongside visitor attractions like the Panther tank and Vulcan bomber, it’s these records, on paper, canvas, film and tape that forms a substantial part of the museum’s collection.
The IWM was originally conceived during World War I as an institution for commemorating the efforts and activities of the British Empire in the Great War.
This remit has subsequently been enlarged to include all of the conflicts in which the UK and the Commonwealth has been involved since then.
Physically, it has extended from its original Lambeth Road buildings in South London to include the airfield at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, the cruiser HMS Belfast, moored in the Thames, the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall and a new museum in Manchester’s Salford Quays that opened in 2002.
“The collections are very diverse,” explains Crawford, as we sit in the museum cafeteria, with a black US B52 bomber looming over us.
“We have over 22,000 hours of film and video, 11 million photographs, a large art collection and as you can see,” he says, nodding towards the aircraft strung from the ceiling like so many Airfix kits, “large objects, anything to do with warfare.”
The museum is funded by a grant in aid from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which provides roughly half of the necessary revenue of the museum.
The rest is raised through fundraising, licensing activities and show admissions. This offsets the free admission available to members of the public in some of the museum’s sites.
The overall budget is around £40m per year, which goes towards paying around 700 full-time staff.
At the time Crawford joined the museum, in late 2006, the museum had a patchwork of systems for managing its collections.
Some, but not all, were digital. Even then, information about different collections was held in a variety of different repositories.
Crawford recalled that at this time, the data around the museum’s collection resided on over 140 different databases.
The museum had been awarded a £1m government grant with the remit of kick-starting commercialisation of the film stock in the museum’s possession.
“You watch any TV programme to do with warfare and more than likely, IWM will get a credit for the footage shown,” says Crawford.
The process at the time involved researchers visiting a viewing facility in the Lambeth Road site, selecting appropriate footage and a copy was created for them for a licensing fee.
The grant was to be used to digitise the film stock, to streamline this process and also to preserve the original stock.
The bulk of this money was earmarked to create a collections management system, which formed the basis of what will become an all-encompassing central core data repository for information about other parts of the museum’s collection.
More than this, much of the media collections at the museum would be digitised, so that researchers could gain easy access to them through the system.
“Some of the databases weren’t even digital, there were card indexes and things like that,” says Crawford. “The idea was to clean the data and migrate it into a central system.”
Even before this could happen though, Crawford had to take a step back and re-inforce the museum’s infrastructure, which at that stage was in no state to distribute such a large repository of data around its wider network, or to the rest of the world.
The different branches were linked by a low-speed MPLS network provided by BT. The best some branches could expect was 0.5Mbps.
No good if you wanted to upload 20 minutes of film footage from Lambeth Road to Duxford, for instance.
Storage and desktop requirements were also beyond the infrastructure’s capabilities at that time. The whole thing needed an overhaul, recalls Crawford.
The £1m grant for the monetisation of the film stock collection wasn’t nearly enough to fund the back-end infrastructure too, so Crawford had to make the case to the museum’s board to make up the shortfall in investment.
Time was short, as Crawford had to show some progress on the original film digitisation project, within two years, to qualify for the grant.
He recalled spending only six weeks drawing together an upgrade plan that would effectively transform the museum’s entire data-handling capabilities and bring it into 21st Century.
Crawford’s plan was heavily reliant on the JANET academic network for wide area connectivity. It is a natural choice for the museum and it joins many other similar institutions already using the network.
The IWM operates three primary JANET connections, because of the lack of university campuses nearby to piggyback onto the network with secondary connections.
Locally, the museum was still running a Novell-based network infrastructure and Groupwise for the email system. This has been migrated to a Microsoft environment.
One of the largest projects over the last five years is the development of a core datacentre at the Lambeth Road site. This is being mirrored by a second facility at Duxford which acts as the business continuity site and which is in development at the moment.
For the core digital asset management system, Crawford was unable to find a single supplier. The collections management system is supplied by a Dutch company called Adlib.
More locally, Cambridge Imaging supplies the digital asset management system, integrated with the catalogue record through Adlib’s API.
“We might catalogue a Lee Enfield rifle. If we then take a photograph of the rifle, that digital image is then linked to that record and then when you call it up, you will see the digital image,” says Crawford.
More importantly, the creation of the image, through the digital asset management application’s workflow system, automatically creates an archival file that generates a number of image formats for the museum’s website.
The website is currently being revamped, so that content is centrally managed through the collections management system. This allows the museum to develop a film sales revenue channel, which Crawford expects to be live by the end of the year.
A similar image sales channel is already live.
Crawford expects to extend this idea so that the digital asset management system can become a central content management system for digital elements of museum exhibitions too, so that it can make the most of multimedia displays to bring exhibits to life.
He admits it is a complex project to do this though and definitely something that is work in progress for the foreseeable future.