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The digitalisation of cultural assets

Valuable cultural assets such as books and paintings can be preserved – if not in their original form, then as digital copies. We spoke to Professor Hubertus Kohle of Ludwig Maximilians University (LMU) Munich about the digitalisation of cultural assets.

Cultural assets are at risk from fire, mildew and natural disaster, which can often cause damage running into millions. When the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar burned down on 2 September 2004, 50,000 books were destroyed and a further 62,000 volumes were damaged as a result of smoke and water. Among the priceless artefacts lost was a Lutheran Bible of 1534. The fire destroyed mainly books with a unique cultural history, in addition to almost the entire music collection of Duchess Anna Amalia, which included manuscripts and rare prints.

Digitalisation provides access to art and culture

Technological advances have now made it possible to digitalise objects such as books and journals, manuscripts, maps and paintings. Using a 3D scanner it is even possible to archive sculptures in digital form. Although digitalisation cannot save valuable artefacts from destruction, a digital recording of them means they will not be lost completely.

And digitalisation offers another benefit: in digital form, objects become accessible to a broader global public and to cultural historians for research purposes. According to the Deutscher Bibliotheksverband (German Library Association), there have been well over 100 digitalisation projects at libraries throughout Germany since the mid 1990s. The Central Register of Digitised Prints (zvdd) provides direct links to these projects and in some cases enables the titles of digitised works to be retrieved using a common search function.

Digitalisation of cultural assets: interview with Hubertus Kohle

Professor Hubertus Kohle holds the Chair of Medieval and Modern Art History at the LMU Munich and is Dean of the Faculty of History and the Arts. He was one of the first specialists to highlight the importance of digitalisation for art history.

Question: Creating digital archives and preserving cultural assets is the issue that cultural policy has been addressing for decades – and not just in Germany. What are the major challenges facing digitalisation in the cultural environment?

Professor Kohle: There is simply such a huge volume of artefacts, many of which are also at risk, that it is not going to be easy to find a professional solution for all of them. I don’t think a strategy for retrodigitalisation  that organises campaigns on a needs basis actually exists. And then, of course, we still haven’t really solved the problem of long-term data archiving. As things stand, we will continue to make hard copies of a digital format – in a medium that has proven durable properties.

Question: What possibilities does digitalisation open up for artists and institutions such as museums?

Professor Kohle: Artists can make a name for themselves on the internet. And even for musicians, whose works can be reproduced authentically and in full, it has been shown that sales losses resulting from illegal copies can often be offset in other ways. Museums should start thinking about how they can attract more visitors using social media and by developing an online presence. Anglo-Saxon and Dutch institutes have grasped this much more than German ones, many of which continue to believe that opting for the modern approach means doing away with tradition.

Question: Paul Klimpel, who wrote a book on long-term digital archiving (‘Digitale Langzeitarchivierung’), also sees the negative side of digitalisation. He is critical of the fact, for example, that in a few years users will no longer be able to access certain media on account of the frequent changes in format and the limited shelf life of electronic data media. What’s your view on this?

Professor Kohle: It’s a serious problem, of course, and one which requires us to make new copies of data all the time. But if this is organised professionally, it is entirely feasible. Apart from that, we will probably have to archive a few examples of every type of device, for use in case of emergency. For our review journal sehepunkte.de, for example, we also print out individual texts once they have been published on the internet, so that we always have something to hold on to. But I guess laser prints won’t last forever either!

Video: Hubertus Kohle – Art History 2.0: A Humanistic Discipline in the Age of Virtuality

Webinar ‘Digitization and Culture’

The webinar session ‘The Digital Memory – Archiving and Documenting Cultural Goods in the Digital Society’ has already taken place. In the Community group ‘Digital Society’ you will find the webinar (session 3) and chat as a video recording and you can take part in discussions on the topic in the group’s forum.

Further projects

Professor Kohle was involved in the project ‘Schule des Sehens – Neue Medien der Kunstgeschichte’. In collaboration with universities and Munich-based experts in media education, he developed and implemented approaches to presenting multimedia teaching content and made these accessible on a central portal.

Professor Kohle also sits on the advisory board of ‘prometheus’, a digital picture library which currently combines the databases of 77 institutes, research facilities and museums under a single interface.

Discussion and interview on the digitalisation of cultural assets

Read the complete interview with Professor Kohle in the Community group ‘Digital Society’ (in German only). The discussion covers the project ‘Schule des Sehens – Neue Medien der Kunstgeschichte’ and ‘prometheus’, the open access digital image archive. Exchange opinions in the comments about the opportunities, risks and problems associated with the digitisation of cultural assets.

Author: Sigrid Born

April 2014

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Ayman Zyadeen
13 June 2019

i think digital documents also endangered by other digital risks such as destroying viruses that need further protection costs


Maximiliano Marzetti
26 May 2015

In Argentina such measures would encounter legal barriers: the Paying Public Domain. In my home country the public domain is not free, it is taxed by the state, and this deters access to culture and knowledge.

12 May 2014

Thanks, a good insight into digitalisation of cultural assets

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