Artifacts In The Age Of Big Data: Milwaukee Public Museum Digitizing Entire Collection

Aug 10, 2018

Searching through old records can be excruciating. Beyond being disorganized and often unclear, many records are lost over time, and the headache of finding just one document can easily triple the time it takes you to do your job.

Over the last couple decades, many organizations have set out to digitize their records as a way of preserving them and making them easier to find. But that, too, takes time.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has been working to digitize their entire collection for years. Almost three years ago, the museum started a push to rapidly digitize.

"It makes it much more efficient, it's actually increasing the efficiency of science."

Chris Tyrrell, a researcher at the museum and its director of Collection Informatics, says as artifacts and documents are digitized, the museum staff add data about the items. That data, or "metadata" in turn allows the items to be categorized and searched in various different ways.

"Periodically we will upload those records into an online national web portal. And on that web portal, museums all over the country are donating their electronic records, so now you're really aggregating information," says Tyrell.

All of the digitized items become more usable for researchers, journalists and curious minds alike. Before digitized records were common, a researcher looking for information about a particular topic would have to call individual museums and ask about said topic. With the aggregated information on the web portal, a researcher can simply search on the topic and inspect artifacts and documents from multiple museums on the same topic.

"It makes it much more efficient, it's actually increasing the efficiency of science,  I think, " says Tyrell.

You can view the Milwaukee Public Museum's digitized collection here at along with the digitized collections of museums all over the country.