How Curators Can Enhance the Materiality of Digital Collections

Especially in times of COVID-19, the benefits of digitized collections of museums, archives, and libraries are undeniable. Instead of visits on-site, people can find new institutions around the globe, browse through collections, and explore things online while adhering to the lockdown restrictions. However, institutions already started digitizing their artifacts before the pandemic. The reasons for this are straightforward: Digital collections are granting greater access to more people, they can protect fragile objects, and enable people to engage in research without being on-site (Jeurgens 2013). However, digitization does not only have benefits, but it also comes with some downsides. This blog post aims to shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of digital collections. Moreover, it will give insights into how curators can enhance the materiality of their online collections, first from a theoretical point of view and then through a case study that exemplifies a best practice.

Generally, when talking about digital collections, one needs to make a distinction between digitized and born-digital collections. In a digitized collection, the curator transforms an analog artifact into a digital version. An example of this is a photo that is scanned and uploaded online. In contrast to this, born-digital artifacts do not have an analog predecessor – they were already created online. An example of this is a word document (Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative 2020).

You are interested in how digitization in archives works? Watch this interesting video to get some insights:

Translating Analogue to Digital – the Medium is the Message

Even though there are a lot of digitized collections available, one should consider that it is not possible to translate content from one medium to another medium while keeping the contents the exact same. Something will always be lost or altered (Manoff 2006). Consequently, material will lose some of its physical characteristics when it is digitized (Lester 2018).

Moreover, when objects are digitized and made public online, additional metadata is provided. These are data that set the object into context and give important information about the object and its origin. In this way, the artifact is searchable by date, keywords, or location. However, when objects are digitized and metadata are added by curators, the curators shape the way the object is perceived (Jeurgens 2013). Furthermore, the medium shapes the content. So, when the medium is changed, the content changes. As a consequence, when an analogue object is being digitized, the outcome is automatically a different version (Manoff 2016, p. 314). A finding that goes back to the 1960s, when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the Medium is the Message”.

Learn more about metadata, its purpose, and significance:

What is lost?

When the resulting object of a digitization process is a new version of the analogue object, what changes? What is lost? What is gained?

Being able to observe an object in its analogue form, comes with certain advantages. Depending on the object’s fragility and the rules of the institutions, one can touch, feel, and smell it. Especially the latter can convey important information. The following scenario, reported by the authors Brown and Duguid, describes the value of an object’s scent quite vividly:

 A historian in a Portuguese archive used to smell on letters, searching for the scent of vinegar. This is because vinegar was used to prevent the forwarding of cholera. By doing this, the researcher intended to follow the traces of the disease (Jeurgens 2013).

As digitized objects do not possess any scent, this information is missing in the digital counterparts. Next to the smell, information about the structure, the chemical composition of the paper and ink, watermarks, the method of binding, weight, and traces of other users are lost in the digitizing process (Jeurgens 2013). Next to this, the object’s aura might be lost (Lester 2018).

In her paper “A Comparative Study of User Experience between Physical Objects and Their Digital Surrogates“, Anastasia Varnalis-Weigle (2016) examines people’s user-experiences with the physical and digital version of the same object. Her results show that when participants were confronted with the physical object after they had seen the digital version, they found that the digital version could not represent characteristic materials such as the size, weight, or texture of an object. Characteristics that give important information about the overall appearance and meaning of the object (Varnalis-Weigle 2016).

Some quotes from the participants:

"The digital image did not register to me the size until I saw the physical object” (p.14).
“If I hadn’t seen the physical one, I wouldn’t have known what the silver thing was” (p.14).

What is gained?

However, Varnalis-Weigle’s findings indicate that users did not only perceive loss in the digital versions. People also felt like the digital versions would add something to their understanding:

“There were some things that were so much more vibrant in the [digital] photograph, that I don’t think I noticed when I went through the first time [physical]” (Varnalis-Weigle, p. 9).

Moreover, when users engaged with the digital version, they would use their visual senses and focus more intensely on the provided documentation information on the object. They used the affordances of the digital space and the interface to scroll, zoom in or zoom out. In contrast, when people dealt with physical objects, they would also engage in the sensorial qualities of sound and touch (including lifting, pulling, closing, rotating, or turning). This multi-sensory experience also triggered more cognitive senses (Varnalis-Weigle 2018). They paid more attention to the outward, physical characteristics than to additional information.

Does this mean that digital objects are immaterial?

After reading the results of Varnalis-Weigle, it might appear as if digital objects were immaterial. And, naturally, physical objects are tangible and graspable – which digital objects are not. Nevertheless, digital objects do also possess material characteristics. In fact, they need materiality – e.g., in form of drives, tracks, disks, soft- and hardware – to exist (Drucker 2011).  

Users of digital archives are enabled to navigate themselves, they can look for what they find more interesting individually. Hyperlinks enable to skip around, finding more related content. This is way more interactive and participatory than, for example, participating in an audio-tour in a museum (Haskins 2007). As Haskins puts it: “The audience no longer acts as a consumer of a linear story—it takes part in the experience by making choices to connect particular messages and images as well as to register responses to them” (Haskins 2007, p. 406).

Mark Tebeau (2016) proposes that rather than having a clear boundary, the line between the digital and the physical is becoming blurry (p.476). The digital does not make the physical obsolete. Rather, the digital changes our relation to the physical and makes people aware of the physical’s importance.

The Digital Space as Opportunity for Museums

Moreover, the digital sphere enhances the materiality of digital objects and shape the meaning and understanding in ways that would not be possible in an analogue way (Lester 2018). An example of this could be the use of sound, touching upon the auditive senses. This means, listening to an interview – being able to listen to the voices and the tone which cannot be conveyed in transcripts – amplifies the materiality of the senses and results in a deeper and richer experience (Tebeau 2016). Curators can become creative and make use of the affordances of the digital space, not only the visual representation of the object, but utilize sound, video, and text, create new stories or engage people (Tebeau 2016, p. 477). The digital is an opportunity to develop “richer connections and metadata relationships allow us to experience the past differently, in richer and expanded—both broader and deeper—contexts” (Tebeau 2016, p. 481). The following case study exemplifies, how this can be done.

How To Include Online Visitors and Enhance Materiality in the Digital Sphere

Rijkmuseum’s Collection Masterpieces Up Close – A Case Study


This case study deals with the online collection “Masterpieces Up Close” of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This collection is created interactively and makes use of audio files as digital affordances. By doing this, they accentuate the experience of the online visitor and set an example for other museums that might also want to share their collections online.


The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is the national museum of the Netherlands, containing 800 years of Dutch history in form of art. Next to their objects on-site, they do offer several online collections. These include series like “Rijksmuseum Unlocked”, “Rijksmuseum from Home” and “Masterpieces Up Close”. Especially during lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of digitized collections has become clear. However, as explained in the earlier sections, digitization comes with certain restrictions and challenges. Objects lose some important characteristics, as people cannot see them e.g. in their real shape. Therefore, curators should make use of other materialities to provide online visitors with a valuable online experience.

This case study exemplifies how the Rijksmuseum engages its visitors, makes use of the affordances of the digital space, and increases the materiality. This then can serve as an inspiration for other institutions that strive for a valuable online collection.

The Problem

As has been outlined in the sections above, objects lose some core characteristics when they are digitized. It is difficult for people to estimate the size or the weight of an object, they cannot touch it, cannot smell it, and might not perceive its aura: it loses some of its materiality.  Some people perceive the digital versions as being less material and therefore less engaging than their physical surrogates. Therefore, curators need to make use of the digital affordances and enhance the materiality of the collections in other ways.

The Solution

With the online collection “Masterpieces Up Close”, the Rijksmuseum found an interesting way to offer their visitors an exciting, engaging, and yet informative way of exploring the curated paintings. Firstly, the visitors’ journey starts with a virtual tour. When one clicks on “visit”, the visitors are set in the Rijkmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. In the beginning, the lights are turned off, slowly being switched on while the camera is navigating them into the hall, accompanied by classical music, already engaging not only the visual but also the auditive senses.

The Gallery of Honour is a corridor that leads to the “Nightwatch” painting, a famous image of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. In the online collection, this corridor is depicted as a 360° version in a virtual tour. Sideways on the walls, other famous paintings are mounted, which the visitors can examine. Not only the paintings are available for examination, but the ceiling also as well as other decorations of the hall are represented in great detail.

Even though it is called a virtual tour, people can navigate themselves choose their path and search for the paintings that are the most interesting for them individually. The visitor can zoom into the masterpieces. Because of the very good resolution of the digital paintings, one can discover minimal details that probably would have been hidden when looking at their physical surrogates on-site.


Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Sometimes a little headphone symbol appears on top of a painting signifying that additional information is available. When clicking on it, one can see an enlarged version of the painting and decide between a little informational text or an informational audio narration.  The textual information tab provides some metadata: the year the painting was created, its artist and name as well as a little summary of the picture’s context. When listening to the audio file, the visitor can hear a narrator’s voice, who is giving some more detailed and extended information. Here again, the auditive senses are engaged: the narrator’s calm voice is comfortable and makes the listener wanting to know more about the painting. Before the audio narrations about the images start, there is always a short sound at the beginning. Sometimes they match the set of the image. For example, when examining “Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue”, one can hear a child laughing. Furthermore, the camera is navigating towards specific parts of the image and zooms onto them when the narrator is talking about them. For example, when he is speaking about the girl’s jewelry, the camera zooms in and focuses on her arm joints. Comparing the length of the audio narration to the little information board in the hall makes clear that the digital narration is also more detailed than the information normally provided in the physical space

Interestingly, the additional information is not always formal. Rather, the texts are written in an engaging tone, as in the case for the girl’s portrait: “How old is she? Ten maybe? We certainly can’t tell from her clothes”. The narrator is posing questions, making the users think about it and maybe think in different ways than they would have without the narrator when he had seen it in “real life”.

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Especially for the painting “The Nightwatch” there is a lot of additional information waiting to be explored. When clicking on the painting, one is immediately confronted with sounds that set the scene for the painting. This already immerses the visitor into the mysterious scene. Then, a voice starts narrating, setting the painting into context. The interface provides multiple navigation points, enabling the user to discover the history and the composition. As a consequence, the visitor learns many details – most of it probably would not have been explored on-site. However, all the background information on the artifact is giving a deeper and broader context.

Enhanced Interactivity – The Key Challenge

Next to the “normal” virtual tour, the online visitor can participate in the so-called key challenge. The challenge is created as a riddle in which the user needs to find nine keys.

Online visitors are only provided hints to where the keys can be found, for example: “You’ll find the first key at a fun family party…”. The user then needs to search for a painting depicting a family. When the painting is found, another riddle is posed: users have to answer a multiple-choice question, each answer giving a letter mostly asking the visitor to look more closely at the image. When the visitor found all 9 keys, he has a solution word. The challenge makes people want to solve the riddles and leads to a greater and closer interaction and engagement with the image.

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close

Source: Screenshot from Masterpieces Up Close


By giving the visitor a multimodal and interactive collection, the Rijksmuseum managed it to represent their physical objects in the digital space appropriately. It also shows that when curators make use of the digital space’s affordances, when they are thinking creatively, and trying to involve the users instead of just confronting them with linear content, they can achieve an exciting and informative user-experience. With “Masterpieces Up Close” the Rijksmuseum could engage their online visitors, allowing them to explore the collection in their own way. All the additional information in audio and text form provides users with important and contextual insights. However, by doing this, they created a different version of the paintings, which is not a one-to-one representation. Moreover, the available information might keep the visitor from coming to an own interpretation. Apart from that, metadata about the size, weight, and texture are missing.

Overall, the collection is very concise, easy to navigate, and shows that the curators put a lot of effort into properly preserving the paintings online. “Masterpieces Up Close” offers an explorative online journey that sparks interest in visiting the collection on-site, as soon as this is possible again. Nevertheless, one should consider that as the national museum of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum has the means to offer their visitors high-resolution representations of the original paintings as well as to produce extensive and innovative user-experiences. For other institutions, this might not be possible.


To conclude, even though digitization comes with limitations, restrictions, and challenges it is indeed worthwhile to offer collections online.  Therefore, the digitization of physical collections should be driven forward. It brings value to people as it enables a greater number of people to take advantage of the collection. Even though some characteristics of the objects are lost in the digital form, curators can enhance the materiality of their collection by using sounds, images, texts, and videos, and engage people to participate interactively.  Online collections can provide knowledge, build new contexts, and information and make people see the object in unexpected ways. The digital allows to create new connections and enables to experience the past differently, in broader and richer contexts.


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