Image of of digitisation set-up in the Chester Beatty photo studio

Insight into beginning a new position as a museum photographer at the Chester Beatty

6 April, 2020

Hello everyone! I recently joined the Chester Beatty Digital Team as a new museum photographer, working alongside fellow photographer Jon Riordan.

My background is in Scientific Photography and Sustainability Science, and throughout my professional career I worked as a Scientific and Medical Photographer. During this time, I worked mostly within natural science collections as well as within public and private health care. Whilst studying Scientific Photography several years ago I learnt how photography can be used to view the otherwise invisible, either because the subject is too small for the eye to see or too fast or fragile to be viewed by many. Now I am delighted to be continuing in this field within the Chester Beatty, by helping to digitise their collections and thereby making them more accessible to the wider community.

Any kind of scientific photography brings with it a variety of challenges. Working within the medical field often means having to keep up with the overwhelmingly fast paced and chaotic environment. Whilst photographing microscopic entomology specimens requires a new level of mindfulness to avoid damaging or even losing the specimens. Of course, digitising cultural heritage collections consisting of ancient manuscripts, scrolls and miniatures dating back to 2700 BC pose a fresh new set of challenges.

Dorsal image of an Arhopala micle butterfly, captured using the Visionary Digital macro imaging set up at the Queensland Museum, by Caroline Harding and Senior Illustrator Geoff Thompson.

Dorsal image of an Arhopala micle butterfly, captured using the Visionary Digital macro imaging set up at the Queensland Museum, by Caroline Harding and Senior Illustrator Geoff Thompson.

1:1 macro image of a Papilio machaon butterfly, captured by Caroline Harding for her final year portfolio assessment.

1:1 macro image of an Papilio machaon butterfly, captured by Caroline Harding for her final year portfolio assessment.

As museum photographers we have the privilege of being able to handle and interact with our precious collection items on a daily basis. Since beginning my role at the Chester Beatty at the beginning of 2020 I have already been lucky enough to handle and explore a vast range of Hebrew, Persian, Japanese and Western historical items. These items ranged from ancient scrolls and manuscripts made out of parchment and handmade paper to fragile single page mounted miniatures containing extravagant detail and colour.

The handling alone of items for digitisation certainly has its challenges. Moreover, trying to accurately render the true colour of graphics and printed text within each artefact also poses its own set of challenges. Each challenge requires multiple ever-changing problem-solving techniques to overcome them. To tackle these challenges properly, I underwent intensive training to become familiarised with the general formality and logistical procedures utilised for handling the Chester Beatty’s collection items for image capture.

Ottoman book of prayers
Istanbul, 1798
T 463 f.91r

Ottoman book of Prayers T 463, from the Chester Beatty collection, image shows strapping of page for digitisation.

Each object is unique in the way they open and how they need to be supported whilst being digitised. It is as if each collection item has its own personality to go along with its deep embedded history. I began my training on object handling during my third week at the Chester Beatty with Head of Conservation, Kristine Rose-Beers. My training sessions began by practicing how to remove mounted single page miniatures from their housing and prepare them for image capture. Handling historical manuscripts and miniatures was a new experience for me and therefore was quite nerve wracking.

In order to handle each manuscript delicately enough one must be aware of how each manuscript has been bound, has it been opened often, or is slightly stiff where the pages are also bouncy and therefore need extra support? Was it tightly or loosely bound? Some manuscripts are more robust than others, but for some manuscripts one must be careful on every page turn that there are no catches or rips, or tears made. Supporting the spine of manuscripts during image capture is an essential part of our process as the spine of each book must be supported as manuscript’s weight shifts. To avoid any damage to this most fragile area of the manuscript I needed to take many deep calming breaths when I was going through this process.

The next major challenge was learning how to adequately render the colour and minute detail held within each collection item.

Scroll 1 from Tale of Tawara Tōda (Tawara Tōda monogatari)
Japan, mid-17th century
CBL J 1164.1

Scroll 1 from Tale of Tawara Tōda (Tawara Tōda monogatari) J 1164.1, with colour bar.

As mentioned in a previous blog “Why digitise”, making our historical collection items accessible online opens up a whole new world of ways to interact with our collections. The digitisation of museum collections allows extensive research and educational development and helps to increase cultural awareness across a wider audience. However, to allow this it is best to begin with an accurate, high resolution image. Within our photographic studio at the Chester Beatty we have multiple tried and tested studio lighting set ups designed to be used in accordance with particular types of material, texturing and colouring commonly found embedded within the graphics of our collection items, as well as specific lighting techniques for different types of objects such as Jade books.

In our studio we fluctuate between using two flash units with large soft boxes, which the positioning of we alter depending on the size and type of object. When needed we combine this lighting setup with a third flash fill in light with large reflectors or use the reflectors alone as a fill in source of light. Our studio work is made up of a combination of using standard studio lighting techniques and ongoing experimentation.

Being able to accurately render each object through digitisation is certainly an ongoing and occasionally frustrating task, which requires one to constantly pay attention to detail as much as possible. I am now up to the stage where I am becoming more and more confident in tackling the challenges that come with the job. One should never stop learning!

Caroline Harding, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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Map

Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
Dublin 2
D02 AD92