The Chester Beatty has one of the world’s most remarkable collections of treasures from the world’s great cultures and religions. These collections include objects ranging from cuneiform tablets and some of the earliest biblical papyri through to iconic Japanese woodcut prints as well as prints by such celebrated artists as Francisco Goya and Albrecht Dürer. Not to mention the irreplaceable collections of Armenian and Western European manuscripts, a comprehensive and unique collection of Islamic manuscripts and calligraphies and even the largest assortment of jade books held outside of China. It is little wonder that the Chester Beatty’s holdings have been described as the finest collection of manuscripts and books made by a private collector in the 20th century.
Having such important objects comes with its own responsibilities and challenges. Perhaps the greatest responsibility for the Library is to protect and preserve these collections; however this duty is tempered by the obligation to ensure that the collections are accessible to both scholarly research and the enquiring minds of the general public.
If preservation was the sole responsibility that came with these artefacts, they could be safely locked up in a climate controlled strong room only to be released when conservation was necessary. While that option may allow for the greatest protection of the collection, it definitely does not allow for great public engagement. Conversely, if public access was the sole responsibility of the library then perhaps a model more akin to a public library would be most suitable, where all objects are directly accessible to the public and they are able to handle and view them as they so wish. It should go without saying that this model would not allow for the greatest longevity of the collection.
So, the impossible to answer question essentially boils down to, ‘How can we give as many people as possible access to the collection while keeping it as protected as possible?’ Traditionally, we have answered this question by utilising the museum model. At our premises in Dublin Castle we have created a protected space where the public and academic researchers can interact and engage with our collection. This space has been described by Lonely Planet as, ‘not just the best museum in Dublin, but one of the best in Europe’ and has been the only museum in Ireland to win ‘European Museum of the Year’.
Yet, despite our great successes, there are also drawbacks to the museum model. Firstly, it obviously requires the public to be in physical proximity to the museum. Secondly, given our responsibility to protect the collection, there are physical barriers that can prevent our visitors from totally interacting with the collection. While this is an inevitable characteristic of a museum holding a valuable collection, the lack of interaction between the public and the objects can lead to a sense of detachment and lack of personalised experience.
The Chester Beatty feels the answer to this question is held within the digital medium.
Now that it is estimated that almost half the world’s population has access to the internet, it is obvious that this is an avenue through which we can potentially engage a huge amount of people regardless of their geographical location. Most importantly, this increased access through digitisation reduces any further physical stress on the objects.
Added to this, a well digitised image will allow the public perhaps even greater access than they would get in the museum itself. One is potentially able to zoom in to examine minute details, juxtapose contrasting images from apposite collections and even make your own collections. Given all of this it takes little imagination to realise why digitisation is one of the most important words in any modern museum’s vocabulary.
Jon Riordan, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty