Making heritage visible: A proactive digitization initiative of IGNCA cultural archives

Shilpi Roy

Standardization of a documentation system is an essential precondition for digitizing museum collection. The scenario of most of the Indian museums, manual documentation system practiced therein was systematic somehow but the information collected in that way was extremely incompatible and inconsistent.

Consistency and universal access can only be achieved if there is sound compatibility at the level of “Core” information, i.e., basic information common to a number of collections. Following this necessity, in face of global development of museum documentation, major museums of India, started computerization of their collection in mid-1990s. Nevertheless, considering the expenses, stage of advancement (capacity/limitation) of the gadget, and the technical skills of the majority of museum personnel; those efforts could not fruitful then.

The Ministry of Culture (MoC), Government of India under in its 14 point museum reform agenda (2009) has given special focus to the area of digitized documentation of the antiquities in the museums in various parts of our country, with a view to standardize the collection management system of our museums. The MoC with collaboration of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Pune; made a national portal and digital repository of Indian museums namely Museums of India. This portal provides access to heritage antiquities from 10 national museums using JATAN, Virtual Museum Builder software, under the Ministry of Culture.

A premier art Institution of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, is working sincerely since its inception to develop computerized storage, retrieval and dissemination of information on all aspects of arts and cultural heritage. The National Cultural Audiovisual Archives (NCAA) implemented by IGNCA has become the world’s first Trusted Digital Repository as per ISO 16363:2012 standard, granted by Primary Trustworthy Digital Repository Authorisation Body Ltd, UK.

This paper aims to describe the present digitization scenario of the Cultural Archives of IGNCA and understand the implication of this system. The present digitization initiative aims to develop a digital collection management system compliant with open source and standardized formats which will help in image processing, watermarking, and unique numbering and managing the digital images with multimedia representations of our collections. It will also provide the facilities like user administration, search and retrieval, access control for the portal and so on.

Documentation system of Cultural Archives: scenario & changing perspectives

The Cultural Archives of IGNCA is a unique and rare of its kind which houses not only archaic documentary heritage but also valuable diverse art collections related to contemporary art, living-history events, ethnographic, ritual arts and ceremonial practices across the country. Since the inception of IGNCA in 1987, the Cultural Archives received rich personal collections from great art historians and carefully acquired diverse collections following IGNCA’s mandate to understand the expression of Indian arts in their interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature and the universality of arts as well.

The rich personal collections namely Ananda Coomaraswamy, Lance Dane, Kapila Vatsayan and others collected and compiled by scholars and collectors over several decades out of their sheer passion for the related field of studies. IGNCA always focuses diverse art practices throughout the country, thus the Cultural Archives acquired glass plate negatives of Raja Deen Dayal, the legendary photographer of the 19th century; paintings of Elizabeth Sass Brunner & Elizabeth Brunner, the Hungarian mother-daughter duo who lived and died in India; black and white negatives of photo documentation done by  Henri Cartier Bresson– the father of photojournalism, Sunil Janah– the renowned photographer from Bengal, David Ulrich, the famous American photographer; V.A.K. Ranga Rao music collection; rock art reproductions by Yoshodhar Mathphal to very recent Mohon Khokar dance collection among others. Besides, it has a sizeable amount of audiovisual materials pertaining to various folklores, life styles, the great and legendary artists, interviews and detailed documentation of rituals and art forms.

Figure 2 - Rabindra Nath Tagore, Portrait/Bust by Elizabeth Brunner, 1931, Shantiniketan from IGNCA Cultural Archives
Figure 1 – Rabindra Nath Tagore, Portrait by Elizabeth Brunner, 1931, Shantiniketan (from IGNCA Cultural Archives)
Figure 5 - From the webpage of virtual exhibition ‘Celebrated Painters & Photographers on Bengal and Santiniketan’ showcasing the original works of Brunners and series of photographs captured by photographers: Raja DeenDayal, ShambhuSaha and Sunil Janah with a special focus to Bengal
Figure 2 – From the webpage of virtual exhibition ‘Celebrated painters & photographers on Bengal and Santiniketan’ showcasing the original works of Brunners and series of photographs captured by photographers: Raja DeenDayal, ShambhuSaha and Sunil Janah with a special focus to Bengal

In the existing manual system forty (40) collections were documented in a systematic manner based on information needs of each type of collection. There are accession registers for each collection containing basic information and administrative details.

Figure 1 - Format of accession registers of some important collections of the IGNCA Cultural Archives
Figure 3 – Format of accession registers of some important collections of the IGNCA Cultural Archives

The existing collections are grouped into six major categories:
(I) Literature collections like Dr. R.C. Rangra, Voice of Tagore, Shri Akhilesh Mittal collection;
(II) Architecture & Sculpures collections like Lance Dane, Benoy Behl, Shambunath Mitra collection;
(III) Photograph collections like Raja Deen Dayal, Henri Cartier Bresson, Sunil Janah, Sambhu Shaha, D. R. D. Wadia, David Ulrich, Jyoti Bhatt and Raghava Kanerria, Ashvin Mehta;
(IV) Music collections like S. Krishnaswami, S. Natarajan, V.A.K. Ranga Rao, Dr S Venkatesan;
(V) Other Visual Collection such as Brunners paintings and personalia, Ananda Coomaraswamy art collection, Coorg jewellery, Mohan Khokar Dance collection, Abdul Majid Ansari collection of surahis, Prof. R.P. Mishra collection of maps, Martha Strawn collection of kolam designs, UNESCO Posters  and others;
(VI) Ethnographic collection such as Harikatha collection, Sadagopan collection, Warli paintings, scale reproductions of the rock art of Bhimbetka, Uttarakhand, Jhiri and Kerala from Dr Yashodhar Mathpal, Bastar collection, Puppets, Marie Theresa Dutta collection of audio recordings, musical instruments mainly of the Santhal tradition, S.G. Tewari collection of B & W negatives of Jawaharlal Nehru, Saraswati Mahal slides on Mahabharata paintings, Balan Nambiar collection of colour slides on the ritual dances of Kerala, a comprehensive photo documentation on lives and activities of people and places of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) of India by Shri Shambhunath Mitra and Late Kapila Vatsyayan, art collections including audio recordings and photographs etc.

In addition to above collections, the Cultural Archives contains nearly 2.000 video tapes and 1.500 audio spools of the various audio-visual documentation, films on research projects taken up by the various divisions of IGNCA. Some of these films won National Film Awards such as Shri Aribm Shyam Sharma’s Yelhou Tagoi and Shri Bappa Ray’s Wangala of the Garos.

Though major collections of the Cultural Archives are partly or fully digitized, it needs a comprehensive digital system for efficient curation and conservation of rich collections.

Present initiative of digitization: procedure & structure

Being a national premier government art institution, IGNCA is dedicated to disseminate knowledge and to make its collections accessible. With the rapid development of new technologies to capture collections, store them and interpret them online in innovative, user-friendly ways, the IGNCA Cultural Archives is embracing the potential of these digital opportunities aiming to have a user friendly secure system with following objectives:

  • To protect and preserve the cultural heritage inherent in the collections/ works of the collectors who specialized in their fields.
  • To make available information for the users, scholars and general public so that there is awareness of the rich cultural heritage of India and its relevance in the present times and future.
  • To create a visual storage for the public with digital portals so that people can see, use and experience rich collections of Cultural Archives.
  • To produce e-Catalogues on collections to facilitate researchers of relevant field.
  • To present virtual exhibitions showcasing major collections so that people across the globe can view curatorial approach of Cultural Archives.

Although the Cultural Archives started digitization of collections in early nineties, but sole objective of that effort was to preserve the collections digitally. The issue of managing reproductions of artworks for the public institutions is not only a legal question but also one of the principal museum and archival ethics. In Cultural Archives, while the major collections are fully digitized and systematically documented, when it comes to give access of reproductions and documentation of collections, however, it often followed a restrictive policy.

The Indian Copyright Act 1957 (lastly amended in 2012), is compliant with international conventions and treaties in the field of copyrights, mostly took place under the aegis of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as well as with the developed countries of USA and UK. Previously, the duration of copyright has been extended from 14 years in the first copyright act, the ‘Act of Anne’ (1709, 8 Anne c. 19), to fifty or seventy years after the author’s death in most countries. On expiration of this term, artworks in the public domain are no longer copyright-protected. In general, USA and UK, there is no copyright in photographic reproductions of two-dimensional artworks in the public domain.

The ICOM Code of Ethics also states (in section 7.1): “Museums should conform to all national and local laws and respect the legislation of other states as they affect their operation.” In this context, the recent inclusion of the con­cept of moral rights of Anglo-American copyright legislation appears apt, in that the producer of a reproduction of an artwork in the public domain should have the right to be credited as reproducer.

In the UK, recently important institutions have changed com­mon museum practice and have begun to make their col­lections available digitally, with the option to download a high-quality image suitable for publishing. The Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum offer this service for non-commercial purposes, including academic pub­lishing. A service fee is truly valid if museums offer this kind of service. Commercial projects incur a fee, however, the fees for illustrations for academic publications are waived as per rule.

This changing scenario reflects the more user friendly approaches of museums, archives and other cultural institutions in disseminating their rich resources through digital materials. However, on the issue of transitory or incidental reproductions frequently took place in the Internet communication needs to be addressed carefully.

Developing digital walkthrough is also an important feature of present digitization initiative. Now we are preparing virtual exhibitions and digital walk through on previously organized mega exhibitions on major collections like Raja Deen Dayal, Elizabeth Brunner, Sambhu Shaha,  Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Sunil Janah, Henri Cartier Bresson and others.

Figure 3 - Raja Deen Dayal Recommendation Letter, Indore, 5th March, 1867
Figure 4 – Raja Deen Dayal recommendation letter, Indore, 5 March, 1867
Figure 4 - Raja Deen Dayal monorail studio camera, teakwood, glass and iron, 109.22 × 45.72 × 132.08 cm. (from IGNCA Cultural Archives)
Figure 5 – Raja Deen Dayal monorail studio camera, teakwood, glass and iron, 109.22 × 45.72 × 132.08 cm. (IGNCA Cultural Archives)

Figure 4 shows screenshot of one recently launched virtual exhibition. In present digitization initiative only basic information of each item of every collection is available on Koha Library software used by Kala Nidhi division of IGNCA. For detailed documentation a customize museum software is proposed titled ‘Cultural Archives digital system’. In proposed digitization initiative search can be possible by following: search by collection category for eg. photographs; search by collection name for eg.: Henri Cartier Bresson collection. A standard format for cataloguing collections is given below containing following core information categories.

A. Object details: title; maker; date; geography; medium; dimensions; diameter; classification; credit line; accession number
B. Catalogue entry
C. Distinguishing features (signatures, inscriptions, and markings)
D. Provenance
E. Exhibition history
F. References
G. Timeline of art history
H. Publications

Procedural manual: In any digitization project to implement the best practices, there should be a type of procedural manual that aims to establish a consistent set of standards and methods for the various types of work done throughout collection management, including digitization. In following paragraphs a procedural manual is prepared for photographs, slides, and negatives collection of the Cultural Archives titled “A guide of digitizing protocols and best practices: photographs, slides, and negatives.” For instance, the procedural manual for photographs, slides, and negatives should include basic principles of digital archiving of those materials such as:

1. Organization of digitized files. There should be preparedness in organizing image files on the computer. Following aspects should be kept in mind:

– The master images are the nucleus of any digital archives which can significantly enhance the preservation and sharing of historical information. Those intend to be suitable for many different uses in the future. The documentation for an item forever stays with the master image.

– Working copies of the master images are made when adapting the images for particular uses for specific purpose. At least three copies of the archive should be maintained, including at least one copy at a different location.

– Different collections should be kept in different folders. Within a collection, it is often useful to make subfolders for different themes or time periods depending on nature and scope of collection. For example, in Raja Deen Dayal collection, two subfolders may be created: Studio photographs & outdoor photographs. Under studio photographs separate folders may be created based on sub themes like portrait of eminent personalities, royal portraits, portraits of common man and group photographs. Under outdoor photographs separate folders may be created based on sub themes like architecture and places, ceremonial photographs, photographs on life and activities of common man and miscellaneous photographs.

– Within a time period, separate folders should be for photographs and slides and alike documents. For example, in Sadagopan collection separate folders should be made for photographs and slides and negatives. Other folders may also be useful, such as for audio recordings.

– Working images should be placed in separate folders from the master images. Usually it is recommended those should be placed in a separate working area rather than as a subfolder of the master images.

– With modern technology, the digital files in the archive should be transferred to new storage media at least approximately every two to four years. Expert help should be taken if existing staff could not able to do it.

2. Preservation of original items. After the digital copies have been made, the original items will be stored in a safe and secure place. The optimal temperature and humidity are varied with nature of collection. In general temperatures closer to 20° C and relative humidity between 30% and 40% should be maintained for archival materials. Preferably, the fluctuations in temperature will be less than 2 degrees and fluctuations in relative humidity will be less than 5%. Environmentally controlled vaults are preferred to maintain the optimal conditions mentioned above. In addition to the proper maintenance, the transfer of items in and out of cold storage causes a major fluctuation in temperature that must be minimized and handled with proper precautions.

Location is an important parameter for safekeeping of original items. Basements with high humidity and soaring fluctuations of temperature and humidity must be avoided. Again locations near heating and cooling vents, in direct sunlight, or next to outside walls should be avoided. Locations with polluting fumes such as from cleaning products should also be avoided. A closet in an air-conditioned room may be a good setting. 

The containers used to preserve photographic materials are also a potentially major source of deterioration. The Photographic Activity Test (PAT) set by the International Standards Organization (ISO) for archival envelopes and boxes is optimal for long-term preservation of photographic materials. Sometimes the terms acid-free and archival are used for materials that do not fulfil the PAT standards. Therefore the best practice is to use items that have particularly passed the PAT.

3. Backup copy of digital materials: a backup copy of a digital archive must be made because the disk drive on a computer can irreversibly stop working at any time. At least three copies of an archive should be maintained and at least one of the copies should be in a different location. For instance, the following arrangement of digital copies may be followed in present work scenario of the Cultural Archives of IGNCA.
– The primary copy on Incharge, Cultural Archive’s computer system
– The backup copy on an external drive on Assistant Archivist’s computer
– Another backup copy on an external drive in specialized Audio visual Library of Media Centre, IGNCA.

4. User access control and copyright: there should be clear differences between user access and engagements. This distinction of users’ deportments is necessary to identify the user who witness the interface to view to the object only and those users for whom the collections interface is a holistic experience. The proposed digital collection management system is aimed to become gradually more user friendly as our attempt to harness the latest developments in the field for the benefit of our visitors and collections. The user can view images of specific artworks on the proposed digital portal of the Cultural Archives. But zooming in displayed only the relevant tiles of the image to impose a rudimen­tary form of protection against the images being copied in their maximum resolution. However the proposed system will have the option to download a high-quality image suitable for publishing for the scholars mentioning due credits of IGNCA.


Digitization of cultural heritage is an important part of the IGNCA’s mission to uphold understanding and appreciation of art by exhibiting, interpreting, and preserving the collections and disseminating and managing collections records for current and future generations. To understand the importance of computerized collection management, it is imperative to understand the concept of digital heritage, which allows for cultural history and traditions, and artworks to be conserved and maintained through the utilization of technology. As stated previously, the digitization of collections opened the door to the expansion of shared knowledge. In the present digitization initiative titled Cultural Archives digital system the existing staff instead of hand-written or typed information related to objects and specimens that was organized in previous collection specific filing system, they are able to input this information digitally creating centralized information that is more easily retrievable.

This system greatly helps us to create enhanced procedures for the systemization and organization of objects and document records and related information. While the knowledge sharing of cultural heritage through digitization seems like the ideal concept to expand collection access, we are carefully addressing the technical and legal issues that may arise, including the issue of the “value” of a digitized artwork. Nevertheless, IGNCA should be credited in all cases when reproduc­tions of its collection are used and re-published.


Abell-Seddon, B. (1988) Museum catalogues: A Foundation for Computer processing. London: Butterworths.

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), no date. “Caring for your Treasures: Photographs.” [ (Accessed 1 July 2021)].

Chaudhury A.R. (1963) Art museum documentation and practical handling. Hyderabad: Chaudhury & Chaudhury.

Gilliland-Swetland, A,J. (2000) Introduction to Metadata: Setting the Stage. [Retrieved from]. [ (Accessed 1 July 2021)].

James, T C. (2002) Indian Copyright Law and Digital Technologies. Journal of Intellectual Property Rights 7, pp. 423-435.

Kennedy, J.E. (2012) Preserving history: How to digitally archive and share historical photographs, documents, and audio recordings. [ (Accessed 1 July 2021)].

Orna, E., C. Pettitt (1980) Information handling in museums. New York: Greenwood Press.

Petri, G (2014) The Public Domain vs. the Museum: The Limits of Copyright and Reproductions of Two-dimensional Works of Art. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 12/1, pp. 1-12. [DOI: (Accessed 1 July 2021)].

Roy, Sh. ( 2019) Museum Documentation System. A potent tool for collection management. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.

Sarasan, L., A.M. Neuner (1983) Museum Collections and Computers. Report of an ASC Survey. Lawrence, KS: Association of Systematics Collections.

Sarason, L. (1995) Why museum computer projects fail. In A. Fahy (ed.), Collection management. London: Routledge.

Singh, A. (2012) Digital preservation of cultural heritage resources and manuscripts: An Indian government initiative. International federation of library associations and institutions, 38/4, pp. 289-296. [Retrieved from journal/ ifla- journal-38-4_2012.pdf].

Swank, A.P. (2008) Collection management system. [Retrieved from].

Wentz. P. (1995) Museum information system: the case for computerization. In A. Fahy (ed.), Collection management, pp.198-210. London: Routledge.

Shilpi Roy

Shilpi Roy

M.Sc., PhD Museology, University of Calcutta, India. UGC-JRF awarded. Certificate of Competence by ICOM-CIDOC: Paris and Texas Tech University. Intern, M P Birla Planetarium, Kolkata. Project Associate, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. Recent: Assistant Professor & Incharge, Cultural Archives of Kala Nidhi division, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, India.
Contributor of significant publications including ‘Museum Documentation- A potent Tool for Collection Management’ awarded by the Indian Council o Historical Research.