GIVE Flemish masterpieces project
The Flemish List of Masterpieces (link in Dutch) was created to protect and safeguard unique cultural assets. It’s an exceptional collection of movable cultural heritage with archaeological, historical, artistic or scientific value for Flanders. But many of the items don’t yet have a high-quality digital reproduction, which is why we’re working to put that right over the next two years.
Many of the works on the Flemish List of Masterpieces still don’t have a high-quality digital copy – so you can only see them in situ. There are photos available in some cases, but not reproducible photographic copies. And that’s why we’ve set up this project to fill these gaps: we’re digitising over 250 masterpieces and making them accessible to the general public by the end of 2023.
We’ll be working on photographic reproductions of 2D content (such as paintings, drawings and prints) and 3D objects (such as sculptures), and capturing no fewer than 25 of the most important masterpieces in the finest detail using gigapixel photography. We’ll also be digitising 40 masterpieces in paper or parchment.
Meemoo is coordinating the GIVE Flemish Masterpieces project, for which we’ll be taking advantage of our previous experiences in photographing and publishing art and heritage collections for our art database, artinflanders.be. The images from this project will be sustainably preserved in the meemoo archive system and made publicly accessible via artinflanders.be. We’ll also be expanding our knowledge of new digitisation techniques in this project, and sharing it within the heritage sector.
The masterpieces are being selected in collaboration with the Topstukkenraad (Flemish Department of Culture, Youth and Media’s ‘Masterpieces Board’) [link in Dutch]. The selected works are all managed by meemoo and artinflanders.be partners.
This digitisation project is focusing on four types of reproductions:
Photographic reproductions of 2D content.
This includes 175 masterpieces, such as paintings, drawings and prints.
Gigapixel photography of 25 masterpieces.
Each of these works will be captured in up to 200 high-resolution images which are then stitched together. The end result is a file with at least 1 billion pixels so you can zoom in on the finest details.
3D digitisation of sculptures.
Scanning equipment is being used to make a digital 3D copy of a number of sculptures on the Flemish List of Masterpieces. Specifically, this concerns 115 terracotta images from the Van Herck Collection, which together form a single masterpiece, along with ten other sculptures.
Digitising 40 - 50 Flemish masterpieces on paper or parchment ('manuscripts').
As well as manuscripts or handwritten documents, we’re also digitising musical scores, registers, fragments and others.
Gigapixel photography, 2D content and 3D scanning processes
The gigapixel and 2D photography, and 3D scanning processes are taking place in three separate phases.
Phase 1: selection
Using the Flemish Masterpieces database from the Flemish Department of Culture, Youth and Media (links in Dutch) as our starting point, we made a preliminary selection in consultation with the Flemish Masterpieces Board. We also listened carefully to managers with ten or more masterpieces in their collection, always trying to find a good balance between the different types of organisations – such as churches and museums – when making the selection. We took the following criteria into account:
The item falls within the 2D or 3D (sculptures) category, or can be considered for gigapixel photography;
There is no high-quality digital copy of the work currently available;
Less accessible works without any digital copies available online are given priority.
Phase 2: outsourcing
We appointed the most suitable photographers for capturing the gigapixel and 2D images by the end of April 2022. There is an additional exploratory phase for the 3D scanning of sculptures, for which we appointed the most suitable digitisation partner for this part in June 2022.
Phase 3: digitisation
The actual photographing of masterpieces and 3D scanning of sculptures will begin following the outsourcing phase. The 2D and gigapixel photography took off in June 2022. Good planning and clear agreements with managers are crucial, especially considering we will be working in many different locations. The digitisation will take place in strict accordance with the guidelines, using equipment that meets international standards as stipulated in the contract. We will be carrying out continuous and rigorous quality controls together with our digitisation partners.
Flemish masterpieces on paper or parchment ('manuscripts')
The digitisation process of the Flemish masterpieces on paper or parchment (referred to below as the overarching 'manuscripts') is split into four phases.
Phase 1: exploration
This is the first time we’re working manuscripts, so we want to make sure we’re well-informed. We have therefore consulted with potential digitisation partners and called on the expertise that heritage managers have built up through experience of registering and digitising manuscripts in practice. In particular, we’re grateful to Bruges public library (link in Dutch) and the knowledge they gained from safeguarding medieval manuscripts in the MMMONK project, as well as Flanders Heritage Library.
To select the manuscripts, we started by putting together a longlist of 128 masterpieces with ‘paper’ or ‘parchment’ as the material type. Then we refined our initial selection down to a shortlist of 44 masterpieces with input from the Flemish Masterpieces Board, Flanders Heritage Library and the manuscript managers, taking the following criteria into account:
whether the manuscript already has a high-quality digitised copy;
whether the manuscripts is located in less accessible collections. These are prioritised in this project.
Eventually, we arrived at a main list of 40 yet to digitise manuscripts and a spare list, from which we can draw when it turns out a masterpiece on the main list cannot be digitised. The final scope has a great diversity in things such as:
condition of the manuscript;
dimensions of the manuscript;
number of folia in the manuscript;
whether the manuscript is bound.
The scope was broad enough to include in the project just about any manuscript not yet digitised to a high standard.
Phase 2: outsourcing
Through a call for tenders, we appointed a conservation and management expert, Martine Eeckhout. She drew up condition reports of each piece to be digitised and monitored the proper handling of these valuable manuscripts throughout the entire process. At the end of June 2022, we also appointed the most suitable digitisation partner, GMS, to take care of digitising the manuscripts together with meemoo.
Phase 3: digitisation
In contrast to other mass digitisation projects, this project only involves a modest number of items, and therefore requires a different approach: the preparation period, which will include drawing up condition reports among other things, will take longer, and the digitisation period will be shorter. Since this involves a smaller number of items and we cannot take advantage of any economy of scale, most of the manuscripts will be digitised in situ. Another difference is that we’ll be able to check the digitised manuscripts visually, from front to back, before importing them in the meemoo archive system.
The actual digitisation will begin with a test phase in the summer of 2022. A professional digitisation partner will carefully photograph the manuscripts on a book cradle for this, and all the equipment will satisfy internationally accepted quality standards. We will carry out continuous quality controls together with the digitisation partner.
What happens after digitisation and sustainable storage?
To optimise access to these masterpieces and encourage their re-use, we want to make these photographic representations widely accessible by storing them sustainably in the meemoo archive system. We will then make them available to the public on our platforms, and the masterpiece owners or managers can make them accessible on their own websites if they wish. It will also be possible to consult the digitised works in the Department of Culture, Youth and Media’s Flemish Masterpieces database (link in Dutch). Most of the masterpieces will be made available to the general public under a CC0 licence where possible, or be assigned public domain status.
More GIVE projects?
The GIVE Flemish Masterpieces project is one of four within GIVE, the umbrella name for four digitisation projects. In addition to the masterpieces, the digitisation of glass plates and newspapers (Primeur) is also on the agenda, and we’ll be focusing on metadata enrichment too.
Meemoo also has a role in other projects within the 'Resilience Recovery Plan', in particular for Flemish heritage databases, supervising cultural organisations in their digital collection registration projects and the digital leap in education.
Flemish Masterpieces Board
Managers of the masterpieces: 25 meemoo content partners and 70 artinflanders.be partners
Bruges public library
Flanders Heritage Library