Reprinted from Newsletter 95, dated 2000 April–May

Big plan to digitize Somerset’s past

Jim Nagel

The county museum service is carrying out an ambitious project to make digital copies of all the pictures and artefacts in its collections. Moreover, volunteers from organizations such as the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society are being trained to use the latest technology and add their collections to a comprehensive database of Somerset’s history.

Today so much of the material is locked up in cupboards, but in the near future researchers — whether schoolchildren or professionals — will be able to access it from anywhere, thanks to the internet. Glastonbury’s new library, now under construction, is to have a wealth of terminals.

Lawrence Bostock, head of design for Somerset County Museum Service, spoke to Conservation Society and Antiquarian Society members at St John’s Centre on March 24. He brought his computer with a digital projector to display its screen as big as a slide show, and demonstrated how the system lets users search quickly and link information from various collections (see website).

He said: “It doesn’t replace going to museums — but it unlocks them.”

With a £3,000 digital camera, which he showed, solid objects like an ancient urn are photographed 36 times so that users will be able to spin the “virtual” object and view it from all sides.

Under the National Grid for Learning, Somerset is linking all schools, museums, record offices and hospitals with high-speed cable and even faster microwave beams. (No dish on the new library because of ongoing controversy about the transponder for mobile phones in the church tower.)

Some material, such as the existing Lake Village book, will also be published in the form of CDs — easy to do once the information is digital. A blank CD costs only 69p, whereas a decade ago the printed catalogues cost £8 each to show objects a school could borrow from the museum; today it’s online.

Original archives do not last forever. For instance, the museum has a treasured collection of watercolours by Harry Frier, from before cameras; they can be shown for only limited times in low light because colours would fade. Similarly, the chemicals in photographs and negatives deteriorate. Paper becomes too frail to handle.

The wealth of information about Glastonbury includes some 2,500 old images — a “strange mixture” of watercolours, etchings, sepia and internal photos, covering the High Street, Dod Lane, Hamlyn Road and Edgarley.

2018 update: “Things have moved on”

Some years ago Somerset County Council combined all heritage services under one banner and later made them into a trust, including Devon as well. Most of the services are still in the same building in Taunton, however. So is Laurence Bostock, who says “things have moved on” since his presentation to the Conservation Society 18 years ago — “That was a different age.”

The South West Heritage Trust website covers the Somerset Rural Life Museum here in Glastonbury; other sections include the Museum of Somerset, Somerset Archives and Local Studies, the Brick and Tile Museum, and Devon Archives and Local Studies. The site also has sections for archaeology and built heritage and for schools and teachers.