The Morgan Library & Museum is an awe-inspiring feat of cultural heritage conservation and architecture in the heart of New York City. It was built between 1902 and 1906 as the personal library of financier, collector, and cultural benefactor Pierpont Morgan, housing Morgan’s collection of rare books, manuscripts, and objects from some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, and creators. It has since grown into a major cultural institution. People come from around the world to see the vast collections of art, literature, music, and history — especially scholars, who want to study the original items and do primary research in person.
Prized in the Morgan’s collection are three Gutenberg Bibles (only 49 copies exist) as well as a collection of scores by Mozart and Beethoven; handwritten material by authors Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James; and works by historical figures like George Washington and Napoleon.
The Morgan regularly digitizes entire collections of rare objects for facsimile, publication, and scholarship — primarily rare books, manuscripts, music scores, printed materials, bound materials, loose letters, archival materials, and Old Master, Modern, and Contemporary prints and drawings. At any given time, materials are being digitized for exhibitions, for placement on the Morgan website, for reproduction in publications, and for loaning out and/or photographing materials for preservation purposes. These items could be made of paper, parchment, or vellum. The Morgan also creates images on demand for scholars, academics, publishers, and others outside the institution. All require digital photos of the highest quality.
When digitizing, professionals at the Morgan must create image files for every object. Because bound objects (rare books, manuscripts, music scores, etc.) are made up of hundreds of parts, there are usually many images for a single item. Also, conservation rules dictate that in order to preserve the integrity of a bound item, photographers must not open a book or manuscript more than 90 degrees to avoid damage.
It is painstaking work that takes time due to the sheer volume of shots and because handling these rare and often fragile materials requires the utmost care. Photographers need equipment that will ease this process.
Also, images must be of pristine quality with the best possible resolution, color, and fidelity. It’s the only way to make a true facsimile of the original and to be able to enlarge it for greater detail in exhibitions or research.
To accomplish this massive and ongoing undertaking, the Morgan turned to Digital Transitions. The relationship started in 2007 when the Morgan began buying high-quality, high-resolution digitization equipment. The DT Phase One P40 camera initially purchased by the Morgan has long since been upgraded, while the DT RCam and a Schneider Kreuznach lens is still being used today. The Morgan now also uses Capture One CH imaging software exclusively.
“We absolutely needed a high-resolution solution with quality imaging output,” said Marilyn Palmeri, the Morgan’s director of the Imaging and Rights department. “For example, with the Digital Transitions equipment, we were able to enlarge an image of a Raphael drawing to mural size, revealing pinpricks in the drawing that the museum’s curators had never been able to see before.”
Today, the Morgan’s setup consists of a custom-built DT 3040 copy stand and DT RCam copy camera system, recently outfitted with a Phase One IQ1 100 digital back. A Phase One camera solution is used for 3D object photography and installation shots. The Morgan also more recently acquired a DT Atom and DT book cradle as well as a DT Phase One iXH 150MP camera and 72mm iXH-RS lens and a 120mm iXH-RS lens.
Using this setup, the Morgan has digitized countless rare literary and historic materials, including copies of the Quran on parchment; the Gutenberg Bible; medical and botanical books; astrological treatises from the Middle Ages, music manuscripts from the likes of Verdi, Debussy, Vivaldi, Wagner, and Beethoven.
In one such project, the Morgan digitized materials for an exhibition and publication named “Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, ca. 800–1500,” which was on view at the Morgan in late 2021. While little-known and rarely seen by the general public, the manuscripts in this collection are among the most luxurious works of art from the Middle Ages. They were hand-written and hand-painted, and some contain gilded and intricately bejeweled artwork.
In collaboration with curators and conservation specialists, photographer Janny Chiu shot approximately 23 different manuscripts — resulting in approximately 56 images — over six months. They used the Phase One IQ180 and Phase One IQ100 with a DT 3040 copy stand.
This project is a perfect example of how the Digital Transitions setup helped digitization professionals at the Morgan move materials through the studio safely, quickly, and easily while capturing the objects at the highest resolution and fidelity. The resulting quality makes it possible to discern minute details within the images, and other equipment is designed for both speed of capture and protecting the fragile materials.
Occasionally, the Morgan also calls on Digital Transitions’ service arm, DT Heritage, to digitize research materials when staff digitization professionals have their hands full. The pandemic led to more requests for digital photos than ever — entire objects, such as manuscripts and letter collections — so that scholars can carry out research remotely. The Digital Transitions team helps increase productivity whenever The Morgan must transform research material into digital files for external users.
“Having an outsourced service wing through Digital Transitions gives us the equipment and the talent together in one package — with no separate logistics and without having to organize additional services and equipment rentals,” Palmeri said. “We also benefit from real expertise in both the equipment and U.S. cultural heritage photography. It’s not just a technician that comes in and pushes a button.”
Once Digital Transitions technicians capture all the images, they run them through DT PixelFlow, Digital Transitions’ workflow software that, among other things, creates derivatives and descriptive metadata. The Morgan’s workflow requires that technicians embed metadata into the RAW files and then the TIFF derivatives before depositing them into the asset manager. Because DT PixelFlow can do this within seconds, DT Heritage can deliver all materials with the metadata already embedded — thereby eliminating a time-consuming step in the institution’s workflow.
Much of the Digital Transitions equipment at The Morgan has been in use every day since 2007 — which speaks to its quality, longevity, and value.
But what’s most important is the longstanding relationship between the two companies and the resulting productivity. Digital Transitions’ expertise and solid digitization advice and services over the years have led The Morgan to work only with Digital Transitions as its digitization vendor.
“I trust Digital Transitions implicitly. They understand that digitization isn’t just for commercial photographers,” Palmeri said. “Even before they had a dedicated cultural heritage division, they worked in the museum and library world and had a deep understanding of real-world applications for archives and cultural heritage institutions.”
“Digital Transitions is really the whole package — the service, the community, the understanding of cultural heritage needs — that keeps us coming back.”
Images courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.