DAM and Cultural Heritage Organizations

By Rebecca Hahn

DAM at the Morgan Library & Museum

DAM at the Morgan Library & Museum


Digital asset management (DAM) is a term used for the formal organization of assets. Its principles can be used regardless of which physical system is in place. “Assets” here can be defined as files incorporating metadata and can be any format, including text, image, sound and video (Littleson 2009). DAM activities improve efficiency in file management, metadata management, workflow and access (CHIN 2013). Digital asset management systems are open-source or proprietary software designed to streamline asset management. DAM systems “provide the capability of ingesting, describing, tracking, and circulating a digital file” (Waibel 2006).

Digital asset management systems have been around for over a decade and are used in diverse sectors from corporate to non-profit. Cultural heritage organizations can make great use of them to organize and provide access to their assets. When an institution implements a centralized, easy-to-use system to access its assets, a variety of departments can benefit. Assets can be used not only for collections management and curatorial purposes, but also for education, web development, sales, marketing and digital preservation (CHIN 2013).

In the corporate world, DAM is used for intellectual property and brand management, concepts also important to nonprofit organizations (Littleson 2009). Cultural heritage organizations often lag behind corporations in adopting DAM because of the cost and volume of cultural assets; large museums can have hundreds of thousands or even millions of assets, making digitization an expensive prospect. However, the cost of improper maintenance of assets is also high when excessive staff time is spent locating files. Easy access to collection images is increasingly expected among stakeholders and the general public. Additionally, digital access decreases physical use of collections, which can save money and promote preservation (Littleson 2009).

DAM can provide significant value for museums and other cultural organizations by saving staff time in file retrieval, eliminating redundant storage systems, creating infrastructure for digital preservation, documenting image provenance, and associating files with appropriate end uses (Newman and Dueker 2006). Although “return-on-investment” from efficiencies and possible revenue gains may be part of the rationale for initiating a DAM system, the underlying focus is often to support research, documentation and education (Chun and Jenkins 2006).

In museums and other cultural institutions, DAM systems can serve multiple purposes and thus require the cooperation of multiple stakeholders. DAM systems are at once technology tools requiring design and support from IT staff, content repositories that require management by collections staff, and catalogs that require the work of librarians (Chun and Jenkins 2006).

My personal experience with digital asset management comes from a volunteer position at the Morgan Library & Museum, where I work to improve metadata in the museum’s DAM system. At the Morgan, the DAM was initiated a few years ago in order to store and make accessible images of the museum’s collection. The Morgan’s curators, conservators, registrars, and educators use the DAM to find and download images for professional use. This vastly improves the experience of finding and sharing images; previously, images were stored in directories that were not easily searchable or widely accessible. The Morgan uses a version of ResourceSpace software, an open source product, to host its images. Other museums use software such as Extensis Portfolio and HP MediaBin.

Morgan Digital Asset Search Results

Morgan Digital Asset Search Results

The work I do at the Morgan involves adding, editing and standardizing metadata for the collection images to allow easier searching of the DAM. The primary point of access for the DAM is a search box, so it’s crucial to have accurate and consistent metadata for each record; I use terms from Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus. Once all the metadata is in place, users are able to search by artist, title, place, century, medium, accession number and record ID to locate exactly what they want, whether a single record or a grouping of related records.

Morgan Digital Asset Record

Morgan Digital Asset Record

The Morgan’s DAM system is not accessible to the public, although many collection images are available on the website. However, other museums have made their DAMs available online. In this way, DAMs can enhance community engagement by helping to open up collections to the public (Littleson 2009). Additionally, an institution can monetize its assets by adding an e-commerce feature to the DAM to purchase images (Broomfield, 2009).


Copyright and usage rights are an important issue for cultural heritage institutions, and DAM is particularly adept at managing this information. At museums it’s essential to keep track of which items are in copyright and to use them accordingly. DAM administrators can set records to be viewable and downloadable to only certain groups. At the Morgan, we use “open,” “restricted” (viewable but in copyright so permission is required for download) and “confidential” access levels. These features are useful for all institutions that have assets with varying copyright restrictions and users who require different levels of access. It’s also possible to give each DAM user a specific access level, for example administrator, publisher, editor or reader (Newman and Dueker 2006).

DAM can also effectively manage several versions of the same asset; images can be labeled to identify quality or purpose, for example preservation, publication, presentation, research and reference versions (Nilsen 2006). At the Morgan, we use an alternate image feature to include pre-treatment conservation photos along with post-treatment images.

What does the future hold for DAM in cultural heritage organizations? Much potential exists to link DAM systems with collection management systems and thereby improve workflows. DAMS and collection management systems have some overlap in functionality, but DAMS provide additional file management features not available in software like The Museum System (TMS). For example, at the National Gallery of Art, the DAM, TMS and the Digital Image Request System were configured to exchange data multi-directionally (Newman and Dueker 2006). The issues of user-generated metadata (tagging) and user-generated content and mash-ups are also worth further exploration (Littleson 2009). 

To learn more about DAM, you can join the New York City DAM Meetup group, which offers free monthly in-person or virtual meetings on a variety of DAM-related topics. The website also includes videos of previous panels and presentations. At a recent meeting of the NYC DAM Meetup group, I was pleased to hear mention of the necessity of hiring a “digital librarian” to provide metadata consultation when initiating a DAM project.


Broomfield, John, 2009. “Digital asset management case study – Museum Victoria.” Journal of Digital Asset Management 5, 116–125. doi:10.1057/dam.2009.4
[Available at: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/dam/journal/v5/n3/full/dam20094a.html].

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), 2013. Digital Asset Management and Museums – An Introduction.
[Available at:  http://www.rcip-chin.gc.ca/contenu_numerique-digital_content/fiches_techniques-tip_sheets/gestion_contenus_numeriques-digital_assets_management-eng.jsp].

Chun, Susan and Michael Jenkins, 2006. “Why Digital Asset Management? A Case Study” RLG Diginews. Special Issue: Managing Digital Assets in US Museums. Volume 10, Issue 6, December 2006. http://worldcat.org/arcviewer/1/OCC/2007/07/10/0000068924/viewer/file1.html

Lamont, Judith, 2011. “Digital asset management supports a world of rich media” KMWorld Magazine 20:9
[Available at: http://www.kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/Feature/Digital-asset-management-supports-a-world-of-rich-media-77846.aspx].

Littleson, Rus, 2009. “Managing cultural assets of Heritage Institutions – An interview with Rus Littleson of Media Equation” Journal of Digital Asset Management 5, 196–215. doi:10.1057/dam.2009.16
[Available at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/dam/journal/v5/n4/full/dam200916a.html].

Newman, Alan and Peter Dueker, 2006. “Digital Image Asset Management at the National Gallery of Art (US)” RLG Diginews. Special Issue: Managing Digital Assets in US Museums. Volume 10, Issue 6, December 2006. http://worldcat.org/arcviewer/1/OCC/2007/07/10/0000068924/viewer/file1.html

Nilsen, Dianne, 2006. “In Pursuit of Efficiency: Traversing the Boundaries of a Collection Information System” RLG Diginews. Special Issue: Managing Digital Assets in US Museums. Volume 10, Issue 6, December 2006. http://worldcat.org/arcviewer/1/OCC/2007/07/10/0000068924/viewer/file1.html

Waibel, Günter, 2006. “Introduction: Managing Digital Assets in US Museums” RLG Diginews. Special Issue: Managing Digital Assets in US Museums. Volume 10, Issue 6, December 2006. http://worldcat.org/arcviewer/1/OCC/2007/07/10/0000068924/viewer/file1.html


One thought on “DAM and Cultural Heritage Organizations

  1. Jill Weinstein

    Thanks for this. I’m a volunteer at the Morgan and didn’t know about this project.

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