Digitalizing Europe’s cultural heritage is both an immense challenge and an unprecedented opportunity to tap into forgotten, unrecognized, and hitherto inaccessible sources of knowledge. In view of the overwhelming abundance and variety of this heritage, a system along with optimized processes are required for keeping a virtual record of historically important objects in collections and museums. There is therefore a considerable need to develop corresponding methods, techniques, and procedures.
However, it is already clear that mass digitalization of collections in natural history, art, cultural studies and technology will open up an inestimably wide field of activity for data-based research and science. A systematic capture and evaluation of various objects, which have so far languished in numerous bibliographic stacks, warehouses, archives and the like around the world, will be carried out primarily using machine learning or artificial intelligence methods.
Digital connectivity will create virtual collections that offer a completely new level of quality as databases and objects of investigation – all without needing to have a direct physical impact on precious, sensitive and rare individual pieces. Examples of such collections are astronomy photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; medical findings and biopsies from the Enlightenment through today; plant and insect collections from the last 400 years; woods used in household objects, musical instruments, works of art or furniture; scientific instruments and equipment such as clocks, binoculars, scales and sextants; plus coins, clothing, jewelry, etc.
Digitalization will reveal parallels and links that have not yet been recognized, due to the objects being isolated and dispersed throughout the world, and will permit significantly improved statistics. The journey to explore the planet and its inhabitants through the lenses of natural history and cultural science by applying big data methods to historical collections is just beginning.