Jewish Museum Milwaukee is undertaking the formidable task of digitizing its entire collection, an enterprise that began in fall 2016 and still has many more years to go.
The museum, located at 1360 N. Prospect Ave., celebrates Jewish heritage and the history of Wisconsin’s Jewish community. In addition to its physical exhibitions, staff, interns and volunteers have been making a concerted effort to put the museum’s archive on the internet for anyone in the world to see, at any time.
“For any museum that collects, the public will never get to see the vast majority of the collection,” said Jewish Museum Milwaukee Executive Director Patti Sherman-Cisler. She emphasized that digitization will ultimately make the entirety of the museum’s records visible to everyone. This project will also benefit those with special research interests, like genealogists and students.
Digitization describes the process of taking a high-resolution scan or image of a physical item and uploading it to online record-keeping software. Each artifact is then tagged with metadata and keywords that describe the item. Keywords ensure that when catalog users enter their desired search terms the system presents all relevant material.
Initial results of this massive digitization effort are already available to the public. The museum’s online catalog can be accessed by visiting the “Search the Collections” section of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee website. The catalog consists of three categories: archives, photos and objects.
As an illustration of the time intensity required, the photo category alone comprises scans of over 15,000 paper photos. Archivists spent over three years to fully digitize this entire collection.
College interns from local universities and eager volunteers ascribe relevant tags to each item. The tagging process is still ongoing, with a small handful of photos currently available on its public website.
Oral histories are also among the publicly available digital archives. Oral histories are in-depth, 45-minute interviews where prominent Jewish people in Milwaukee detail their life story. The museum has conducted 580 oral histories, with the first one from 1986. These recordings were stored in various ways, from VHS to CD to MP4 files. All are now digitized and saved in the same virtual format.
The next step is to transcribe each oral history, a process which requires listening to the entire interview and writing down every word. About 100 oral histories have an accompanying transcription and are currently visible in the online catalog. Once all of the interviews are transcribed and given keywords, they will be uploaded and shared with the public as well.
Museum staff’s future goal is to digitize well over 100,000 physical documents from its collection. This process has yet to begin and will undoubtedly take many years.
Also available on the collections page of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s website are three genealogical databases: a Death & Burial Index, a Marriage Index and a Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle Obituary Index. Volunteers gathered this information in the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s early history, prior to the current ongoing digitization effort.
Museum staff are currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming virtual exhibit that is, in some ways, a representation of its seven years of digitization work. The interactive online display will showcase artifacts, recordings and documents that tell the stories of 10 key members of the Milwaukee Jewish community. A group of three to five personal objects will illustrate each person’s story. High-resolution 3-D imaging will give the online viewer the ability to rotate and interact with the object using their cursor. This collection will be available on the museum’s website in summer 2023.
Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s goal is to preserve and present the history of the Jewish people of Wisconsin in an accessible way. The digitization process, while time-intensive work, ensures that the community’s history may continue to educate and enrich not just museum visitors, but the world, according to organizers.
“When you collect, your responsibility lies with the public. You collect for the public good. All the work our team is doing makes sure the museum’s collections are available in perpetuity for the public good,” Sherman-Cisler said.
JMM is a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
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How to search
Collections, then “Search the Collections”
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How to help
The digitization process is led by Jay Hyland, archivist, and Cassie A. Sacotte, archives, operations and special projects manager.