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Using Metadata to Preserve the History of the Boston Ballet

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For over fifty years the Boston Ballet has brought internationally-acclaimed performances, world-class education programs, and valuable community initiatives to the Boston area. Their rich and interesting history is reflected across photographs, posters, brochures, news articles, and other artifacts. 

As the webmaster at the Boston Ballet, Michaela Donnelly manages this archive and administers their digital asset management (DAM) system. At the 2019 Widen Summit, she shared how she uses the Widen Collective® to preserve and protect the Boston Ballet’s long-standing history.

An archive without organization

Before the Boston Ballet implemented the Widen Collective, their archive was stored in a sea of boxes in a small, cramped office. “It was literally packed — floor to ceiling — with unorganized and uncatalogued assets.” she shared. Many of the materials lived on outdated technology, such as Zip drives and slides. Not only did this arrangement make it nearly impossible to locate a specific document, but artifacts were at risk of being damaged. “These assets faced critical danger of loss without a meaningful way to preserve and catalog them,” Michaela shared.

While the team’s primary goals for the DAM system were to support their web and marketing efforts with a way to manage and store their digital assets, Michaela also realized this was an opportunity to protect their historical assets. Knowing that their current preservation methods were unsustainable, the team configured their Collective site to support both current and historical assets.  

The archive goals they aimed to achieve with the DAM were:  

  • Preservation: digitize artifacts to extend their life
  • Organization: store and catalog all artifacts in a single location
  • Searchability: capture the description, context, and historical relevance of each artifact
  • Enhanced digital presence: use historical assets to support their website, social media, and digital advertising

In Michaela’s Summit presentation, she discussed how customized metadata fields in the Collective help them achieve these goals, especially around searchability.

Strategic use of metadata fields

Michaela_Breakout Sessions

The Boston Ballet uses the Collective to house both current and historical assets between active and cold storage. While the active assets make up the Ballet’s current story, the archived assets hold the keys to their rich past. 

The historical archived assets are comprised of anything before the tenure of the current artistic director, which began in 2001. While the archive also includes outdated assets from 2001 and after, the team had to draw a line in the sand as part of their DAM governance, in order to keep moving forward. This is a challenge that many DAM teams face when trying to determine what to keep, purge, and archive, but it often requires this sort of clear divide, as Michaela found, to avoid uncertainty in the process.  

To keep archived assets organized and searchable, Michaela and her team used customized metadata fields to capture details about assets that were at risk of being lost to time and out-of-date technology. “We use some very specific metadata types to sort of help us not only to catalog these assets and make them searchable...but also to provide context as to why these images are so important to the ballet, and the ballet’s history,” Michalea shared. Details that were often casually written on the back of an old photograph or fading from the inside of a dusty playbill are now searchable fields within the Collective. 

Here is some of the key metadata the Boston Ballet team uses to preserve these historical details: 

Archival materials: This metadata type allows them to quickly and easily sort the collection into two, searchable groups. Assets with the “archival materials” metadata type are considered historical assets.

Type: A pallette field simply called “type” has a controlled list of terms that provide information about the asset, such as: 

  • Autographed
  • Board materials 
  • Business Card
  • Diary 
  • Invites
  • Letters
  • Memoirs
  • Performance Reviews
  • Playbill

Specific archive: This field captures where the asset came from, such as: 

  • Boston Ballet General
  • Henderson Archive
  • E. Virginia Williams Archive (gift)
  • Sightlines Archive

Date: Historical assets have a date field that is configured for open text, rather than a calendar date format. Because the exact date an asset was created is often unknown, this format allows them allows them to approximate with something like “circa 1965.”

Description: This field is perhaps the most critical in their archival methodology, because it’s used to capture the unique importance of individual assets. Michaela shared, “The description field is used not only to describe the image as you see it, but is also there to describe why this image is of a historical moment, how it relates to the ballet, and just generally what its context is.”

For example, the photo below is of the marquette of the Back Bay theater, for the performance of the Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker in 1965. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-22 at 6.14.48 PM

This information is captured in the asset’s description field, along with the historical significance. In this case, one of the prima ballerinas of the American Ballet, Maria Tallchief, appeared in this performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. And it was one of her final performances as a professional ballerina before she retired. “So that’s really significant, and it puts us in the larger framework of history which is really interesting,” explained Michaela. The Collective allows them to capture this context in a searchable way. 

In cataloging the history of the Boston Ballet, the Collective is also preserving the legacy of the lives that are part of their story. And this easy, reliable access to their past helps position the Boston Ballet to be the ballet company of the future. 

Watch Michaela's full presentation from the 2019 Widen Summit:


Topics: Widen Summit, Customer Stories

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