For years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has aided art historians, researchers and other museums around the world by mailing out film-based photographs of artworks from its collection of more than 2 million pieces.

To do that, the museum's staff of photographers has to regularly move priceless artworks into specially-lit studios where the photos are taken, then move the delicate pieces back into storage or to their displays. Each time the works are moved, they are susceptible to damage or other hazards, but since the old-fashioned film-based photos and their negatives deteriorate over time, the process has to be repeated periodically to keep images usable.

That system is now changing. The museum hs announced that it is replacing its outdated film-based photo collection with digital images stored in a centralized catalog maintained with MediaBin Asset Server digital asset management software from Interwoven.

"Our method here for the Metropolitan Images Project is to preserve the photographs of the objects," said Douglas Hegley, deputy chief technology officer at the museum. Being able to take photographs digitally means that prints or negatives will no longer deteriorate over time. As a result, once new digital images are taken, priceless art objects won't have to be moved back and forth to photo studios, he said.

"The act of photographing a work of art involves moving it and lighting it, which increases the risk for damage," Hegley said. "With any art containing [paint] pigment, every time you light it, you begin to deteriorate the pigment."

In addition, the museum will more easily be able to locate and send digital images electronically, avoiding the tedious process of maintaining a huge paper-based photo collection and having to mail out and later refile returned photos.

The effort to capture digital images of the museum's extensive collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery and more will take many years, Hegley said, and will begin with the museum's most popular works. The digital images are being taken from multiple angles to provide clear and useful records of each work for historians, in-house publications, publicity, licensing and research.

The museum is using MediaBin Asset Server to organize and store the digital images, said Brian Meek, director of product marketing at Interwoven.

MediaBin starts at about US$50,000 for corporate use. The price tag for the museum's image project was not disclosed.

Another benefit of having digital images of the museum's collections is to make more of the items available digitally to the public around the world, which is one of the museum's goals, Hegley said. "Images are clearly the way to do that when the public can't be on-site," he said.

Highlights of the museum's collections are available online, and the number of images will continue to grow through the use of MediaBin, he said.

"We plan to put more and more images online," Hegley added.