Holly Schulte

Curator, Digital Assets

In her role as Curator of Digital Assets, Holly Schulte explores the extraordinary potential of digital imaging technology alongside the enduring appeal of analogue photographic collections. 

Holly studied photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, completing an honours degree in art and commercial practice. She was fascinated by analogue photography: ‘I loved it – especially the magic of the studio and darkroom, the tangible process of exposing, developing and manipulating the photographic image’. Digital photography was then emerging, and a pivotal moment for Holly was attending a talk at the State Library of Queensland on conserving historical photographic collections: ‘From then on, I was enthralled by the preservation of these fragile objects and how digital technologies can supplement this work’. 

Since then, caring for and curating photographic collections has come a long way. Thanks to advances in digital imaging technologies, history has never been more accessible. 

The positive of a negative 

Holly joined Sydney Living Museums in 2006, to establish a project to digitise, manage and care for the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. This followed the success of the City of Shadows exhibition at the Justice & Police Museum, featuring images from the archive: ‘The immense photography collection at the Justice & Police Museum spans 50 years (from around 1910 to 1964), with seven different negative formats used across the decades. Not only does it show the material progress of photographic technology and how the police used it, but it’s also a snapshot of modernising Sydney itself. Through the eyes of police photographers, we see intimate domestic places, city and suburban streets, sunny beaches and the harbour, and gain an understanding of Sydney’s development and expansion on a variety of levels’. 

Holly says: ‘Even the original boxes that negatives are stored in provide information to help interpret the negatives and the story depicted in each one. Negatives are the objects of photographic history with a visual history inside them. It’s a privilege to be able to expose and recontextualise something that may have been hidden for decades’. 

Digitising collections offers myriad opportunities for accessibility: ‘We have 12 unique properties spread across Sydney and NSW. Even when you visit them, you can’t see everything in their collections, as many objects are in storage or bedroom drawers. Digitisation makes them visible. Because we’re not bound by the physical location of these items, the opportunities for virtual storytelling and sharing are infinite – for example, we could digitally group objects from our properties to showcase 200 years of kitchenware or furniture’. 

Digitisation is also a useful tool for monitoring the collection: ‘Photography records an object at a moment in time, and we can use it to assess the object’s condition’. 

A multifaceted role 

As well as managing the Digital Assets Team, Holly enjoys working with colleagues across SLM on multiple projects: ‘In a larger organisation, you might have a more specific role, but I work across the collections and digitisation processes, researching, cataloguing and facilitating file management and delivery. I manage an image database, set standards and train others in digital assets, work with curators and audience focus teams, and collaborate on public programs and themed exhibitions’. 

Holly also commissions and takes an active role in photo shoots: ‘There’s plenty of teamwork involved in everything from assessing the stability of an object to deciding how best to visually tell its story’. The challenge can be prioritising what to photograph and how to do it justice: ‘I want to make sure I translate the object accurately and thoroughly. I focus on conveying the overall qualities of each object as well as capturing individual details’. 

By nature, Holly is process-driven and organised: ‘You need processes and standards in place to work efficiently and consistently. For instance, when we’re planning our photography sessions and on the shoot itself I’ll take the opportunity to group like objects and those that require the same kind of digitisation and lighting approach’. 

The future of the past looks bright 

Holly believes that while the fundamentals of photography haven’t changed over time, the technology available now makes it much more immersive: ‘Still photographs will always have multiple applications for reproduction and presentation, but methods like 3D and spatial scanning give us a new ability to interrogate and visually explore each object’. 

Whether engaging others in the evolving world of digitisation or bringing an object before the camera and making it accessible, Holly finds her role deeply rewarding and absorbing: ‘The possibilities for virtual discovery of SLM’s collections are endless, and that’s a very exciting prospect’. 

Holly Schulte in front of the reprographic digitisation set at the Justice & Police Museum.

Holly Schulte in front of the reprographic digitisation set at the Justice & Police Museum. Photo © Joshua Morris for Sydney Living Museums