Although museums have been collecting items since the invention of photography, it has been rare for a museum to photograph its entire collection. Photography, however, helps staff distinguish between two similar pieces, conduct an inventory after a disaster, and identify a piece that has been stolen.
This is a wonderful story of where photography/digitization helped a museum locate a stolen items. Over 100 items were stolen from the Wisconsin Historical Society in the 1990s by one of its employees. Most of the items have not yet been located. One - a beaded knife sheath - was returned this year. The sheath had changes hands several times since it was stolen and ended up in a collection that was photographed and placed online. Staff at Wisconsin Historical Society recognized the sheath from its image, and have been able to get it returned to their collection.
We think of digitization as increasing access, but we also need to remember that it increases the documentation that we have available on our collections. This story proves that photographic documentation can be very, very important.
Thanks to Peter Kurilecz for ensuring that I saw this article!