The Online Exhibition Catalogue

I am re-posting content that existed in a previous iteration of my personal website, as a means of identifying the genesis of some of my current work and demonstrating how writing in small installments throughout my graduate career has proven useful.

So, from 2015:

Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the New Museum of Contemporary Art are pioneering a new age of the museum that is heavily influenced by and will be highly influential on digital scholarship. Extending beyond these Manhattan-based institutions, digital scholarship and the digital humanities have been slowly but surely penetrating the traditional museum infrastructure for several years. As an organizational and visual tool, I’ve employed an upside-down pyramid (inspired by Miriam Posner’s “How Did They Make That?” layer-cake approach to reverse-engineering DH projects) to illustrate my approach to the topic: from the very general research being conducted in the field, to the very specific tools being employed by museums (wherever this information was discoverable).

Beginning at the base of the triangle, I conducted broad research on digital scholarship in the museum realm. Volume 1, Number 1 of the Journal of Digital Humanities, published in 2011, features a provocative entry entitled, “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums,” representing just a fraction of the content from the Museum Computer Network YouTube channel of the same name. Museum leaders from venerable institutions across the United States, including the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, share their commitment to a museum that is explicitly incorporating new digital methodologies (scholarship) into their institutional mission. One of the key questions posed by Neal Stimler (Museum of Modern Art) and dissected by the likes of Michael Edson, a participant in the event and the Director of Web & New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, addresses a central challenge in the transformation of the museum:

How can museums advance beyond the continuation of traditional practices utilizing digital tools to a new mode of interpretation that seeks to understand the meanings of collections and scholarship in a new media culture?

One way that museums are incorporating digital scholarship and the humanities into their institutional framework is by establishing digital labs, and another is by employing digital scholarship to conduct research about exhibitions or to create digital objects that they exhibit in tandem with other “analog” artifacts. The Kress Foundation’s report: “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship” was published contemporaneously to the “Philosophical Leadership” YouTube channel. Although the former deals more explicitly with art history than museums, there is significant overlap in the two areas, and the Kress report fills in gaps left behind by the interesting but sometimes overly minimalist (and, honestly, kitschy) MCN-YouTube video.

Why are art history departments and museums ideal spaces for digital scholarship to occur? Because of a few factors: Art historians and museums have been slowly abandoning the traditional slide library and instead growing increasingly reliant on more accessible, and hopefully higher-quality digitized images—thereby entering the sphere of digital scholarship. As slide libraries have been significantly reduced or eliminated completely, innovative and new spaces have emerged (for example, in the University of Pittsburgh’s own Visual Media Workshop). The Kress Foundation’s report refers to these spaces as “art history research centers.” Art history departments and museums have thus also become homes to visual resource collections, and are ideal centers for digital scholarship to occur.

As this is a huge topic, I am going to hone in on one component of museum and art historical digital scholarship: the exhibition catalogue. Significant scholarly research occurs in the production of museum catalogues, and this is an area that has been rapidly evolving over the past several years, partly in response to the unsustainable or unjustifiable costs of the traditional museum catalogue. Nik Honeysett’s session at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference, “The Transition to Scholarly Catalogues,” describes the challenges and potential of publishing digital catalogues. Money is just one factor. The article also sets up an interesting case study: ten museums (9 in the United States and 1 in Great Britain) received significant funding from the Getty Foundation ($250,000, at a minimum) starting in 2009 as part of the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI). These institutions, by accepting the Getty funding, committed to experimenting with the online scholarly catalogue format, and its potential to provide (1) a new and potentially more intimate and interactive approach to the process of research, publication, and re-publication, (2) a more dynamic environment through enabling linkages within the catalogue to external and internal resources, (3) more high-quality (without the constraints of printing or funding challenges).

I’ve looked at the ten institutions and their catalogues to determine how the Getty Foundation grants have contributed to their online catalogues. In case you’re curious, the ten institutions are: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery & Freer Gallery of Art, the Tate Modern, the Walker Art Center, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

In my own analysis of the online catalogues of these select institutions, I was asking myself the following questions:

  1. Which exhibition catalogues did the museums choose to digitize and why?
  2. What tools do the museums use to create online catalogues?
  3. What qualifies as a good catalogue?
  4. How is the online catalogue superior to an analog catalogue?

In particular, I looked at two institutions that seemed to produce catalogues at two ends of the spectrum: one that is fairly conservative but still takes advantages of its digital format, and a very innovative, even transcendent catalogue that is almost unrecognizable from its analog counterparts. Both are examples of online exhibition catalogues, but in two diverging contexts.

The Art Institute of Chicago has produced two exquisite exhibition catalogues, in particular, including “Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago” and “Renoir Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.” These catalogues move beyond analog publications in that they can link to actual records in the Museum’s catalog, and are rich with further metadata and zoomable images. The catalogue also has a built-in glossary for looking up unfamiliar words on the spot. The Art Institute also features a very different kind of online catalogue, or exhibition documentation, of the exhibition “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” which employs audio and images to convey its story. These are two very different types of “catalogue.” But, the institution that has deviated furthest from the analog catalogue is the Walker Art Center, who’s “Living Collections Catalogue” is incredibly innovative. Even its “Contents” page is full of links, videos, images, and digestible chunks of text. It is, in short, incredible.

Yet, all of these institutions seem to use different tools to achieve their goals. Is it sustainable for each institution to create an unique online catalogue software? It seems that it is not, but how can this be resolved? Should there be a universal software or standard for online catalogues? For elite institutions with significant funding, this is likely less appealing and less urgently needed, but what about smaller museums and academic galleries that do not have the resources of the Getty or the Walker?