Welcome to the new CIDOC blog! Every month we will publish insightful articles by practicing museum professionals on current projects, conferences, and issues. Topics will include GLAMs, museum documentation, intangible cultural heritage, and more.
In 2016, the National Gallery mounted a major exhibition, Painters's Paintings, which took ‘its inspiration from works in the National Gallery Collection once owned by painters’. Yet, although we have used a digital collections management system since the early 1990s, the information that we needed to assemble the exhibition – who previously owned our paintings – did not exist in our database.
This may seem surprising, given the size of our collection: we currently have only 2,363 objects, a small number compared with most other museums. But many museums have similar problems with their digital documentation, and in the Gallery’s case, there are very good reasons for them.
Two of the National Gallery’s most recent series of scholarly catalogues – Photo: © The National Gallery London.
Speaking on national TV in January 2016, our Director, Gabriele Finaldi, said that ‘the Gallery has probably more knowledge about its own collection than any other museum in the world’. The first printed catalogue of our paintings appeared in 1824, the year of our foundation; we published our renowned series of scholarly catalogues arranged by artistic school from 1945 to 1991; and we began an entirely new series in 1998. The most recent volume, Nicholas Penny and Giorgia Mancini’s catalogue of the 16th-century Ferrarese and Bolognese paintings, describes just 44 paintings in its 535 pages.
Several volumes of the National Gallery Technical Bulletin – Photo: © The National Gallery London.
And we must add to these the 36 volumes (so far) of the National Gallery Technical Bulletin; our many handwritten and typescript records (we have recorded cleaning and treatments systematically since 1855); analogue and digital photographs; digital information that has not yet found its way into our database; and digital systems like our MicroGallery [PDF], at the cutting edge when it opened in 1991.
The MicroGallery in the newly-opened Sainsbury Wing – Photo: © The National Gallery London.
But these notable achievements have also led to problems: faced with this much rich, detailed, narrative information and the highly structured space available in a collections management system (we use Gallery Systems’ TMS), we took the entirely reasonable decision not to try and shoehorn our information into the database. Instead, we made sure that the core ‘tombstone’ information which can identify the paintings was recorded in TMS, and then concentrated on using the system to manage painting movements, loans, and exhibitions. As a result, our database lacks information such as provenances, bibliographies, and structured links to places, materials, and techniques.
But the world changes, and in 2017 we find ourselves with a problem: an ever-growing online audience using multiple channels, very limited structured digital information that could be used to meet their needs, and no centralised system for storing data and texts and delivering them to those different channels so that we can develop rich, innovative ways of presenting our collection digitally.
Over the last year-and-a-half, we have been planning the solution. A generous grant from a charitable trust will fund a three-year Collection Information Project (‘CIP’) to greatly enrich the digital collection information that we hold, so that we can make our extensive knowledge and expertise about the paintings accessible to everyone.
After some initial enabling work, the project will fall into two parts. One will prepare our collections information for re-use, bringing together, connecting, structuring, enhancing and expanding our data. We will automatically extract structured data from a series of Word files which provide core object information and from the texts of our scholarly catalogues; catalogue books into our Library database so that we can connect paintings’ TMS records with books’ library records; and enter by hand any additional information which cannot be assembled automatically.
In the second part, authors and editors will produce a new short and long description for each of our paintings. We will also write longer essays on our 100 most significant works, and produce online resources which discuss materials and techniques, paintings’ functions, and the history of collecting and display. We will also review and update existing texts describing artists, styles, movements, media, techniques, subjects, and so on. We aim to produce content that can be reused multiple times in different contexts, without having to be rewritten every time, and so we also hope to make our data publicly available using established standards such as LIDO and the CIDOC-CRM (both of which were developed by CIDOC working groups), so that people can incorporate it into their own systems.
To enable the CIP to achieve these goals, we plan to commission middleware to link together systems including TMS and our library, archive, and image databases so that they deliver data together as a seamless whole. All this will feed into a new website, which will deliver much richer, and more inter-connected, information about our paintings.
But these are just first steps. We have much more information than we can deal with even in the CIP, and we must plan an ongoing programme to digitise and publish it. Our aim is to tell the stories of our objects from their creation to the present day using structured data. The middleware will let us make our information available to any consuming system, and we hope to take advantage of this to deliver it in other systems beyond the website.
The end result will be a step change in the richness and breadth of information that the Gallery holds digitally and delivers to its audiences. Having started with too much information to enter easily into our database, we want to give our users all the digital information they will need to understand and appreciate some of the world’s greatest works of art.
Visitors looking at three of the National Gallery’s Titians – Photo: © The National Gallery London.
Bio: Rupert Shepherd initially trained as an art historian, specialising in the Italian Renaissance, before moving into museum documentation, dabbling in humanities computing and digitisation along the way. Having managed the Ashmolean Museum’s documentation for three years, and the Horniman Museum and Gardens' for six, he has been Collection Information Manager at the National Gallery, London, since 2016. Rupert tweets at @rgs1510.
The Priceless Power of GLAMs by Holly Witchey - March 24, 2017
I wanna tell you it’s some cold and lonely work if the focus of your studies is the never-told story of a well-to-do family in the Gilded Age (not a lot of sympathy out there for the topic, but the story of three generations of the Wade impact on the cultural infrastructure in Cleveland is one that I’m committed to telling). I soon learned I wasn’t alone. Oh my stars and garters, in January I discovered a whole new “family” of long lost GLAM relatives. The value of GLAMs is found in its ability to introduce you to the creative people who are doing the kinds of projects you aspire to do, people who can make knowledge dissemination informative and visually compelling, and people who welcome others and share information joyfully.
For the better part of the past six years I’ve spent my time in Cleveland libraries and archives. Most notably, the archives/library of the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society, a truly treasure-filled collection of books, manuscripts, all on a site that also has a carousel, the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum, two historic homes, and an outstanding collection of costumes. For much of that time my bag-o-bones has been seated at a manuscript table in the reading room of the library. My mind, though, has traveled around the world and through history with Jeptha H. Wade, his only son, Randall Wade, and Randall’s only son Jeptha H. Wade II—one of the four founders of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Figure 1: Grandson, Great-Grandson, and Grandfather: Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857-1926), Jeptha Homer Wade Jr. (1879-1936), and Jeptha H. Wade (1811-1890). Photo Courtesy of Wade Family and can also be found in PG 597, Cleveland History Center Library/Archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society
When I’m not embedded in history, I teach traditional museum studies in the classroom at Case Western Reserve University and online for Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program in museum studies. For Hopkins I teach a course called “Issues of Convergence in Archives, Libraries, and Museums” and regularly ask students to read the 2009 OCLC report “Think Global, Act Local – Library, Archive and Museum Collaboration.” This report by Günter Waibel and Ricky Erway is still one of my favorite tools for encouraging students to think about the power of collaboration among our communities.
I wish someone had shown me the Collaboration Continuum much earlier in my career, with its handy-dandy arrow-shaped chart showing the process from contact moving on past collaboration to convergence—where as Waibel/Erway predict The endpoint of the collaboration continuum is convergence, a state in which Collaboration has become so extensive, engrained, and assumed that it is no longer Recognized as a collaborative undertaking. Wouldn’t that be lovely!
Figure 2: The Collaboration Continuum (Originally published in Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums.)
And sometimes, just sometimes, the GLAM world surprises you, as it did with me this past January. I had a small research grant to visit the University of Rochester archives to read letters from Jeptha Wade, one of the founders of Western Union Telegraph, to his business partner, Hiram Sibley. The day before I was due to leave, I discovered the Family History of Emily Sibley Watson timeline, constructed by Lu Harper, Archivist at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester (MAG). I sent her off a note to ask if we could meet sometime over the next two days. I had an email response from Lu almost immediately:
How exciting to make this connection. My colleague Margie Searl is the true expert on the Hiram Sibley materials. We’re in the process of tracking down Sibley & Watson family materials in archival repositories around Rochester. There is a large collection of letters in the Hiram Sibley papers in the collection of Rare Books at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library. Lori Birrell is your contact for these papers. I believe there is also a 3-volume scrapbook of material related to Hiram Sibley in the collection of Rochester Public Library, in the Local History collection…I know Margie has looked at it; I haven’t seen it yet. In addition, we’ve found some materials in the collection of George Eastman Museum, among materials donated by the widow of filmmaker James Sibley Watson, Jr., Emily Sibley Watson’s son.
And then a few minutes after that I got a follow up email from Margie Searl:
I'm free all day Friday. I have transcribed all of the letters between Hiram and Elizabeth Sibley from their European travels, as well as the lists of artworks that Hiram purchased in Europe. Love to meet and talk.
It was a good thing that Margie had Friday free; we spent most of the day together. We talked about our projects, compared collections, walked the museum—the MAG was started by Emily Sibley Watson , Hiram’s daughter, the CMA by Jeptha H. Wade II, Jeptha’s grandson. We left the museum and walked to see the site of Hiram’s house, which is still standing, and I later sent a photograph of an engraved image of Jeptha’s house. We were like long lost relatives—I can tell you that collaboration continuum arrow collapsed faster than you can say, well, collaboration continuum.
Later in the afternoon, Margie took me to meet Joe Easterly, the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Rochester’s Digital Humanities Digital Scholarship Lab, who kindly talked to me about some of their projects. I was particularly envious of The May Bragdon Diaries, which is gloriously compelling and the easy-to-navigate site described as “Ten diaries spanning 1893-1914 illustrate the life of a single working woman set free by the bicycle and enlivened by friendships, the Kodak, the theatre, and a connection with the natural world.”
Forging connections with people through common projects, an appreciation for information, and sharing knowledge—this is heady stuff. And finding convergence when I was only expecting contact, well that’s the priceless power of GLAMs.
Bio: Holly Witchey has a Ph.D. in European Painting and Sculpture and twenty-five years of experience as a museum professional. She teaches museum studies online for Johns Hopkins University, and traditional museum studies at Case Western Reserve University where she is adjunct faculty in the Department of Art History and Art. In October 2016 she joined the EdFutures team as Senior Fellow for Museums.
 https://humanities.lib.rochester.edu/esw/ On May 10, 2017 the Sibley-Watson Digital Archive (SWDA) will be officially launched with a pilot project documenting two trips made by Emily Sibley Watson & her 2nd husband, James Sibley Watson, in 1891 and 1892-1893; the first their honeymoon and the 2nd a trip down the Nile.