Written by Stephen H. Whiteman (accessed September 23, 2016). Also published in The Art Bulletin 99:2 (June 2017): 189-93. In recent years, evolving ideas about access to information in the digital age and stronger recognition of fair use rights, at least in the United States and parts of Europe, have led to important innovations in the availability and presentation of museum collections online. At a minimum, most museums now host sites dedicated to “highlights of the collection” and well-illustrated pages for current exhibitions. Many more make available most or all of their collection catalogs, including images and core curatorial data, through a basic public interface leveraging limited access to the institution’s collections management system (CMS) database. Through many of these portals, users can download images of works in the public domain for publication and other fair use purposes, simplifying the process of obtaining such files and, appropriately, generally reducing or eliminating associated costs. In exceptional cases, this access extends to the gallery itself, where mediating devices allow visitors to link objects on display to the broader collection both in the gallery and at home.
Among the most ambitious of these projects are those developed through the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI). Scholarly catalogs of museum collections, a well-established analog genre, gather curatorial data and art historical research on individual objects in order to disseminate the current state of knowledge about a collection. In print, these catalogs are expensive propositions—large, well-illustrated volumes that need to be updated periodically to reflect new research. The digital environment is thus an ideal medium for such endeavors, as revision is as simple as editing a Web page. Moreover, the power and flexibility of digital environments enable new forms and levels of data: super high-resolution images, bespoke interfaces, and interactivity all provide digital access to works of art in a manner that rivals, and in some respects even exceeds, what might be gained from direct observation in storage or a gallery.
Since 2009, OSCI has supported eight institutional projects and the development of an open-source toolkit for use by other museums. Among these, the Seattle Art Museum's Chinese Painting & Calligraphy presents an important, relatively unknown collection through an innovative interface and informative catalog that capitalizes on many of the opportunities available in the online format. At the same time, certain shortcomings point to the continued potential for development and innovation in online offerings of art historical material.
Assembled primarily under the directors Richard E. Fuller and Mimi Gardner Gates, who led the institution successively from 1933 to 2009, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy contains 152 works across a range of genres and styles dating from the twelfth to the twenty-first century. For the purpose of the catalog, the pieces are divided into four groups, or tiers. The top tier, consisting of eighteen highly significant works, is accompanied by lengthy essays by recognized scholars. The thirty-two pieces in Group 2, which features a number of still notable pieces, receive shorter treatments by “promising young scholars”—though in reality the division of labor between the two is not so clear-cut. Group 3, comprising sixty works (not the sixty-two noted in the introduction), does not currently have essays; instead, users are encouraged to submit original research on these objects, to be reviewed by SAM curators for addition to the catalog. Finally, the forty remaining pieces, "works of lesser interest and questionable authenticity," were included "in order to be comprehensive." This sorting of the collection, aspects of which I will return to below, facilitates a triaged presentation, with the initial focus on the museum's most significant works, while relying on the nearly limitless updatability of the online format to expand information as opportunity permits.
Shen Zhou, Solitary Angler on an Autumn River, 1492
Source: Seattle Art Museum
Shen Zhou, Solitary Angler on an Autumn River, 1492 (detail of inscription)
Source: Seattle Art Museum