By now, we’ve all learned the benefits of online catalogues. Whether it’s Amazon, Netflix, or the Art Institute’s own Web Collections database, a search engine pointed at a bunch of data is great for finding stuff fast. For the museum, digitally publishing images and caption—or what we in the business call “tombstone”—information on more than 47,000 works of art in our collection has been a great way of making the AIC’s holdings accessible to our online visitors. But so far, most museums haven’t tried to go too much deeper than what research librarians call “resource discovery.” Publishing expansive primary research on artworks is generally considered an entirely different proposition. Historically, that has always been a matter of ink on paper—until now.
A project as exciting as it is daunting, a new kind of web-based collections catalog is now currently being developed by the museum. It will deliver the broad array of scholarly, art historical information usually associated with a weighty bound volume in an easily used digital format.
Over the next four years, curators Gloria Groom and Douglas Druick will be collaborating with their colleagues in the museum’s paintings conservation laboratory to research and write lavishly illustrated and indexed catalogue entries about the museum’s Monet and Renoir paintings. Accompanying the essay on each painting will be primary archival information on collectors; histories of ownership (provenance); publication and exhibition histories; analytical reports including x-rays, infrared, and ultraviolet photography; and the results of many other kinds of sleuthing.
All of this will allow online readers the chance to understand the pictures through the curators’ and conservators’ eyes—as well as have the unprecedented opportunity to explore the primary evidence in an interactive environment and develop their own conclusions.
—Sam Q., VP for Collections Management, Imaging & Information Technology/Museum CIO
Pierre Auguste-Renoir. Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers' Lunch), 1875. Potter Palmer Collection.