Archive Fever, Actually

By Peggy Roalf   Monday September 11, 2017

Finding visual reference material can be a source of enjoyment or a well of anxiety for artists, designers and researchers. Many are part-time sleuths with a natural bent for collecting. For others, the task is just that. But as museums and libraries digitize their collections to make space in their crowded quarters, a great many of them are now offering access at no cost—including high-res images that can be reproduced or transformed into new art forms, transforming the search into a more enjoyable part of the work day.

Following is a brief introduction to collections that have recently opened their vaults.

The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS)—which is made up of the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art—has digitized about forty thousand pieces from its vast collection of ninety-five thousand works, writes Claire Voon of Hyperallergic. An initial batch of images can be accessed on its website. NGS will work to add the rest of the images over the next five years.

Searches for works on the NGS’s site can be done via artist, subject, object type, style, century, color, school, artistic movement, and gallery. Info


Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953 is an online interactive from Princeton University exploring the vibrant art and propaganda narratives of Soviet children’s books. Stretching from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953, the books celebrate the rise of industry, the Red Army, and the progress of the Soviet Union in spreading its ideology. One book, The Little Octobrist Rascal (1925), even features a young boy handing out copies of the Pioneer to ward off pre-Soviet folkloric characters like Baba Yaga and Ivan Tsarevich.

Princeton notes that it is still a work in progress, with future relationship mapping and data visualizations being planned, and more images to be added. The interactive database, co-directed by Thomas Keenan and Katherine Hill Reischl, follows last year’s launch of a digital library for the Soviet-era books in the Cotsen Children’s Library. The books were gifted by Lloyd E. Cotsen between 1994 and 2006. Under the direction of curator Andrea Immel, the collection has continued to grow, with 2,500 Soviet children’s books now in the library. Info Above: spread from “From Rubber to Galoshes;” illustrations by Olga Deineko, Nikolai Troshin; published by Molodaia Gvardiia OGIZ, MOSCVA, 1931. Info


This summer, The Brooklyn Academy of Music [BAM] launched the BAM Hamm Archives, which  tell the story of the 150+ year history of BAM, and of the communities—civic and artistic—that built the institution.  The Archives and its staff provide a rich and unique resource for researchers interested in BAM artists and productions, the history of performing arts in the US, and Brooklyn's social history.

The Archives contain approximately 3,000 linear feet of materials dating from 1857 to the present, including newspaper clippings, photographs, books, playbills, promotional material, video, architectural plans, posters, administrative records, production elements, art, and other materials. As the New York Times reported, the debut of the archive followed years of development, and a $1 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation(which also supported the digital collection of the New York Philharmonic). It has an easy-to-navigate interface, where users can search by production, going back to the 1860s, and by people and organizations, from Air to John Zorn. The initial featured collections include highlights from the archive, material related to choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the Next Wave Festival, Peter Brook’s nine-hour epic The Mahabharata, and performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Info Above: Performance of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run by Merce Cunningham.

Mega- is the name of the game at Pharos, the International Consortium of Photo Archives. A collaborative effort among 14 art institutions, including the Frick, the National Gallery of Art and the Yale Center for British Art, this mega-size, searchable scholarly database and web portal that will eventually hold 22 million images, 17 million of them artworks and the rest supplemental material, is now accessible in its beta version.

As reported by the New York Times, Pharos may transform the work of art historians, its intended audience, but anyone will be able to use it, and it could have broad implications for genealogical research and art restitution, and perhaps other unforeseen applications.

“We’re going from something you physically have to come to see — a card in a box — to something that will be online,” said Inge Reist, the director of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Art Reference Library, which is spearheading the initiative.

The motivation for all the institutions was clear: Analog materials like photographs don’t last forever. “We’re concerned these unique works will disappear,” Ms. Reist said, adding: “We know how urgent this is. We’re living in a Wiki world. All younger art historians start their research online.” Info The image above shows how materials related to Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More are easily accessed on Pharos.

The ongoing digitization of collections is itself a mega-subject, and will be periodically covered in DART.



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