Making the Digital Dynamic

As a dual degree student (library science/art history) I am most interested and excited by the intersection of archival work and art history. A question that this week’s readings and discussions have made me ask is can archives learn anything from digital art history? Are there ways in which arts archives can present their materials that is more dynamic? Can we move from the digitized to the digital, so to speak? 

Digitization fundamentally changed the ways in which archives have functioned, made collections available, and better served researchers. As Cohen and Rosenzweig explain, libraries and archives were early adopters of digitization and online collections.  While such digital initiatives were/are not digital art history projects per say, they did have a significant impact on the way scholars conducted research, providing a newfound immediacy in terms of access to primary source documents.  

Now, many artists archives have found their way to the web, facilitating non-linear arrangement and enabling users to search massive collections with ease. I’d like to use this post to highlight a few different online collections that function in more traditional, static ways, provide examples of alternative online archives that start to push organizational boundaries, and wrap up with a few ideas for online artists archives that could take more of a digital art history approach in the ways in which they enable and facilitate new kinds of scholarly possibilities. One classic example of an online archive would be that of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. While expansive in scope, the online incarnation of the Archives is fairly straight forward. Collections of records are presented as they exist in the actual archive, accessible through various search and organizational functions, with Each record presented in isolation with the appropriate metadata. Many other arts-related archives look to SAAA as an example, and thus it makes sense that many online archives function in similar ways. I would classify most online archives, to return to Drucker, as digitized art history (versus digital art history). 

When conducting research into the ways in which artist’s foundations/archives make their material available online, I came across the Barry Flanagan archive. While there are likely other online archives that have been set up this way, the Flanagan archive is the most dynamic I have seen. Despite being arranged hierarchically (which is, I must note, standard for archival arrangement) the Flanagan archive offers some unique discovery elements and record linking that makes it different from other online archives. Each digitized record, lets take for example the digital printed image entitled “Eve” from c. 1998, is linked to related material from the archive or from Flanagan’s artistic oeuvre. In this way, scholars can see what sketches, diaries, press materials or other writings are connected to the artist’s work. I appreciate this approach and the design of the archive’s interface as it works against each archival document being viewed in isolation. This feature also takes advantage of the web format in that it enables users to see documents paired or grouped in ways that would not occur in a physical archive. While still organized hierarchically, the Barry Flanagan Archive is a good starting point in terms of how online archives can be made more dynamic and innovative. 

[Example of an image that could contain linked information within an online archive]

The organization of the Barry Flanagan Archive reminded me a bit of the Tropy application. Tropy is an open-source software that enables users to organize and describe both photographs and research materials. This week was my first time using Tropy and while I had a few complaints about how it functioned (mainly that each project has to be opened in a different window), I was pretty excited about the possibilities it could open up, especially for my own research with artists archives.  Once you have added images and PDFs of research materials or photographs to your Tropy project, you can fill in a fair amount of basic yet helpful metadata. You can add substantial notes to each photograph/pdf. Additionally, you can create various tags that can be applied to files or items. The item feature was one I found particularly promising – within an image you can make a selection of a portion of the image and Tropy turns the selection into an item. In essence, the potential for detailed record management combined with linking primary source documents is what I find most compelling about Tropy. 

Tropy itself could act as a template for an online digital art history project, especially one using archival materials. Imagine if you encountered a scanned letter written by an artist in their archive. Within this letter was vital information about an understudied work of art, such as the fact that this painting grew out of an earlier body of work and was heavily influenced by a residency the artist had later in their career. All archival materials related to this residency and images of the earlier body of work could be directly linked to the portions of the letter that reference them. I envision another element of such a project where other archives that contain relevant information about an artists could be somehow linked into an interface which would make things easier for researchers, take advantage of already digitized collections and begin to create a network of digital archives. One project that has the potential for such interconnectivity is the Duchamp Research Portal.  This project, lead by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in partnership withMarcel Duchamp and the Musée National d’Art Moderne and Bibliothèque Kandinsky at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou, aims to create an aggregate of Duchamp related primary sources. While information about this project is limited as the project is still in the planning stages, collaboration between institutions seems to me to go hand in hand with more dynamic online archival resources. The idea of linked and embedded archival sources for art historical research is one that I find incredibly exciting and I hope that we start to see such digital art history projects enabling scholars to make previously hidden connections more visible.

1 thought on “Making the Digital Dynamic”

  1. Taylor,
    What a wonderful insight into the digitized/ digital world of art archives! I really appreciate the way in which you shared the typical organization of digital online archives (using SAA as a standard example) as well as shared examples that go beyond the standard.
    Upon your suggestion, I looked at the Barry Flanagan archive and was equally astounded by the way in which this digital archive was clearly trying to move towards a more dynamic online presence. I found it particularly helpful that they had a “Guide” to the archive so that people who might not be that comfortable with archives (thinking of undergraduate student researchers, in particular) would have an easy way in which they could engage with that resource.
    Digitizing is a great first step for archives, but there has to be more, as you say. I also think about this in terms of undergraduate students who might not be familiar with digital archives and therefore not think about looking online for those resources. I’m interested in the idea of embedding links to digital archives within university catalog systems as to create direct relationship between secondary and primary sources in the first step of research, i.e. searching the library’s catalog.

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