Staff across multiple art museums and galleries curated an online database of art and artifacts.
Officials in the Textile Museum, the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery and the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design collaborated to pilot an online database of more than 4,000 works of art from five collections, according to a release last week. Tessa Lummis, a museum registrar, said the database grants students and members of the general public who lack opportunities to regularly visit works of art the ability to educate themselves about important pieces.
“While the museum and University regularly provide physical access to collections, this only serves a very small percentage of scholars,” Lummis said. “This website allows anyone from casual enthusiasts to researchers, including those who are not able to travel and see these pieces in person, to finally discover the gems of these collections.”
She said staff members researched software options for a new collections management database to catalog all University art and artifacts, developed a “back-end” database in April 2018 and launched the public website in late 2019.
Lummis said a working group of museum staff members worked with Zetcom, a software company, to solidify the website’s design and ensure that the site complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said the working group will continue to respond to feedback and subsequently adjust the database.
“For decades, museums around the world have been pushing to make their collections more accessible to a global audience by making object records available online,” Lummis said. “The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum and other arts venues at GW are no different in our desire to give students, scholars, artists and the general public digital access to the collections in our care.”
She said staff across GW’s museums and galleries collaborated to determine which information would be most “beneficial” to list on the website. She said smaller art collections like the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, which details the history of D.C., have already launched on the website, but managers of larger collections in the Textile Museum selected works to feature based on data and feedback from staff, faculty and scholars.
Lummis added that museum staff is working to digitize all 21,000 artworks in the Textile Museum for the art collection’s centennial in 2025.
“In the GW community, students, faculty and staff can benefit from learning about all of the historical and artistic resources at GW, which provide unique research and classroom opportunities,” she said. “However, this website is available globally, so scholars and art enthusiasts from around the world will have access to these five collections like no one has had before.”
Art history experts said granting researchers access to high-quality images of art and artifacts online can benefit students who study “delicate” art mediums or lack opportunities to visit collections in person and complete a wider range of research projects.
Rosie Meindl, a visual resources curator in the Department of Art History at Rhodes College, said students and faculty use art and artwork as “primary sources” to conduct research on how past works reflect the importance of cultural and historical movements.
“Improved access to these three-dimensional collections gives students a wider range of materials to draw on for this kind of research,” Meindl said in an email.
Abigail McEwen, an associate professor of Latin American art at the University of Maryland, said art historians have historically attempted to digitalize images sourced from photographs in books and journals, but the process pixelated and distorted the artwork’s colors. She said digitizing artwork is beneficial to students studying “fragile” artwork formats – like Chinese hand scrolls – who cannot come into close contact with the pieces.
“Access to high-resolution images has tremendous value for research and teaching in art history,” she said in an email.
But she said the online collection curators at GW’s museums and galleries should take care not to insert cultural bias into the decisions about cataloging pieces originating from regions outside Europe and the United States. She said “marginalized” art history fields like modern Latin American art history are often underrepresented in similar databases.
“That said, digitization projects inevitably reflect institutional histories, which have long privileged canonical artists, typically Euro-American and male,” she said in an email.
Andrew McClellan, a professor of art history at Tufts University, said the publication of information and artwork online allows students to more easily conduct research projects, but students must ensure they’re gleaning information from reliable sources.
“One drawback of this reliance is that students come only to rely on it for research and online sources tend not to be peer-reviewed for errors or bias, opening the door to misinformation and distortions,” McClellan said in an email. “Students have no means of knowing what online sources to trust or mistrust.”