“The collection catalogue is dead, long live the catalogue!” This humorous headline in Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes from February 2009 encapsulates a conundrum faced by many fine art museums today: How can they harness the powers of the internet to present in–depth knowledge about art works in their collections while at the same time create more flexible, economic and creative ways of doing so? Can current formats of print dissemination be updated to allow for broader access and potentially innovative ways of sharing art historical research with the public?

The Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, a joint effort by the Getty Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a program that aims to transform how museums disseminate scholarly information about their permanent collections to make it available through web–based digital formats. The five–year initiative hopes to demonstrate that when art museums collaborate on innovative models for online scholarly catalogues, they will dramatically increase access to their collections, make available new, interdisciplinary research, and potentially revolutionize how object–based research is performed and utilized.

Walker Art Center, Trisha Brown
“Collection catalogues have clearly reached a high level of sophistication. Their print form, though, is arguably the very component that holds them back from realizing even greater potential. The high cost of print catalogues and their relatively small editions limit their accessibility. We believe that online technologies hold the key for new breakthroughs that will enable museums to disseminate collection–based information more broadly and inventively.” —Joan Weinstein, Deputy Director, Getty Foundation

Museums lack replicable models to make the successful transition from print to online collection catalogues. Going digital requires a profound rethinking of the ways in which art historical content can be interactively organized, maintained, updated, and, ultimately, used. A host of technical, legal and administrative hurdles complicates the online delivery as many museums lack the financial, technological and human resources to tackle these complex and far–reaching issues.

The Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative brings together a consortium of nine museums—the Art Institute of Chicago; the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Seattle Art Museum; Tate Gallery; the Walker Art Center; and the J. Paul Getty Museum—to frame key issues and work collaboratively on online cataloguing projects. Participants are paying special attention to developing dynamic and interactive forms of information architecture, creatively interlinking works of art with secondary research materials, comparative images, audio, and video.

de Heem, National Gallery of Art
“Utilizing digital tools, we will be able to present a '360-degree view' of the many kinds of interconnected analytical evidence that informs modern art historical discourse. The catalogue will allow online readers the chance to understand the pictures through the curators' and conservators' eyes —as well as to have the unprecedented opportunity to explore the primary evidence in an interactive environment and to develop their own conclusions.” — Sam Quigley, Vice President for Collections Management, Imaging, and Information Technology / Museum CIO, Art Institute of Chicago

The participating museums have made significant progress since the initiative began. Through their collective efforts, a completely new model of scholarly publishing is coming into focus, one in which robust future-focused technologies make comprehensive scholarly information available in beautifully rendered formats for devices as varied as iPads and dual-screen workstations. Readers will be able to study detailed images of artworks online, overlay them with conservation documentation, discover scholarly essays in easy-to-read formats, take notes in the margins that can be stored for later use, and export citations to their desktops. Moreover, the system of software tools under development is being designed to be both flexible and replicable so it can support a broad variety of other collections-based publication by museums into the future.

The Foundation has prepared an interim report to document the lessons learned by the participating museums during the planning process, thereby sharing the results with the broader art museum community.

Read the Interim Report

View presentations on the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative at Museums and the Web conference 2011

See a list of participating museums and their grant–funded projects

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