Openness, order and the online collection: the desirability of a digital database of art

Art Art & Lit Culture

The City of Paris Museums voted on 15th November 2018 that photos of the works belonging to their collection would become free for all to look at and use. The museums that form part of this group include the Palais Galliera Museum of Fashion, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Petit Palais Museum of Fine Arts, places that have admissions charges.  

The photographs had previously been managed by the Parisienne de Photographie, with imposing financial constraints placed upon professionals who wished to make use of them. Now the photos are stored in an online database containing 278,279 works that anyone can access. Making their collection freely available is of great benefit to journalists, publishers, researchers and anyone with an interest in art and history.

Exploring the database that the City of Paris Museums has created is a gratifying experience due to the way in which they approach the collection. They do this in more conventional ways – categorising art into types such as drawings, sculpture, paintings, decorative art – as well as in the more innovative way of organising works into themes.

“They have a well-curated selection of works, ranging from antiquity to the present day and across cultures, allowing the viewer to see how art has changed and been inspired by the past.”

One such theme is the elements: air, earth, fire and water. Each element is introduced with a poem, and then an array of works related to them is presented, works that might not normally be seen together. They have a well-curated selection of works, ranging from antiquity to the present day and across cultures, allowing the viewer to see how art has changed and been inspired by the past, as well as how art reflects the sensibilities of the time and place in which it was created. The elements are also seen through different mediums: a bird, a creature of the air, is shown as a statue, a Jean Paul Gautier dress and in a cubist painting, ‘The Blue Bird’, by Jean Metzinger.

The database of the City of Paris’ Museums highlights the benefits of digitising collections in allowing a greater number to view art and encourage the viewer to engage with it in new ways that are thought-provoking and creative. In England, a few museums have put some of their collections online, such as the V&A and the British Museum, but they have not adopted a thematic approach. The V&A does include links to writing on topics related to the items viewed, which provide engaging descriptions of styles of art, from the Baroque to Mexican embroidery.

“The interactive database allows the viewer to participate in the organisation of art, a historically exclusive pastime, making the viewing of art an active and liberating experience.”

Virtual tours of museums are also allowing people to engage with art regardless of their physical location. The Louvre offers online tours of popular exhibits like the Egyptian Antiquities. Other museums around the world allow for virtual exploration of their grounds and popular attractions too, such as the Vatican Museums and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These tours provide people who may not have the means or ability to travel with the chance to visit the most famous museums all over the world from the comfort of their own home.

For other museums around the world to digitise their works and provide different ways to engage with them would grant far more with access to art. Ideally, museums could collaborate and create a global virtual database, examining art in a multitude of ways: through time, place, themes, colour palettes. The Google Art Project has taken steps towards this, featuring over 45,000 works from 200 institutions in ways that are exciting, informative and aesthetically pleasing. The project also allows the viewer to become more than just a viewer; they can be the curator of their own experience, building a personalised gallery, adding their own captions and making their own comparisons. The interactive database allows the viewer to participate in the organisation of art, a historically exclusive pastime, making the viewing of art an active and liberating experience.

Image credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie