Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2016
The Getty Foundation The Getty Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) Los Angeles: Getty Foundation.

The Getty Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI)

Art Institute of Chicago
Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago
Renoir Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago

Freer/Sackler Galleries
The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book: The Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Southeast Asian Art: An Online Scholarly Catalogue at LACMA

National Gallery of Art
Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The Rauschenberg Research Project

Seattle Art Museum
Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

The Camden Town Group in Context

Walker Art Center
Living Collections Catalogues
On Performativity, Vol. I
Art Expanded, 1958–1978, Vol. II
Merce Cunningham, Vol. III (forthcoming 2017)

In 2009, the Getty Foundation launched its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), working with a consortium of eight partner museums alongside the J. Paul Getty Museum, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA); Seattle Art Museum (SAM); Tate; and the Walker Art Center. As the participating institutions reach the conclusion of the production of the publications conceived and executed through this initiative, the moment is ripe for a reflection on the accomplishments of this undertaking. However, due to the diverse content and approaches represented by the OSCI program, this essay will not so much be an evaluation of the scholarship of individual catalogues, something I hope appropriate specialists will take up; instead it will discuss the implications of the project as a whole, oriented around specific questions raised by the undertaking and the projects it spurred.

A Catalogue?

With an etymology that dates back to the early fifteenth century, a catalogue originally represented a register or index of content, such as ships, books, or artworks. In the twentieth century, and up to the present day, museum catalogues have grown from mere enumerations of objects held in their collections to occasions for the presentation of new scholarship. In reconfiguring the very manner of presenting such information by incentivizing leading Anglo-American museums to apply digital technology to the practice of rendering collections accessible to the public, the Getty initiative again raises the very question of what a catalogue can represent.

Of the catalogues developed for the Getty, only those of the Art Institute of Chicago, Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and Renoir Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, use an interface that resembles a published book. Each of the other institutions has developed a form of engagement that feels more like the intersection of a website and a traditional scholarly publication. An advantage to the latter approach is the inherent connection preserved between the material presented and the holdings of a particular museum as a whole. A drawback, however, is the all too frequent challenge of navigating between the two sources and the unintentional migration of the user into other sections of the website, necessitating the reopening of the OSCI publication. Such is particularly the case with the publications created by the Tate and the Walker.

It is notable that each of the undertakings sponsored by the Getty focuses specifically on some aspect of the participants’ permanent collections. Left untouched is the question of exhibition catalogues, a topic to which I shall return at the conclusion of this essay. That said, each of the museums has taken advantage of the Getty’s support to render visible, or to provide further information concerning, important aspects of its holdings. The selection of material, as noted earlier, has been quite diverse, including two institutions—the Art Institute of Chicago and SFMOMA—dedicating themselves to representing the work of specific artists (Monet, Renoir, and Robert Rauschenberg, respectively); three institutions honing in on specific aspects of their encyclopedic holdings, LACMA, the National Gallery of Art, and SAM (Southeast Asian art, Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, and Chinese painting and calligraphy, respectively); one, the Freer/Sackler, focusing on a donor’s collection (The Gerhard Pulverer Collection of illustrated Japanese books); one, the Walker, providing thematic overviews of sections of its collection (On Performativity, Art Expanded, 1958–1978, Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 2 [a third volume, on Merce Cunningham, is projected for 2017]). Only the Tate took advantage of the online format to bring increased visibility to a less prominent group of artists, but one deserving of more attention: The Camden Town Group.

This, then, begs the question of just what type of work may be suitable to online publishing. While a flippant shorthand—“everything”—indeed is literally true, it may be the case that certain sorts of undertakings could work particularly well, especially when freed from commercial demands. The value of the digital for providing access to large-scale holdings, such as the breadth of the National Gallery’s seventeenth-century Dutch paintings or the span of the Chinese painting and calligraphy collections at SAM, makes them obviously appropriate to a digital catalogue. Yet the lack of an overview essay in the case of the Seattle publication is an unfortunate lacuna, and one that can hopefully be remedied. (A lack of curatorial essays providing integrated perspectives is similarly a weakness of the OSCI publications of the Art Institute of Chicago.) A less obvious but equally compelling choice is represented in the Tate’s decision to focus on a select group of artists whose accomplishments have not yet become familiar. This suggests the promise that digital publication can provide new access to artists or movements that might be difficult to “sell” to a traditional commercial press.

Indeed, there is an incredible value in the presentation by each of these publications of material that might not otherwise have widespread public and scholarly availability. A video interview included by the Freer/Sackler, for example, of the collector Gerhard Pulverer, or footage of Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, performed in 2008, made available by the Walker, are equally fascinating for experts and non-specialists (Ellis Tinios, “An Interview with Collector Gerhard Pulverer,” in The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book, Freer and Sackler Museums, Smithsonian Institution, ca. 2015:; Shannon Jackson, “Performativity and Its Addressee,” in On Performativity, Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 1, Walker Art Center, 2014: The caliber of illustrations included in the OSCI offerings is truly outstanding, and search and enlargement tools, such as those provided by SAM and the National Gallery of Art, make it possible to study objects closely, even from one’s desktop computer.

New Approaches to Scholarship?

Thus far, each of the publications supported by the Getty has been geared to an educated general public. Electronic links provided in virtually all of the publications make potentially obscure terms more available, and linkable footnotes and easy access to comparative figures in each of the publications is a great asset. A longer-term question may be the value of taking advantage of “readymade” resources, such as Wikipedia, as the Walker’s publications do, to provide biographical information. In addition to these links making it hard for the reader to return to the original text, the scholarly accuracy, and the viability of the link itself, may be difficult for the home institution to control.

But thus far none of the publications supported by the Getty could truly be described as a “digital humanities” undertaking in terms of the approaches to scholarship currently highlighted. Narrative overviews and discussions of the collections presented rely more on traditional “analogue” approaches to research, rather than exemplifying strategies of digital and computational analysis, such as the discernment of patterns in data or the use of tools such as geographic information systems (GISs), to explore physical geographies.

Some nod to computational analysis exists in the Freer/Sackler’s Pulverer catalogue’s graphic describing the frequency of publications of illustrated books in Japan from the late seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century. This feature also provides a point of entry to these books by readers of the catalogue (see The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book, Freer and Sackler Museums, “Browse by Date,” Freer/Sackler: And, indeed, the Freer/Sackler provides special access to researchers upon application, enabling them to create their own files of information.

Echoing this, a similar invitation for scholars of Chinese art and calligraphy to “join our community” has recently been added to the SAM OSCI catalogue. Further interaction is invited by SAM, which provides opportunities for users to post comments in response to catalogue entries.

Ultimately, such online publications have the capacity to provide a platform for new approaches, and one hopes that they will help to encourage the open sharing of data and metadata about collections through open application program interfaces (APIs) that may permit new discoveries to be made through digital analysis. With respect to open access, each of the participating institutions is to be applauded for lavishly illustrating their publications and providing the public with ready links to sumptuous illustrations.

A further advantage, yet to be fully exploited, is the flexibility of language and translation electronic publications have the facility to offer. Some initial steps toward embracing this opportunity is evident in the Freer/Sackler’s The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book, which enables users to conduct bibliographic searches using Kanji characters. But certainly more could be done, and one of the central promises of such online resources is precisely that they can always (at least in theory) be ameliorated by further refinement and augmentation.

Authorship and Authority?

Readers of this review have no doubt noticed the credit paid to institutions rather than individual curators or scholars. Interestingly enough, only one online catalogue prominently credits a single author: Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., published by the National Gallery of Art. This shift in author credit reflects, on the one hand, the breadth of many of the collections covered by these OSCI catalogues. But it also points up a collaborative approach to scholarly projects familiar to many digital humanists and increasingly to other scholars: while publications have always relied upon the expertise of many sets of individuals—from editors, to research assistants, to photographers, in addition to scholars—the important interconnection of such teams becomes even more obvious in the digital era. Additionally, many of the OSCI catalogues combine the efforts of numerous scholars or curators brought in to comment on specific aspects of a given collection, and duly credited.

The authority of these publications resides largely in the public trust held by the significant institutions in which the Getty has invested. Each of these large, civic museums has done a tremendous service in carrying forward this experiment. But an implicit question results: to what degree are smaller, less well-resourced institutions in a position to follow suit? Despite the Getty’s generous launch of the OSCI Tool Kit, developed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, significant technical hurdles must be addressed in the creation of such catalogues, and often a good deal of data “scrubbing” is necessary to ensure that historically idiosyncratic data can be appropriately extracted for electronic output.

Technology, Access, and the Future of Online Scholarly Catalogues?

While I was writing this overview in mid-January 2016, the Rauschenberg Research Project, created by SFMOMA, was unavailable as the content was shifted to a new website. The correlation between the physical closure of the museum itself and the unavailability of its electronic data is striking, suggesting the ongoing need for electronic materials to have a long-term home. Which institutions boast the requisite stability and resources to protect and maintain digital information? Just how robust and reliable is digital data, and what steps are being taken by the host OSCI institutions to preserve the scholarship presented in their digital publications? A public discussion and unveiling of their preservation strategies would be a valuable contribution to the undertaking this represents.

In addition to the inevitable technological challenges implicit in such catalogues will be the management challenge of maintaining them. If their inherent “flexibility” is an asset, it also presents new responsibilities. While the potential for automated connections between collections data and collections management systems suggests that such information can be kept “automatically” up to date, what workflows or systems need to be put into place internally at institutions to ensure that catalogue content is regularly reviewed and updated, with internal references to “upcoming” events, for example, adjusted appropriately or conclusions appropriately modified with the appearance of new data? This, in turn, raises the question of how scholarly interpretations will be preserved in the light of changing approaches to scholarship. How does one balance archival concerns versus the necessity for accuracy and historically sensitive methodologies? Might the advent of the digital catalogue thus invite the development of a new expertise within museums: that of the digital curator, explicitly charged with the oversight of interpretive digital data?

Yet despite the inevitable hurdles to ensuring that digital data straddles new technological systems and structures, a larger question concerns the ability of users, or potential users, to gain entry to the very sites on which these catalogues rely. Along with this goes the very question of the ability to host such catalogues at all. The volumes that have been made available are offered free of charge, which is a welcome commitment, but access is clearly limited to those with the privilege necessary to take advantage of the technological infrastructure they demand.

Conclusion: Catalogues without Bindings

The experiment bravely launched by the Getty to encourage a consortium of leading Anglo-American museums to experiment with the creation of new electronic catalogues appears largely to have been a success. But the different approaches taken by each of the partner institutions raise a key question: which works best? Or will we, as seems inevitable, find that different approaches suit us in the digital age, just as they have in the analogue era?

The larger question of how the digital is shaping and reconfiguring museums and scholarships deserves further attention. The question, in some senses, is hardly new, having been entertained by André Malraux (building on the work of Walter Benjamin) in similar fashion in the era of the widespread introduction of the photograph into the realm of the museum. “A museum without walls has been opened to us, and it will carry infinitely farther that limited revelation of the world of art which the real museums offer us within their walls,” Malraux noted in the introduction to Museum Without Walls (André Malraux, Museum Without Walls, trans. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967, 12). Yet if the electronic era holds the promise of further eroding the geographical, and perhaps political and social, barriers to museum access, certainly these have not been entirely obliterated, and it may now be even more incumbent upon museum professionals, entrusted with maintaining collections for the public good, to dedicate ourselves to ensuring digital culture does not stimulate the creation of new ghettos of exclusion. Malraux’s provocative assertion that “the museum was an affirmation, the museum without walls is an interrogation” (162) may suggest that increased access can provide a challenge to the very assumptions about scholarship and interpretation that have become invisible to us. But if so, then we must also take seriously his observation, perhaps delivered somewhat tongue in cheek, that: “The point has been reached where the real museum is beginning to resemble the museum without walls: its statues are better lit and far less frequently clustered together. Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan . . . seems admirably posed, awaiting the photographers. It belongs to both the real world of statues and to an unreal world that extends its boundaries” (110; Malraux is, of course, echoing Benjamin’s observation about photography: “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” [Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 224]). To what degree has the museum today, and perhaps even scholarship itself, become poised to absorb and be disseminated by new digital technology? To what degree do such new tools provide welcome interventions, and when might they threaten to compromise the very integrity of the institutions they infiltrate?

If these are heady questions, they are among the most important with respect to the long-term significance of the Getty’s important Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative. Already, it is has motivated participating institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walker, to produce multiple online volumes. While the development of the online exhibition catalogue may remain elusive for the time being, due to the very complexities of developing and hosting such products, surely this too will come. Convenient as the hand-carried scholarly volume can be, the promise of instant access and the ability to tap into a network of knowledge from any wired hub may outweigh the benefits of flipping through pages and even the (misleading) sense of a single unified whole it conveys. While the OSCI undertaking represents but a first step, it nonetheless lays a significant foundation for the future of scholarship in the museum, and beyond. Equally important are the steps that come next and the journey that ensues.

Anne Collins Goodyear
Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art