The digitisation of public art collections

Published The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, January, 2020

One of the greatest changes in the art world in recent years won’t be seen in galleries, because it is happening online.
Digitisation programs have accelerated in the past five years and most state art institutions now have more than half of their collections online, changing the way we approach art and rapidly turning the world into a virtual gallery.

By the end of this year, Art UK, a cultural resource founded in 2003, will have completed a photographic catalogue of every piece of publicly owned sculpture in Britain.

At home, meanwhile, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) now has 92 per cent of its collection online (up from just 11 per cent in 2014). The National Gallery of Australia has digitised 60 per cent and the National Museum of Australia 68 per cent of their collections.

These numbers are still dwarfed by the big international aggregation sites that helped foster the global digitisation of visual culture – Wikimedia Commons, Europeana and to a lesser extent Google Arts & Culture. But governments and state institutions are now finishing the task of hanging the world’s art online.

It is now possible to view and locate almost all works by any given artist. Amateur art lovers can curate virtual international exhibitions and art objects thought lost have been found as provenance is tracked via metadata.

Australia led the way in digitisation with the National Library of Australia’s open access archive, Trove launched in 2008 but aggregated major digitisation programs begun in 1997. Trove now has more than 32 million pages available online, with another 10 million coming this year.

The digital archive gives people access to extraordinary material, including Jane Austen’s letters and Captain James Cook’s Endeavour journal, yet the number of items available online represents only 5 per cent of the library’s vast collection (the figure is expected to rise to 6.5 per cent by the end of this year).

Digital collections can respond more quickly to community needs than physical collections and Trove is now getting a lot of hits for earlier images of towns affected by bushfires. Victorian Collections, Creative Victoria’s portal for files from all collecting organisations, was founded after the Black Friday bushfires in 2009, to preserve the content of small town museums.

Dr Martha Sear, head of curatorial centres for the National Museum of Australia, says digitisation has already enabled the museum to better connect stories with objects. When the museum digitised its collection of convict love tokens, carved on the hulks in London, descendants from around the world found them for the first time, and some travelled around the world to hold one in their hand.

“Digitisation could generate whole new ways of telling stories with objects,” Sear says. “We’re on the threshold of new ways of connecting knowledge.”

A picture may be worth 1000 words but a book is worth 1000 scans. The time it takes to record books, and films, is one reason that libraries, along with film archives, have fallen behind galleries in terms of the percentage of works scanned. The ACMI collection contains about 250,000 items but it has digitised just 7000, with only about 300 items available online.

Digital collections only started to come online en masse after smartphones entered the galleries and institutions overcame their fear that publishing quality images would deter people from coming to the gallery. The opposite has happened.

Megan Patty, head of publications, photographic services and library at the NGV, says the growth in visitor numbers to galleries around the world has coincided with collections coming online. From 2014 to 2019, attendance at the NGV grew from 2 million to 3 million, while annual website visitation surged from 1.5 million to 3.3 million.

In Australia, a democratic response to the tyranny of distance has further driven state galleries to upload their digital collections. A recent Creative Victoria digitisation training program will have reached eight regional galleries by the end of this year.

There are concerns that too much digital viewing will uproot art from its national or local context, its cultural and architectural environments, or from the ritual, social and intimate space of the gallery. Will fine art drown in the flood of images online? Or might images that look good online gain precedence over older art forms?

“Digitisation is definitely giving us a more graphic filter on art,” says Dr Luke Smythe, lecturer in art history and theory at Monash University. “Many popular artists today, like KAWS, are making art that looks good online ... and younger artists instinctively imagine how their work will look on art-comparison platforms like artsy.net or artdaily.com.”

But fears that reproduction will devalue art have been around for more than 100 years. Smythe pointed to Walter Benjamin’s famous 1935 warning that “copies will sap the aura and mystery of the original”.

And digital art, especially at the resolutions now being placed online, also creates a new experience of artworks, allowing viewers to zoom into paint strokes in more detail than can be seen with the naked eye. This adds a connection to how the artist might have seen the painting, even if it is not as they intended it to be viewed.
A primary motivation for galleries is that digitisation aids research, by curators and the public. Curators can make more far-reaching comparisons and learn where artworks and important collections reside, fostering increased loan requests and collaborative international exhibitions.

“Our job of advancing Australian art around the world becomes much easier,” says National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich.

Conservation has led the use of detailed digitisation by galleries because it allows conservators to better analyse, track and maintain works. Some of the extra details recorded for conservation, such as photos taken in raked light to reveal surface textures, may also come online for the public, according to the NGV’s head of conservation, Michael Varcoe-Cocks. In the future we might add fields such as genre, style and colour or colleagues and known associates of the artist to the metadata, he says.

But while galleries and curators have embraced the technology, some artists remain ambivalent. Most artists and estates sign agreements that allow galleries to record and publish their work digitally although some ask that lower-resolution images run online.

Digitisation may also help some galleries more than others. Seb Chan, chief experience officer at ACMI, who led digital renewal at the Powerhouse Museum from 2005, says “the gap between the enormous, international, tourist brand museum and the small artist-run space is increasing. Digital promised to shrink that gap but I think it’s actually widened the gap. Collectively as a society we have to work around how to make sure the gains are evenly and equitably distributed.”

Callum Morton, artist and professor of fine art at Monash Art Design and Architecture, says it is important for the broader digital collection to include outsider and neglected artists. “If there are artists that have been neglected by history and digitisation can rescue them from the onslaught of the canon, then I think that’s a great thing.”

Much of how we find art in the future might depend on algorithms and there’s also a risk of digital overload. As Morton says, “viewing piles upon piles of surfaces can become a bit numbing”. This may in turn push people back to “real” art, whatever that is.

“Art online will never replace the actual object and experience,’’ says the NGA’s Nick Mitzevich. ‘‘I think it will just give people more information and make them more excited to make the pilgrimage to see things.”

Digital hits: Top artworks viewed online

'The Banquet of Cleopatra' by Giambattista Tiepolo
'The great wave off Kanagawa' by Katsushika Hokusai
'Ulysses and the Sirens' by John William Waterhouse
'Shearing the rams' by Tom Roberts
'October' by Jules Bastien-Lepage

'Blue Poles' by Jackson Pollock
Ned Kelly series by Sidney Nolan

'Self portrait in the studio' by Brett Whiteley
'Fruit bats' by Lin Onus
'Killing time' by Ricky Swallow
'Standing still' by Simryn Gill
'Australian beach pattern' by Charles Meere

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.