BoW Title: Dutch Paintings of the 17th Century Systematic Catalog Online Edition
Institution: National Gallery of Art
Designer: Design for Context (interaction), Toky (visual)
Category: Research / Collections Online

In 2009, the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative challenged seven institutions to rethink their approach to publication of traditional forms of scholarly art collection metadata and interpretive information. Art museum have been publishing scholarly catalogs in printed formats for generations, usually in expensive, high quality, large format hardback books with limited print runs and expensive price tags. The information contained within them serves as a staple resource for art historians and includes: core art object metadata, artist biographies, art historical and conservation essays on each art object, extensive art object bibliographies, and extensive, high quality photographic documentation of objects, technical conservation imaging and comparative figures.

The Getty was keen to provide each project partner institution with the funds and creative latitude to solve the problem in their own way. The National Gallery of Art’s response took advantage of a long running and robust program producing “systematic catalogs” of their key collections. The Gallery identified the Dutch 17th Century Paintings catalog, previously published in 1995, as a prime candidate for update.

The Gallery established a strategic priority of conversion to digital publication of all of its future systematic catalogs and established the following goals and requirements:

  • To increase discoverability and utility of systematic catalog information, scholarly catalog information would be integrated into the Gallery’s existing online collection pages that, since 1997, have delivered the sum total of the Gallery’s art holdings on their public web site.
  • Each catalog would also be discoverable and browsable as a branded aggregation of collection topics (e.g., Dutch, Italian, Netherlandish, etc.) while remaining integrated into the online collection information. This would improve findability and usability while remaining efficient in terms of managing only one set of data.
  • Once in the context of the Dutch online catalog, faceted browsing and the ability search within the context of the catalog provides ease of access to its contents
  • The integration of existing general purpose collection information with scholarly information that:
    • Support scholars in convenient discovery, browsing, visual comparison, citation, and work-related use of the information they have traditionally sought through printed materials
    • Support general audience interest in art by providing them the opportunity to access detailed textual and visual information on art and artists
  • The information architectures supporting online systematic catalog information must be:
    • Scalable templates that allow for addition of future systematic catalogs to this body of online content
    • Sustainable content management and publication architectures that allow for data and image data from core Gallery systems to be efficiently and automatically fed and refreshed into the web content management system
  • Guarantee persistence of online information in perpetuity in order to bolster and sustain scholarly trust that they may cite online resources without fear of the information moving or disappearing.
  • Each collection of art object or artist information and image resources could be exported as a PDF file for later reference, study, and reuse.
  • The ability to “favorite” works of art would be integrated into the existing site page favoriting functionality. The ability to share art object and artist information pages via social media would also be extended to these pages.

Interaction and Visual Design Challenges

Many interaction and visual design challenges were faced and overcome in pursuit of these goals (see attached screenshots for examples):

  • Whether one navigates to the aggregated set of collection objects that contain scholarly information or whether one simply searches the online collection, presentation of any work of art or artist record on the public web site had to provide a single interface that provides a consistent interaction experience and set of functions/tools.
  • The art object and artist pages enhanced with syscat information required a set of interface controls that allows different users with different needs to display information in a manner convenient to them. Dubbed “Reader Mode”, segments of the interface can be collapsed and/or resized to emphasize the aspect of supporting information and imaging that serves the users need.
  • Preformatted citations are available at a click. Each citation contains a persistent URL that will always and forever point back to the version of the essay that was originally cited. As curators rewrite essays, new versions are published and provided new persistent URLs. Old versions are retained and made available through the interface.
  • Much of the work performed by scholars of art history is predicated on careful study of images. A sophisticated image zoom and overlay tool was developed to allow for 2 images selected by the user to be compared in detail side by side. A future enhancement will include the ability to layer images and dissolve between them in order to illustrate the layering effects achievable when technical images like x-rays are compared with color images of an art work’s surface.

The Dutch Paintings catalog online edition was published in spring of 2014. Improvements and enhancements are underway and the next online edition of Italian Renaissance Paintings is in the works. The Gallery was honored to have the opportunity and thankful for the support provided by the Getty Foundation in their pursuit of digital publication of their systematic catalogs.