Following up on the mid-November blog posting, which introduced the new Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) at the Walker, is a report from our big meeting at the Getty Center last week where all of the grantee institutions convened. In attendance were Andrew Blauvelt (Design), Robin Dowden (New Media), Betsy Carpenter (Visual Arts), and myself, together with teams from Art Institute of Chicago, Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,Smithsonian Institution, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art (DC), SFMoMA, Seattle Art Museum, Tate Gallery.
Perhaps it was the sunshine, sea air over Santa Monica, and thereupon sun-kissed skin that left us giddy after the OSCI event adjourned last Wednesday, but I’d like to think that we were all just really delighted by what dialogues ensued in and around the Getty Research Institute. Not to say that after two days of presentations and conversations (one of which being the need for a more desirable project title – ideas welcome), the group’s ideas about online collections catalogues weren’t slightly more mangled than they were going in. But in a good way. Getting down to it, here are some of the issues we all worked with:
- Grocery Store or a Restaurant? To start, this question coined by Mr. Blauvelt was quickly taken up and re-posed by many during the meetings, referring to how the OSCI would exist beyond being a compendious repository. How the OSCI envisions itself as a venue in the service of preparing its content for users’ varied preferences, and emphasizing the author’s subjectivity, while dynamically switching up the menu from time to time, seemed an issue canopying many of the other conversations.
- Completeness: Would the OSCI strive for comprehensive information on all entries? Or will it preference select contributions to scholarship, assuming that the more general information (i.e. tombstone data) is retrievable easily elsewhere (i.e. Google searches, or the good old-fashioned library)? Dubious sentiments were exchanged about the end-goal of making an online so-called “catalogue” when the term wontedly implies, what Tate’s Head of Collection Research, Jennifer Mundy, had described as an “intellectual cul-de-sac.” The online cataloguing project is thus seen as a more thoroughgoing collections project—one not reduced to records, lists, brief synopses, and thumbnail images.
- Audience: Who is the OSCI’s public? As LACMA’s manager of Art & Education Systems, Diane Folsom, scrolled down a list that included undergrads; PhDs; collectors; artists; journalists; dealers; smarties; art tourists; librarians; conservators; professors; museum staff, she emphasized the need for audience analysis (and ultimately user testing) in order for the OSCI to meet the expectations of whom it serves.
- Writing style: Dependent on the articulation of audience, the OSCI must decide what tone the language of the site and the incorporated texts will take on. Are artist work entries introduced with a précis followed by a list of more academically-written texts? In these longer texts, must conclusions be front-loaded and must headings be mandatory to be sufficient for the average web user who is accustomed to scanning content and skipping around screens? If so, this presupposes a writing style that many of the proposed authors may not be used to, or even prefer to employ.
- Authorship: The contributors would not only be those on the OSCI team, but cross/extra-institutional as well, global and motley. Page-count is not a concern for the OSCI, so a multitude of authors could potentially write for one artist’s work. This means an interesting mix of varying subjectivities, perhaps leading to well-substantiated contradictions and interesting reader response. Meaning is multi-vocal, multi-disciplinary, complex and contingent. And the extent of elaboration within each entry begins to map axial changes in interpretation over time.
- Interactive engagement: Who is directly responsible for caring for readers’ comments? Whenever the Getty group’s discussion touched upon these types of interactive features, this question continuously arose. How often, or under what circumstances will curators be able to reply to reader response? Also, while inviting remarks to entries, how will the institution preserve its integrity in furthering knowledge in the field of contemporary art through balancing the engagement of user comments with “experts’” perspectives? The National Gallery of Art’s curator, Arthur Wheelock, Jr., expressed concern over an influx of misinformation being generated by too much interactivity, in emphasizing the institution’s responsibility to guide dialogue on the art in its collection and meet some criteria of accuracy.
- Online research: In answer to the professor’s raised eyebrow upon mention of citations to “online research”—as much online content on culture sites is geared towards mass appeal and typically associated with pop culture— the OSCI responds by puncturing this stigma. Critical texts are written by curators, archivists, or conservators, as well as commissioned by relevant savants, and as just mentioned above, much of this information could be complemented by readers’ posted submissions as well. This process marks the enacting of a new approach to art history via the web—one that indicates historical shifts through a platform of diverse voices, and also incorporated audience feedback, and through more transparent idea development (for example, by gradually stacking edited texts atop one another verses replacing them). In order to validate the “legitimacy” of this online source information, the group put forth one option of a universal footnoting and reference system that the academy might approve of.
- Hierarchy of information: What gets headlined? Through design and the organization of content, whether reflected in publications or online, the institution makes clear how it feels about the documents it holds. But different from its print counterpart, the OSCI permits a new degree of flexibility in altering what artists or authors, for instance, might be foregrounded verses what remains appendixed.
- Longevity: Who manages the OSCI? Who selects the artist works to be featured, interviews artists, digs through the archives, writes the texts and edits them, is responsible for database entry, functionality, and so forth? What departments of the institution are intimately involved with the project? What collaborative partnerships with other institutions might enrich and help to sustain the project?
- Greater impact: Beyond the cultural and academic impact, what is the demonstratable economic and social impact of the OSCI? In one case, to help address this question, the Seattle Art Museum has created an advisory board composed of community members and figures abroad so that their ideas don’t exist in an institutional vacuum.
- “The end product”: What does the OSCI’s “success” entail?
Breakout sessions on these topics—entitled “Audience and Writing,” “Sustainability,” and “TMS and Beyond”—turned into intense conversations that piqued everyone’s reassessing sense of their own stake in the OSCI undertaking. As the rooms heated up with varying opinions around some of these considerations, what seemed decidedly consensual was the impossibility of defining an umbrella system for the Initiative (though some systems of standardization, such as citations, will likely be inevitable). What approach may make sense for an institution taking up specialized research on Monet may not jibe with one’s multi-disciplinary investigation of the Camden Town Group’s social and cultural resonance. Nonetheless, the epiphanies and kinks of each institution’s project development will continuously inform one another’s throughout.
After a few days passed to let the Getty gathering all sink in, Betsy, Robin, Andrew, and I met to revisit some of the questions raised by our colleagues. Before really delving into the project though, a cardinal question remains—for a collection like the Walker’s, one that consists of some 12,000 works, how do we begin making a handful of initial selections for the OSCI (and how many can we take on in the near future)? More on this next time.