Visual Culture at your Fingertips

Museum pushes to complete its ambitious digital archive

by Elise Gibson

Digital archives

Kathryn Kearns ’01, Stephen Petegorsky, and Jim Gipe.

Back in 1998, students in ART 100 were still memorizing artworks by staring at walls covered with photographic reproductions of the world’s great paintings, sculptures, and architecture. Even as art history students trekked to a Hillyer classroom to study, the art department and museum were beginning to lead the way to a digital revolution. Their dream: Make high-quality photographs of museum holdings—from Smith to the Louvre—accessible night and day from the comfort of one’s home computer.

“We were in the vanguard then. People worried that no one would go to museums if they could see the art on their computers,” said Jessica Nicoll ’83, director of the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). “Studies have shown just the opposite to be true. Being able to see the works makes the public even more interested in seeing them in person.”

The bold project that began in 1998—to build a comprehensive digital archive of the entire SCMA collection—got a major boost to the finishing line last summer when the museum was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums of America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency.

Overseeing the effort is Kathryn Kearns ’01, who was hired last year to write the grant and then push the complex project through to completion. Since 1998, working in fits and starts as staffing would allow, about 18,000 photos have been taken, Kearns said. Now she has created an ambitious schedule for completing the remaining 3,000 items for the archive.

Every six weeks, two photographers, Jim Gipe and Stephen Petegorsky, set up a makeshift studio in a locked storage area in the basement of the museum. Working quickly, they spend five days painstakingly shooting photographs of the artworks Kearns has gathered, usually in batches of about 250 paintings, sculptures, antiquities, or drawings. With each of the five colleges involved in creating similar digital archives of their collections, Gipe and Petegorsky find their specialty in demand. “It’s been an amazing visual education,” Gipe said.

Between photo shoots, Kearns prepares detailed information on each item, which she then sends to Jonathan Cartledge in the Imaging Center in Hillyer Hall. With the raw images and information in hand, he creates and uploads a file on each piece to the LUNA Insight database. When it’s completed, the archive will be available to any Smith student, staff, or faculty member for research, to use in a lecture, or to show as a collection in a presentation.

Smith makes many of the same images available to ARTstor Digital Library, where they join a million images from and for subscriber museums and institutions around the world.

These databases may be restricted to campus users and subscribers, but the digital project makes Smith artworks available to the public in other ways. “It’s been critical to our ability to update our Website,” Nicoll said. On the museum site, the public can peruse highlights from the museum’s collections, and search some 60,000 images from the collections of all five colleges and Historic Deerfield.

This complex and wide-reaching digital accessibility project is part of a movement among institutions to collaborate and share their educational resources. As Elisa Lanzi, director of the Imaging Center, noted, “Our goal is to open up the digital repositories as much as we can so we can show the riches of the college.”

Winter ’11-’12 SAQ

Elise Gibson is managing editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly

Photo: Jessica Scranton