Museums often only have a fraction of their collections on display to the public at any one time, normally due to the constraints of exhibition space and conservation issues. As institutions that care for collections so that they may share them with the public, keeping the majority of their collections out of public view goes against their mission. The Internet has offered a solution to this dilemma by allowing museums to digitize their collections and put them online. While at first online collections seem to be a good solution to allow democratic access to all, they have many pitfalls. A close look at the Art Institute of Chicago’s online collections reveals what works, and what doesn’t.
Navigation through overarching categories, then through eras, mediums, or highlights of the collection, allows visitors of the site to easily browse the collections without having to know exactly what they are looking for. Also, the amount of the collection that is online is not too large to be approachable. Unfortunately, the thumbnails of works are reduced to the size of the complimenting block of object information text. If they were larger, they would have enough detail for someone to browse the collections clicking to learn more about what appeals to them visually, and important factor in looking at art.
Once a work is selected, it opens a page with a high-resolution image of the work that may or may not come with interpretive text. Writing thoughtful text for thousands of images will surely take time for the Institute to do, but it really is important for online collection. The curious person that browses and clicks through an online collection would certainly appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the works that intrigue them.
Asian and Indian Art of the Americas lack photographs for about 15% of the online works, and African lacks photographs for more like 80% of the online works. Without photographs or interpretive texts, these sections are only useful for helping someone decide what objects they’d like to see on their next visit. Even then it is only useful to someone who already knows about and is interested in a stamp for Adinkra textile or a Dogon house post.
The best entryway into the museum’s online collection is through its Themes section. These themes include Children, Mythology, and Portraits. Selecting a theme presents works that address it from a diverse chronology and geography. When works are presented individual eras and geographic areas, the cohesive style that holds them together is what stands out. But the Themes section of the AIC’s online collections naturally invite the viewer to see how differs artists across schools and styles approach common subjects and forms in a way that is rarely presented in the museum’s display of permanent collections.
Digitizing is expensive and time consuming. There are still major gaps in the online collection, and likely will be for years. A full online collection with text and images for all works would certainly be a useful tool. But considering the sheer amount of man-hours it would take to complete, and how unapproachable such a massive catalogue would be, I would suggest that using those resources to create really thoughtful online versions of temporary exhibitions and continue developing collection themes that would better fulfill a museum’s mission with what capital is available. Online exhibitions extend the impact of temporary exhibition by making their material available to more people for longer, and make use of interpretation already being done. Meanwhile developing more themes would allow for online visitors to compare and contrast works from allover the museums encyclopedic collection that would normally not be juxtaposed, and invite them to think critically about the functions art serves and how art can achieve those functions.