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The American Collection Makes its e-Debut

One of the long-term goals for a museum curator is to put together a catalog of the collection under their care. With the advent of the web this project has gone beyond the printed page and given the writer a whole new set of options. Unlike a publication, a web catalog allows the writer to add works as they are acquired instead of having to produce another book sometime in the future, change entries as new information becomes available, and correct mistakes that would forever remain in print. Flexibility is one of the major advantages of putting a collections catalog on the web.

The journey from concept to completion of the catalog for the American collection began more than two years ago with a compilation of the material that would be necessary to begin the project. Nothing could begin without a complete list of the American collection. For this project the list took the form of a printout which contained each piece in the American collection organized by its accession number, the order in which it came into the collection. For example 2008.352 was the 352nd piece to come into the collection in 2008. It was then necessary to ascertain from this list the works to be included in the web catalog. The remarkable aspect of a web catalog is that once this decision is made there will always be the opportunity to create more entries in the future.

Each work in the American collection was examined by the curator. A list of the works that would be included in the web project was made. This list included but was not limited to every work from the American collection that has been on display at the IMA. While working on this project a list was made of works that had come into the collection during the early period of the museum’s existence that are not deemed museum quality and should be considered for deaccession (sale). When these lists were completed, the files on each of these pieces, known as the works’ “historical files,” had to be examined. It was hoped that these files would provide detailed information on the work and its history. In some cases they did and in others very little information could be gleaned from these files. It was also necessary to pull together every label produced for the art work, which would be a starting point for the art work’s catalog entry. Since biographies on the artists were not available in the museum’s historical files, this research was also required. All these tasks would have been difficult for one curator to do without devoting every working moment to these tasks. Fortunately, the American Art department was given an endowment to create a fellowship by Joan D. Weisenberger, a museum patron, which provided an assistant for this project. One of the tasks the Fellow was responsible for was compiling the pertinent information from the historical files.

Once we had all the available information, we had to devise a format for each entry in the American Collection web catalog. It was decided that each work would have a label that included its accession number, artist, title, medium, size and credit line, followed by a section called “Learn More” containing the artist’s biography and a discussion of the work in the collection. The last section called “Reference,” includes a source where the reader can find more information.

Compiling the information took about a year. It was now time to start writing. The curator wrote the entries and the Weisenberger Fellow created the checklists that would be used to transfer the material to the web and worked with the web team so these lists met their criteria. Periodic meetings where held with the web team, curator, and Fellow to make certain we were all on the same page. Putting a collection on the web was a new project that had to be worked out so that the final product would be easy to transfer to the museum’s website.

Each work was to contain an image to accompany the text. In most cases this was possible before the launch date, but we decided not to hold up the catalog for those entries without an image and add the image when it became available. Of course, this is another great aspect of a web catalog. Everything we put on the museum’s webpage can be altered, added to or removed if necessary. We can even redesign the whole project, if at a later date it is decided that the catalog needs a new look that would work better. I am constantly reminded of the flexibility of the web, which allows us to launch this catalog without feeling permanently locked into any decisions. So if a reader comes across something that they question, something we missed, or just doesn’t like some aspect of the project, we can address these concerns. We are anxious for input on the American collection catalog on the IMA website. This is the IMA’s first attempt at creating a web collection catalog, and we want you, our audience, to be able to not only learn from it but be motivated to come to visit the museum to see these works of art. It is hoped that with the information this web catalog offers, our visitors can come to the museum and enjoy the work as the artist intended.

Filed under: Art, New Media, Technology

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