Collection Catalogue 2.0—What is a Museum (Now) Anyway?

Tyler Green in his Modern Art Notes blog, recently wrote two blog posts (here and here) about the Getty’s plan to put together a cross-institutional online collection catalogue:

If everything goes well, the result will be 21st-century collection catalogues on steroids. Anyone with a web connection will be able to overlay x-rays of a painting over the ‘actual’ painting. Or see how curators through the years have changed their opinions on key points about a painting or an artist. Or see how conservators have helped paintings along. Or click from bibliography listings right to articles, or to related paintings in other museums’ collections.

Tyler’s post was also picked up on in the Smithsonian 2.0 blog.

Joan Weinstein, overseeing the project, noted that scholarly opinion and scholarship on any given work of art are constantly changing. What better environment for dealing with that than the web? But more importantly, what does it mean for museums and art historians to openly acknowledge that there are no final answers and that knowledge is developed through process? There are certainly ways the discipline has acknowledged that over the years, but the Collection Catalogue 2.0 seems like a big step forward in exposing processes, disagreements, and creating “conversations” around single works of art, instead of offering a monolithic expert voice (something like we’ve been doing with

“How do you not take what would just be a PDF page online, but totally re-think it for an online environment?” Weinstein said. “How do you track scholarship if it changes all the time? How do you reference something to a certain date if it’s constantly updated?”

What’s valuable about Smarthistory in terms of web resources for art history is not just our conversations, but that we bring together works of art from multiple institutions and places. And it’s true (and something we’ve talked about with Tina Olsen, Deb Howes, Nancy Proctor and others), that it’s so awful for educators to have to sort through the websites of so many different museums to look for good educational content — and this is made more difficult when museums are adding so much new material all the time. I mean, museums are making AMAZING multimedia educational content that teachers everywhere need to enrich what they can do in the classroom. I think it was Nancy who mentioned something about a new application that would scrape this content from the different sites and aggregate it. Boy do we need that.

Its interesting to think about these issues historically. In 1869, William Cullen Bryant delivered a keynote address to the Union League Club proposing the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it, he positions the future museum as an strategic expression of New York’s ascendant economic and cultural power as well as a rampart against immigrants and those “dexterous in villainy.” He treats the museum as a territorial device supporting the aspirations of the city and the nation against the old orders of Europe. To a remarkable degree, American museums have largely continued to think in terms of territory and distinctions between those whose voices can be trusted and those whose voices are suspect.

In any case, Collection Catalogue 2.0 (so far: the Getty Museum, the Smithsonian’s Sackler/Freer, SFMOMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Walker, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, the Seattle Art Museum and LACMA) is a great start!

But there’s more. Yesterday in a chat with colleague Chad Laird, he pointed out that it would be good if you knew that a museum’s website was the best source for the highest quality, largest image. Right now, after doing a google image search, educators often check the museum’s site, only to find that a better reproduction exists at the Web Gallery of Art, or a similar site. This points to the extraordinary disconnect in the discipline of art history between the academy and art museums. Between professors and curators. Of course there are specific arrangements and friendships that open doors in both directions but those from museums and universities often do not even attend the same conferences let alone work together to imagine the possibilities afforded by a distributed art history.

What is the museum now anyway? Sure, it’s still the physical place where we safeguard and see original works of art. But perhaps more importantly now, the museum is a distributed institution that can best maintain its authority and fulfill its educational mission by putting all that it has on the web and aggregating it with other institutions. So we can access — on the web — Collection Catalogue 2.0 — the museum of all museums — including the highest resolution images (in different sizes), different scholarly voices, conservation issues — everything. As Tyler discusses, museums are no longer worried that putting material on the web means fewer people will want to see it in person.

Imagine the opportunities…

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  1. Hi Beth, Steven and all–

    Thank you for all of your work and insights in this blog and Smarthistory–these are fascinating, and ever-expanding, issues that museums need to consider. As I oversee programs for teachers at the Met, I can especially connect with your concern that educators are sifting through many museum websites for educational content and images, which can be both stimulating and exhausting. We’ve been offering online/onsite (blended) teacher programs at the Met since ’07, and this summer we plan to collaborate with the American Museum of Natural History to introduce teachers to both the Met’s collections and AMNH using the lens of art, science and inquiry. Our hope is that these types of interactive workshops (asynchronous and synchronous), narrowcast to specific types of visitors, will help us better understand how we can collaborate with other institutions. I’d be curious to learn how other cultural institutions are using interactive Web platforms for active teaching and learning not only in their collections, but across museum collections. Thanks again for this blog!


    1. Thanks for your comment Will! The workshops with AMNH sound interesting. Let us know what you learn!


  2. I recently starting using smart history in my lectures and tutorials and have found the tool extremely useful. It adds an interactive and interesting dimension to the student’s experience. It also I think really does change the lecture’s role from one of transmitting information to transforming the experience of the student. It shows students not only the objects of art history, but how to find them, their ever changing contexts, and how to negotiate the internet (probably the most important job of the art historian today). Art history must start embracing the developments on the web and integrate them into their degree program. I mean, is their a module anywhere about using the net to find art history images? Not in Ireland anyway. This type of activity needs to be integrated into the first year program of the undergraduate.

    I discussed similar ideas in a paper I gave in the National Gallery in Dublin, Ireland last year in relation to the impact of Artstor. Neither tool makes the museum redundant, but it does show how art history has always been about a negotiation of presence (the objects) and absence (the contexts). These sites help us build a more informed picture than we could receive by merely standing in front of the object. Also, it changes the way we teach, learn, and research. Of course, the object will always be there, or thereabouts, but this does not take away from the amazing work that smart history has done. I look forward to future developments.

    Jp McMahon
    Art History
    UCC, Ireland


  3. I am not an educator, but in my business I have run into the same situation-where is the art? The WebMuseum, Artchive, individual museums, books-it’a all over the place. Some education oriented businesses have taken a different route. Library Video Company for instance, which caters to elementary and high school students, has a program with over 1000 high def images which they distribute via servers and which teachers can access and construct their own lesson plans.

    Any appreciator of art will love this project. You don’t have to be in education.


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