Category Archives: Art Tracks

Art Tracks: Why Museums Love Libraries


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Pietro Perugino, St. Augustine with Members of the Confraternity of Perugia, c. 1500. Carnegie Museum of Art, Acquired through the generosity of Mrs. Alan M. Scaife.

Without libraries, museums would be flying blind. We rely on our fellow information hoarders professionals to help us solve problems, guide us to resources, and occasionally go for a drink. In so many ways, libraries are the left to our right, and one of the places this relationship is most visible is provenance research.

Provenance research used to be a much more labor-intensive affair. Auction catalogues, travel diaries, and other archival material were held by a few libraries, and if you could figure out which repository had the material you were looking for, getting access was another issue entirely. Many books and papers were held in closed holdings that could only be accessed by appointment and by application. The researcher then had to travel to the library, get the book, maybe do a translation, and do the research.

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Art Tracks: The People That You Meet in Museum Files


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A sampling of the paper trail that often accompanies an artwork once it enters the collection. Photo: Bryan Conley.

When an artwork enters a museum’s collection, it usually has an extensive paper trail, and possibly an electronic trail, but that documentation doesn’t stop after acquisition.

Museum staff, volunteers, and students often do additional research into the artwork’s history, provenance, or significance. All of that knowledge generates tons of paper-condition reports, loan agreements, conservation treatment reports, photocopies of auction catalogs, scholarly articles, incident reports, the occasional MA thesis rough draft, magazine articles, bibliographies, sticky notes, letters, copies of letters, deeds of gift, wills, acknowledgements of gifts, and, prior to the adaptation of electronic collection databases in the late 1990s, card catalogs. Yes, catalogs plural.

All of this paper gets sorted and copied into curatorial files, donor files, and meeting minutes as a way of creating a structured story of an artwork’s existence prior to its arrival at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) and the mechanism by which we assumed stewardship of it. Some files are huge and stuffed full of handwritten letters on heavy official paper, with mounds of photocopied articles. Others are svelte, and contain only the trusty catalog document, lovingly typewritten by registrars long ago (and not so long ago, as the typewriter at CMOA still gets weekly use). But each of these paper breadcrumbs helps build a compelling narrative.

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Art Tracks: Parties, Marriage, and Provenance


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War Bride by Clarence Holbrook Carter, 1940 © Estate of Clarence Carter. Photo Credit: Richard Stoner.

Things said infrequently to the Curator of Fine Arts: “We need to talk about marriage.”

As we begin Art Tracks, one of the first tasks is identifying each person, or party, who was involved in the transfer, movement, and custody of an artwork before it came to Carnegie Museum of Art.

Then we have to build a timeline of each party’s movements over their lifetime, and associate a distinct location identifier for each movement. Currently, we’re using Geonames as our authority, though the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) just became linked-open-data. Using an authority helps us be explicit that we’re talking about the Paris in France, and not Paris, Ontario, Paris, Texas, or Paris, Togo. Continue reading

Art Tracks: Visualizing the Stories and Lifespan of an Artwork


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Inside the digital media lab of Carnegie Museum of Art. Click to enlarge image. Photo: Jeffrey Inscho.

The Digital Media Lab at Carnegie Museum of Art is attempting to structure provenance and exhibition history data so curators, scholars, and software developers can create dynamic visualizations that answer impossible questions—and we’ve assembled a talented team to do it. But of course that’s a fairly simplified explanation of the project. To better understand exactly what we are looking to accomplish, I need to delve deeper. 

For instance, have you ever wondered how artworks arrive at a museum? I’m not talking about the physical logistics of art object transportation, but rather the journey over time and space that artworks make to arrive at a particular museum at a particular moment in time? Continue reading