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Discovering Art Collections through Viewshare

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This is a guest post from Camille Salas, an intern with the Library of Congress.

My first experience working in a cultural heritage institution was as a teen docent at the El Paso Museum of Art in the mid-1990s. It is difficult to find details about the teen program now but it was open to high school students interested in learning about art history and giving tours of the museum’s collections to the general public. Two museum staff members led training that consisted of a summer crash course in art history and practice giving guided tours. They understood the difficulty in relating to teens, especially during summer, and did a great job of guiding us from the Renaissance to the Modern Art era. They also inserted occasional references to Beavis and Butt-Head to make things livelier and for better or worse – I now associate the two cartoon characters with the Ashcan art movement! For our final assignment, we were asked to select a painting from the museum’s Samuel H. Kress Collection, research the subject matter and materials, and then give a brief tour of the painting to our fellow docents. My tour of St. Jerome in His Study (c. 1457-1504) by Filippino Lippi was the first of several tours I gave at the museum until I left El Paso for college. The experience proved museums do not have to be stuffy or only for select individuals.

Samuel H. Kress Collection

Samuel H. Kress Collections throughout the United States

I did not think about St. Jerome much after my time at the museum until this past summer when I started working with Viewshare. As I came up to speed on all things related to Viewshare, I became acquainted with a view created by the National Gallery of Art that among many items, displays the locations of Kress Collections in the United States. (Editor’s note: the Viewshare program was retired in 2018.)

Through Viewshare, I revisited the paintings I first saw many summers ago and with just a few clicks, I quickly gleaned some new information about El Paso’s Kress Collection. Some new revelations included the fact that El Pasohas one of the larger Kress Collections outside of the National Gallery of Art. I also confirmed that the museum’s Canaletto is one of the most important pieces in the collection when I saw its purchase price. The Kress Collection view contains information about purchase prices, purchase dates, seller, and the different mediums used to create the paintings. As I went through the view, I had many questions: How many paintings are related to religious imagery? Which paintings captured landscapes or interiors? Would it be helpful to sort by artist or estimated creation date? The Kress Collection view served as a useful guide when I created a view based on some of the born-digital artwork from Rhizome’s ArtBase.

Rhizome ArtBase

As mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, the Rhizome ArtBase contains new media art dating from the 1990s. When I completed the preliminary ArtBase view, I did not expect that there would be many similarities between the two art collections but there are a few. Both art collections offer information on the medium, materials, and technology used by the artists. The majority of items in the Kress Collection are identified as oil on canvas paintings. In the Rhizome ArtBase, mediums are not captured for the majority of items but when reported, websites are the most popular.

Rhizome View: Gallery by Title
Rhizome View: Gallery by Title

Given the ability to explore the metadata associated with these artworks in Viewshare, a user can trace the evolution of technology used by artists. By narrowing down the collections by date, one could ascertain the popularity of materials and mediums used during a given time. For example, the formats for media art in the Rhizome ArtBase between 1994 and 1998 included Flash 3, HTML 3.2, HTML 4, Perl 5, and QuickTime 2.x. Adding two additional years to this search reveals the inclusion of Javascript and MP3 formats. Unfortunately, I was unable to select creation dates for paintings from the Kress Collection, but if dates were available one might be able to learn when the shift from tempera to oil on canvas started to take place. Another interesting similarity is that little information is given about the artists’ backgrounds for either collection. While creating the Rhizome view, I thought about the anonymity afforded to digital-born, artwork creators. It makes one wonder about all the different points of view possibly impacted by age, gender, ethnic/racial background, and geography – to name just a few characteristics – of the creators of these artworks.

Kress Collection Medium
Kress Collection Medium

Like many of the other views I have worked on in the past four months, creating the Rhizome ArtBase view yielded many moments of discovery. I shared links and images with friends across the country whenever I stumbled upon something that I felt they would enjoy. Even though I did not look at the Rhizome artworks within the context of a traditional, museum setting, I noticed that being at the computer permitted me to use the Internet to immediately delve into other works by the artist or further explore context, medium, or subject.

Another discovery was thinking about how the instructors of my docent class could have used Viewshare, had it been available then, to teach us about similarities and differences in art movements. Viewshare could be a potential tool for teaching and positively impacting a new generation of cultural stewards.

Rhizome ArtBase Medium
Rhizome ArtBase Medium

I would be interested to hear if any museums are using or planning to use Viewshare to engage their visitors.

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