Reviewed December 2014
Kimberley Henze, Artists’ Archives Fellow and MSLS/MAH Candidate
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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In 2009, in partnership with the J. Paul Getty Museum and eight other institutions, the Getty Foundation launched the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI). The Art Institute of Chicago—one of the museums included in this consortium—has produced two digital online scholarly catalogues available for free on the museum’s website: Monet: Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and Renoir: Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Museum catalogues have a long history in print, offering intensive research and detailed information on museum collections. However, small print runs, limited physical formats, and high costs restricted both content and access. By publishing catalogues in a digital format, the resulting publications incorporate more content—including multimedia—and are simultaneously disseminated to a broader community of users.

The Art Institute’s Monet and Renoir catalogues use a clean, minimalist interface. Tabbed drawers for the table of contents, glossary, footnotes, and figures are set into the margins, easily expandable and retractable to avoid interference with reading. The interactive footnotes and figures features link to citations or image locations within the text, and a sliding bar along the bottom of the page signals how much text is left in a given section, helping to ground the user’s sense of place in the catalogue.

The Art Institute constructively took full advantage of the digital format’s greater content capabilities.OSCI 01 2014 05 dec Not only do the catalogues contain meticulously researched curatorial entries, but also archival records, conservation documentation, supplementary art images, links to external resources, and glossary terms. Specifically, the catalogues carry full analysis sections of forty-seven and twenty-five works of art by Monet and Renoir respectively, each work with the subsections of curatorial entry, technical report, provenance, exhibitions, selected references, and other documentation. Beyond these analysis sections, there are chapters on the artists’ signatures and contributing collectors. On every level, this content meets scholarly standards, not just illustrating the text but giving the user direct access to the research through the shared experience of the raw archival and conservation materials.

Content is further operationalized through the interactivity and high-resolution quality of the images. All the art images have high zoom capabilities that enable the viewing of clearly articulated and beautifully captured brushstrokes and layering. Plotting icons allow the user to map high-detail views onto the larger composition, and select art images have been superimposed on conservator’s x-rays and can be manipulated by an interactive fade tool.

The Art Institute designed these catalogues with a scholarly audience in mind, and that choice is evident in the structure and tools given to the user. Citability is essential for scholarly sources, and the catalogue provides MLA and Chicago Style citations for every paragraph with the click of a button along with the promise that the edition’s content won’t change over time—often an issue of concern for establishing authenticity in digital media.OSCI 03 2014 05 dec The quality and quantity of content specifically suits field professionals. While the interface itself is navigable and intuitive, the expansive nature of the content has the power to overwhelm the user. This is less likely to occur for a scholar, who can see an image and have a sense of what he or she is looking at, but a layperson might get lost in all the content, even with the moving bar tool that works to establish one’s place within the publication.

These online scholarly catalogues offer an authoritative, extensive, and interactive look into the Monet and Renoir collections at the Art Institute of Chicago and are a brilliant move forward for museum publications in an increasingly digital world. This reviewer enthusiastically recommends these catalogues not only as a resource for scholarly art historical study, but also as a shining example for museums publishing digital catalogues in the future.