ed. by Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton. Bloomsbury, July 2015. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9781472533920 (pbk.), $34.95; ISBN 9781472524928 (cl.), $112.00.
Reviewed March 2016
Africa! Boston! Botany! Cartes de visite! Cuba! Darwin! Engineers! Nazis! New Zealand! Surrealism! This book describes collections with divergent subjects, yet they all share one thing: museum informatics. Unfortunately, this book does not cover much about the information about photographs necessary in collections.
Based on a one-day workshop in 2013 at Leicester, UK, convened by the Museums and Galleries History Group and the Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, each chapter is a case study about collections of photographs and related materials (such as negatives) plus supplemental contributions from other curators and academics. Numerous illustrations coupled with a center signature featuring twenty glossy color plates highlight the diversity of materials in these collections. While each chapter has useful notes and appealing bibliographic references, the index is weak.
Excellent writing and enticing details convey biographical histories of the collections sometimes with a touch of travelogue. The readability and variety of stories behind the collections makes interesting reading, but are too diverse to be of much use to an art library. Each chapter would be principally of interest to specialists in the subjects each chapter covers, many of which are not art related.
The preface states that the chapters are a study of "...the history of photograph collections, within museums, and especially those outside 'art' collections." In that, it succeeds, however such varied and unique collection histories are not supported by discussions of provenance, metadata, or new types of information possibilities such as GPS data and more.
Photographs are by nature multifaceted and the data "untidy" as one author put it. The best discussion about the difficulty of wrangling photographic information was in the first chapter written by the editors, Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton. They describe how photographs "...can be seen as having been – and arguably more so in the digital age – fundamental to the operation of the museum, and the history of those operations and procedures is both a museum history and a photographic history."
Despite the mention of digital impact, there is no consistent inclusion of necessary informatics and little discussion of how the actual information on and by photographs is gathered, documented, recorded, managed, tracked, disseminated, exhibited, or discovered—using search terms and fields to any international standards or by crowdsourcing tags through folksonomies.
Unfortunately, this book would not be a first choice for art libraries. Containing much more useful material for a much wider audience, Museum Informatics: People, Information, and Technology by Paul F. Martin and Katherine Burton Jones (Routledge, 2008) would be a better acquisition for any art library.