Day 3: Methods and categories

By Anna Foka

After two days of meetings, the Institute Members’ task on Wednesday was to identify key interests that they want to pursue, under the larger sub-themes of the Ancient Itineraries Getty Institute. Coloured post-it notes were used to represent Geography (yellow), Visualisation (pink), and Provenance (orange) and white ones for interests that applied to more than one theme. The entire team agreed upon the fact that their interests in geography, visualization and provenance often overlap. In the end, everyone had contributed to each of the themes. We ended up with four walls for post-its with key interests and very often challenges

After lunch, everyone was invited to examine their contributions closely and to decide their first and second preferred group choice; fortunately, almost everyone was grouped within their first choice, and the result was three very balanced groups.

The Institute Members, now grouped into Geography, Visualization and Provenance (see pictures) discussed their experiences in relation to Art History objects. Visualisations that engage with senses other than vision, the complex element of time, mapping layers of networks and connections, dealing with digital and physical materialities were some of the discussions that came up within their groups.  

Everyone agreed on the importance of usability, audience/users, as well as sustainability and interoperability; and while content and use are of high importance, so is technology, in determining what we can and cannot do. Digitization as interpretation was a phrase that kept on being repeated throughout the day.

The keynote speech by Ben Zweig from the National Gallery in Washington DC similarly discussed methods, problems, and possibilities in relation to digitization more precisely in relation to projects carried out by the National Gallery:  NGA Images, the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, and the History of American Landscape Design, for example. The speech targeted current and ongoing practices around proof of concept, the semantic functioning of projects, how the term digital doesn’t always mean cheaper and faster, infrastructural tensions that may arouse from digitization and how digitization should be content driven with stark research questions in place to begin with.





Day 2: National Gallery and ICS

By David McMeekin and Michael Carter

After this morning’s presentations, which included the continued introduction of the Institute’s member’s work, followed by an intriguing introduction to a new painting histories database the National Gallery has been developing, an interesting discussion broke out over lunch in regards to the use of paradata.

Barbara Pezzini and Alan Crookham of the UK National Gallery present the Reframing Art project.

With different people of different backgrounds, some questions were asked about what is paradata and why was it seen as perhaps not being welcomed? Is there a set standard for annotating art history was asked? There isn’t.


Working within an Open Linked Data format, continuously extending the data, linking more and more annotations to the data set, does this add to the provenance of the data? If this is paradata, perhaps it is a way to build the provenance of the digital interpretation we are building.

In creating digital interpretations of art history, in the discussion, it became clear there were several differing understandings and perspectives of what digital interpretation is meant to be about. In the context of digital interpretation, in building this kind of representation, what perspective or lens are you looking from? Art historians had a perspective of creating the digital interpretation with an end goal in mind, however others view data as an ever-evolving organic form.

Another perspective was to create the digital interpretation, as a means of standardizing the process, in an Open Linked Data format to start with. Once it is created, let the developers, researchers and others take the data and do something with it. Let’s see what they do with it. Is this a way to take ancient art to the masses? Does this facilitate a way for people, not from a traditional art history background, to do something that hasn’t been thought of before?

A challenge the art historians saw was, what if things are created that may not be accurate from an art historian’s perspective? Is this alright? Does the data interpretation need to be protected? Answering these questions traced back to what is the purpose of creating the digital interpretation of the art? Having an understanding of what the project focuses on and what its outputs need to be, this will be what drives answers to these questions…mostly.

As we move towards the Open Linked Data format, do we need to give up control of the data? Is it really giving up control of the data or is it the interpretations of the art that need to be let go of? What might come of ancient art understanding when the digital interpretation is released in a way that it can be processed by anyone and not only that, it can be processed machine to machine?

ICS visit – Gabriel Bodard

Our day ended with an enlightening trip to the Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London across from the British Museum, to listen to the success and challenges of developing a relational database, with user driven annotation functionality, used to better connect known Greek and Roman classical antiquities, with geospatial data.

Valeria Vitale presenting the Pelagios Project at the ICS



Day 1: Setting the scene

By Stuart Dunn

Seventeen distinguished scholars in the field of Digital Art History arrived at King’s this week for the Getty Institute.   Most of the sessions thus far have focused on introductions. These have shown the amazing richness and depth that the prefix “digital” can bring to a field of the humanities such as art history.  Our primary methodological focus is in the area of Linked Open Data (which, as one of the memebrs reminded us, is like teenage sex – everyone is talking about it, not many people are doing it, and many that are are doing it badly). Primarily, LOD is – obviously – about connectivity – making datasets talk to each other. One issue is that making information communicable imposes homogeneity on ambiguity – it reduces complex and ambiguous areas of interpretation to bits and bytes, 1s and 0s.

My own take is that the most important question to ask is *what* are we linking with Linked Open Data? We can link units of data, documents (and the text therein), objects, and abstract entities such as place. As we have heard, different institutions, and different modes of viewing the history of art, have different emphases on these. Teasing out what these are will be a fascinating journey.

Computing the Provenance of Art

By Rob Sanderson, Semantic Architect for the J Paul Getty Trust

In this connected age, if information is not on the web, then for the majority of people it does not exist. As data becomes more and more connected within and across organizations, it is also moving to the web as a way to make it more accessible, discoverable and most importantly usable.  Unless privacy issues dictate otherwise, if data is not on the web, then it does not exist for the purposes of scholarship. Data about the history of people, places, objects and their complex interrelationships avoids many of the privacy issues, and is a perfect domain for this work.

Computers are capable of very detailed analysis over huge amounts of information, often termed “big data”, but only when that data is represented clearly and consistently. The description of art is a collective human effort, and thus in order to gain the benefits of machines doing macro-level analysis, those descriptions need to be consistently created and connected across institutions and projects. The descriptions needed to model history in terms that machines can understand and compute on are more complex than the same concepts expressed in human language, as machines lack the context to understand the difference between a person and a painting, unless told.

Several organizations have begun to work together to come up with an understandable set of guidelines and data models for how to do this, focused on the model derived from the American Art Collaborative project. It adopts current best practices for usability and design of models defined in Linked Open Data (LOD), and is one of several emerging champions for the notion of Linked Open Usable Data (LOUD!). The model makes the simple things easy and the complex things possible, expressed in a way that is easy for software developers without PhDs in both art history and computer science to work with.

At the Getty Research Institute, is being used to recondition and republish the Provenance Index, a dataset of events in which the ownership of an object changed. The events are described based on primary source evidence from the archives of art dealers, from sales catalogs of auction houses, and other similar research. The objects and people are also described, and connected where possible to other datasets.  This work mirrors other ongoing Linked Open Data work around the Getty, such as the Museum collection (including the provenance) being expressed using the same model, and the description of conservation science and its literature in the Getty Conservation Institute. The Getty Vocabularies are already available as LOD, and work is ongoing to add the important Usability aspect.

Much of this information is being managed in a data platform called Arches. It was originally funded by the Getty Conservation Institute to look after information about immobile cultural heritage, such as temples or rock carvings, in war torn states, but that scope has since broadened to encompass many of the data requirements for cultural heritage in general. Arches provides human user interfaces on top of the data, both for creating and editing records and searching and displaying them to end users. It allows art historians to create and publish data in a consistent, connected and collaborative way — the three “C”s that drive Getty’s digital mission.