A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things): Performing MoMA’s 120,000 object collections database

One thing that really interests me is how digital humanities will change the field of art history. But my question was – but how!? My own training in art history involved dealing with 85% digital images, 10% physical paintings at permanent collections locally, and 5% dealing with analog images (slides, thanks to 1 amazing professor who is 100% analog). But envisioning art history via the text and data that paintings offer was very perplexing to me, and sounded really boring.

So! this amazing article helped me to better understand the creativity that can be formed out of using large data sets for new ways of viewing, analyzing, and thinking about art: MoMA’s performance of their object collections database is an excellent example to show how art history applies digital humanities tools.

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The article writes that there is “prose and poetry and performance to be made from these rows and columns.” Below I’ve captured a digital image of a painting by Marc Chagall (1942) in the objects collection next to an image of the dataset itself.

So what’s the point of releasing this data set to the world? The article explains that people will do the same with this kind of data as they do with any other significant data release: visualize, analyze, query, and create: “They’ll find patterns, publish blog posts with scatter charts and arrive at a set of hopefully illuminating conclusions.” While I think it strips art of its most aesthetic component, I think looking at this data helps understand art in new ways because there is no linearity, no narrative, nothing but the text of the most basic information. This could leak new power dynamics in the art world (i.e., you could compare the percentage of male artists to female without even seeing the work itself). Put quite beautifully, the article also makes the point that “in these fringes we can see things that are often obscured when we’re staring at the artworks directly. These areas along the edges are fruitful places to search for traces of politics, of the institution, the art world, and society as a whole.”

I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did 🙂

Other things I took away from this:

  • The field of art librarianship is vastly changing, but the bridge between these projects and faculty is often quite wide. This is an amazing opportunity for librarians to hone their digital skills and help faculty, artists, museums, and galleries with these kinds of projects.
  • what GitHub is (sort of)
  • To be an engaged librarian, social media will play a crucial role in staying up to date on all of the innovative projects going on globally every day.




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