Picture Meeting 9 juli 2009: Documentation

Picture Meeting Report, July 9th 2009

The theme of the Picture Meeting of July 9th was ‘Documentation’. At first this may not appear to be the most captivating of topics, but the diversity and subjects of the lectures was very exciting indeed. This Picture Meeting was special for another reason as well: it was ‘web-casted’ live on the internet, making the meeting accessible to an even wider audience than was present in the lecture room. The possibility was given to the internet audience to actively participate by sending in questions. Although the morning knew some technical problems in the web-cast, the author received positive reactions from several conservators from Germany and Belgium. In all, there were 217 unique visitors from 20 countries in all parts of the world.

Hopefully this application of web-casting will not be a one-time experiment. The recordings of the lectures and many of the PowerPoint presentations can now be viewed at the ICN website: http://webcast.icn.nl.

The first lecture was called ‘ICN initiatives on documentation’ by Hanneke van der Beek (ICN), Programme leader ‘Toegankelijkheid’ (Accessibility) at ICN. She started by showing a short movie, which in itself was part of a lecture called “New ways of looking at objects in the future” by Prof. P. Maes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (http://www.ted.com/talks/pattie_maes_demos_the_sixth_sense.html). In this a whole new way of using a computer in our daily life was shown. A portable combination of computer, camera, projector, phone and mirror could at all times be accessed and used by moving four fingers in the air. In conservation Hanneke could see good use for this type of computer application. By pointing his fingers to an object, for example, a conservator would have immediate access to all past documentation. But the speaker also foresaw problems; the basis for such possibilities lies within a good documentation system. Nowadays documentation within institutes is often illogically arranged and named or inaccessible.

The presentation by Maarten van Bommel (ICN) was called: ‘CARTA: a GIS system applied to works of art’. In the early stages of the research project of the ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ by Piet Mondrian, it became apparent that a large amount of digital data of all sorts – photographs, text, graphs etc – would be generated. The challenge was to come up with a system that would not only store this data, but would store it in such a way that would make mutual comparison easier. Such a system was found in CARTA, a Geographical Information System (GIS). This database system was not only developed to store large amounts of data, but it also gives the possibility to connect the data – for example microphotographs – to the exact location on a painting, facilitating comparison between the data. In the future case studies will be conducted with different museums to further investigate the possibilities of CARTA.

After two lectures about future and current types of documentation, Michiel Franken (RKD) gave a presentation about more traditional types of documentation. His lecture was about the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), called ‘A rich source of Art Technical and Restoration Documentation’. After sketching a brief history of the RKD, he described the different types of documentation available at the RKD. Not only for art-historians, but also for conservators the RKD contains a treasure of information, all too easily overlooked by most. First there are the historical photographs of paintings, which can contain valuable visual information about the (conservation) history of a painting under treatment. The RKD also has a technical database for data like infrared reflectography, x-ray photography, ultraviolet photography etc. An increasing amount of the RKD data is available on the internet, although often only the metadata is given for reasons of authorisation. Other material interesting to the conservator are the archives from several conservators from the past and the Windsor and Newton database.

The next speaker was Sytske Weidema (RKD/Mauritshuis), who talked about one specific database: The Rembrandt Database. This project is a collaboration between the RKD and the Mauritshuis, funded by the Mellon Foundation. It will be finished in August 2010 and then the database will be available on the internet at: www.rembrandtdatabase.org. The Mauritshuis has 90 paintings by Rembrandt, of which much technical data has been generated in the past. The metadata of this technical information will form the basis for the database. Many international institutions have already consented to provide data of their own Rembrandt paintings, making technical information about Rembrandt easily available to an international audience. A pilot version of the database is currently constructed by Adlib and as a test it will be filled with the data of three Rembrandt paintings.

Aviva Burnstock and Austin Nevin (both from the Courtauld Institute of Art) presented the project on the Master of the Fogg Art Pietà, which was also funded by the Mellon Foundation. This project database is being constructed to serve as a platform for discussion and exchange of information of the project partners all over the world. Although the reason is different from the databases mentioned above, there are similar promising effects for conservation research. The project started with the conservation treatment of two panels by the master of the Fogg Art Pietà at the Courtauld Institute. These panels had once been part of a large altarpiece, which had in the past been divided into smaller panels. The individual pieces have become dispersed all over the world; some ended up in museums, some have been lost, some have surfaced in auctions, but were lost from sight again afterwards. As much data as possible about the separate panels is now being put into the database for comparison and research. In the second part of the presentation Austin Nevin presented some of the more technical information on the setting up and workings of the database. The database will in the future be available at: www.mfpmfp.org. The speakers stressed that it is developed as a research-tool rather than a general database and a login will be required.

The afternoon presentations started with the lecture ‘Preservation of Digital Archives’ by Trilce Navarrete Hernández (UvA). Digital archives are a relatively new phenomenon, and its preservation is still in its infancy, but is just as important as the preservation of traditional archives. Trilce Navarrete Hernández has done extensive research into the current state of preservation of digital archives in Dutch museums and concludes that much needs to be done in this field if we want to keep the data available to future generations. One of the big problems is the changing media technology. It is for example already difficult to find a tape-recorder to play tapes from the 70s and 80s. The same will happen with current media. It is therefore necessary not only to adopt media technology, but also to actively adapt it to keep digital collections alive.

Paintings conservator Meta Chavannes (Rijksmuseum) brought up a subject, which is an important issue for any practising conservator: digital photography. In her lecture ‘Towards standardised photographic conservation documentation: The AIC Guide to Digital Photography and Conservation Documentation’, she discussed this AIC publication. It is a practical guide on digital photography, written by a taskforce that was especially established for this purpose by the AIC (American Institute for Conservation). The guide can be purchased through the internet and is meant for conservators from all disciplines. Some of the important topics discussed are: file format, metadata, colour management, lighting conditions and standardization of your photography. This guide will be a valuable addition to any conservation studio working with digital photography.

The presentation of paper conservator Bas van Velzen (UvA) was called: ‘Documentation or Reporting?’ The speaker advocated a system where documentation is viewed as separate from a (treatment) report. Bas van Velzen sees documentation as the factual conservation data of an object: who treated it, what materials were used and where, when and how did the conservator use this material. The documentation is for the conservator and his (future) colleagues; it should always remain with the object. On the other side is the report, which explains the ‘why’ of a treatment. It is in narrative and is meant for the client and the larger audience. The second part of the lecture dealt with differences between analogue and digital documentation. It discussed some of the traps encountered in digital documentation, for example a lack of standardization.

Karen te Brake (ICN) gave a presentation about INCCA, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art. INCCA started in 1999 and has as a mission: ‘to develop, share and preserve knowledge needed for the conservation of modern and contemporary art’. Now, ten years later, it is perhaps the most important international network for the conservation of contemporary art. It has a database for members (www.inccamembers.org) and for the public (www.incca.org), where a more limited amount of information is accessible. According to Karen te Brake one of the keys to the success of INCAA is that members can choose their own manner of bringing in data; too much standardization has a negative effect.

The last lecture of the day – called ‘Databases for art technological source research: some do’s and don’ts’ – was by Ad Stijnman (ICN). In a clear manner he described the definitions of art technology, source material and some of the problems encountered in historical terminology and language. He explained the audience his own experiences with constructing a database and the problems he encountered. More information regarding the work of Art Technological Source Research can be found on the website of the working group: http://www.clericus.org/atsr.

The day ended with a lively discussion, chaired by Arjen Kok (ICN). Clearly many in the audience, including researchers from the ICN itself, saw a clear task for the ICN in preserving documentation and databases for the future. There was also an optimistic feeling towards a more open attitude from institutions and museums for sharing data, where in the past they were more reserved.

Verslag: Esther van Duijn

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