Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wanted: a wiki for visual art

Wikipedia has demonstrated the amazing power of crowdsourcing to become the world's most frequently referenced encyclopedia.

In my opinion, one gap in the coverage of Wikipedia is art, in particular, visual art.

Certainly, there are plenty of articles in Wikipedia on the subject of art, and on individual paintings. But the structure of Wikipedia itself isn't ideally suited to covering visual art in the way I think would be most helpful.

Here is my vision of what I wish existed:

Let's say you want to start with a particular painting. Let's pick Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" as an example to work with. Enter the name of the painting in the search bar and a page comes up devoted to that painting.

If you like, you can click Full Screen and you switch to Slideshow mode in which the high-resolution image fills your entire screen, and you can zoom if you want: getting closer and seeing more detail that you could even in a museum.

Or, you can select from a number of layers of information about the painting. You have a choice of viewing modes. The default mode would have the full painting on your screen while the information layer of interest shows to the sides or below the image, depending on whether the image is a portrait or landscape orientation. Here are a few potential layers:

  • The basics:
    • When the painting was painted
    • Name of the painter
    • Where the painting hangs today
    • Materials used
    • Dimensions
  • Materials used: if you are more interested in the technical details of the materials used, you can see a detailed technical layer. This could have:
    • Fabric: exactly what type of material was the painting painted on? What is this fabric made out of? Where would the fabric have been made?
    • Dyes: for each of the colors in the painting, what is the most likely source of the dye that was used? What plant was used for each green, red, and blue?
    • Frame: What type of wood is the frame made out of? Where would that wood have come from? Who carved the frame? Is the frame original?
  • Story: On this layer you read the story of what is going on, in this case, of course, the last supper of Jesus with his disciples.  Here you would get the basic story as well as a comparison of how each of the Gospels treats the Last Supper, and which of the Gospels da Vinci has followed.  Also we'd read about which elements da Vinci added based on his own invention or based on traditions.  For a painting about Greek myths, you would get a link to the story of the Greek myth.  For any historical painting, say a portrait of a king, you would get a brief biographical sketch of the person.
  • Symbolism: This layer of information would focus on the symbols present in the painting.  
    • Hands: you might check a box and see an optional layer that just addresses the symbolism of all the different hand gestures.  When this layer is present, you would see a faint box around each of the hand gestures where a comment has been written.  Hover your mouse over this set of hands and you can see the description of that particular gesture in the write-up
    • Objects: same as above, but for objects. 
  • Artist: If you are interested in the artist, you can see a layer of information about da Vinci.
  • History of the ownership of the painting: this layer gives you the history of the chain of possession as far as is known
    • History of the physical object: this sub-layer would detail any restorations
    • Details on owners: All of the owners in the chain of possession would by hyperlinked so you could see details on what other paintings they owned, and how they got their money
    • Past locations: In this layer you could see a map of all the places the painting has hung over the years.  Click on a location on the map and you can see an image of the building, or if available, and image of the hall where the painting hung.
  • Current location: understand the context in which the painting is currently displayed.  
    • Ideally, you could see a virtual view of the room in which the painting hangs today, assuming that it is in a museum; if a photo of the room isn't available, then you could see images of the other paintings in the same room to understand what the curator has placed this painting with.  This would all be hyperlinked, so you could click on any of those paintings
  • Style: a layer to talk about the style of the painting; general characteristics of the painting's genre
  • Historical context: What was going on in history at the time this painting was created?
  • Scholarship: Links to any scholarship about the work of art
For paintings you could zoom to a very high-resolution detailed view to see the brushstrokes.  For sculptures or other 3D works like jewelry and furniture, you could get a rotating view to see from all angles.

The above describes the various layers of information that you could see while looking at one work of art.  There would also be a feature that would allow you to see a virtual gallery of paintings to allow comparisons.  These various galleries would mostly correspond to the layers described above.  For examples, the galleries could include: 
  • Story or theme: Show a gallery of all the other artistic treatments of the Last Supper (in this case)
  • Artist: Show all the other paintings by the same artist
  • Contemporaneous works: Show other paintings created in the same geographic location within the same time period
  • Style: See other paintings of the same style
  • Materials: See other paintings made with the same green dye from the same plant
  • Ownership: See other paintings collected by the same collector
  • Current location: See other paintings at the same museum as where the painting currently hangs
  • Symbolism: See other paintings with the same hand gesture; or that feature a dove or whatever symbol is picked
What I'm describing is certainly far too vast of an undertaking for any single institution to pay to create.  The only way to create such a site would be crowdsourcing in the manner of Wikipedia.

Some museums have already started internal efforts that take steps in the direction of what I'm describing.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has an online Collection Database.  
MOMA also has an online collection.

Sample of the information that MOMA gives about a sample painting:

The Fallen Butler

George Condo (American, born 1957)

December 2009. Oil and pastel on linen, 78 x 76" (198.1 x 193 cm). Gift of Adam Kimmel. © 2011 George Condo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This is a nice first step, but is limited to the amount of information you would normally see on a placard within the museum.  Space online is nearly free, so why not make it possible to read deeply about the piece of work?

There are other efforts out there, like this one at All-Art.org.  The link is to their page on Greek Mythology, which includes a whole list of links to particular gods and goddesses where you can see multiple images of the same mythological figure.  

There are two main problems with efforts that are sponsored by a specific museum:
  • The paintings are limited to those in the collection of that museum
  • The write-ups are done by experts - so are expensive and therefore limited
I've checked out a number of other online sites for art like the All-Art.org one, and the problem with them is that they also don't allow wiki-style community editing, and they are not professionally designed.

Funding/organizing: It would probably take an institution like the Wikimedia Foundation or a company like Google to create the structure of the site and have enough word-of-mouth marketing to encourage people to start contributing.  The art wiki would be very consistent with Google's mission to organize the world's information, but people might be less likely to contribute if a for-profit company is organizing it.  Philanthropic foundations might be interested in providing the funding the design and build the infrastructure and provide funds for administrative staffing, IT hosting, legal, etc.

Why museums should participate: While museums might be reluctant to share their content and participate in such an endeavor, there would be strong reasons to do so.  First, a wiki for all the world's visual art would be consistent with the educational mission of most museums.  Second, including their works in such an effort can help build awareness of their museum - useful for less-well known museums.  Third, sharing their content would support the curatorial mission of advancing research and knowledge of art.

One concern will probably be about maintaining the accuracy of information.  Two responses to this: Wikipedia has demonstrated that a user-generated encyclopedia can attain levels of accuracy comparable to a professionally written one.  Second: it could be possible in the design of the wiki for art that the academic credentials of the editors are indicated in some way.  So it would be possible for viewers to see what are the official contributions of curators from the museum that owns the piece, and what are from regular people with no academic credentials like myself.

What are the benefits:
  • A really capable online wiki of all the world's visual art would be a huge boon for students and scholars
  • Scholarship would benefit as it would become far easier to make comparisons between works
  • Scholarship would benefit as amateurs with a very particular passion can make their own contributions
  • Scholars and museums could learn more about what interests the public
  • Museums could share on a broader platform their collection not currently on display
  • Making it easier to learn about the visual arts and compare paintings from around the world ought to make it much easier for the general public to get interested in the topic, so the art wiki could generate increased interest in visiting art museums and contribute to economic growth.
  • Private collectors would have a chance to share works in their collection (which might be attractive to some but not all collectors)
Ideal for a tablet app
  • This wiki would make an ideal application for a tablet device.  When you walk through a museum with your iPad, the iPad could sense what room you are in and show on the screen all the paintings that you see around you.  Click on one of them and you could get all the layers of information indicated above.
    • Museums could generate revenue by renting these tablet devices, and they would no longer need to invest in creating their own recorded content
How can we make this happen?  I'd welcome ideas on how this vision could become a reality.  If you have connections at the Wikimedia foundation, at major foundations that might be interested in funding this project, with tech executives who would like to lead the effort, or with museums that could be an anchor member, or with effortst that might already be underway, please let me know.  

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