Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mapping Sculpture in Context: Art History in an Online Environment

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mapping Sculpture in Context: Art History in an Online Environment

Article excerpt

The profile of online research in art history and sculpture studies has changed significantly since Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland (Mapping Sculpture) was first planned in 2004. There are now excellent visual resources available on many museum websites, and when the Mapping Sculpture database was launched in February 2011, it was quickly followed by an updated public user interface for the National Recording Project for British Sculpture, and an online version of A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors 1650-1851.1 The aggregate effect of all these initiatives is to transform the virtual research landscape for sculpture studies, opening up new possibilities for academics, curators, students and new audiences.

Mapping Sculpture has contributed the results of the first wide-ranging survey of sculptural practice between 1851 and 1951, delivering over 50,000 records. These include details of 3,500 sculptors, some 2,725 related practitioners and around 10,000 associated businesses. The audience response to the project's website has been very positive with over 72,000 visits (or 6,000 per month) in the first twelve months.2 Mapping Sculpture was conceived as dynamic and interactive, and this is reflected in a steady stream of informative messages, which have added depth and detail to prior investigations. This issue of the Sculpture Journal provides an opportunity to look back at Mapping Sculpture's development, and consider its methodological and research potential. To provide context for the discussion, this article begins with a brief overview of art history and visual culture in an online environment.

The online research environment

Resource enhancement projects are a vital component of digital scholarship, providing online access to visual and documentary materials.3 With an ever-more sophisticated range of software available to systems developers, users can not only search for information with speed and precision but also have an 'authentic' experience closer to that of being in front of the original object.4 Complementary to this are projects digitizing documentary and published works that bring important texts into the public domain. Notable among these are the Getty's Research Portal launched in May 2012, which provides a convenient access point for rare art historical publications, and large-scale ventures such as the Hathi Trust and Google Books, which allow the user to 'turn the pages' as though sitting in a library.5 As a result of such initiatives, scholarship is becoming increasingly globalized. Although working online cannot replace in situ research, visits to museums, libraries and archives can be increasingly targeted because of preliminary study online.

Creative use of cutting-edge systems can go much further than providing an electronic gateway to datasets and images. For example, 'Representing Re-Formation: Reconstructing Renaissance Monuments' (Dr Phillip Lindley, University of Leicester) is addressing some important problems relating to Renaissance sculpture via digital technology. The project employs 3-D scanning and analytical techniques developed for space science to 'disassemble' selected Renaissance tombs from Framlingham Priory, and recombine those fragments using electronic imaging systems to understand each monument's original design and subsequent modification.6

Working online also makes it possible for scholars to engage and interact with each other remotely. Interesting examples of this are 'The Raphael Research Resource' and 'The Master of the Fogg Pietà-Maestro di Figline Project', based respectively at the National Gallery, London, and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.7 These sites arose out of an initial phase of intensive research into attribution, object histories, supporting documentation and technical analyses by conservators and conservation scientists. The results have been placed online and a workshop established in which academics, curators and conservators are invited to make a virtual exploration of original materials which are dispersed all over the world. …

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