Developments In Electronic Image Databases For Art History

Jennifer Durran
Visual Arts Librarian
Monash University - Clayton campus
Melbourne. Australia

"Developments in electronic image databases for art history" presented at conference "Managing Networked Information", Victorian Association for Library Automation (VALA) 7th Biennial Conference, Melbourne. 1993

This electronic version mounted 1994.

For additional publication information see Jennifer Durran publications


Surrogate images are indispensable tools for the study of art history. The provision of these surrogates has traditionally been in the form of the photographic reproduction. The potential exists for the creation of databases of electronic surrogate images. This paper examines some recent developments in this direction in European and American libraries, museums and educational institutions, ranging from prototypes to small, successfully implemented systems. The widespread development of large- scale digital image databases is, however, impeded by a number of factors such as insufficient understanding of user needs; a lack of standards for intellectual access, image quality and information interchange; rapidly changing technology; copyright restrictions; high costs and uncertain funding. Relevant initiatives to resolve these problems are noted.

1. Introduction

As VALA Travel Scholar 1992, I visited England, France and the United States to investigate recent developments in imaging technologies and their use in the provision of visual information specifically for art history. I was able to study a range of systems and meet with those responsible for their development and operation. In addition, I attended the Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts Conference and Exhibition held in London.

My investigations were concerned primarily with image capture and processing, methods of combining text and image, analogue vs digital storage, hardware and software options, telecommunications and management issues.

Further research was carried out at the Clearinghouse on Art Documentation and Computerization, Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2. Art History and the Need for Surrogate Images

Art history is a branch of the humanities concerned with the study of works of art (such as paintings, sculpture and architecture); their history, construction and meaning as cultural products. Within the discipline there are a number of approaches, but each depends to a greater or lesser extent upon the availability of surrogate images, i.e. visual substitutes that approximate the art works as closely as possible.

Since its development in the mid 19th century, the photographic reproduction has become one of the indispensable tools of the art historian. It provides a solution to some of the problems of studying art works: there are enormous numbers of them, estimated between ten million and three billion worldwide (Roberts,1986:30), only a small selection of works owned by museums are on display at any one time, the physical arrangement of works in museums prevents the visitor from making their own comparisons between related items and, for obvious security and preservation reasons, it is not possible for objects to be handled by those who wish to learn more about them. Art works in private collections are rarely accessible to the researcher or student, usually never to the public. Many works have been lost, stolen or destroyed and are known only by surrogate images.

Over the last century, comprehensive visual archives have been assembled by individuals, commercial photographic companies, museums and libraries. These collections of photographic reproductions have generally been arranged in very idiosyncratic ways to suit the conditions unique to their owning institutions. Automation has been introduced into some areas but bibliographic control, access and dissemination are still limited. In comparison to the sophisticated developments in text storage and distribution, the continuing provision of visual material solely in the form of slides and photographs is "distinctly archaic" (Hamber,1991:30), yet these forms continue to be the standards by which electronic alternatives are judged.

Clearly, the potential exists for the creation and use of image databases in art history but, at this stage, the problems are many and difficult, but not insurmountable. Defining clearly user needs, developing standards for describing visual materials and clarifying copyright and intellectual property obligations are just some of the issues that must be addressed. General trends in technology and telecommunications are promising, as are developments in other areas such as medical and scientific visual information systems, advertising, publishing/printing and pre-press.

3. Recent Developments

Since the mid 1980s, there has been a noticeable surge of activity in the area of electronic imaging for art history. Many of these projects have failed to be developed beyond the prototype stage, but it is obvious that the technology is slowly being shaped to meet the very specific needs of this field. New work continues to be undertaken predominantly by museums and galleries, libraries as well as by teaching and research institutions.

Museum Public-Access Information Systems

The one area where systems have been developed and successfully implemented is in museums and galleries. These systems are designed primarily for members of the public who wish to learn more about the art works they have seen on display and how they relate to the history of art as a whole.

The Micro Gallery is a highly successful interactive guide to the painting collection of the National Gallery, London. Launched in 1991, the system has attracted high levels of interest both from the public and the media where it has been reviewed extensively. Whilst not exactly 'new', I mention it here because it continues to dominate the field and has been selected as a model for other museum public-access systems. The basis of the system is the complete painting catalogue which contains a high-quality, full-size reproduction of each of the 2,200 paintings in the Gallery's permanent collection. Some works have animated sequences which help to illustrate particular aspects explained in the text. Four sections allow access in different ways. The Artist section allows access to all paintings in the collection by a selected artist as well as providing biographical information. Historical Atlas of Western European Art allows access by geographical place and historical period. Picture Type allows a user to see the collection in terms of different genres. General Reference has short entries on key terms and subjects. Each of these sections is illustrated by active thumbnails (i.e. small, low-resolution images for browsing) from which the user can then elect to see full-size images and catalogue entries. There are extensive hypertext links allowing users to cross from one section to another and to navigate through the 2,200 high- quality illustrations, 12,000 secondary illustrations and 300,000 words of supporting text.

The Micro Gallery is installed on 12 stand-alone workstations comprising an Apple Macintosh IIfx with 8Mbyte RAM and 1.3Gbyte hard disc drive. Display is via a high-resolution monitor. All images were scanned originally in 24 bit and the master images stored on erasable magneto- optical discs. Even using the JPEG compression algorithm, the response time for these images to be displayed was slower than the one second specified so eventually, with some customisation, 8 bit images were used. The provision of hard copy images is important and whilst the user currently can print most images in black and white, the demand for colour is growing stronger.

I was able to see the prototype versions of two systems being developed on this model. The Micro Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is, like the Micro Gallery, London also to be funded by American Express. From the small demonstration I saw of this prototype, it promises to be a more elegant version than the original. The prototype has three components; the first being the creation of 20 features (i.e. animations or special effects) based on approximately five art works. I viewed one of these features on Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation and was impressed by the way it dealt with aspects of the painting such as symbolism and perspective as well as with a simulated restoration of the work. The second component will be a thematic approach to the collection; the third, an index. The San Diego Museum of Art's IMAGE (Interactive Multimedia Art Guide) deals with only the 200 most important works in the Museum's collection. Each work will be represented by a catalogue entry, accompanying illustration and background information. There will be in-depth interactive features for at least 30 art works. One of these features, which cleverly shows the perspective in a still life painting by Juan Sanchez Cotan, was demonstrated at the EVA conference. The system, when implemented,is envisaged as being equivalent to "an infinitely patient, highly-knowledgable, entertaining and superbly-equipped art history teacher"! (Witchey and Morrison,1983:61).

Resources for scholarly research

Museum public information systems are of little use to the professional art historian who requires access to greater numbers of high quality images, greater flexibility during the search process and freedom to investigate his/her own connections between images.

The Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance at the Warburg Institute, London comprises a text database of 45,000 records and an analogue videodisc of 25,000 high quality black-and-white images. It offers great depth of information and accommodates a wide range of materials for scholars in the fields of art history, architecture and archaeology. Launched in March 1992, it was received with enthusiasm by scholars although reservations were expressed about the lack of coverage in certain areas, which will be addressed in the future. The extent to which a project like this could ever be "completed" is debatable.

The workstation comprises a monitor for text and two videodisc players with identical videodiscs. For retrieval of information, the system uses highly complex query screens which would take even an expert in the field some time to master. A search could recall, for example, a photograph of an ancient monument, a depiction of the same monument done during the Renaissance, and the transcription of a related text, each on a separate screen to allow in- depth analysis, comparison of styles, tracing of influences, etc.

Electronic Publishing

The Census was the only analogue image system I saw that had been completed in the last year or so. Generally speaking, it would appear that this technology has little to offer art history in the 1990s. Even the area where it made some headway in the 1980s, electronic publishing, seems to have been taken over by digital media such a CD-I and CD-TV. A number of CD-I art titles such as The Renaissance of Florence and Harvest of the Sun (Vincent van Gogh) have been released by Philips. A CD version of the Micro Gallery (London) is due to be published later this year.

In 1983 the National Gallery of Art, Washington was the first museum to release an analogue videodisc of its collection. It was a highly successful venture and in 1991, the institution began a new publication on its American art collection. In the eight years since the first disc was produced, the limitations of analogue storage had been learned and it was acknowledged that to use this technology again would have been a mistake (Perlin,1992). The new videodisc, American Art from the National Gallery of Art, the first made by an American museum using digital technology, was released earlier this year.

Most of these types of publications are aimed at schools and at the general public. The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London has a substantial collection of art videodiscs and CD-ROMs but in the context of research and higher education, it would appear this type of publication receives little use. Scholarly electronic publications for art history are rare. The Brancusi Project addresses fundamental issues of the design and marketing of scholarly multimedia publications. Undertaken by an international consortium of art museums, art historians and technical partners, the project examines the life of one of the most significant sculptors of the 20th century, Constantin Brancusi. The user will be able to explore biographical, historical and bibliographical information by using text, still images, film and video and sound, all interactively linked. Phase 1 of the project, the creation of a "demonstrator" has been completed. This will be evaluated and developed into a prototype. The project is expected to culminate in 1995 with the publication of a CD in two different versions, one for education, distance learning and reference libraries and the other for purchase by the general public.

Teaching Resources

The 35mm slide is the commonest form of photographic reproduction used to support the teaching of art and architecture history. There is a great deal of interest within the higher education sector in regard to the use of imaging to improve access to visual materials.

At the Architecture Slide Library at the University of California at Berkeley, efforts are under way to improve access to its 200,000 slides with the development of a prototype 'vopac' (visual online public access catalogue) called SPIRO (Slide and Photograph Image Retrieval Online). At the end of September 1993, 6,200 digital images scanned from slides and their identifying records were available. SPIRO is part of the campus-wide Image Database Project begun in 1986 which ambitiously plans to provide access to objects in the university's collections, (art and architecture slides, art works in the university museum as well as other materials), via surrogate digital images. A UNIX-based software called ImageQuery has been designed at UCB for composing queries and for retrieval of images and associated bibliographic information. It allows a user to formulate a query by selecting options from pull-down menus in a query construction window. When the search is completed, a list of short records are displayed and the user can browse the accompanying thumbnail images retrieved, up to 12 at a time. In a further step, the user can request a full bibliographic record for a particular image, a high resolution version of the image or both. One interesting aspect of the system is that the user is provided with image processing facilities so that, for example, images can be rescaled and overlaid allowing comparisons to be made.

Public Libraries

Many of the libraries (including the Library of Congress), which in the mid to late 1980s pioneered the use of the analogue videodisc to solve problems of preservation, management and access to their pictorial collections, have since begun projects with digitised images.

The Bibliothèque Publique d'Information (BPI), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, created several analogue videodiscs in the late 1980s, one of which was devoted to art history. The library's aim was to improve access to their encyclopaedic collection of images. Despite the fact that the images are not high quality and the user interface very primitive, from my observations, the system remains immensely popular.

The new digital system, still at the developmental stage, will offer a much more sophisticated approach. The BPI photographs art exhibitions held in Paris, including those held in the Centre Pompidou itself. Using this material, the BPI aims to recreate these temporary exhibitions digitally. Each art work exhibited, views of the gallery interior with the exhibition on display as well as accompanying textual materials perhaps from the exhibition catalogue will be available on the screen. Six thumbnail images can be viewed together to facilitate browsing; the user can then elect to view the full image or details of the image. Remote access to the collection will be available using ISDN and the first phase will give access to the users of four French municipal libraries.

There are similarities between the BPI's activities and those of the State Library of New South Wales' Multimedia Library Link Project. Image transfer trials are planned between the two libraries.

Research and Development Projects

The acquisition, storage and dissemination of digital images for art history are areas addressed, directly and indirectly, by a number of exciting European R & D projects which are supported by the Commission of the European Communities Directorate General XIII (Telecommunications, Information Industries and Innovation). The EC projects are characterised not only by very clever acronyms, but more importantly, by the fact that they are undertaken by multinational consortia of museums, libraries and technical companies. Three such projects are RAMA, VAN EYCK and ELISE.

RAMA (Remote Access to Museum Archives) began in 1992 as a three-year project to examine, amongst other things, remote access by art professionals to museum archives including images. A common interface to the databases at each of the seven museums in the consortium will be developed and the application of high-speed telecommunications including ISDN will be examined. Initial testing of the first prototype will begin with sample documents and images being sent between the Musée d'Orsay, Paris and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, following the completion of a 2Mbit/s Janet-Renater link expected August/September 1993.

Whereas RAMA is concerned with museums, VAN EYCK (Visual Arts Network for Exchange of Cultural Knowledge) focuses on libraries, specifically art photograph libraries. The project, which is still at the feasibility study stage (January 1993 - March 1994), will investigate remote access to major art history photograph collections, exchange of images, improvements for art photograph collection management and services, standards and structures for information in art photograph libraries and image recognition. It will incorporate the findings of RAMA (above) into its telecommunications component and the image recognition component will be developed out of the 'Morelli' system designed by William Vaughan, which automatically classifies and analyses the formal and visual aspects of pictures.

ELISE (Electronic Library Image Service for Europe) commenced in February 1993 to identify the technical requirements of full-colour image databases, to examine storage and retrieval options, to explore needs of users, to design appropriate graphical user interfaces and to model international interconnection of systems (Black,1993:293). So far, a test database of 500 images, captured exclusively from 35mm slides of art works in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been set up. At the pilot stage, this will be extended to 3,000 images incorporating material from the collection of Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

The ELISE system will store images at three different levels: archive, working and browsing. The browsing images (thumbnails), stored magnetically, will be small (2Kbytes) to allow rapid distribution over a network. The working images, (under 100Kbytes), will initially be stored magnetically and later migrated to optical jukebox storage. The archive images (20 Mbytes or more), created during the image capture process, will be kept offline and stored uncompressed, accessible only for special purposes.

4. Factors Impeding the Development of Image Databases for Art History

A number of factors are impeding the development and implementation of large-scale image databases specifically designed to meet art historical needs.

Lack of information on image requirements

The development of information services in any field is generally based on a foundation of knowledge about the potential users. Art history, unlike other disciplines in the humanities, has not been the subject of many studies concerned with the nature of its particular information needs. The most comprehensive so far is that conducted by the J.Paul Getty Trust's Art History Information Program (AHIP) in conjunction with the Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) (Bakewell,1986). It concentrated on the research patterns of 18 art history scholars.

But the scholar is only one of a number of users (I have categorised them for convenience as the recreational art historian, e.g. museum visitor; the amateur art historian, e.g. student and the professional art historian, e.g. researcher, curator, lecturer); and images, of course, are only one of a number of information needs.

From existing studies, the discipline's basic image requirements are clear:

Lack of standards for intellectual access

Images are, by and large, still retrieved by their textual records. There has been widespread recognition that the development of standards for defining the structure and content of these records is long overdue. The precision with which one can articulate in verbal terms the physical appearance and 'content' of an art work will affect the way in which its surrogate image can be retrieved, especially in an electronic environment. The Getty AHIP has supported many initiatives in this area such as the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), published 1992, the Union List of Artists Names (ULAN) and the Thesaurus of Geographical Names (TGN), both due for publication 1993/94.

Most urgently needed are data standards, particularly those defining data structure (i.e. the elements or categories of information which compose a record), those defining data content (i.e. the way in which information is represented in each of the categories) and those defining data value (i.e. choice of terms that apply to each category of information ).

As well as data standards, information interchange standards are also required to define technical specifications, formats, protocols, etc for the exchange of information about art objects as well as their surrogate image between systems. The Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) project, supported by the Museum Computer Network and EC projects like RAMA, VAN EYCK and ELISE contribute to the development of these standards.

Professional bodies such as the Visual Resources Association's Data Standards Committee and other organisations such as the Centre for Image Information (De Montfort University) have been promoting the use of standard descriptive practices to facilitate the management, organisation and exchange of information.

Lack of standards for defining image quality

The issue of image quality is critical especially for the professional art historian who has complex image needs. Images for browsing or for reference purposes could be usefully viewed as lowresolution thumbnails; those used for image analysis need to be high-resolution and full-screen. As yet there have been no standards for defining these quality levels. The study conducted by the Getty Art History Information Program showed that there is a definable point past which viewers are no longer able to notice the difference in quality in electronic images (Ester,1990:53). Further work is being conducted to extend these findings and correlate them with some physical measure of image quality (Jacobson and Axford,1992). These standards would be useful for system designers as well as for those commercial services supplying digital images for downloading. One American art slide supplier, eager to enter into the digital image arena, has already been requesting advice from customers regarding their requirements in terms of resolution and image size.

Storage requirements

Images captured at high resolutions create huge files of data to be stored. The trend is to scan at highest possible resolution and, from these archive images, derive working images that correspond to the limits of current display hardware and network speeds. It is possible to reduce the amount of storage required for images by using a compression mechanism. The most widely used in art imaging is that defined by the Joint Photographic Experts Group (Kodak, Sony, Apple, Adobe, IBM et al). The JPEG compression algorithm typically achieves compression ratios of between 10:1 and 20:1. By the end of the decade, new algorithms will no doubt offer dramatic improvements. It has been suggested that the current trends in terms of increased storage capacity and processing power will continue for at least another twenty years, and if costs continue to fall, then digital storage of vast amounts of images will become increasingly viable for many institutions.

Lack of connectivity

Image databases have generally been developed as stand-alone, single site installations but the ability to send or receive images from remote sites is becoming an important issue for those wishing to offer their users a wider access to images. As networks become faster and services like ISDN become widespread, full colour image transmission will become increasingly feasible.

There are a number of American and European universities and colleges either planning to use or actually using their campus local area networks to provide better access to their image collections for study and teaching purposes, for example, Duke University, North Carolina; University of Maryland at College Park; Oppland College, Norway. Success in providing online images to a lecture theatre has yet to be demonstrated. Some of these services are also available to Internet users. SPIRO at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, is accessible by any remote terminal using the X- windows protocol.

Not only is it possible to remotely search and view image collections, but it is also now possible to download images stored in archives at remote sites. The list of FTP sites with art history images is growing, however many of these projects are experimental and disappear as quickly as new ones appear. The University of Michigan's ArchiGopher offers small archives of images of works by Kandinsky and Palladio as well as Hellenic and Byzantine architecture. The Smithsonian Institution's Photo1 will make available a variety of photographic materials from its collection. The establishment of Intrepid (International Repertorium of Images in Digital Form) has been announced by the State University of New York College at Oneonta "in order to serve the academic interests of the network community in a number of key areas related to the visual arts, art history and history of images" (Intrepid, 1993).

In the future, art history images will be available to the public from sources other than libraries and museums. Several companies are building collections of digital images of art works and acquiring their electronic distribution rights. Some commercial image banks such as The Image Bank are planning to offer a remote access service. The Kodak Picture-Exchange, set to debut in the U.S. in 1993 and Europe in 1994, will allow subscribers the opportunity to have a thumbnail image catalogued and held in a central digital archive for inspection. Users will be able to search online and place an order for an image, either in photographic or electronic format.

Rapidly changing technology

The technologies of image processing, storage and dissemination are in a rapid state of evolution which makes it difficult for collection managers and administrators to make decisions regarding appropriate hardware and software investments and the most opportune time to adopt such technology. The lifetime of many systems is now between 5 and 10 years. The Micro Gallery has been given a lifespan of five years; the Musée d'Orsay's original public information system has now been abandoned after five or so years in favour of its new "Multimedia Atelier" concept. The limitations of existing technology has not been permitted to be an obstacle by the developers of such pioneering systems. As a result of their innovative efforts, technology is gradually being shaped for art historical needs.

For many applications, new digital formats are increasingly displacing and rendering obsolete technologies like the analogue videodisc. The main advantage of capturing material in digital form is its flexibility. The information is independent of the limitations of current storage formats and display devices, therefore it is less susceptible to obsolescence.

The Kodak Photo-CD, which has been available since 1992, offers a new, relatively inexpensive way to create and access image databases. Kodak plans five different versions: Master, Pro, Portfolio, Catalogue and Medical. The Photo CD- Master is the only format currently available. Each disc can store between 100 and 150 images, taken either from exposed, unprocessed film or from existing 35mm slides. An integral part of the system is the 'image pac', five levels of each image, ranging from 72Kbytes to 18Mbytes, stored in one file. Each image pac is compressed to 4-5 Kbyte using a Kodak proprietary compression scheme. A number of museums and art libraries have experimented with the current version and many that I spoke to were aware of its distinct limitations. Further enhancements may open up additional applications. The Pro-CD, planned for worldwide release later this year, will be able to accept additional photographic formats such as 5 x 4" transparencies, however the number of image pacs will drop to approximately 25. It will be possible to make extremely high quality prints from these discs. The Catalogue-CD will only contain thumbnail images, approximately 4,500 in total which, as its name suggests, could be useful for creating catalogues of images.

Ways to overcome the limitations of using two-dimensional formats to represent three-dimensional art works or buildings has been the subject of several projects using 3D computer graphics, elements of CAD and precedents in the field of archaeological reconstruction. Last year, the IBM Scientific Centre developed 3D reconstructions of objects and sites for a temporary exhibition on Pompeii at London's Accademia Italia. Another example is the prototype developed to provide an electronic surrogate for studying the frescoes by Piero della Francesca in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. The user is able to move through a simulated architectural interior and see the relative perspective and scale of the paintings change according to the user's viewing position (Lavin, 1992). It would not take too much imagination to see databases of this type of material being assembled in the future.


The issue of copyright is seen as a major hurdle in the development of digital image databases. Clarification of the legal and moral obligations of the creators and users of these systems is vital. The fact that digital images can be accessed from such an increasingly large number of locations, downloaded, manipulated and used to make high quality hard copy images means that the opportunities for misappropriation of intellectual property are boundless. There is, understandably, increasing resistance on the part of artists and museums to give permission for their works to be used in digital form. Efforts are under way to determine appropriate levels of access to digital images, to effectively control their use and to ensure adequate financial compensation for copyright holders. Especially important are issues of control over copying images from electronic format to paper, downloading images from one electronic format to another and downloading images and distributing them electronically.

As well as legal protection, some form of technology-based protection may be necessary. One possibility is that proposed by Kodak for use with their Pro-CD to prevent printing from highresolution images. A form of encryption of the data and "watermarking" of the protected image prevent its access without the clearance code from the rights holder.

High costs and uncertain funding. The costs of implementing an image database are high. The price of some system elements such as hardware may be falling but labour costs remain high. It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the costs and time involved. It has been estimated that whilst the process of scanning images into the database would be time-consuming and expensive, it would be modest when compared to other parts of the undertaking which are more labour-intensive such as selecting, preparing and tracking the source material (Ester,1990:53).

The Getty Art History Information Program has calculated that to create an image database of 50,000 art objects would take 70,000 hours, 34 person years and cost $US 1.7 million (Besser,1991:589). The Micro Gallery (London) cost approximately $US 1 million, although the designers say it could be produced now for far less than this. The National Gallery of Art's new videodisc cost about $US 200,000 to produce. Other sources suggest that the average price for a prototype is around $US 50,000 and for a fully implemented small system between $US 80,000 and $US 100,000.

The bottom line is that funding like this is rarely available at an institutional level, especially in the current economic climate. Financial support for some of the most recent successful projects has come from philanthropic and commercial organisations e.g. American Express sponsored the Micro Gallery, the Annenberg Foundation supported the NGA's American Art videodisc. Many European projects have state funding. The French government in particular has long supported the introduction of innovative information technology in cultural institutions.

The success of the EC funded consortium-based projects suggests that co- productions between national and international partners, where costs, risks and benefits are shared, may represent the way forward for many undertakings in the 1990s.

Inevitably, it is much easier to obtain funding for a prototype than funding for the implementation of a system, its ongoing development and maintenance.

5. Conclusion

Despite current financial, technological and institutional obstacles, the mid 1990s will undoubtedly see a proliferation of activity in the development of digital image databases. The past has shown that the development of art history as a discipline has been linked inextricably to the developments in imaging technologies. The ability to reproduce art works in digital form is sure to have as dramatic an effect on the field as the introduction of the photograph in the mid 19th century.


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