Prints and printmaking: web innovation and excellence

Printsandprintmaking has been a pioneer in providing succinct, reliable information relating to prints, posters and book arts in Australia and the Australasian region since its inception in 1997.

An access initiative of the Gordon Darling Australia Pacific Print Fund, the site was devised, and is managed by Roger Butler, Senior Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The development of the site has encompassed two distinct phases. The first was the rethinking of how data relating to works of art and their creators was recorded in the gallery content management system and subsequently viewed on the web; and secondly how this information could be explored in innovative ways. 

Data | CMS | Web

By the early 21st century, a web presence for art museums and like institutions has become the norm. In the twentieth century information moved rapidly from registration stock book, to curator’s catalogue cards and work sheets, these were subsequently transferred to databases, and by the last decade of the century, presented on the web. Much thought went into the development of databases, but little thought was given to the language used to record the works for the new web environment.

At first this was not considered a problem as the main audience for these sites were professionals conversant with the registration and curatorial short-hand used to describe works of art. But even within institutions the loss of specialist curatorial staff over the last few decades, has led to an inability to fully interpret previous catalogue entries.

In traditional printed publications, checklists were prefaced by abbreviations and conventions used in describing the works. The audience was alerted to the fact that the measurements were given height first, followed by width, or that l.l, was an abbreviation of lower left and that A.P. was an artist’s proof, and the like.  In web versions of data these explanations are lost, each work is self-contained, and has to be interpreted solely from the information within the entry.

For a generation who uses the web as a major source of information, and who primarily find information by key-word searches (rather than logging into a specific site), such curatorial jargon is at best an impediment to understanding, and at worst a reason for clicking off the site altogether.

The department of Australian Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Australia has re-examined all entries on the Gallery EMu database. Abbreviations, though numerically large were relatively easy to change, but other terms needed extensive scrutiny. For instance the frequently found terms, ‘colour woodcut’ and ‘coloured woodcut’. To the lay person the fundamental difference between the two is not apparent.

The Department has adopted a descriptive approach to cataloguing, describing the sequence of production. A colour woodcut is now described as a, ‘woodcut, printed in colour, from [a specific number of] blocks’ whereas a coloured woodcut is described as a ‘woodcut, printed in black ink, from one block; hand-coloured in watercolour’.

Such descriptive cataloguing takes a little more time and a little bit more space, but it clearly imparts to the reader, be they browser, student or scholar, the physical production of the work of art. Other fields are treated in a like manner; it is never presumed that any detail is unimportant. It might be described, to use an expression borrowed from Mitchell Whitelaw, as ‘generous’ cataloguing.

The conventions used in cataloguing the collection of Australian prints at the National Gallery of Australia are available online.

A generous interface

Initially the printsandprintmaking was a specialist site designed by Andrew Powrie, National Gallery of Australia Web Manager, as part the NGA collection search, it was subsequently developed into a separate site when it was decided to include non-collection data.

This new phase was supported by the Gordon Darling Australasian Print Fund. Research material assembled by Roger Butler over 20 years in word documents were converted into to databases by John O’Brien, now Soul Solutions. The importance of accompanying images was recognised early and in 1999 the Sydney company Search Tech was contracted to digitise some 25,000 Australian prints

Soul Solutions built the new site using the DotNetNuke based content management system operating on Microsoft Windows. The site design was by Ben Ennis Butler.

At Museums and the Web 2008, the annual international conference for culture and heritage on-line, printsandprintmaking was named ‘Best of the web’ in the Research section and John O’Brien presented a paper Exploring the National Gallery of Australia online database for Prints and Printmaking which ‘explored the practical use of online mapping technologies and to provide an intuitive and engaging experience for the exploration of extensive collections at a low cost to the institution’.

In 2010 Ben Ennis Butler a student at the University of Canberra used data from the printsandprintmaking site to develop visualisations of cultural data. His project, Visualising the visual: Australian prints in the National Gallery of Australia, was awarded First Class Honours.

Results of Ben Ennis Butlers investigations were shown by Mitchell Whitelaw as part of his presentation to  TEDx Canberra conference, National Library of Australia, October 2010. Whitelaw, discussed visualisation of cultural collections, with a ‘show everything’ approach, and discussed the problems with search.

Ben Ennis Butler presented static representations of his Honours work in the Cultural Interfaces exhibition at Craft ACT in November 2010. Ennis Butler subsequently became a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra. His area of research being the visualisation of large cultural heritage datasets. (August 2011)

In 2011 it was decided to rebuild the printsandprintmaking on open source software. This was accomplished by Tim Sherratt who has been developing online resources relating to archives, museums and history since 1993.

The National Gallery of Australia was also successful in obtaining a Mirco-Linkage grant with the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra in 2011.  The researchers for the project, Interactive Visualisation of Australian Prints and Printmaking, were Mitchell Whitelaw, Sam Hinton and Geoff Hinchcliffe with research assistance from Ben Ennis Butler.

Mitchell Whitelaw, is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, where he leads the Master of Digital Design program. He is an academic, a widely published writer and artist, with interests in new media art and culture, especially generative systems and data-aesthetics. Whitelaw, has widely promulgated the concept of ‘generous interfaces’ for cultural collections, an idea that is paralleled in the ‘open storage’ of works in cultural collections.

From late 2011, interfaces developed as part of Mirco-Linkage project have been presented at a number of conferences.

Ben Ennis Butler presented a paper, developed with Sam Hinton and Mitchell Whitelaw, Playing with Complexity: An approach to exploratory data visualisation at the Australian Council of University Art & Design Schools (ACUADS) Conference, Canberra, September 2011.

At the National Digital Forum, November 2011 Wellington, New Zealand, Mitchell Whitelaw gave the Keynote Address Generous Interfaces Rich websites for digital collections. This presentation included a preview of the work being developed for printsandprintmaking.

Whitelaw explored and expanded this theme in his paper to the conference Digital Humanities Australasia 2012: Building, Mapping, Connecting Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, March 2012; he was the ALIA Biennial keynote speaker at the Australian Library and Information Association (ARLIA) Conference, Sydney, July 2012; and presented a paper at the International Council on Archives, ICA 2012 Congress, Brisbane, August 2012 he presented Towards Generous Interfaces for Archival Collections. In September 2013 he presented a seminar paper Generous interfaces for cultural collections, at the Australian National University.

The first results of this collaboration between the University of Canberra and the National Gallery of Australia can be viewed at Explore.