In addition to its rich holdings of Rembrandts, Matisses, and Picassos, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is famous for its blanket no-photo policy, which represents one of the strictest in the museum world. A new collections website launched this week, though, makes images of artworks publicly available and more accessible than ever. The museum has uploaded photographs of about two-thirds of its over-3000 collection objects to an interactive database, of which 1,429 are in the public domain and available for unrestricted use.
This is an especially significant move for the Barnes, whose sensitive policies regarding photographic reproduction of its artworks extend to its beginnings. The Barnes has always approved of black-and-white images, but, as archivist Barbara Beaucar put it, Dr. Albert C. Barnes had a “great bugaboo … with color reproduction” and “felt that the methods of reproduction of color photographs were not advanced enough.” According to Beaucar, sanctioned color photographs taken by painter Angelo Pinto in 1941 were published the following year in the Saturday Evening Post and came out terribly.
Today, the Barnes’s photo policy is largely in place because of its galleries’ tight spaces, as Deputy Director of Audience Engagement Shelley Bernstein explains in a post on Medium. Bernstein led the development of the new collection database, which was funded by the Knight Foundation.
The Barnes had already placed its collection, in color, online in 2012, but that website did not promote the sharing and downloading of images. Aside from making available high-resolution, zoomable images of public domain works (along with their color bars, for good measure), this new website encourages users to explore the collection based on visual elements, such as color, space, light, and line. After you select an image, you can search for visually related artworks by sliding along a spectrum from “more similar” to “more surprising.” The clusters that appear were developed with the help of machine learning and computer vision, which analyzed the collection images. This approach through visual properties and the visual relationship between artworks draws on Albert C. Barnes’ belief in arranging collections in “ensembles,” or special wall groupings that crossed cultures, mediums, and artistic movements.
“Dr. Albert C. Barnes used his collection to teach students how to understand and appreciate art without an art historical background,” Bernstein said in a press release. “By grouping works together according to their formal elements, rather than historical connections, he emphasized the universal nature of human expression, making them more accessible no matter one’s level of familiarity with the arts.”
The launch of the new website only establishes the roots of the museum’s commitment to open access in a digital age. Images are currently accompanied by basic details you would find on a wall label, but over time, the Barnes will add more contextual information to each artwork, including provenance. Significantly, the website will also feature image descriptions specifically for the blind or for individuals who are visually impaired, which remains a lacking feature from many online museum collections.