Open-source art history

The inner workings of the water-powered flour mill on the Hardwick Hall estate, Derbyshire. ©NTPL/David Levenson

There is a lot of talk in technology and internet circles about ‘open-source’: software for which the source code is freely available so that users can develop it and create new products. But perhaps we should be applying the same collaborative philosophy to the field of art history as well.

Chinese porcelain ewer from the Ming period, with English silver-gilt mounts dated 1589, at Hardwick Hall. Photographed for the 1985 Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition held in Washington, DC. ©NTPL

Traditionally art history has been inherently elitist and exclusive, both socially and intellectually. Art tended to be commissioned by the upper classes. Connoisseurship was seen as a superior, refined skill and the products of art-historical scholarship were guarded almost as fiercely as the art itself.

The Armada chest at Packwood House, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

This attitude has been replicated in the realm of contemporary art, which is often wilfully obscure. Both contemporary artists and critics revel in using opaque language and theory, enhancing the cult of art as something only to be understood by the happy few.

The Orangery Terrace at Powis Castle, Powys. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

On the one hand this is all perfectly understandable, of course: scarcity increases value and obscurity stimulates the imagination. On the other hand accessibility and intellectual openness can lead to unforseen benefits, as Steven Johnson has demonstrated in talking about ‘liquid networks’.

View from the Hall into the Library at Basildon Park, Berkshire. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

One encouraging example of open-source art history is the willingness of the British Museum to allow the use of digital images of highlights from its collections for non-commercial purposes that benefit the public.

Volunteer with visitors at Osterley Park, London. ©NTPL/David Levenson

The National Trust is also becoming more open-source, both in the accessibility of its collections, the way it welcomes visitors and in its style of communication generally, but more needs to be done. In the next few months, for instance, we hope to make our collections database publicly accessible, so watch this space.

17 Responses to “Open-source art history”

  1. Barry Leach Says:

    Open-source art history could be a boon to bloggers but I wonder, though, how long before the barriers really break down. The enforcement of no photography rules in museums and galleries, given the growth of technology, is increasingly more difficult to maintain, it seems to me. The flash would damage and fade – often the explanation for not allowing photography – but with cameras able to photograph in dim light without flash … who knows?

    Not what you wrote about at all!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    No Barry what you say is very relevant – as it happens, the National Trust has recently relaxed its general ban on photography in its houses, which I actually should have mentioned above.

  3. Barbara Says:

    It is what I do and why, Emile.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed Barbara, your combined blogs are the ultimate open-source art history course 🙂

  5. home before dark Says:

    How lovely for all of us autodidacts! Loved the picture of the volunteer and visitor enjoying the space/moment.

  6. Karena Says:

    Excellent Emille I applaud your thoughts on open source and do agree!

    Do come and enter my Artful Offering!

    Art by Karena

  7. Toby Worthington Says:

    That was an encouraging comment, to do with the NT relaxing its ban
    on interior photography. Following that ban I resorted to sketching things, for
    which I was reprimanded (though not at NT properties, I hasten to add; and in
    one case an elderly guide came at me with a hand siren, demanding to see the
    contents of my drawing pad!) When in the early 90s the NT prohibited photography it seemed to have some connection with vandalism or theft, which
    was the very last thing that this devotée had in mind.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I can vividly remember being told off in an imperious manner for sketching at Kenwood in the late 1990s. Presumably they thought I was ‘casing the joint’.

    Security may be an issue, and where items are on loan the lenders may not be happy for them to be photographed. So although the blanket ban on photography at NT properties has been lifted, individual property managers still have discretion as to how much photography is allowed.

    And yes I wonder what the people in the Osterley photograph are giggling about? It would be nice to think that the woman on the right has just been told that art was once an elitist occupation, confined to private collections and museum showcases 🙂

  9. Hels Says:

    “Art tended to be commissioned by the upper classes. Connoisseurship was seen as a superior, refined skill and the products of art-historical scholarship were guarded almost as fiercely as the art itself.” Isn’t that the sad truth.

    I am still battling the division between the fine arts (the things students should be studying – paintings, architecture, sculpture) Vs the decorative arts (the art forms that students can examine themselves after they graduate – porcelain, silver, furniture etc).

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Quite so. The internet has the potential to make both decorative and fine art much more accessible, through images, data, and interactivity.

    Of course it all depends on how things are presented on the internet by institutions and individuals: too much of it is still either too restricted or too superficial.

    But there are many promising examples too, such as the History of the World in 100 Objects project by the British Museum and the BBC, where radio programmes were expanded by the internet and by a beautifully produced book.

    What we need is the highest quality content coupled with the willingness to present and discuss that content in an accessible way. Sounds so simple … 🙂

  11. CherryPie Says:

    Going back to the first commenter. I have welcomed the fact that a lot of the properties are starting to allow indoor photography recently. I always enjoyed taking photographs of the outside of the properties, so it is nice to compliment them with some indoor shots.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed – some National Trust properties now also have Facebook pages where visitors can share the images taken during a visit, which I suppose is another ‘open-source’ development.

  13. Andrew Says:

    Open source and open/free content are all about allowing others to use and reuse your data and information. Allowing visitors to take photos is great, since they can choose whether to make their images available to others and on what terms.

    Yet all of the images illustrating this blogpost are ©NTPL. Among the issues, no doubt, are the inability to prevent reuse in a way that may be not be desired, and the loss of revenue from selling licences.

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, that’s a very good point. It is indeed impossible to prevent online content being copied and even plagiarised without consent.

    on the other hand, I am very happy for other bloggers to use the images shown here on their own blogs in a meaningful way, as long as they credit them properly.

    Sharing the enjoyment is the core purpose of this blog, and a number of fascinating (and heart-warming) conversations have come about through sharing stories, as you can see in the comments attached to various posts here.

    This is done with the support of the National Trust Photo Library, who similarly appreciate the importance of dialogue and publicity. For high-resolution images you still need to apply to them directly, of course.

    I am very lucky in being able to dip into the marvelous resource that is the National Trust Photo Library. Other bloggers are sometimes quite free in copying images from elsewhere, but it tends to be seen as good blog etiquette to always list the source of the images. It will be interesting to see how this situation develops.

  15. style court Says:

    Emile —

    I so agree about the opaque language used with regard to contemporary art. As Steve Martin has written, once we started saying paintings were “in dialogue with each other,” a large portion of the general public became even more skeptical 🙂

    Regarding photography, with so many museums now actively engaged with Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, the issue is even more gray. Depending on the copyright issues associated with a given artist, some institutions allow picture taking but put limits on where the images may be posted.

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    On the other hand, I always think that the images you use in your posts are very much ‘in dialogue’ with each other – that you create meaning through the juxtaposition of images (if that is not putting it too opaquely!). I suppose the difference is that you just do it, without theorising about it 🙂

    And yes isn’t it fascinating how technology is pushing the boundaries of copyright, the way we visit museums, etc.

  17. style court Says:

    Juxtapose is a word I love!

    I once had to give tours at a museum during a phase when the permanent collection was installed not by period, medium or genre but by obscure theme. It was all about connections and works being, yes, in dialogue. I think visitors probably thought I had no other word in my vocabulary aside from juxtapose. I was guilty of saying it every three minutes 🙂

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