About five years ago, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University decided its records could do with a serious makeover. Of the thousands of items in its collection, only about a quarter of them were photographed, and the images on file were often inadequate. Some showed staff holding the objects; others were about the size of a postage stamp.
Fast forward to present day, and the situation has transformed dramatically. Since launching its digitization and inventory project in May 2010, the Cantor Arts Center has captured the majority of objects from its on-site collection, producing high-quality images that can be accessed by university faculty and students and searched publicly on its website. Though the work will continue in the coming years, the project will be formally wrapped up this October, when about 33,000 objects will have been photographed.
Beyond helping to discover uncatalogued items and fix old mistakes, the digitization process has given the Stanford community more access to the collection than ever before. This has lead to more engagement with the works, and never-before-displayed items have made it onto exhibit floors -- a gratifying result for the project's team, said Associate Registrar Allison Akbay.
Akbay, who spearheaded the project and continues to oversee it, said a primary reason for the undertaking was to help "Stanford scholars and faculty ... have a better understanding of what was in (the) collection."
The curators of two exhibits currently on display at the museum made extensive use of this new resource, digging deep into the collection to group works from different eras and cultures around specific themes. Nineteen of the 29 works in "Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees" had never been shown at Stanford before; the same is true for 14 of the 25 works in "Imagining the Oceans."
Since the project's inception, Akbay has worked with an art handler and a contract photographer in a temporary studio at the museum to catalog and photograph each item -- they range from flat pieces like drawings and paintings to three-dimensional artifacts and sculptures, including the museum's Auguste Rodin bronzes. After a work of art is processed, it is added to the online database, typically within a week of being photographed, Akbay said.
Despite the fall completion date, some items will wait longer to be photographed (there are about 44,000 pieces total at the Cantor). Those remaining are primarily what Akbay called the "tough stuff": specimens like Jane Stanford's dresses or sprawling tapestries that require the attention and care of experts. In fact, the delicacy of some collection objects is another advantage of producing digital representations, which can still be observed in fine detail.
"We don't have to go back to handle the artwork again, which would risk damaging it," Akbay explained.
The digitization and inventory project has also unearthed inaccuracies in the museum's records. In the case of one pencil drawing of early Stanford President David Starr Jordan, the recorded artist ("Cantor") didn't match the signature on the work, a university press release stated. A little digging led to the discovery that it was actually the work of a well-known Mexican artist, Federico Cantú Garza. The staff didn't think they had any pieces by him prior to the discovery, Akbay said.
While making their way through the thousands of objects, the museum has come across objects they knew little about (including a box of maps from Edo-Period Japan that led to the exhibit "Mapping Edo,") and other objects they thought should be cataloged more thoroughly (Akbay gave the example of a book holding a number of prints). The project team also stumbled upon a number of items that weren't included in its database at all.
"With 44,000 objects, this does happen ..." Akbay said. "This has given us a chance to take a look at everything."
Though the project benefits the university community, the museum staff has also worked to make the results available to the public at large. In addition to making the collections database publicly searchable, the museum teamed up with Google Art Project a few years ago to post a selection of its highest-resolution images online. This year, the museum also shared its records and images for over 1,000 ancient Cypriot works with the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Making the collection accessible to all seems in keeping with the Center's free admission and its ongoing collaborations with other Stanford groups to improve the total museum experience. Earlier this month, the museum announced that it had received a 2015 Gold Muse Award, the result of another project with two graduate students in education who created a mobile application to aid children ages 3 to 6 in engaging with the museum's exhibits.
Akbay said the staff did have discussions about whether to post its collection records and images online or keep them internal to the university, but, ultimately, the decision was a clear one.
"We felt strongly that we wanted it to be a resource for the entire community -- both locally, nationally and internationally," she said.