On September 19, 2019, the Wildenstein Plattner Institute–in partnership with the Freie Universität Berlin, the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD), and the Museum Barberini in Potsdam–sponsored a symposium on the current state of art historical archives in Europe. Reviving the Archive: Material Records in the Digital Age brought together a diverse group of art historians, scholars, archivists, and curators for a day of panels and talks to address the demand for greater accessibility to archival materials. The surfeit of historically-valuable archival material which remains isolated and under restricted access is striking. The impetus for change is even more urgent in light of the increasing scrutiny on the provenance of individual works of art; facilitating access to information needs to be prioritized amongst the stewards of archival materials.
Inconceivable even a decade ago, today the art historical community can systematize and crosslink data worldwide; this milestone allows greater accessibility to indispensable materials for researchers in any location. And yet, barriers for many individuals and institutions remain when initiating their own digitization processes with in-house material. Funding the digitization process itself, a hosting platform, and other hidden costs hinder many archives, especially those held privately. Furthermore, younger archives confront the sensitivity and privacy of their contents, which can often disclose information about contemporaries. The sheer volume of resources held in repositories can also dissuade and prevent progress in the digitization and dissemination of information. There are, however, institutions who are successfully navigating these hurdles, increasing access to their archival holdings through digitization and public usability.
Presentations by the speakers and panelists at Reviving the Archive explored the professional experiences, development, and involvement with unique programs that activate archives, including large-scale digitization initiatives like Tate’s Archives & Access program made possible through a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, research collectives such as ZADIK and the University of Cologne, who work closely together on archival-based research projects, and digital database projects like DoME (Database of Modern Exhibitions) from a team at the University of Vienna. Through the exciting and novel ways these individuals and institutions are tackling the challenges of archival accessibility, we begin to see the possibilities for large-scale information sharing platforms and programs.
The last session of the day demonstrated groundbreaking technological developments, which will advance accessibility and connectivity for digital archives. Systems of automatic document analysis and text mining systems, such as hand-writing recognition and topic recognition programs enhance capacities for the standardization of data, searchability and link-ability amongst various archival repositories, and the expedited processing of large volumes of archival material.
We hope this event will be the first of many from the WPI as we continue to explore the possibilities of digital art history with our colleagues around the world. Many of us are working towards a common goal of access; the continued discussion with and support of individual digitization projects will enable connective advancements we are only beginning to imagine today. Check back to our news page about upcoming talks and presentations!
For those who couldn’t attend the symposium, we have included links to a video of the presentations below: