The WPI Digital Archives: Art Historical Research for the Digital Future

What are archives, and why do art historians care so much about them?

Archives are the documentary evidence of the past that researchers use to investigate and interpret history. The word “archives” refers to the valuable records of people, businesses, and government, such as letters, reports, accounts, minute books, registers, and photographs, according to the Society of American Archivists. These materials and others allow researchers to piece together the biographies of peoples and histories of institutions. 

Art historians are particularly interested in archives of artists, which provide unique insights into an artist’s life and work. These archives often include letters, photographs, and sketchbooks. The Tom Wesselmann Papers, for example, contain correspondence, photographs, artist inventory records, printed materials, and administrative records of the Pop artist. The Romare Bearden Papers also include the artist’s sketchbooks and writings. These comprehensive archives enable art historians to develop a thorough understanding of who these artists were, the contours of the worlds they inhabited, and how they impacted those around them. 

Exhibition Catalogues, 1980–1988, 1980–88; Romare Bearden Papers [tfpmi0ll], The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.

“Tom Wesselmann: A Retrospective Survey, 1959–1993” – Palau de la Virreina, 1996; Tom Wesselmann Papers [oqn78cyx], The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.

Archives from art dealers and collectors also offer important insights into the history of art. These archives enable scholars to establish the provenance history of artworks, tracking where and when artworks appeared in exhibitions, when they were purchased, and when they again changed hands. At the WPI, the Ambroise Vollard Records document the activities of a leading French dealer who championed avant-garde artists such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The Eugène and Jules Féral Inventories provide significant information for market studies and provenance research on important Parisian collections. These and other archives help researchers understand the art market, the reputation of specific artists, and the economic context in which they worked. 

Artist and dealer archives anchor research projects in art history and across cultural studies. Institutions like the WPI are not only responsible for their preservation but also strive to make them accessible to a broader audience who may not have the means to travel or the time required to search through archival material onsite. Repositories worldwide are increasingly digitizing records and making them freely accessible online to support researchers and protect cultural heritage.

What is a Digital Archive?

Digital archives offer an innovative solution to safeguarding valuable information while making it readily available to a broad audience. A digital archive contains documents and images transformed into a digital format through scanning or photography. The archive might also include audio and video files. 

Digital archive software plays a crucial role in managing digitized documents. Archivists use software as the infrastructure of their archival projects, efficiently storing, organizing, retrieving, and publishing resources. Metadata tagging, indexing, and search functionalities exemplify features that ease the challenges of managing and using a digital archive. A large-scale digitization project not only requires appropriate software but also careful execution, resource allocation, and adherence to best practices and archival standards. Institutions, including the WPI, develop comprehensive digitization strategies that prioritize archival materials based on historical significance, condition, and research demand. Digital archive software allows these strategies to be streamlined and effectively implemented.

The WPI Digital Archives

The WPI Digital Archives strategy exemplifies a foresighted approach to archival management by emphasizing the importance of digital preservation and access. 

In 2018, the WPI embarked on a large-scale digitization project with technology partners to scan its archival collections and make them freely available on its bespoke digital platform. This project encompassed legacy archives and archives entrusted to the WPI through new partnerships. The WPI’s legacy archives consist of the archives, books, and scholarly documents compiled by the former Wildenstein Institute, an esteemed research institution that had published over forty catalogue raisonnés on French and Spanish artists. The WPI forged new partnerships with the Estate of Tom Wesselmann and the Romare Bearden Foundation to launch two new catalogue raisonné projects. These initiatives are rooted in the rich archive assembled by the two artists and will ensure the preservation and dissemination of their legacies for future generations. 

Jean Puy, c. 1904–14; Ambroise Vollard Records [ie4ezro8], The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.

All of this material requires digitization and processing. The WPI digitized 2,593 linear feet or approximately 4,262,000 digital images to date, and the WPI’s Digital Archives host twenty archival collections with a database of more than 22,000 sales catalogues issued between the 17th century and 1945. To process these digital files, the WPI performs quality controls before integrating them into its robust digital archiving software, which it created with to support the specific needs of these collections. This software provides enhanced search capabilities and data analysis through optical character recognition, text mining, and machine learning algorithms that assist a team of archivists and researchers in processing the collections and releasing them online. The WPI uses this software to manage and publish its considerable archival holdings. 

Digital Archives Protect Collective Memory for Future Generations

Digital archives represent a paradigm shift in preserving, accessing, and engaging with historical records and cultural heritage. By embracing technological capabilities, the WPI and other institutions are reshaping the field of archival sciences to ensure the long-term survival of collective memory. Whether you are a history enthusiast, a student conducting research, or simply curious about the past, digital archives offer a gateway to knowledge and discovery.

Explore our vast collections here and now.

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