Reviewed April 2018
Elise Tanner, NDSR Art Resident
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Manet Paintings and Works on Paper at the Art Institute of Chicago is an online scholarly catalogue published by Department of Publishing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Produced in 2017 as a new addition to the Museum’s ongoing program of freely accessible digital scholarly publications, the catalogue highlights the Art Institute of Chicago’s esteemed collection of works on paper by Édouard Manet. The catalogue explores twenty-one of Manet’s artworks by utilizing digital tools for up-close visual exploration of each piece and comprehensive historical, technical, compositional, and conservation analysis by a number of art scholars.
It is clear from the content that the catalogue aims to catch the interest of both the casual browser and the serious researcher. This broad audience is supported in particular by, firstly, the table of contents and glossary navigation tools, which make for easy movement around the catalogue and for quick access to definitions. Secondly, the interactive image viewer, which provides scientific visual analysis by layering X-Ray, Raking Light, Transmitted Infrared, Infrared Reflectogram, and Ultraviolet visualizations of the work, is fascinating from a curious, scholarly, and technological perspective. Thirdly, the technical reports that examine the physical characteristics of the materials and techniques used, and the conservation evaluations and actions taken are particularly useful to researchers. Additionally, the user has the option to create an account login to access custom features, such as note-taking, tagging, and effortless note exportation. While these additional features may prove useful to some, overall, it does not particularly enhance the user experience.
It is obvious though page layout and navigation that this digital catalogue is meant to imitate the experience of reading a traditional printed book. While the table of contents sidebar affords the user the option to browse freely, if the user minimizes the table of contents they are restricted to moving through the catalog one page at a time, either forward or backward. For those used to the traditional printed catalogue, this format will be familiar and maybe welcome; however, for those approaching this digital catalogue like they would any website, they may find the design restrictive. While the image viewer provides unique visualization features and the ability to zoom into great detail, the size of the viewer window is disappointingly small. Depending on the size of the user’s screen, this could be a deterrent to further exploration of the catalogue. Despite this, the overall design is visually pleasing in its simplicity and the functionality successfully communicates the information.
The Manet Paintings and Works on Paper at the Art Institute of Chicago is designed using the digital publishing platform OSCI Toolkit and ChicagoCodeX, a suite of open source software tools for publishing digital catalogues created by the OSCI Team at the Art Institute of Chicago and a design consultancy out of the Indianapolis Museum of Art called IMA Lab. Compared to other digital catalogues created using OSCI Toolkit, such as LACMA’s Southeast Asian Art Online Catalogue, this catalogue is more successful in design and execution. It was announced in 2017, however, that the OSCI Toolkit will no longer be supported, bringing the livelihood of this catalogue and the ten other Art Institute of Chicago digital catalogues into question and highlighting the digital preservation challenges unique to digital publications. For now, as a freely and easily accessible scholarly resource, Manet Paintings and Works on Paper at the Art Institute of Chicago distinctly fulfills the Art Institute of Chicago’s mission to inspire and educate the public about the world’s diverse artistic traditions.