Reviewed April 2019
Kat Buckley, Assistant Director, Visual Resources Center
Department of Art History, University of Chicago

Created by a team of scholars, computer scientists, and Frick Art Reference Library staff, ARIES offers four main functions: metadata storage, comparison heat maps, wall layouts, and timelines. It is a free, web-based tool currently in beta-release, although it requires users to create an account and currently only runs in the Google Chrome browser. ARIES fills a much-needed gap in the software available for image comparison and exhibition planning and holds great potential for independent scholars as well as small and large institutions alike.

ARIES creators report that they were inspired to create a digital version of a traditional lightbox, where comparison and curatorial work would have been done in the slide era. The ARIES Lightbox tool addresses the need for a digital version of the lightbox with a transparent overlay of images. The pixelated heatmap takes comparison one step further and assists the user in discerning linear differences and similarities between two images. Such heatmaps are suitable for attributions and one has already been utilized in an art loss case. More robust image editing tools could be added to the Lightbox. For example, in the picture below, the study drawing on the far right originally leaned in a left-facing contrapposto pose. In order to compare the drawing to the painting, one must manually flip the study drawing in a tool such as Photoshop in order to generate the comparison. When utilizing a traditional lightbox, users simply would flip a slide over to facilitate comparison. A flip tool could easily be integrated with the ARIES Lightbox, as well as some other basic image editing software, in order to streamline the user’s comparison process.

Image of a comparison of Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck, 1534, left, with Study for the painting, right. The pixelated heat map of similarities appears in the middle.

The Metadata tool in ARIES allows users to attach basic tombstone information to images. Most importantly, users may enter an artwork’s dimensions in the Metadata tool, which come into play when generating a curatorial wall in the program. Metadata must be entered manually by the user and is therefore dependent on the user’s ability to transpose information accurately and completely from a source. The Metadata tool could be improved by integrating the Getty Vocabulary terms, thereby allowing for the information entered into ARIES to make use of Linked Open Data. The addition of Linked Open Data tools could facilitate more efficient and consistent data entry on the part of the user.

Image of performance documentation from Mariko Mori’s Subway from 1994 with ARIES metadata alongside.

The Wall tool holds great potential for exhibition spaces with lower budgets. ARIES creates a digital maquette with artwork proportionally arranged on the wall. This allows users to both view their works at any size they choose and automatically resize when requested to the appropriate proportions. Users can click-and-drag to form the curatorial arrangement of their choice. The Wall Tool is especially applicable to curatorial presentations, in which stakeholders wish to view artwork at an enlarged scale as well as see it proportionally spaced. ARIES’ wall tool marks a step forward in recognizing the simplicity of this process and how it could be streamlined using a straightforward application. However, while it is certainly helpful in terms of spacing and visualizing a curatorial arrangement, the wall itself offers no height benchmarks. A feature allowing users to see where their mouse rests on an X-Y axis would be most helpful in curatorial planning. Additionally, guiding lines on the wall for recommended hanging heights as laid out in the Smithsonian Guidelines from Accessible Exhibit Design would permit curators to gauge the true height of the wall in relation to its hang.

The ARIES Timeline tool offers an integrative view of artwork metadata and images in a chronological and easy-to-navigate interface. The timeline’s size is scalable, giving users the option to see a bird’s eye view of the objects or to zoom in on particular periods. Like the Wall function, however, this feature is dependent on the accuracy of user-generated metadata. It should be noted that the ARIES Timeline feature is similar to Timeline JS, which already widely in use by scholars. However, ARIES remains attractive for its multi-feature interface allowing for presentations and metadata to be contained in a single application. The most applicable use of the Timeline feature is likely within the art history classroom, where a professor could zoom out to give students a holistic view of the work covered throughout the semester and then zoom in on the items which will form that week’s lesson, thereby situating the learning process for the student on a clear, relational timeline.

Image of timeline function in ARIES populated with artwork by Gustave Caillebotte, Valie Export, and Dawoud Bey.

ARIES, which is currently in a beta release, has room to grow in terms of its functions. However, even in its current form, ARIES will undoubtedly make a difference for small galleries’ exhibition planning, especially for institutions that cannot afford the typical Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software currently in use for exhibition planning. Its possibilities for assistance in attribution and connoisseurship are exciting, and its recent use in the aforementioned art-loss case shows promise for novel applications. ARIES remains singular in that it is robust enough for use by galleries and scholars alike.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this review suggested the addition of a batch metadata upload function. It has since been pointed out that such a function is already available in ARIES.

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