Reviewed February 2015
Gayle L. Goudy, Instructor
Department of Art & Architecture History, College of Charleston
In an effort to survey “the ways in which the interior has been represented since the Renaissance in Western Europe and North America,” the Arts & Humanities Research Council Center (AHRC) for the Study of the Domestic Interior, a UK organization, developed the Domestic Interiors Database (DIDB). Between 2001 and 2006, the database was developed to draw together disparate but specialized sources representing the domestic interior represented in film, catalogs, paintings, drawings, trade literature, advice manuals and magazines, and textual descriptions (inventories, travel writing, novels, poems, etc.) from the Renaissance through today.
The database is freely accessible and registration is only required should users wish to save records generated from searches. The database’s interface is fairly simple and easy to navigate with straightforward menu and search options. That said, the home page is overwrought with text and anchored by a column of small digital images too complex for their displayed scale. However, this problematic gateway is easy to overlook given the database’s incredibly rich, unique content, content that gives the DIDB great staying power and relevance today, despite being served through a system that is nearly a decade old.
The best way to explore the content, especially one new to this kind of research, is through the Advanced Search, which offers the standard title, name, date, region, etc., categories, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the genre specific categories such as Dwelling, Specific Social Level or Activities. Each object record includes reference data and concise, interpretive commentary by the DIDB contributor who researched and authored the entry (all DIDB contributors are specialists in their fields and come largely from London’s V&A Museum and the AHRC). One may limit a search to records with images but such a search overlooks all the numerous other records not yet associated with an image. For those records with images, the low-resolution suffices for reference or study purposes; should a researcher want a higher quality image, the location of the original object and relevant copyright information are included in the record. In addition to the standard fare of search categories, the DIDB offers refinements such as “representational strategies”—layout, content, or elements, “activities”—praying, seducing, giving birth, ages of people depicted, objects depicted, and many more, all of which impresses upon the researcher the unique nature of this area of study. One may also dive into the DIDB with keyword searches but it is recommended to find one’s way by using the advanced search facets. For example, a keyword search for “inglenook” retrieved nothing but browsing the “Objects—Specific Type—Heating” facet retrieved related records in the DIDB.
The study of domestic interiors is a vast discipline and the DIDB’s 3,000 entries can only offer a snapshot rather than a comprehensive review of interior domestic representations in Western Europe and North America across six centuries. Its strength is clearly in the United Kingdom followed by Italy and then the United States. For specialists in these areas, the DIDB is a useful resource; for those new to the general field, the DIDB provides a sophisticated introduction to an incredibly diverse range of objects and settings. Both types of users however will appreciate the site’s section on research methodology in which contributors offer brief remarks on their process through the development of the database. Since the results can seem idiosyncratic, these statements are enlightening.
This database is the first of its kind but has not been developed since its launch in 2006. Unfortunately, there is no indication of plans to expand this resource. Despite this uncertainty and its aging technical infrastructure, the DIDB remains an invaluable resource to all scholars of the built environment or visual arts as well as those interested in the politics of the domestic sphere.