Bandstand, Vieux Parac
Bandstand, Vieux Parac, Vichy, France, detail. Image selected under the theme of 'Music"

In the Autumn 2001 Newsletter I wrote about the Courtauld’s award of £1 million from the New Opportunities Fund to digitise highlights from its photographic collections and publish them on the internet. The project is now underway. Six months in, how are we responding to the challenge of building one of the nation’s principal digital resources for learning about the visual arts?

By using the web to tackle issues of exclusion from existing learning environments and approaches to teaching, the NOF initiative aims to raise public awareness in fields as diverse as Archaeology, Arts, Farming, Film, Health and Technology. Our project most closely resembles the existing Gallery Education and Summer Schools programmes, although users are more likely to comprise groups who may not have previously visited or even heard of the Courtauld. This could be due to location, but might equally be because they feel intimidated by a traditional academic institution and the formalities of accredited learning.

A case of dumbing down? I hope not. Take the Conway and its familiar red boxes. No obstacle here for the knowledgeable researcher, but how well does it introduce us to the lost buildings of London, homes of film stars, music halls and gardens that lie inside? How does it help us browse if we wish to plan a walking holiday in Burgundy or visit a haunted house? Would you know where to find the tobacco factory featured in Carmen, Lawrence of Arabia’s campaign photographs or the work of Roger Fenton?

The critical issues here are access and marketing. It is to the credit of academic institutions that they have become guardians of such unique collections, but I believe passionately that many of these images have yet to reach their rightful audience; one that interprets at face value, and might cherish a picture of an industrial building, war memorial or football stadium as an emotive family memoir as much as an illustration of architectural history. More especially an audience who, once alerted to their interest and beauty, may pay for reproductions or publications.

Building and delivering this resource requires new expertise and equipment and, undoubtedly, a new frame of mind. A project team comprising project director Giles O’Bryen, technical manager Ralph Lorkins, cataloguing manager Sarah Gilmour and cataloguers Kiril Bozinov, Anne-Sophie Dinant and Darinka Aleksic is assisted by staff from the Conway and Gallery Collections and the Photographic Department. My role is part-time as content manager. Since starting in April we have created an asset management system for cataloguing the digitised images against references including the Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus. We have bought a high-resolution digital camera with which Peter Carey, Head of Photographic and Carolyn Lefley are producing the first complete visual record of the drawings collection. The paintings are being scanned from existing transparencies, although it is hoped to raise additional funds for them to be photographed digitally at a resolution and quality of colour far exceeding traditional film. The problems of distilling nearly one million images from the Conway to 30,000 are both logistical and conceptual. Fortunately we have the goodwill and knowledge of Lindy Grant and Philip Ward-Jackson who are extracting by both theme and by country and have so far covered "Music", "Afghanistan", "War", "Literature", "Theatre", "The Natural World" and "Work".

It will, of course, be a great disappointment if this project merely delivers an impression of the Courtauld as a picture archive. Although the NOF programme is primarily concerned with access to collections, I have often thought (somewhat mischievously) that our being awarded the largest grant in support of the visual arts and the largest grant to a university was no coincidence! Existing demands on staff time will be a limiting factor, yet I believe we can create something that reflects and reinforces our academic status; at the very least by providing a wider audience for work previously published elsewhere, more desirably by the type of active question and answer feature used so successfully in our recent collaboration with BBC online. In the true spirit of the web, and as part of a vision to extend the Courtauld’s reach across new media, it is proposed that this project gives a platform to selected external groups, some of them campaigning, many of them amateur, whose expert knowledge of subjects as diverse as fountains, local folklore and the ethics of preserving buildings can only enrich our collections, broaden their public profile, and thereby help secure their long-term future.

If projected figures are accurate, this project will receive more visitors per day than have studied at the Courtauld since its foundation. In short, we have been challenged not only to put these images online, but to establish ourselves at the centre of a community far wider than at present; one that in the public eye is by no means inaccessible nor exclusive.

TOM BILSON — Head of Digital Media
(for additional information about this project contact tom.bilson@courtauld.ac.uk)