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One of the world’s leading art museums has said that it will digitise a huge number of images in its collection and make them available online. The Louvre Museum, in Paris, announced in March that its entire collection would eventually become freely available to anyone in the world with an internet connection saying that this project would encompass the digitisation of all of the works of art it has.
“The Louvre is dusting off all the treasures it possesses,” Jean-Luc Martinez said in a statement issued to the French press. Martinez, whose official title is President Director of the Musée du Louvre, said that the digitisation project would include even the museum’s lesser-known works. “For the first time,” he said, “the world will be able to access our entire collection for free from nothing more than a computer or a smart device.” Martinez went on to add that the entire collection would be available to view even if items were currently on display within the museum’s galleries, had been loaned out for other exhibitions or placed into storage on a long-term basis.
The announcement stated that 482,000 works of art had already been digitised and placed into virtual storage within the Louvre’s database. However, this is some way short of the the entire collection having gone through the process of being scanned. In fact, no one has an exact figure for the true number of artworks and artefacts that are in the full collection of the museum, such is its vast size. However, the Louvre estimates that this figure corresponds with something like three-quarters of the collection as a whole.
The Louvre’s website was recently updated with a revamped home page to coincide with its ongoing digitisation programme. The idea is that the collection will be much more accessible within the online offering the museum had previously provided. As such, it is now designed to be optimised for the more casual visitor rather than the art historian, the student or the art lover. Essentially, part of this process of renewing the online content has been to make it more viewable on the screens of handheld devices rather than computer monitors. However, some of it – including the various translations of its written content – in Spanish, English and Chinese – has been updated to provide a more tourist-like feel to the online experience of viewing art, albeit in a digital format.
“This project is simply overwhelming,” said Andrew McClellan, the author of Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics and the Origins of the Modern Museum. McClellan, who is also a Tufts University professor, said that he thought that making nearly everything online was something that upheld the Age of Enlightenment principles that underpinned the foundation of the museum after it was converted from a Royal palace in the aftermath of the French Revolution. According to McClellan, collecting all the knowledge of the world and assembling it together under one roof was the initial conception of the Louvre as a museum. The next part was to make such knowledge and art available to both researchers and the general public, something which the digital project is doing once more for a new generation.
It is worth noting that many major institutions around the world have been putting their collections into a digital format for some time. However, the Louvre’s archives needed a particularly extensive amount of effort and exhaustive manpower to render them in an appropriate digital form. This is because from the outset of the project, it was decided that each image would not be stored in isolation on a hard drive somewhere. Rather, the museum’s digital archivists would accompany the digital picture they had produced with relevant scientific data. In short, this meant that the title of the artwork, the artist who made it, its inventory number and the dimensions of the piece would all be recorded digitally, too. In addition, the original materials used, the techniques employed to create the art, the date and place of its production – where this was known – as well as any other history that might be relevant to it would be noted. From the current location of a piece of art to the known bibliography about it, researchers needed to make new digital entries for the lot. According to the Louvre, the documented data entries were inputted by museum curators and researchers and remain subject to almost daily updates.
The newly available digital collection may include almost half a million works of art that are within the Louvre’s own collection but it extends beyond it, too. As well as the Louvre, the digitisation project includes works held within the Eugène Delacroix National Museum’s collection plus sculptures from the nearby Tuileries and Carrousel gardens. Furthermore, pieces held by the National Museums Recovery programme, a scheme that placed looted Second World War art into the temporary possession of the Louvre until it could be returned to its rightful owners, are also included. This raises interesting ethical questions, of course, about the nature of placing something privately owned but publicly maintained into the online domain.
That said, the museum – which is home to some of the most famous works of art in history, such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, to name but two – knows a thing or two about preserving artworks for posterity. Given that the Louvre Museum – along with just about every other public institution in Paris – has either been closed or has operated at limited capacity for around twelve months, the fact that these works can be enjoyed at all is something to celebrate among most art lovers. After initially shutting its doors in March 2020, the Louvre opened about three-quarters of its gallery space in July for a couple of months with strict social distancing rules, mandatory mask-wearing and limited ticket availability in place. It closed again in October last year so the chance to see such a vast collection online is probably going to go down well despite the limitations such a format necessarily includes.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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