Digital Decorative Arts: Celebrating a New Consortium

by Sarah Parks, Project Manager of the Boston Furniture Archive,
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library and
Catharine Dann Roeber, Brock W. Jobe Associate Professor of Decorative Arts and Material Culture,
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

A Biedermeier-style tester bed made in Washington County, TX, in 1861. A Baltimore pier table. A Roxbury-type tall case clock made by Simon Willard. Once found only in museum rooms or private residences, these are just a few examples of objects found in furniture-focused online databases. The compilation and dissemination of decorative arts research increasingly uses digital tools to complement physical publications and exhibitions or to gather information that would otherwise be widely dispersed or hard to access.

These digital projects, and the importance of the data they can provide for forward-looking humanities research, inspired a gathering organized and hosted at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in January 2019. The Decorative Arts Trust, through the Dean F. Failey Grant, co-sponsored the Digital Furniture Workshop, an inaugural gathering of representatives of 13 organizations engaged in public-facing digital projects with a partial or dedicated focus on furniture and furniture makers. Although the meeting used furniture as its organizing principle, many of the projects include a variety of types of decorative arts.

The Workshop was the first meeting to bring a collective focus to the bridge between decorative arts curation and digital technology. There are a number of successful digital projects focused on furniture and other object-based topics, including both websites that feature the collections of individual institutions and websites that compile objects or data from multiple organizations or private owners. The Workshop included projects of long duration, such as Yale’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ Object and Craftsman Databases; projects in transition, such as the Kentucky Online Arts Resource and the Winterthur’s Boston Furniture Archive; projects that have long existed in analog format that are beginning digitization, such as Arkansas Made and the Betsy K. White Cultural Heritage Project; and art market-based platforms such as Artory. By design, organizations sent two Workshop attendees: one involved in long-term project planning and strategy and one involved in the day-to-day mechanics of organizing and executing the projects. The meeting brought these important perspectives together for a dynamic discussion that reflected a broad range of backgrounds, skill sets, and experience. The goals of the Workshop were to address common opportunities and challenges; brainstorm opportunities for better partnership, advocacy, and mentorship among digital decorative arts projects; explore the possibility of a digital decorative arts consortium; and publish a white paper documenting discussions and outcomes. The meeting was an unqualified success. Over a day and a half, the 25 attendees shared information and perspectives and began planning for long-term collaboration.

In the weeks leading up to the Workshop, attendees completed a brief questionnaire to gather information about their existing or planned digital projects, current and desired technical expertise, funding models, understanding of their audiences and users, and samples of their content. The Workshop agenda, informed by responses to the questionnaire, included a kick-off presentation, six topic-focused discussions, and a long wrap-up discussion to set next steps. Dr. Jillian Galle, Project Director of the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), began with a detailed presentation on the development and 19-year evolution of the Monticello-based, international research database. DAACS demonstrates that a large-scale database with contributors across North America and the Caribbean can succeed and thrive. The following six discussions focused on sustainability and adaptation, audience, metadata opportunities and challenges, images and imaging, collaboration outside the sector, and advocacy and support. Each began with a brief presentation from one or two participants describing their experience, perspective, or challenges with the topic. The final conversation highlighted recurring discussion points and built consensus for future plans.

Workshop attendees are excited to continue advancing digital access to the decorative arts, including a unanimous decision to create a consortium to support and publicize individual projects and facilitate collaboration. One immediate priority is to collect existing project and institutional documentation that can be shared internally—and eventually externally, through a consortium website—to highlight best practices for decorative arts-based digital projects. Another is to explore the possibility of creating a shared public search interface that would access a limited number of fields in individual databases. Such a tool could, for example, allow a researcher to perform a single search of a maker’s name instead of searching each participating database individually. The new consortium will meet in person on a regular basis. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts will host the next gathering in Winston-Salem, NC, in spring 2020.

Thanks to support from the Decorative Arts Trust and other funders, the Workshop enabled critical discussion and planning as institutions that care for decorative arts collections seek to increase public appreciation of these objects and the scholarship that can be generated from them. Digital tools are one means of demonstrating the relevance of object studies to broad audiences. A collaborative approach can only enhance the mission shared by the Trust and our partner institutions to encourage “the study and appreciation of material culture through educational programs, collaborations, and grant funding.” We invite you to read the Workshop white paper at www.winterthur.org/digitalfurniture2019 and to look forward to the exciting endeavors of the newly formed consortium.

Projects and Organizations Represented at the January 2019 Digital Furniture Workshop:

  • Arkansas Made at the Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, AR
  • Artory, New York, NY
  • Betsy K. White Cultural Heritage Project at the William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, VA
  • Boston Furniture Archive at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Winterthur, DE
  • British and Irish Furniture Makers Online at the Furniture History Society and Institute of Historical Research, Teddington, England
  • Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA
  • Decorative Arts Trust, Media, PA
  • Gulf South Decorative and Fine Arts Database at the Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, LA
  • Kentucky Online Arts Resource at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY
  • Old Salem Museums & Gardens and Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
  • Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
  • The Trustees of Reservations, Boston, MA
  • William J. Hill Texas Artisans & Artists Archive at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX

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