You are holding a photograph of one of the Assyrian lamassu, or human-headed winged bulls, sculptures that flanked the 700 B.C. and 612 B.C. neo-Assyrian capital of Ninevah (in modern-day Iraq). The photograph was made around 1950?, It is 2019 and is a cloudy September day, typical to London during this season. You turn it over and notice the inked all-caps “Iraq: Winged Bulls at Niniveh [sic]/[Ninevah], outside Mosul, A.F. Kersting, N. 26” written on the reverse side. You have read several articles about and even watched on Youtube ISIS’s brutal defacing of these statues in 2015. Furthermore, you know this photograph is one of the few existing visual representations of this now-obliterated artwork. You promptly put it in a box containing at least 100 other photos and stick this box on a shelf in a library filled with over 10,000 similar boxes.
Who has knowledge of and access to this library? The majority of them are highly-educated researchers, even more narrowly only those highly-educated researchers who live in or can afford transportation to Covent Garden, London, England, where the library is located. Does this seem to be the best choice? Courtauld Art Institute’s staff and researchers give an emphatic “No!” They argue that photographs of the world, especially some so rare and profound, should be viewed by the world.
In 2017, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson and his trusty team, Faye Fornasier, Sarah Way, dreamed of combatting this very inaccessibility issue with one ambitious project: the digitisation of the Institute’s entire Photographic Collection. While the Photographic Collection is mostly photographs, it also contains prints, drawings, documents, and other media and covers centuries of world-wide architecture, art, archaeology, and more.
By way of reminder, the Digitisation Team’s impetus for their project was broadening the photographs’ audience and not only after but during the project, by entrusting the handling and digitisation of the items entirely to volunteers. Little did they know that around 500 volunteers of all backgrounds and origins would contribute their time just two years into the project, fueling the Team’s original vision.
The project itself involves five tasks: Accessioning, Digitising, Metadata, Ledgers, and Attributions.
You find yourself suddenly transported to an intimate street scene in France, a church rising at one end. As you approach the church, you note its steeple and marble statues, then the detailed scenes of Jesus and the disciples, angels, and mythological creatures animating the tympanum. Fascinated, you circle the church exterior, observing each weathered building block and gargoyle. Finally returning to the church entrance, you enter the building and make your way from the south of the nave to observe the overall interior. You then pause to study closely each of the stained-glass windows. All the while, you have been sitting comfortably in London’s Courtauld Art Institute photographic library. As Director of the Digitisation Project Tom Bilson would say, “you have just embarked on your first stint of “armchair travelling.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35669056
This is the greatest benefit of the Accessioning stage: its ability to immerse the viewer in the library’s narrative. To explain, Accessioning (known to veteran volunteers as “Sorting & Labeling”), involves literally the sorting of photos into a logical progression within each folder and ordering the folders within each box following three basic rules: 1. alphabetically by building, 2. largest to the smallest subject matter, 3. from the exterior to the interior. Once the volunteer has codified both of these units (photos and folders), she proceeds to label each with a unique reference number. This sorting and labeling provides a logical structure to the otherwise intimidatingly-large libraries, making their contents more easily navigable and “citeable” for any researcher.
Imagine for a moment you are volunteering in the photography darkrooms nestled deep in the bowels of the Somerset House 18th century North Wing. This is the ideal scenario for pretending you are a well-seasoned high-tech guru who also happens to specialize in photographic archives. The interrogation lights are on, and you’re here to question the pieces you photograph: What truth do they present? What point in time and space do they represent in inks and graphites, fonts and geometry? You zoom in with Capture One to see the pieces’ details, details invisible to the naked eye: people, dogs, facial expressions, otherwise illegible signage. Handle the photos and prints for yourself and begin to comprehend that your work is part of something much greater than yourself: a project that makes visual history (and history broadly) more accessible to future generations and makes history’s (perhaps overlooked) urgent relevance more apparent.
The next step in the process is digitising the photos. Using the advanced imaging software Capture One, one Phase One XF IQ3 80MP Camera and one Phase One XF IQ3 100MP Camera with 80mm Schneider-Keurznach lenses, we are able to photograph each object (whether it is a photograph, document, drawing, etc.) to the highest resolution. The staff processes the photos, meaning they are converted to the correct digital format and uploaded to the library’s photo storage system. Ultimately this digitised library (including the metadata and other products of the other described stages) will be a free, searchable conglomerate accessible to the public.
While recognizing the limitations of digitally representing tangible objects (i.e. the photographs, prints, etc.), the staff considers retaining as much of the original objects’ physicality as possible to be of the utmost importance. This reasoning partially instigated the Team’s choice to not scan the pieces but photograph them and to include photographs of the folders and boxes as well in the database. They knew this process would increase human contact with the photographs, as photography involves much more curation on the volunteers’ parts.
This human handling of the objects during digitisation foreshadows the end goal of the entire Project: to re-incorporate people into the pieces, to reinvigorate the pieces with fresh, additional narratives and to make them relatable to whoever views them. The volunteers assert their presence and their physical being on the pieces by handling and curating them. On a more abstract level, each volunteer inserts part of herself into the pieces: subconsciously or consciously, she envisions herself within the place or plane the object represents. She creates irreplicable new memories – however mundane – with the object and – however minutely – contributes to the universal collective consciousness. (Perhaps in 4019 the contemporary database users will look back with fascination on the 21st century digitisation process and, although appalled by the archaic technology employed, admire the process’s personable and interactive nature.)
The Metadata Stage of the process serves to make the future online library database searchable on several levels: by text, map and timeline. To explain, the searchable text categories include location, type of architecture, historical period, and general subject (i.e. secular architecture). Included with these results is the number of photos each folder and box contains, so as to give the researcher an opportunity to plan ahead regarding the number of materials through which she will be sifting as she narrows her search. The second searchable aspect, the previously-mentioned interactive map, will allow the researcher to select and search the library by continent, country, region, or town, depending on how narrow or broad her search interest is. This, too, allows the researcher another opportunity to plan ahead. Suppose the researcher wants to compose a comprehensive review of the architecture of any one small French town. If she could more easily see on the interactive map of France what towns the library even contains photographs of, this will save her time from inputting town names one at a time in the database text search bar.
From an archival perspective, this stage preserves the original folder labels and boxes, by making that text the medium through which all future researchers will continue to peruse the library. The volunteers and the public will fill in item-level information at a later stage, when the images are online.
When Anthony Kersting first took a photo of the Assyrian Winged Bulls in Iraq, he had already been cataloguing many of the famous world sites travelers and natives alike continue to visit and revere today. Kersting probably never knew how precious some of his photographs would become – that, once developed, his glass negatives would become some of the world’s last existing visual records of these guardian idols, a preserved moment of a piece of the Iraqi people’s heritage. Like Kersting, all of the Courtauld Libraries’ photographers, who wandered through history and braved various personal and environmental dangers and cultural differences, deserve credit for their invested time and efforts. This is the Attributions Stage – making sure that we report the photographer’s name where this is mentioned.
Volunteers participating in this stage face several challenges, including dealing with lack of information and deciphering nearly illegible entries. This latter one, however, provides an opportunity for the volunteers’ creative exploration. As they research the possible names the previous cataloguer wrote, they often uncover a point of intrigue – perhaps regarding a famous 18th century architect or a little-known early 20th century photographer – that decisively cracks the original librarian’s scribbled code.
Attributions fulfill the paramount duty of giving the piece’s author due recognition for his or her work, but, secondarily, it serves the library-attendees as another avenue for research – researching by maker rather than by product. On some level, this enlightens the researcher to the human intellect, skill, and deliberate choices that produced the object. The library peruser may then also take a more biographical approach to her research.
The Conway Library also contains The Kersting Archive, thousands of photographs and undeveloped negatives created by mid-20th and early-21st-century British photographer Anthony F. Kersting. During his lifetime, this world-traveler (and possible spy?) catalogued much of the United Kingdom architecture prior to its suffering irreversible damage during World War II. Throughout his 72 years traveling and photographing, Kersting kept meticulous ledgers of his work that, at their most thorough, include the reference number, location, subject, and date of each photograph.
The volunteers’ duty is to transcribe these ledgers as literally and accurately as possible, neither adding to or subtracting any information Kersting provides. Ironically, the biggest challenges volunteers face are often the element that makes this stage most interesting: illegible handwriting, spelling errors, and missing information.
For these reasons, you as the volunteer play the role of detective in this stage more so than in any other. For example, Kersting changed locations so often that you might be recording his adventures in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then find the next recorded location – perhaps 25 photographs later – is “Cos.” There is certainly no English town by this name, so you explore the ledger further and find that Kersting records the succeeding photographs were taken in Greece. One Google Search later, you learn Kersting was, in fact, referring to the tiny Grecian island of Kos. Alternatively, you may be looking at a ledger and find that, entered between Kersting changing locations, he consistently titles at least five photos “Meteor.” You cannot figure out an alternative word Kersting might have been spelling, but you consider it unlikely that Kersting was able to capture photos of this many “shooting stars.” You decide to look at the corresponding negatives themselves and, holding them flat to the lightbox, discover that they all contain photos of the sea or a large ship as viewed from onboard it. Following this trail of crumbs, you Google both the ship name and the year the photo was taken and discover the particular cruise ship model and the various routes it took with Kersting aboard it. In short, you have become somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes. With practice, transcribing the ledgers becomes, well… “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
As a consequence of all of these stages, each participant (whether staff member, volunteer, or researcher) may begin to see these objects – and more importantly the history they represent – as personable, as not only relevant to but even contemporaneous with her. In short, the goal is that as many people as possible have unlimited access to these representations of history and come to a greater understanding that this history is also part of their personal narrative and that, looking beyond themselves as individuals, this history is an overarching and continuous universal narrative contained in the collective conscious. Any human who consciously views any one piece re-animates its represented history, allowing that history, less fettered by its object’s temporality or materiality, to live on virtually ad infinitum. Thus, history lives on by means of the conscious human, and, conversely, the human lives and experiences more by means of her exposure to this history. The reincorporation of history (in the medium of photography) into humanity and the reincorporation of humanity into history. This is the fresh revelation of history’s urgent relevance for and applicability to all time. This is the theory put into action, the theory that history is indeed part of a continuous, ever-shifting narrative that, merciless and unflinching, sprints its course in humanity’s collective conscious. This is the Courtauld Digitisation Project.
Mary Shelton Hornsby
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern