(Members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a person in a photograph in this post has passed away.)
Researching online can be a bit like taking off on a magic carpet ride.
There’s that sense of wonder at clicking on a website and easily navigating your way to a masterpiece. You can zoom in on the details of brushstrokes, handwriting, gesture. You get to see works that you may never see otherwise.
More prosaically, it certainly helps me to look at artworks closely when I’m editing a text describing them!
Do you ever get used to visiting a digitised treasure chest? I still feel like a genie’s spread the wishes of the world before me: a wealth of treasures … famed works at my fingertips … the power of creativity, right there on screen …
And if ever there was a person associated with those attributes – wealth, fame and power – it must’ve been John Paul Getty (1892–1976).
We all know his story: he amassed an enormous fortune in the 20th century, with his company, Getty Oil. At one stage he was thought to be the richest man in the world. But along with the fame and power, Getty was also known for his failed marriages, and terrible loss and tragedy within his family.
In his will, Getty left a huge bequest to the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust. At the time it amounted to nearly $700 million (equivalent now to over $2.8 billion).
Today, the Getty name is most strongly linked with the J. Paul Getty Trust and its Programs: the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute. All are focused on the visual arts.
And here’s where the doors swing open on our first online treasure trove.
In August last year, the Getty launched its Open Content Program, through which it will make images of the museum’s collection ‘free to use, modify and publish for any purpose’. At the announcement, 4,600 high-res images were released, with more to come.
The Getty was founded on the conviction that understanding art makes the world a better place, and sharing our digital resources is the natural extension of that belief. This move is also an educational imperative. Artists, students, teachers, writers, and countless others rely on artwork images to learn, tell stories, exchange ideas, and feed their own creativity.
It’s an absolutely fantastic resource, easy to use and navigate. My simple choice to see paintings that featured bodies of water yielded these beautiful results (among others).
The Getty’s also made its publications from the last 45 years – including catalogues, the museum journal, research papers and publications – easily available online at its virtual library. Good to know about, as the texts cover a wide range of subjects within that broad church of ‘the visual arts’. Also, there’s something for the general public and experts alike.
Of course, digitisation will never replace the experience of seeing the real thing. We stand in front of a work, surrounded by people responding to it with their own unique opinions. We carry the memory and vision of that artwork into our lives.
And today’s second online treasure is infused with memory. The National Library of Australia Commons on Flickr currently displays 617 images of fleeting events in Australian life that somehow still seem so familiar.
If the Getty’s Open Content Program offers access to the heights of artistic masterpieces, the NLA digital gallery invites us into the warmth and unguardedness of long-ago moments.
Scrolling through this photographic collection is like entering a vivid world of stories of other lives, public and private.
Because the pictures are from particular ‘sets’ (eg ‘Summer under southern skies’; ‘Flowers and spring’ etc), and much of a set is often displayed together, there’s a strong feeling of being led through an unfolding narrative told by these hand-tinted, black and white or sepia-toned images.
Australia and Australians are different now, but the past retains energy here. It’s a down-to-earth, moving, sometimes funny, immediately recognisable display.
It spans everything from family portraits, to war, Antarctica, the history of Canberra and more. Relationships, and their changing stages, are captured in an instant.
There are crowd scenes, celebrations, official ceremonies, private laughs, fancy dress, romances, the theatre, the bush, the beach, the city – things we can all identify with.
Hailing from many decades back, these pictures still seem to tell us that we, our lives and memories have importance, no matter how humble or seemingly unnoticed.
What’s your reaction to these digital projects? Did the photo gallery affect you in the same way?
Make a cup of tea, sit back and escape into the riches of these particular worlds. Enjoy the breathing space and inspiration they bring.
More treasures again soon.
[PS In the early to mid-2000s, I did editing jobs for the National Library of Australia (pre-Commons on Flickr).]