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GCN : March and April 2016
BIG DATA 44 GCN MARCH/APRIL 2016 • GCN.COM cool things with it, like help you make your own records better or interpret it in a way you’ve never thought of,” she said. “It feels like the right thing to do in light of our duty to the public trust.” Jeffrey Inscho, who leads the in- novation and emerging media lab at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, wrote in a recent blog post that Art Tracks will be implemented in phases over a number of years. The staff is currently working on phase one, in which proof-of-concept projects will demonstrate the poten- tial for structured provenance infor- mation for museums. Phase two will take the CMOA provenance standard and software prototypes and expand them to address the needs of collect- ing institutions. The first project is recodifying the standard for writing provenance in- formation “to allow automated struc- turing from provenance texts,” Berg- Fulton wrote in a paper describing the project. “The second is a software parser that performs this destructur- ing, converting semi-structured text into structured data.” The third project creates a user interface that allows researchers to quickly read, modify and verify the automated conversion. Finally, the structured data will be used to build a prototype of an interactive gallery display. And because Art Tracks, which is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is agnostic when it comes to the under- lying collection management system, it is set up so museums without the same resources as CMOA can access it, Berg-Fulton said. “Many times smaller museums do not have the budget or staff ” to use one of the larger collection management systems or the staff time and capacity to implement new software, she said. Therefore, CMOA officials hope to en- able better provenance by “making in- tuitive and easy-to-use tools. And low- ering the start-up barrier for outside users is top of the list for us.” • During Germany ’s Third Reich, the Nazis systematically plundered the countries they conquered and amassed hundreds of thousands of artworks and cultural artifacts. Most of them were returned to their rightful owners after World War II, but many remain unaccounted for. The Carnegie Museum of Art’s Art Tracks is one tool in the international effort to identify stolen artwork and match it to its pre-war owner. By making provenance data open and accessible, Art Tracks gives people information about a piece’s sometimes sordid history, including clues that might uncover evidence of Nazi confiscation. Provenance information was often tucked in the back of a catalog and considered important only to a tiny pool of scholars and experts, said Tracey Berg-Fulton, collections database associate at CMOA. But its relevance is becoming more apparent. “Because we’re now being more explicit about the mechanisms behind how art transfers from person to person and travels from place to place, we’re discovering fascinating connections between people, history and objects,” she said. And those connections can be revealing. “ The tools we’ve designed have a timeline that really illustrates periods of ambiguity and uncertainty, and so that can help point out a period of possible Nazi confiscation,” she added. Berg-Fulton said better provenance tracking will help art institutions identify works that should be listed as having possible Nazi provenance and help them conduct better research on those works. She added that the amount of archival information about Nazi confiscation is steadily increasing, which means the effort to identify pieces with Nazi provenance will continue to improve. Furthermore, CMOA has a new grant from the Kress Foundation to create software designed to identify Nazi provenance. “Many museums did this manually in the early 2000s in order to generate a list to post on the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal,” Berg-Fulton said. “ That process was a very manual and time- consuming one, and so we’re exploring ways in which we can use software and the existing data to point out works with possible Nazi provenance using the parameters set out by the American Alliance of Museums.” Ultimately, she said she wants to find ways to move research into the Digital Age so that an artwork’s history isn’t mysterious and so that stolen pieces can be returned to their rightful owners. “My hope is that the increased availability of archival information in digital format lowers the barrier for not only institutions researching works in their collection, but heirs and claimants researching works that were stolen,” Berg-Fulton said. — Suzette Lohmeyer Using open data to solve art history mysteries JEFFREYINSCHO Inside the innovation and emerging media lab at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. 0416gcn_042-044.indd 44 3/3/16 9:56 AM
January and February 2016