A New Norm for Studying Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Online

Josh Yiu, Hong Kong,


This paper presents a forthcoming online catalogue of Chinese painting and calligraphy in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). This online scholarly catalogue is the result of five years of planning, research, and experimentation under the auspice of the J. Paul Getty Foundation. This proposal summarizes the processes by which SAM selected a modest and largely unpublished collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, and thought through the needs and functionalities of the catalogue. This catalogue will present an innovative way for studying and presenting classical Chinese painting and calligraphy.

During the course of the project, SAM's collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy grew substantially, adding significant works of the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Their importance led to the conclusion that the new acquisitions should be constantly added in the catalogue. Therefore, the active acquisition program led to a fundamental change in our expectation of the function of the online ‘catalogue,’ namely that it should be a portal of new scholarship and new acquisitions.

This online catalogue features thoughtful and provocative essays about major works by renowned professors and curators in the United States and Asia, with high-resolution, zoom-able images of the works of art, and thorough documentation—including transcriptions and translations of inscriptions and colophons, and seals that are transcribed, identified, and located. Readers are encouraged to post comments about the works of art and the accompanying essays, as well as to formulate answers to questions that we put forward under the section “Questions for Thought.”

By the time of the conference, the catalogue will have had a three-month trial period, and we will be able to report on its reception by the scholarly community. We expect to address issues of maintenance and sustainability of the online catalogue with colleagues.

Keywords: Chinese painting, catalogue, Getty Foundation, OSCI

1. Introduction

Technological advancement in recent years has encouraged and inspired many museums to present their collections online. There is no standard format for these online databases, partly because publishable information differs regarding the works of art and the resources of each museum. Some museums present highlights of their collections and showcase high-resolution photographs of selected works, whereas others attempt to present a comprehensive collection with little information. As a result, information made available through these online ‘databases,’ ‘catalogues,’ or ‘archives’ varies.

Anticipating the impact of digitization on museum publication, in 2008 the J. Paul Getty Foundation set up a consortium, known as the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), of nine museums from the United Kingdom and United States to discuss possibilities of online publishing. The Getty Foundation further invited and supported the museums to develop models for the publication of scholarly collection catalogues on the Web.

As a participant of this initiative, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) completed the project by the end of September 2013, after five years of planning, research, and experimentation (http://chinesepainting.seattleartmuseum.org/OSCI/). This paper presents the newly launched online catalogue, which focuses on Chinese painting and calligraphy in the SAM collection. This paper describes the processes by which SAM selected a modest and largely unpublished collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, and thought through the needs and functionalities of the catalogue. By documenting the processes and some challenges of this project, I hope that museums interested in presenting their collections online may anticipate some issues that SAM encountered. While online publishing is not less costly than a printed publication, as is commonly assumed, it is nonetheless a viable alternative, because a well-designed online catalogue can integrate scholarship with collection management.

2. Defining the scope of the project and the need of the collection

When the Seattle Art Museum was presented with the opportunity to participate in OSCI in 2008, the Chinese painting and calligraphy collection was selected with the approval of the former director Mimi Gates, who was an Asian art expert. The reason to catalogue Chinese painting and calligraphy was threefold: 1) The collection was relatively unknown but had a fair amount of important works, 2) The collection was modest in size and hence manageable for a cataloguing project, and 3) The museum was keen to generate greater interest in painting and calligraphy that, for centuries, were considered the most esteemed art forms in China. It was a curatorial goal to raise the profile of the collection and to facilitate its growth. The catalogue was expected to grow with the collection.

By the same token, the intention to raise awareness of painting and calligraphy and strengthen the collection implied that it was not a collection strength. In fact, the painting and calligraphy collection lagged behind the collections of jade and ceramics in terms of quantity and quality. The decision to publish a ‘weak’ collection countered conventional museum practice to celebrate collection strength and publish a book that may have satisfactory return through sales and positive reviews. The problem with publishing a modest collection was not merely financial, as it would be difficult to market the publication. Moreover, a modest and spotty collection posed a challenge for the curator to formulate a framework or narrative to discuss the collection as a whole. Fortunately, for the purpose of the OSCI, this challenge was received positively, because every museum was bound to have weaknesses, and the presentation of weak collections was a real issue. That an online catalogue would address this problem and potentially provide a solution was at least an unusual idea worth exploring. Not surprisingly, most participating museums in the OSCI selected their strengths to be catalogued. To reconcile the expectation of the collection to grow and the need to present information of existing objects, the SAM team decided to focus on individual works, rather than to present an overarching argument concerning Chinese painting or the museum collection.

3. Structure and relevance of the catalogue

In order to enhance the relevance of the catalogue to the academic community, we invited renowned scholars to contribute to the catalogue. In 2009, we enlisted the help of Wang Yao-ting, former chief curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, to spend a month in Seattle to assess and authenticate every work. Wang also transcribed all seals and inscriptions, which were often written in illegible scripts. The collection was then divided into three groups based on quality: major works, genuine works, and questionable works. It was then decided that an in-depth essay would accompany each major work. Renowned professors and curators from mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States wrote thoughtful and provocative essays for eighteen major works. The recommended length of each essay was three to five thousand words. Essays written in Chinese were translated into English. These scholars set a high standard for the catalogue, and their influence in the field was also expected to draw a wider audience who may not be drawn to the Seattle collection otherwise. Moreover, these scholars identified comparable images in other collections, which provided a broader context for understanding the works of art in Seattle.

To facilitate the work of these contributors, we compiled a list of publication history and exhibition, as well as a bibliography, for each major work, and secured comparable images and cleared their rights. Significant time and resources were devoted to transcribing and translating the inscriptions. Many famous poems and proses recited by the calligraphers had actually never been translated. This took a considerable amount of time, largely because many inscriptions had multiple layers of meanings, which required scholars steeped in Chinese literature to decode. In retrospect, the transcription and translation of inscriptions in the SAM catalogue was a significant contribution to the study of Chinese literature. By the same token, the translation dissolved the language barrier that may have intimidated uninitiated viewers of Chinese painting and calligraphy. The online catalogue made this thorough documentation both possible and more engaging by juxtaposing the inscription with its transcription and translation. Likewise, almost all seals were transcribed, identified, and located, and the reader can see the seal impression together with the transcription at once.

The original structure of the catalogue was based on the skim-swim-dive model, which allowed for varying degrees of depth of information. For the group of genuine works, we commissioned advanced graduate students to contribute shorter yet scholarly entries, and tombstone information was provided for questionable works. Later, the wireframe was improved to make connections among objects. Under the ‘explore view,’ objects can be arranged based on period, categories, formats, etc. Under the ‘object view,’ moreover, there is a tab for ‘related works,’ which connects the object under review with a similar object in the Seattle collection. Here similarity is defined loosely to include objects created by artists of the same school, as well as objects of the same genre. This simple mechanism serves to draw attention to other works in the collection.

4. Multiple voices and different academic traditions

When in-depth entries of the eighteen major works were peer-reviewed in 2012, several issues came up. Despite general approval of the content of the catalogue, one reviewer took issue with the inconsistent voices of the catalogue. The inconsistency partly stemmed from cultural differences in approaching art historical scholarship. Many Chinese scholars were steeped in connoisseurship training, and they often discussed a work of art from multiple perspectives (e.g., authenticity, material, history, brushwork, and so on). As a result, they occasionally raised myriad points at the expense of the cohesiveness of the essay, and they did not always end with a conclusion. To bridge this cultural gap in writing about works of art, the editors and translators of the essays had summarized sections where appropriate and laid out the structure of the essays in the beginning to prepare the reader of what was to follow.

This point on different academic writing traditions pertained to the design of the SAM online catalogue, because the editorial decision to respect the voices of the authors was based on the expectation that the catalogue would have a much wider, international distribution than a book would have. Although the catalogue was written in English, it is expected to be read by many Chinese scholars, considering that many Chinese art historians of this generation can read English much more fluently than in previous generations. Therefore, the essays with multiple points may actually resonate better with certain audiences. Moreover, we also considered that the reading experience on the screen differed from reading a book: readers may read much faster online and look for information or points that they needed. In this regard, the decision to preserve different voices seemed justifiable.

In a similar spirit, the catalogue is designed to facilitate discussion. Scholars are encouraged to make comments on the works of art, as well as on the essays. If a scholar comments on the artwork, he/she may tag an area (e.g., a motif in a painting or a character in a long calligraphy scroll) so that other readers can follow the commentator’s point. The catalogue does not presume to have the final word on the objects, either. In fact, we formulated ‘Questions for Thought’ to stimulate further research and alternative thinking concerning the objects. Relevant answers will be published. If needed, information on the artwork will be updated and corrected.

5. A good problem to have, and its long-term solution

Between 2009 and 2012, when the research and planning of the online catalogue was well underway, the collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy had increased significantly by 28 percent. The original assumption that the modest collection was manageable did not hold. The inclusion of those works was not budgeted, and we had insufficient time to research them extensively and contribute in-depth analyses. Rather than excluding many high-quality new acquisitions that readers may find interesting, we created another group—in addition to the major works with in-depth analyses, genuine works with shorter analyses, and questionable works with tombstone information only—that solicited scholarly contribution on an ongoing basis. Scholars and students are invited to submit essays on these artworks. Appropriate and original contributions will be published after being peer-reviewed, and the artworks will be upgraded to either the major work-group or the genuine work-group. This simple solution will effectively allow the online catalogue to serve as a portal for new acquisitions and original scholarship. That way, the catalogue can keep up with the growth of the collection. And more importantly, the catalogue will also enhance collaborations between the museum and scholarly community.

6. Some technical considerations

For the purpose of a mid-sized museum with a lean staff, the ease of maintenance and updates of the website is of utmost importance. The interface was designed to accommodate changes and additions to the catalogue, so that the staff did not have to duplicate work to update the museum database (for internal use) and the website. This requirement led to the selection of Web Atelier—a branch of Gallery Systems, which designed The Museum System (TMS)—to be the Web designer. It was an excellent decision, as Web Atelier was sympathetic to our needs and had a good attitude in learning more about Chinese painting and calligraphy. Their positive attitude was important, because it allowed them to creatively adapt TMS to suit the needs of Chinese art and kept their spirits high when time constraints pressured them to come up with solutions in a timely manner. While the four-year partnership on this project was fruitful, some hiccups could have been avoided if we had anticipated the time needed to edit and prioritize digital content.

For instance, relevant information was originally compiled in a Word document, which included a simple table for tombstone information, to facilitate editing and email correspondence. Peer reviewers read these Word documents and evaluated the scholarly content of the catalogue. They were not involved with the user experience and navigation of the website, which was being built. Meanwhile, data were entered into the museum database (TMS), from which select data were pulled for the online catalogue. The expectation was that once the academic research on individual objects was completed, data entry would be straightforward. It was not.

As we needed to juxtapose the inscriptions and their transcriptions and translations on the catalogue, they were entered onto the online catalogue directly rather than being pulled from TMS. The data-entry staff divided the inscriptions into sections for optimal display on the screen. Nevertheless, the field for inscriptions only allowed one type of text, without the capacity to differentiate italicized poems or indented quotes. This problem was resolved eventually, at a cost. Essays were entered into TMS through Dreamweaver, but it cannot integrate comparable images with the text (i.e., in a paragraph). Placed in between paragraphs, the images interrupt the text, and do not necessarily offer a better reading experience than does a book with good design and layout. As such, the data-entry staff was partly accountable for the visual layout of the text and served to a certain extent as its graphic designer.

Preoccupied with the scholarly content of the catalogue, we realized the importance and issues of the visual layout of the catalogue late in the process. To reduce the number of images in the essays, details of the SAM artworks under discussion were omitted. In order to allow for easy comparisons, we implemented split-screen functionality that juxtaposed the image of the artwork and the essay about it. This functionality was also added at a cost.

The greatest challenge was data entry for albums. Generally speaking, albums were a compilation of images by one or multiple artists. They can be vertical—pages turn from bottom up—or horizontal—pages turn from right to left. Sometimes an image occupies a full spread, and sometimes a spread features two images by two artists. In the case of calligraphy, the writing may continue on for several leaves, and the work (e.g., a poem or a prose) is not confined by the page format. After prolonged experimentation, Web Atelier was able to create a system that addressed various scenarios. Arguably the most controversial issue was whether an album should be considered one work or multiple works. While some albums are coherent in nature, others may be an assemblage of separate works. This conceptual issue has significant impact on the presentation of the albums on the explore view of the catalogue, as well as the overall count of artworks in the collection. When we decided that an album was a single work, the ‘parent record’ was differentiated from the ‘child record’ of the individual leaves. The complexity of albums occasioned changes to the wireframe at a cost, and some works had to be rephotographed, because the format and margins of the leaves became relevant to their orientation and presentation.

7. Conclusion

As a model for online catalogue, the Seattle Art Museum’s collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, despite its modest size, has brought out many intriguing problems that apply to larger collections. Over the past five years, many museums outside of the OSCI consortium have made part of their collections available online. In the course of building the SAM catalogue, we were tempted by other functionalities and apps that would at first glance make the catalogue appear evermore up-to-date. At one point, we were interested to adapt the catalogue to the iPad, which had not yet appeared in 2008 when the consortium of museums met for the first time. Paradoxically, online catalogues run the danger of becoming outdated more easily than a book would, especially when discussed primarily in terms of functionalities and special features. Yet the decision to focus on the mission of advancing and distributing scholarship served the catalogue well.

In retrospect, all features of the SAM catalogue were straightforward and adapted from existing software and/or digital programs. The high-resolution, zoom-able images of the works of art, which were a main draw of the catalogue, were tiled by the museum’s rights and reproduction coordinator, who learned to tile images quickly. The ease of use can be said of other software programs, such as Dreamweaver and Seadragon. As many participating museums of the OSCI consortium concurred in the last meeting in spring 2013, museums did not need to invent new technology to make their online catalogue successful. We expect that the SAM catalogue will stand the test of time, not only because it is easy to use, but also because its holistic approach to the collection allows readers to anticipate what is available, what is to come, and how they may contribute to it.

Cite as:
J. Yiu and . , A New Norm for Studying Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Online. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published October 11, 2013. Consulted .

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