Here's How Getty is Revolutionizing the "Art" of Art Scholarship

How is technology shaping the future of museums? The answer depends on which foundation or museum you ask.

Sometimes the answer comes in the form of a large, multi-million dollar grant given by a huge foundation, whereas other times, a seemingly innocuous project can pave the way for new and innovative engagement models. One case in particular is the Art Institute of Chicago's "Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago," a scholarly catalog covering 47 paintings and drawings by the famous French Impressionist.

An online catalog of a painter's work seems simple enough, until you learn the actual details. The collection, made possible thanks to funding from the Getty Foundation and the David and Mary Winton Green Nineteenth-Century Research Fund, represents the museum's first digital scholarly catalog, accessible on any device with an Internet connection. It also signals the first installment of Getty's Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), an ambitious project started in 2009 that aims to transition museums to the digital age by publishing scholarly collection catalogs online.

Now we know what you're thinking. Reading the New York Times on a tablet is a chore. How can digitization effectively capture the mystique and wonder of standing in front of a Monet in gallery? This is where it gets interesting, because Getty gave this very consideration some careful thought. Realizing that digitization for the sake of digitization wasn't going to cut it with sophisticated art lovers and scholars, the online collection goes further than merely emulating the perks of viewing a painting in a gallery.

For example, entries on each artwork include imagery with such high resolution that readers can zoom in close enough to see the artist’s brush strokes. "Slider" images, meanwhile, enable readers to move smoothly between, say, a standard view of Monet's "The Beach at Sainte-Adresse" to an infrared reflectogram of the same painting. This approach allows viewers to gain a deeper understanding of Monet’s process and techniques. Pretty cool.

That isn't to say the collection neglects the benefits of a good old fashioned book either. It includes "in-depth curatorial entries, conservation reports, an expansive glossary, comparative and archival images, footnotes," and more. (Then again, maybe books are slightly overrated. The museum noted that if this collection were a printed book, it would total 1,300 pages. Sounds pricey.)

Needless to say, it's fascinating to watch foundations and museums collectively mold their digitized future. As we've just noted, Getty is betting on digitized scholarly catalogs supplemented with innovative, user-friendly tools. The Bloomberg Foundation, meanwhile, is embracing mobile technology to improve the visitor's experience inside the museum. Then there's the James Irvine Foundation, which gave a recent gift to the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) that envisions technology as a tool to optimize the ancient art of storytelling.

What all this means is that when it comes to predicting the "future" of museums, sometimes there are multiple answers to a single question.