Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.
Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.
The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.
Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.
Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.
Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.
Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.
Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.
In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.
The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.
Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.
Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.
The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.
Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:
“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.” Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana
For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.
Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.
I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!
This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.
I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.
When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.
It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.
Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.
We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
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 Placement
My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”, to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.
Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.
Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.
Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.
In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886), he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.
Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.
The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.
My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.
The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.
Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com
 Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.
My name is Jane Macintyre. I am one of the volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art.
On the afternoon of 12th June, HRH The Princess Royal visited both The Courtauld Gallery and the Institute in her role as Chancellor of the University of London. Prior to the event, she had expressed an interest in meeting the digitisation team – Tom, Matthew, Faye and Sarah – plus one of the volunteers. About five weeks before the visit a ballot determined, as luck would have it, that the volunteer would be me. I was bursting to tell everyone but had been sworn to secrecy.
It turned out that HRH wouldn’t be able to visit the basement studio or library space, but the prints and drawings room on the first floor of the building substituted as a suitable venue where we could present images. Tom and Matthew had selected a small spread of Conway mounts, Laib photos and Anthony Kersting’s images and ledger books. They took care to choose some particularly relevant images such as the only photograph in the collection of the Princess’s home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and some Olympics venues such as the Athens Arena from 1896, the first Olympics of modern times. Faye set up the camera and connected it to her laptop to mimic the studio facility.
Security on the day was tight. At 2.15pm everyone was summoned to the foyer to receive our credentials and a final briefing, then we took our places in the prints room where we awaited a last security sweep before HRH arrived. It seemed like a long time: excitement mounted.
Finally, the Princess came into the prints room accompanied by the Director of The Courtauld, Professor Deborah Swallow. The Princess, clearly well-informed and interested, was first introduced to the prints and drawings team, and after perusing some of the drawings, came over to talk to the digital team. Tom summarised what the project was about, and presented Matt, Faye, Sarah and myself (in strict sequence). The Princess asked me to explain the role of the volunteers and then Tom showed her the selected array of photographs, which led to a discussion on Gatcombe Park and the changes that had been made to it since the photograph was taken in 1945. She also picked up on the photograph of the Athens Olympics, before moving on to the next part of her visit, the launch the Founders’ Circle, a new society to recognise major benefactors to The Courtauld.
So five weeks of anticipation was over in a few minutes. We definitely rose to the occasion and did a good job of explaining the project. Never having met royalty before, I was struck by the level of organisation, coordination and sheer choreography required to achieve a smooth and effective visit.
My name is Mary Caple. I’m one of the volunteers on the HLF Digitisation Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since we started digitising images in March, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours working on the project with Faye, Tom, Sarah, and and other community members donating their time.
I jumped at the chance to get on board with this initiative. During my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, I took museum studies courses, designed exhibitions, and questioned various approaches to digitisation with my peers. What kinds of possibilities arise when exponentially more data is freely available online? Can digitisation make archives more accessible to a broad array of people within and outside academia? Since university I’ve researched in archives and worked on curatorial projects, but this role brings two firsts. Collections photography and the digitisation process are new to me.
One of the many reasons this project at the Courtauld is special is its approach to volunteer participation. While we are welcome to request a particular task on any given day, by default we rotate through jobs from cataloguing to photography. This way, each person involved digitising the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections can try something new as well as play to their strengths. Switching around has another benefit. By spending time with distinct parts of the collections and approaching them on Tuesdays as a photographer, Thursdays as an archivist, and Fridays as a geographical sleuth/transcriber, a potentially overwhelming behemoth undertaking instead feels like a treasure trove. The ability to approach our material from these different angles keeps perspective fresh and gives a sense of what lies ahead in the months and years to come as the project progresses.
Here, I’ll take you through each of the three types of tasks each volunteer performs when they come in to the Institute. By starting with the small parts – the daily tasks of the 50+ volunteers involved – I hope you’ll gain an understanding of what goes into getting a large-scale digitisation initiative like this one off the ground.
The first task on the roster for most volunteers involves sorting and labeling the collections. Over the last month and change we started labeling the Conway collection. Most of these items are printed photographs mounted on card stock, sorted in files, which are housed in boxes found on shelves of the library. As such, they’re also a bit sturdier (less easy to break, tear or maim) than the film and glass negatives of the Kersting and Laib images and a good point of departure for learning how to handle archival objects.
Everything gets a number in our very own Library of Babel. Lots of time is dedicated to going through and numbering each box with sticky labels, and numbering the files and cardstock pages (as well as the occasional news clipping) in each file in pencil by hand. These numbers come in handy later on when we’re taking photos – a number becomes the unique identifier for each image, and what you’ll see eventually when you navigate to the image’s page on the online site. We’re creating a new archival framework that will organize the way the images live in their online home.
While labeling is a great way to get to know the geographical and temporal depth of the Conway images, there are also small surprises. I learned one of my favourite archival lessons from Faye while sorting images. Every file containing architectural images is sorted from distance views to interior details, outside to inside. Keep an eye out if you find yourself flipping through them.
Transcribing the Kersting Logs
Another task dealing with the words and numbers of images involves “digitising” Anthony Kersting’s photograph ledgers by data entry. Kersting meticulously wrote down the date, place, and distinguishing information about thousands of photos he took all around the world throughout the 20th century. Transcription volunteers go through his logbooks and enter this information into a Google Form Faye has set up. This simplifies the data input procedure, hiding the entire spreadsheet of information each time we sit down to work.
Kersting may have been a globetrotter, but he was also a passionate explorer of his own backyard. A recent newcomer to the UK, I’ve found tracing his travels from Cumbria to Herefordshire and beyond a terrific learning experience. Often some Googling is in order to clear up undecipherable spelling or to clearly pinpoint where his travels had taken him for a given photo.
Tracing his photographic path through 1960s Middle East has been a particularly moving experience. I trawl through Wikipedia sites and old travel guides to find location information for castles and towns Kersting rolled through. Borders have changed. Many of the sites Kersting thought interesting enough to photograph have now been destroyed or badly damaged by the conflict in Syria.
Taking the Photos
While boxes are labeled and data is inputted, we’re moving along with photographing the collection. This is a chance for the social volunteers among us to get collaborative – the photo team always consists of two volunteers. One person positions the images under the camera. The other uses the studio computer to edit each for uniformity and add some simple metadata to the files. While we’re welcome to have a look at the images whenever we’re in, this job provides a great chance to have a look at each and every image going up.
You might be wondering why we’re using a camera instead of a scanner to digitise. While a scanner might complete the job more quickly, and many digitisation projects do use scanners to capture images, the use of a camera here serves a particular purpose. As many of the images we’re working with are mounted, an image taken with a camera can capture that extra layer of depth – the sliver of space between board and photograph is given life. We hope to give the computer user a taste of the experience of getting to see these collections in person – the entire boards are treated as archival objects rather than just the photographs mounted to them. Tom Bilson, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media, describes this beautifully – ask him if you ever see him in person.
Spending time on each of these tasks gives volunteers a sense of the larger momentum of the project while they work on smaller tasks. Returning to the same task you worked on a few days, weeks or a month or two previous comes with the surprise of seeing how much the other volunteers and staff have completed in the interim. Something as small as a giant leap in the number of boxes labeled, having moved on to a geographical locale further down the alphabet or thematically different, or seeing a new subject arise (architecture has taken awhile!) is exciting.
Now that the overview is out of the way, I’m looking forward to diving into some specific stories about the collection to share with you in months to come.
Interviewing volunteers is one of my favourite parts of being a Volunteer Coordinator, I never get bored of hearing people’s stories and what led them to become a volunteer. This past month and a half I have interviewed over 40 new volunteers for our digitisation project so it’s been a brilliant 6 weeks for me. Now that I’ve listened to everyone’s motivations, goals and stories I thought I would blog about what I’ve learnt in a Q&A style…
After interviewing over 40 people, would you say there is a typical digitisation volunteer? In short, no. We are really, very lucky to have attracted such a diversity of experience, skills, knowledge-bases and strengths in such a short space of time. We have a very multicultural volunteer team so far, which I think is a great strength as we are digitising photographs from all over the world. We also have a wide age range amongst our volunteers, spanning from 18 to 70+. We have people with professional and unpaid experience from a wide variety of sectors like finance, education and architecture, as well as many who have formerly trained in art history, conservation and archiving, and also many enthusiasts – so this is a chance not only for volunteers to learn from us, but for us to learn from them and for there to be lots of shared learning from each other. A real network is already emerging!
Is there a main motivation for getting involved in the Digitisation project so far? As you would expect, everyone has a slightly different take on why they want to volunteer, but in general there are four main motivations for becoming a digitisation volunteer that crop up in most of the interviews so far, with many people mentioning at least two at some point in their interview:
A passion for creating an open data platform as a way of opening up stories, diversifying audiences, breaking down barriers and improving access to art for communities who might not be able to access the originals.
The pull of being involved with the Courtauld Institute of Art, as a world-class cultural institution.
The chance to gain hands-on experience on a digitisation process, with a view to move into employment or further training in this field.
The desire to spend free time discovering images that are interesting, beautiful and have not been made public before.
Has anything about the interviews so far surprised you? After managing volunteers for quite a few years, I have learnt not to make assumptions; but I am always very moved by people’s passion, drive and commitment to use their free time to help organisations further their cause, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of skills and perspectives they bring with them. It’s very motivating to be around them!
Hello and welcome to our Digital Media blog– so nice of you to come and visit!
This post is an introduction to the HLF Digitisation Project here at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The project is run by Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media, Sarah Way, Volunteer Coordinator, and myself, Faye Fornasier, Digitisation, Metadata & Cataloguing Coordinator, and together with our amazing volunteers we will use this space to talk about what we’re doing and share our work and serendipity.
The digitisation pilot, running now until August, will be a journey of discovery and exploration. It will set the pace for the rest of the project, which, if funded, will run for four years and complete the digitisation of the Courtauld’s photo libraries, started last summer with the Witt Library as a separate project, and part of the overarching Courtauld Connects.
The three collections we are covering are the Conway Library, just under a million mounted photographs and cuttings of architecture and sculpture started by Lord Conway of Allington; the complete archive of black and white prints and negatives by photographer Anthony F. Kersting, covering architecture of almost every European country, Asia, New Zealand, the Middle and Far East; and The De Laszlo Gift of Paul Laib Negatives, with over 20,000 images of works of all the major artists active in Britain between 1900 and 1945.
So far, the work has been great fun. In January we had our Volunteer Open Day, which was fantastically rewarding with over 137 registrations. In February we set up the Digitisation Studio from scratch, redecorating and building furniture ourselves; Sarah met over 40 prospective volunteers in one-to-one interviews and launched the shift booking portal, while also finding the time to go on an amazing trip abroad; Tom went shopping for a Content Management System & website for our new images, and transitioned between two fascinating exhibitions by artists working with the collections; and I got the photographic equipment up and running, tested the imaging settings and workflow for different materials, and put together some step-by-step instructions for when the volunteers arrive, on Tuesday next week.
Yesterday, we had an induction event with our first 26 volunteers and they’ve already signed up for most of the next three weeks. The volunteers will bring all sorts of different experiences to the digitisation process and and insight on the images themselves, so over the course of the project we will ask them to share their stories and discoveries. What more can I say – we’re incredibly excited.
Some of the negatives have never been out of their box and seeing what happens when they go online will be magical – so save this page for updates but also let us know what you would like to find on this blog. We will be happy to answer any questions and post suggestions are always welcome.
Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Coordinator Courtauld Connects