A five-year digitization and inventory project at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center nears the finish line

The Cantor's entire collection will be online to everyone this fall, allowing scholars and the public greater access to the encyclopedic collection and presenting the Cantor staff with a clear picture of the museum's holdings. Many of the photographed object are available online now.

L.A. Cicero Photographer Lee Fatheree, left, and Digitization Project Coordinator Colin Stinson work on photographing the sketchbooks of Robert Diebenkorn at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center

Photographer Lee Fatherree, left, and digitization project coordinator Colin Stinson work on photographing the sketchbooks of Richard Diebenkorn at the Cantor Arts Center.

It has been picture day at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center five days a week for five years. Thousands of objects have posed for the camera in order to be included in an online database. The massive digitization and inventory project serves multiple purposes: access for students, faculty and other scholars; a clear assessment of what the collection includes; and the basis for a major new acquisition strategy.

"This comprehensive visual inventory allows us to understand for the very first time in the museum's history the complexity and richness of our collection," said Connie Wolf, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor. "We are reviewing our acquisition strategies in order to build the collection with strategic, transformative acquisitions that enhance the collection as part of our mission to connect with the academic life of the university."

Staff at the Cantor are deeply committed to academic connectedness and accessibility. Over the last several years thousands of works have been brought into the Mary Tanenbaum Seminar Room, where faculty and students from a variety of disciplines spend time learning through objects. The digitization project makes this kind of access easier to facilitate. Faculty and students can search the database to discover the museum's holdings and consider how these myriad objects might augment teaching and research goals.

The museum is also engaging more faculty members, undergraduates and graduate students by allowing them to create experimental thematic exhibitions as guest curators. These exhibitions are a different kind of platform for fostering ideas and sharing academic thinking with the public.

"This is a wonderfully exciting time to take stock of the collection and consider how it can best be refined, built and maintained, to serve the great interdisciplinary culture of research and thinking at Stanford, particularly in this moment when the university has significantly deepened its commitments to the arts," said Alison Gass, the associate director for exhibitions, collections and curatorial affairs. "The Cantor is committed to collecting significant works of art from across all geographic regions and from all historical periods. The collection is an invaluable tool for the academic community at the university to explore the way art objects can be a lens onto all social, political and historic moments throughout global history."

Getting into the museum

It takes about a week for a work of art to enter a museum collection. The journey starts with arrival and acclimation in a climate-controlled area, followed by unpacking and an initial review by the curator. Conservators prepare a condition report and paint an accession number directly on the object. Basic information is recorded in a database – artist, title, date, medium, as well as exhibition and publication history and provenance. Then the object heads to the studio for its close-up, where every brushstroke, chase mark and fingerprint is captured in super-high-resolution. These are not airbrushed glamour shots, but they are dazzling. Exquisite details of a work of art are often visible in the catalog-quality image but not in person by the naked eye.

It is this last photographic stop on the journey that is being redone with existing works in the collection and every new work that comes through the loading dock doors.

The Cantor has always fostered a sense of discovery through direct experiences with works of art. A digitized experience is another avenue of discovery. Close examination of a work of art can reveal clues about process and technique, age and condition. Scholars focusing on an artist or a single work of art gain valuable knowledge when they can reconstruct the making of a work. You can't push two paintings together in a gallery to compare details, but you can put two high-res images together on a screen.

Two years ago, the Cantor collaborated with the Google Art Project, an international online art gallery, and posted 105 high-resolution images for in-depth research and examination. The partnership was possible in part because the Cantor's digitization project was already underway at the time. The same tools of close examination used in the Google Art Project are now available to thousands of objects.

Wolf points out that from any computer anywhere in the world, the Cantor collection is now accessible, showing both the breadth and depth of the museum's holdings. "For students and faculty, the free access allows the museum to be an extraordinary resource for research as well as for curiosity," she said.

Game changer

A database of images is also instrumental when developing an exhibition – you can't consider works of art that you don't know you have. The breadth of the current exhibition Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees (on view through July 20) was expanded by the digitization project.

The exhibition, supported by a Mellon Foundation grant designed to enhance the training of doctoral students in the Department of Art and Art History, is an eclectic range of artwork that spans thousands of years from the museum's collections, including a sixth-century Egyptian textile, a lukasa memory board from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a lithograph of a tree colored in by young Leland Stanford Jr. and a 1948 photograph of San Francisco's Hunter's Point by John Gutmann. Most of the 29 works have never been on view at Stanford, but PhD candidate George Philip LeBourdais was able to find them in the Cantor database using a few key filters.

"With digitization projects like the Cantor's, we're engaging an exciting new chapter of collections management, and the way museum databases mold educational, conservational and curatorial practices," said LeBourdais. "For the Arboreal Architecture exhibition, having images in the collection records allowed me to find and examine artworks by themes connected to trees. Without this visual database, I wouldn't have included works like the superb landscape painting by Shen Zhou [1427-1509], one of the great scholar-artists of Ming Dynasty China, or Steven Sorman's beautiful abstract collage A Picture of the Dogwood Tree Cherokee Rose [1973]. The digitization of images allowed me to explore the collection in a deep but focused way, resulting in a richer, more diverse exhibition."

Rediscoveries, reattributions and shared research

The digitization project has led to some interesting discoveries. In March 2012, while inventorying the collection of works on paper, Jennifer Daly, the project registrar, found a wooden box with a Japanese label that had been pushed to the back of a storage shelf. The original database record from 1966 simply stated that it was a collection of 147 maps from Japan. Inside the box, Daly discovered a trove of beautifully illustrated maps of Japanese castles from the Edo Period (1615–1868), each tightly folded, labeled and closed with a silk ribbon. The maps had not been closely examined since they entered the collection nearly 50 years ago. The rediscovery was the inspiration for the Cantor exhibition one year later, Mapping Edo: The Social and Political Geography of Early Modern Japan (August 2013–February 2014), which featured a rotating selection of the castle maps along with other Edo Period works in the collection.

In January this year, John Peck, a continuing studies instructor teaching a course on drawing realistic portraits, requested images of several portraits in the Cantor collection to use as examples in his course. He selected the portraits from the digitization project images found online, and one of the portraits was a pencil drawing of David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford from 1891 to 1913. The portrait had never been exhibited and the database records listed the provenance as "Found in a University Office in 1975." The artist was recorded as "Cantor," which raised suspicion among the staff. Looking closely at the sharp new image of the portrait, the staff clearly read "Cantú San Jose 1928," not Cantor. By comparing the signature, location and date with works in other museum collections, the portrait was reattributed to the Mexican painter, engraver, sculptor and member of the Mexican muralism movement Federico Cantú.

Earlier this year, newly digitized images and updated catalog records for 1,586 ancient Cypriot works in the Cantor's collection were sent to the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus, so they could be part of the institute's digital registration of collections of Cypriot antiquities in foreign museums. The Stanford family bought the antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1894 and this is the first time that images and data on all of the objects have been available online.

Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184, robin.wander@stanford.edu

Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Museum: (650) 725-4657, akoster@stanford.edu