The Athenaeum

Peter Cornelius




In searching for an appropriate subject for this assignment, I had hoped to find some mind-blowing type of database or surprising application of technology for the visual arts. I had hoped to find a super-geeky version of ARTstor, or something similar using cutting edge technologies to find and examine works of art. While not finding something along those lines, I did find a website that may be a valuable resource for the humanities in the future while incorporating features that many internet researchers can use to further their knowledge about given subjects in the humanities. The Athenaeum (http://www.the-athenaeum.org/) is a combination of an online art gallery, forum, history timeline, and art database. Although started in 2000, it is evolving as the creators re-imagine its use and the collaboration process. As the site evolves, becomes more content-rich, and the forums occupied, it will only become more useful.

At this time The Athenaeum has approximately 45,000 images that users have uploaded. These are mostly paintings that are past copyright or are otherwise in the public domain. Some works are only available as thumbnail sizes because someone somewhere has some right over how the image is used. One instance of this is Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (Since I first discovered this, it has been updated so that a larger image is available, although it is much smaller that the one found at Wikipedia.org), Edward Hopper’s “Sunlight on Brownstones” and Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do to complete the information for each artist. In many cases, the provenance is not yet listed, dimensions of the work are not included, and there is barely any information about the artist. This is the case with Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks,” and in fact, there is no information other than his years of birth and death for Hopper himself. Hopefully, as more people find the site and become interested, the missing information will be provided.
Despite the current lack of information, I’m interested in the site’s potential. Much like wikipedia was in the early days, this site needs active contributors. The thing that makes this site really interesting is what they hope to do with it. They explain:

At the moment, the vast majority of our content consists of artworks. There are several reasons for this. The most important is that it is easier to program a web interface for uploading art, and creating notes about it, than for texts, or historical events, or ideas. How do you upload an event? So, we are starting with the more concrete things, but the plan is eventually to cover art history, history, philosophy, mythology, religion, archaeology, and more - the whole gamut of the humanities. One of our core beliefs is that all of the humanities are interconnected. That is a key difference between us and other art archives. Where one site may give you images, we will strive to provide the history, myth, and culture that inform the images. It will take a while, but we'll get there.[1]

My own art history experience has taught me that art is heavily influenced by events, either in the artist’s life or the event’s affect on others. Art also may reflect or document the popular lifestyles of the times, public attitudes, or alternate ways of thinking about things. I think that it’s important that that works of art and literature are considered in the context of their time. For example, when one is looking at the cubist works of Braque and Picasso, one needs to consider Einstein’s contemporary general theory of relativity: cubism reflects the concept that an object presents different facets at different times; to present the whole object at the same time requires bending time, or deconstructing the object to present all of its facets. One cannot really understand cubism without understanding this, even if I didn’t explain it well. Understanding artworks also requires some knowledge about the period it was created in; what movements and schools are represented in the work; popular philosophy; the mood of the time; and overarching world events. I hope that the creators of The Athenaeum successfully link these things together and give appropriate context to everything they hope to, as well as art.

Along these lines, I’d like to give a nod to the collaboration between the George Eastman House and the International Center for Photography called Photomuse.org. Photomuse is also still a work-in-progress, but has already established some chronology and history to accompany the photographs that they exhibit. The site only uses works in the collections of GHE and ICP, but there is still quite a deep history and wide breadth of subject matter therein.

Although still in the test phase (and occupied primarily by spammers), I have high hopes for the forum section at The Athenaeum. An athenaeum is after all a place for discussion and the advancement of learning. If the forum can support this goal, it will provide a place where people can discuss everything from art to religion in the context of furthering knowledge in the humanities. If this forum does take off, it will certainly be a unique use of modern social technology for people interested in the humanities. The openness of the forum, in that it won’t be restricted to scholars, allows anyone interested to ask or answer questions, just like anyone can submit images of artworks, information about artists, historical figures, and other important people. I can imagine freshman art history students asking questions, interacting with people more knowledgeable, becoming more active themselves in the site and helping it grow and becoming useful mentors in their own right. That there will be a place for this kind of discussion is exciting.
According to The Athenaeum’s FAQ page, there is only one web designer/ programmer.[2] This, along with the lack of information that will tie everything together, shows that a project of this scale needs more contributors. The forum page has some bad coding, and is still in the test phase. User-created lists don’t link properly, some other links between artists and their works are broken, especially in the poetry section. Overall, there is much that needs to be done outside of adding more content. For the time being, The Athenaeum is a great source for finding the titles of works from an artist, or vice-versa. This is the only site I can think of that gives a visual list of works from an artist, and even if the list isn’t complete, it’s still better than most sites. This is a distinct advantage over trying to find an image on the web when one doesn’t know the title for the work. Right now, there isn’t much else this site is good for, but if it takes off like Wikipedia did, it could be an extraordinary tool for humanities researchers.






[1] “Our Mission Statement,” The Athenaeum, accessed October 24, 2011, http://www.the-athenaeum.org/about/mission_statement.php
[2] “Frequently asked questions,” The Athenaeum, accessed October 30, 2011, http://www.the-athenaeum.org/about/faq.php.