Karolina Badzmierowska, TCD: Digital Art History – challenging physical limitations of books

The Fagel Collection, purchased in 1802 by Trinity College, is the single intact, largest and most important Dutch private library anywhere in the world. The auction catalogue of 1802 provides a summary of 9,844 books. A number of books, particularly in such areas as architecture, botany, anatomy, optics and astronomy, are richly illustrated. However, the research potential of these resources has been little exploited, particularly from the art history perspective. Furthermore, only a small percentage of these books make their appearance in the Old Library exhibitions in the Long Room space.

The physicality of a book creates a challenge for a curator to exhibit its rich content in a traditional setting of a glass display and a printed explanatory label. New digital technologies and so-called virtual heritage applications promise to change this situation and go a step further, beyond the two-dimensional environment. This topic is being widely discussed and researched within museum studies and exhibitions, although there is an evident gap in theory and practice regarding library exhibitions, particularly of books as artistic and complex, 3-dimensional objects.

This paper explores the potential of virtual exhibitions of books based on some of the most promising solutions to date. Digital and virtual platforms offer a way of re-creating the real exhibition and objects. Moreover, an ongoing mass digitisation across libraries all over the world make their collections accessible anytime anywhere. The challenge here is, to not only re-create the environment and setting known to the user by providing a digital image and interface, but more importantly to create a new experience and new channels of information delivery and use. This paper addresses the key issues of this challenge, particularly in the context of (digital) art history scholarship.

The research on the book illustrations from the Fagel Collection within digital art history discipline undoubtedly imposes questions about its further dissemination and presentation beyond printed copy of a PhD dissertation. A digital scholarly edition of the illustrations will create a groundwork for their implementation in digital and virtual environments as a far-reaching and integral part of the research process and outcome. This will allow to leave a digital foot-print for the researchers on the Fagel Collection in future with a focus on its digital and virtual existence. Though, emerging practices in virtual cultural heritage should not be ignored by any researchers working on digitised art collections and concerned about their digital sustainability in future.

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