Week 4: Cataloging Cultural Objects

The Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) guide reading covered key questions and issues of the cataloging process. First off, it’s important to understand that cataloging means to describe what the object is, who made it, where it was made, how it was made, the materials of which it was made, and what it is about. In order to achieve this, a cataloger needs to create metadata for the original data. The metadata of a painting, for example, would be the name of the author, the date it was made, the country of origin, the mearialsu and colors used, etc., while the data would be the painting itself. Viewers of galleries, and objects in general want to know this information in order to understand the object and to evaluate its significance and how they feel about it.

Thus, the cataloger is in a pretty important position of classifying and presenting the information about objects. According to this week’s reading, the cataloger must first decide what exactly he or she is cataloging: is it an original work or an image? Then, it’s also very important to establish relationships between various bits of information and to link the metadata to appropriate authority sources. With intrinsic linking, it makes it easier for viewers to search for and locate related works. The same goes for linking to authority sources, but authority sources additionally give more credibility and context to the work.

It’s noteworthy to consider that since a majority of museums are federally founded, the cataloging process will be dictated by those institutions. The reading discussed that there are many complications and nuances about creating minimal descriptions. It said: the specificity and exhaustivity of a catalogue may depend on the time, knowledge, and expertise of catalogers, the database structure and information system design, end-user needs and expectations, and long-established institutional practice.”

This discussion reminds me of Duarte & Belarde-Lewis’s article “Imagining Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” which talked about ontologies and institutional versus community archives. And although the cataloger does not exactly have the “power to name” the objects, the role still gives authority to establish knowledge about those objects.

With this in mind, we, as consumers of this object metadata and information, must be a little critical of what is recorded about the object. It is quite realistic that certain facts and information about objects, especially cultural objects will be considered “not important enough” and be left out. Yet, even more often I would guess is the case of the sources that catalogers use in order to gather and code information about those cultural objects. For, cultural objects tend to have deeply rooted history that is closely intertwined with the people of whose culture they come from. And, we also know that traditional institutions and archives tend to create their own ontologies, representations, definitions, descriptions, and interpretations of objects, and neglect to give proper credit to the communities and the people’s stories that the cultural objects specifically belong to.



Databases as Creative Opportunities

I agree with the article that it is hard to classify diverse objects, that each have layered meanings, and specific cultural and historical significance, under one overarching set of principles or guidelines. I think such a daunting, seemingly impossible task, provides institutions with the opportunity for creative and artistic problem solving when structuring and visually designing their databases.

I think generating databases can be an opportunity to radically restructure the ways in our society thinks about dominant historical modes of classifications. Starting with an analysis of the metadata of objects can lead to new connections and relationships between works, which can in turn shift the way a database is structured and designed in a way that disrupts traditional art historical taxonomies, that do not account for diverse histories and arts practices. Overall, I think databases and classification systems will become more inclusive and diverse, as more collections and objects, are digitally archived and become available online.  

Art Objects, Damage, and Resonance

The essay “Resonance and Wonder” by Stephen Greenblatt touches on many key issues relating to the ways in which museums chose to display their art objects and the effects those display methodologies have on  viewers’ reactions and understandings of the objects. In his essay, Greenblatt discusses how often times museums try to erase the history of the art object, which may include contextual and historical factors as well as physical damage to the works themselves. Greenblatt also describes how museums function as “monuments to the fragility of cultures,” and how the fragility of art objects themselves can have resonance. Greenblatt’s discussion of these themes made me think about a trip I took to the Cleveland Museum of Art this summer and a statue, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, I saw at the museum.

In 1970 an unknown anti-government group detonated a homemade bomb at the Cleveland Museum of art that blew out the bottom portion of The Thinker. The sculpture was severely damaged. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s The Thinker, is a great case study for some of the issues that Greenblatt discusses in his essay. The physical damage inflicted upon the art object can be seen as a testament to the fragility of the culture of the United States and to the ideologies and values tied to the United States government. The damage to the bottom of the sculpture also generates its own resonance through an added historical and contextual connection between the sculpture, the location, an era and a moment in time.

The Thinker also presents a way to look at how Museums make decisions about damaged works and present the history of objects.  After considering several options, the Cleveland Musuem of Art decided not to restore the The Thinker and return the damaged sculpture to the entrance of the museum. They added a small plaque, which described that the damage had been caused by a bomb, to the base of the statue. The history of the object now is inseparable from one’s understanding and appreciation of the sculpture on display. One can no longer view the art object without considering its history. According to Greenblatt, this is a somewhat rare occurrence, as most museums attempt to remove historical context from art objects on display.