University College London

2 April 85

Workshop on Computers and Art History L. Burnard

This workshop, organised by Will Vaughan of the UCL Art History Dept naturally consisted almost entirely of art historians; notable exceptions being Dave Guppy (UCL Computer centre), Kevin Flude (from the V & A), the ubiquitous May Katzen and myself. Most of the art historians were from institutions in London, but a token Pole, a token Norwegian, two Americans and an Italian were also in evidence, presumably left over from the international conference of art historians which finished the week before.

The day began with Tim Benton (OU) describing how he had gone about indexing the collection of Le Corbusier's drawings in Paris. If he'd confined himself to the problems of data analysis in this, (he wanted to do things like indexing individual bits of drawings, distinguishing components of identifiable buildings, drafts, doodles etc) this would have been more interesting. Unfortunately he had been primed to present the case for using a mainframe, in his case at Cambridge, and therefore tried to persuade us that everything could be achieved using an editor and a sort package. He was followed by Mike Greenhalgh (Leicester) who, primed to say how wonderful micros were (in his case running dbase2), completely flummoxed most of the audience with talk of bit mapped screens and unix interfaces. He also seemed to judge all mainframes by UMRCC, which seemed a bit unfair. Amongst products he plugged were a text editor called VEDIT, the Leicester VT100 simulation chip for the BBC micro, a mark up language called ASPIC and -yes- the OUCS Lasercomp service. I tried to redress the balance by giving a much abbreviated version of the presentation I used for the Ashmolean last year on data analysis, which was quite well received. Will Vaughan (UCL) argued the case for doing your own programming by showing how he had managed to re-invent a reasonable data entry package and (rather more entertainingly) demonstrated a program running on a BBC micro which would draw Mondriaans for you.

Over lunch (which we had to buy for ourselves, shame), I did my best to persuade K.Flude that the V&A should consider CAFS a bit more carefully: he turns out to have been badly bitten by IDMS when an impressionable student at the Museum of London. After lunch, Cathy Gordon (Witt Library, Courtauld) described the impressive database system they are now using to catalogue their collection of reproductions. This had several interesting features I intend to pirate for the Ashmolean, notably full support for divergent interpretations of the various pictures and a very natty hierarchic system of encoding iconography. The software is a customised unix-based package running on something called a Plexis P25. It was particularly reassuring to see entities we have included in the Ashmolean model (such as object-events) reappearing in their design. Lindy Grant from the Conway library of the Courtauld gave a presentation which, although rich in illustration, had very little to say about computers, other than to manifest complete distrust in their capability to cope with the complexity of architectural description. I have never seen quite so many photos of Chartres Cathedral in one day though.

Kevin Flude (V&A) summarised the current state of play in the computation of national museums in an appropriately gloomy monotone: nearly everyone uses what the MDA offers, which is basically batch runs of GOS to produce your catalogue: no museum has the money or the expertise to develop new interactive systems and no package currently available seems suitable. Finally, Rob Dixon from Erros computing gave a sales pitch for (and demo of) a package called STIPPLE (System for Tabulating and Indexing People, Posessions Limnings and Ephemera). This package runs on an IBM System 38, and thus can afford to be lavish in its use of B-tree indexing, which appears to be its main novelty. Its interfaces, despite Mr Dixon's assurances to the contrary, seemed rather obscure to me, and at present you can only use it by leasing a line to Erros Computing's machine in Abingdon. The Tate Gallery has apparently fallen for it, but no one else, as yet.

The Workshop continued for a second day, devoted to small group discussions on various topics; although I was unable to participate in these, the feedback during the papers on this day was quite encouraging: the art historical world is ripe for computerisation.