National Gallery, London

Second annual CHArt Conference

27-28 November 1986

CHArt - Computers in the History of Art - is a special interest group organised by Prof. Will Vaughan at UCL and Dr Antony Hamber at Birckbeck, with a burgeoning membership (about 150 attended this conference) drawn rather more from the major national museums than from academic departments. I attended its inaugural meeting nearly two years ago mostly out of idle curiosity; I was invited to this, its second annual conference, I suspect largely on the strength of my performance at Westfield (historians of art seeming to overlap a little with historians in general) on condition that I explain what databases were in words of one syllable, preferably employing lots of pictures.

The conference was a two day event, with mornings given over to formal presentations and afternoons to a number of parallel demonstration sessions. In between was a very pleasant reception featuring memorable dim sum. All around was the wealth of the National Gallery; definitely among my favourite conference venues to date. I opened the first day's formal sessions (which all concerned cataloguing/database applications), using as my main example a page from the Gallery's Catalogue written (I later learned) by the distinguished old buffer who had formally welcomed us into said gallery's hallowed portals not five minutes earlier. Fortunately he'd left by the time I started to get personal. Colum Hourihane from the Courtauld, where the only computer-assisted art historical cataloguing of any importance is actually going on, then gave a very impressive resume of every known method of iconographical classification. He'd found eight different methods used to categorise the subjects of images, of which the best appeared to be ICONCLASS, as used by, yes, the Witt Library at the Courtauld. His paper, when written up, should become a standard reference on the subject.

After coffee in an adjoining room of old masters, Jeanette Towey (described as 'a researcher' and evidently not a sales person) gave a work-person-like introduction to what word-processors are, how they differ from typewriters etc. etc. She advocated Nota Bene, having used that and Word Star, but had never tried Word Perfect nor heard of SGML, page description languages or -mirabile dictu- TeX. Gertrude Prescott from the Wellcome Institute and her 'data processing consultant' (whose name I forgot to write down) then described their current prototype cataloguing system for the Wellcome's immense collection of prints, using dBase III+. It was rather depressing to see that although they were starting from scratch - much of the collection never having been catalogued in any way - their data analysis was very rudimentary. It seemed to me to be over-reliant on dBase III's tendency to sweep anything difficult under the carpet into a "MEMO" field, of which they had about eight in one record. No doubt they will learn better from the example of their neighbours at the Witt Library.

After lunch, there were various demonstrations, of Nota Bene (which I avoided) and of STIPPLE, our old friend from the pigsty, which does not appear to have changed much and which I am now close to thinking I understand. ERROS Computing is still in business, but does not appear to have gained any new customers since the last report, some 18 months ago, nor indeed to have expanded its standard demo at all. Another demonstration, of somewhat dubious relevance to Art History, was being given by a Dr Alick Elitthorn from a private charity called PRIME (no relation to any manufacturer) which has something to do with the analysis of dreams. Its chief point of interest was that it used STATUS on a PC AT, of which I have long heard but never actually seen. The software costs £2000; by dint of sitting on my hands I prevented myself from taking a security copy of it immediately. Day Two, which was supposed to be on visual rather than historical aspects of the subject, was opened by a Mr Duncan Davies (formerly with ICI, now retired) who gave what was reported to have been a magnificent overview of the rise of western civilisation. Owing to the caprices of British Rail, I missed much of this, arriving only in time for the Reformation, from which time, according to Dr Davies, may be dated the end of the period during which written communication had constituted the intellectual power base. With the rise of universal education came the stress on words and numbers as the only fit means of communication, the discouragement of the most able from visual forms of expression and our consequent inability to say anything intelligent about visual images. The second great invention of humanity, will be the pictorial equivalent of the phonetic alphabet and if anyone had any ideas on how it could be done, would they please telephone Dr Davies on 01-341-2421. The visual content of his talk, which my summary does not attempt to include, was, of course, the better part. Terry Genin had the difficult task of following this, but persevered, remarking that he would normally be on playground duty rather than addressing a gathering of this sort. He has developed some fairly straightforward courseware involving image and colour manipulation on RM380Zs as a means of teaching art history in a secondary schools but the bulk of his talk was a plea for the possibilities of interactive video to be more widely recognised in that context, (which seems to me to be a political rather than an art historical question), rather than just as a means of selling Domesday Book, of which he had several (unspecified) criticisms.

After coffee, Andrew Walter (IBM Research) gave a rapid canter through the York Minster Computer Graphics project. This is somewhat of a tour de force in CAD; it consists of a model of the York Minster, sufficiently detailed for views to be plotted from every angle both inside and outside. A video of the resulting tour was on display throughout the conference; each frame took about three hours CPU time on an IBM 3430, so interaction was impossible. The presentation included samples of the high level graphics language in which the Minster views were specified (primitives such as cylinder, sphere, cube etc. are combined in a procedural way) which was interesting though how much sense it made to the majority of the audience I can only guess. Wire frame drawing with dotted in-fill was presented as a more promising way of getting interactive processor

speeds; the problems of including perspective in the views were also touched on.

David Saunders (National Gallery) described an ingenious application of image processing techniques. The problems of colour changes in 16th century paint are fairly well known (Ucello didn't actually paint blue grass, it's just that the yellow wash he put over it has gone transparent); more modern pigments also change over time. Usually the only way of telling what has happened is when a part of the painting has been protected from light, e.g. behind the frame. By storing carefully controlled digitised images of the painting and the comparing them after a five year gap, the NG hopes to identify more precisely what types of material are most at risk and what factors cause most damage. The equipment (which was also demonstrated in the afternoon) includes an HP 9836 frame store and a special digitising camera. Several art historical applications of image processing techniques were also given in what was, rather unexpectedly, the most stimulating paper of the conference.

Finally, two ladies from the Weeg Computing Centre at the University of Iowa described their videodisc retrieval project. A library of about 18,000 colour slides had been stored (in analogue form) on video disc, and a simple text DBMS (called Info-Text) used to index them. The system was designed for use by faculty members wishing to collect together appropriate illustrative material. In the classroom, images can be projected in the same way as conventional slides; the quality of the images (we were assured) was "better than might be expected"; it looked reasonable on the standard video monitors available at the National Gallery. Images are catalogued according to nineteen different categories (date, provenance, size etc.); no formal iconographic indexing was used. Apart from the obvious advantages of being tougher and cheaper to maintain, one great attraction of the system was seen to be its integration of indexing and displaying comparable and contrasting treatments of equivalent subjects.

The conference closed with a plenary discussion centre. This focussed at first on the difference between the words "analogue" and "digital", rambled off into ill-informed speculation about the possibility of automatic subject-recognition and was brought to heel by a plea for more information about what sort of database system was worth buying, and whether or not art historians should be expected to get their brains dirty trying to design them. My views on all these topics being fairly predictable, I shall not summarise them here.