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Bridges to Art

Holy Cross and the Worcester Art Museum team up to bring fine art into the digital age

By Phyllis Hanlon

Karen Reilly '77, James Hogan, James Welu, David Sjosten and Jolene de VergesIn the past, students and teachers searching for art-related information found the task time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. Visits to a local museum or to the stacks of the nearby library might prove semi-successful at best and completely unfruitful at worst. Now with the speed of technology these previously insurmountable gaps in learning are being closed. Recently, Holy Cross teamed with the Worcester Art Museum, the area's foremost cultural institution, to create "Bridges to Art," an online program that offers an innovative approach to the ways in which the arts and humanities can be taught, studied, learned and appreciated.

In 1997, the College and museum entered a partnership on a relatively small scale when work-study students assisted the art institution's library in its daily operations. Kathy Berg, then-librarian and now a museum archivist, and Dr. James E. Hogan, director of library services at the Dinand Library, sought an opportunity to take this initial successful relationship one step further—into the world of high-tech learning.

According to David Sjosten, the Museum's deputy director of administration, the College applied for a Davis Educational Foundation grant, which allowed Holy Cross and the museum to bring the fine art library collection—a compilation of 50 centuries of art from around the world assembled over the last 80 years—up to current library science standards. Thus was born "Bridges to Art."

During the beginning stages of the project, Berg coordinated an intensive undertaking; the museum's entire card catalog—some 37,000 records—was converted into electronic form. Upon completion of this phase, Holy Cross stepped in with its technological know-how. With plenty of available cyberspace, the College offered to host the Museum's database on its library Web site, says Hogan. In addition to the catalog information, two other critical pieces were included. Approximately 1,700 fully downloadable, graphical images of museum-owned items, as well as some supplementary records, were placed online. "Linking images with bibliographic records is fairly revolutionary," says Hogan. "This is one of the first, full-fledged scholarly efforts in this area." He explains that a software program specific to library collections was used to obtain the desired results.

Faculty, students and patrons of the arts now have access, not only to a full color image of a piece of artwork, but also to collateral information relating to that item, Hogan says. For example, an individual looking for information on a John Singleton Copley painting can go to the "Bridges to Art" Web site and type in the artist's name. "Not only will the person see the image, but he'll also see other things related to that painting," he says. Supplemental data could include the painting's place of origin, its size, medium, composition and any correspondence by, to or about the artist and the work. Additionally, any available curatorial documents, conservation reports, cross-cultural references, books, pamphlets and exhibition materials related to the piece are displayed.

"Our goal was to create a scholarly tool that students and faculty can retrieve from a desktop to get a substantial amount of information on anything held in the museum," says Hogan. In addition to accessing pieces currently on display, viewers can see museum items that are in storage.

Jolene de Verges, museum librarian, and Davis Grant, project coordinator, dub "Bridges to Art" a great research tool that allows access to color images and much more. According to de Verges, she and her staff conducted a "complete subject inventory" of the artwork included. Details, such as architectural and clothing styles—right down to lace collars—landscapes, animals, food, lighting, furniture, flowers, plants and almost every other imaginable feature of a particular piece have been identified. "This specificity enhances and enriches the study of art," she says. "It makes the learning process more dynamic." She notes that one search opens the door to the complete library catalogs at Holy Cross and the Worcester Art Museum.

The institutions conducted focus groups in order to create a title for the project that would clearly convey its intent to students and teachers alike. "We brainstormed to come up with a name," says Hogan. "We knew that the word 'art' had to be in there somewhere." Taking note of the prevalence of bridges in artwork from French Impressionist paintings to modern art, the groups decided to employ that image for the project. Hogan notes that "Bridges to Art" signifies three significant concepts. "First, the site is a bridge between the two institutions. It is also a bridge between scholarly interpretation and the actual images," he says. "Lastly, it serves as a bridge between art collections and the greater world. Virtually anyone can access the information."

So far, all indicators point to overwhelming success, even at this early stage. Brochures were sent to numerous libraries as well as to public and private schools to announce the program, according to Hogan. Response has been even better than anticipated. "We were hoping people would find ways to link art to other subjects like history, music and literature," says Hogan, "but we've had math teachers call with questions." He notes that teachers in other disciplines are finding sociological reasons to visit and use the site. "Teachers are looking at ways to use the site other than the way we originally intended," says Hogan.

Additionally, a consultant created a teaching manual that is being distributed in two forms: as a pdf on the Web and in print. "There is a lesson plan in the manual that teachers can use to incorporate Bridges into the classroom," says Hogan. To date, the manual has received much positive attention from Holy Cross faculty. In addition, faculty from "Assumption College and Anna Maria College have discovered this site on their own and are using it," he says.

An advisory committee comprising Hogan, Joanna E. Ziegler, associate professor in Holy Cross' visual arts department, David Brigham, the museum's head curator, Debby Aframe, head librarian at the museum and James Welu, museum director, is scheduled to meet in the near future. This group will assemble periodically and offer recommendations as well as advice. "The committee will act as a vehicle for opinions and suggestions from the school's faculty and the museum's curators," Hogan says.

As Sjosten notes, a "good synergy" has existed between the museum and Holy Cross from the beginning. Hogan adds that both parties have developed a strong sense of trust and collegial respect. "This is a prime example of two fine institutions coming together on an equal basis," he says. "We are confident that we'll move down other roads in the future." For now, the two entities are excited to be crossing a technologically and cooperatively created bridge to the arts.


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