Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing in the Sculpture Study Center

Contributed by IMLS Grant Project Team

Summer in Philadelphia may be winding down, but things at PAFA are just starting to ramp up as we begin the early fall season. There is a lot to catch up on from just the last several weeks: the moving of the outdoor sculpture Grumman Greenhouse by Jordan Griska after 11 years on Lenfest Plaza, installation and prep of our upcoming shows Evade or Ensnare and Making American Artists, as well as fall classes at the school starting back up this month. And things with the IMLS Project Team is just as busy. We’ve continued working all summer on the most challenging phase of the IMLS grant project, photographing the permanent art collection.  

We’ve changed course from photographing 2D works to taking photographs of the 3D works specifically in the Museum’s Sculpture Study Center (SSC). In this gallery, there is a wide array of objects in various mediums, each with their own set of challenges for documentation. Additionally, since the SSC is open to the public during Museum hours, we only have a limited number of days per week when things are closed to setup a temporary photography environment, work through as many objects as possible, and then break down again to make way for visitors.  

We soon realized photographing sculptures presented other challenges in our workflow. First, art handling works on paper compared to 3D sculpture was dramatically different. Some works were fragile, while others were solid and sturdy. Art handling for sculptures made from bronze, stone, plaster, terracotta, or wood all proved challenging and required us to be really careful as some works were hundreds of years old or some were very heavy. The material/color of each sculpture also required different backdrops and lighting. We ended up planning our days around dark and light colored sculptures so we didn’t need to change the backdrop often. And finally, since a single 2D image cannot fully represent all viewing angles of a 3D space, each sculpture is being photographed at least ten times: four side views, four quarter angle views, and two 1/8th angle views. The effect of this will be a very useful (approximate) 360-degree global view of each artwork.  

This workflow requires staff to move a—potentially very heavy—object, refocusing the camera by hand, adjusting the lighting, and finally, taking the image. Overall, it has been a slow but rewarding process, and we feel the finished images will provide a much more comprehensive set of digital assets—for future researchers and the general public—to view online.  

In fact, the usefulness of a more comprehensive set of viewing angles has been immediately clear as we have spent time with each object. A good example might be any of the several Abraham Lincoln life masks currently on view in SSC. Aside from being interesting objects by themselves, they—like many of the objects in PAFA’s collections—have a variety of notes, marking, and surprising armatures on their reverse sides, that might not always be visible to the public, but all contribute to the unique character and story of each work. 

We will soon be turning our attention to back to Works on Paper (WOP) and different aspects of the IMLS grant but we have enjoyed our time with the objects in SSC this summer and hope you will too the next time you are visiting the musem or browsing the new and forthcoming online collection.  

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about Digital Collections that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Alumni Spotlight: Susan H. Bradley

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” For this reason, archivists play an essential role in preserving the memory and legacy of people, places, and things. Archivists are only one part of the equation. We need the help of scholars, historians, genealogists, and curators to guide our decisions on what materials should be preserved for posterity.

But what happens when records are not preserved? Moreover, who gets to be remembered and who is forgotten?

Using PAFA’s archives, I have been assisting the descendant of Susan H. Bradley (1851-1929) conduct genealogical research. Together, our work attempts to raise awareness of Bradley’s influence on the Philadelphia and Boston art scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Please read more about Bradley on the National Museum of Women in the Arts blog: Susan H. Bradley: A Rediscovered Powerhouse

Browse images of Bradley’s work in PAFA’s Digital Archives.

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections

How time flies! It has been a year since we were awarded the IMLS grant. It seems fitting that I take this chance to provide an overview of all the changes and activities that have been completed so far.

The first major update is in regards to staffing changes. HoJun who served as the Project Museum Collections Assistant decided to leave the project early. In his place, we were fortunate to hire an amazing candidate, L Gnadinger. L is an artist, writer, and educator originally from Louisville, KT who has experience with art handling, writing, and arts administration. We’re happy to have L join the IMLS project team!

We’ve completed the first round of cataloging for all permanent works in PAFA’s collection. The main emphasis for this round of cataloging was to obtain accurate biographical information—life dates, place of birth, nationality, gender, race, etc. This round also included ensuring all objects had at least one subject access point, standardized date, copyright information, and of course, no spelling errors.

Photographing the collection has been challenging due to the staff change, technology problems, and institutional commitments. However, we managed to bounce back rather quickly when we switched to photographing 3D works (sculpture) in the second half of the summer. To date, we have photographed 82 small/medium sized sculptures (21%). In the past, we took 1-3 photos of a sculpture in a frontal view only. This time, we decided to photograph the sculpture 10 times to create a full 360 degree view of the work. We believe this added work would not only help PAFA document the work better, but also help curators and researchers view other markings such as a signature or date that is typically on the back of a sculpture.

PAFA’s legacy files are stored in a complex web of folders with tiff and jpg files intermixed with unconventional file naming standards. L has taken on the immense task of digital file management. Fortunately, L has Python programming skills that proved to be invaluable for this task. After a few weeks of brainstorming, testing, and team meetings, L was able to get a grasp of what the best approach would be.

I’ve been working closely with PAFA’s Registrar, Danielle McAdams, who is assisting with the CMS implementation phase of the project. The data migration and implementation of a new CMS is largely done by the vendors. We are currently reviewing the vendor’s feedback for crosswalks that aren’t compatible with the new CMS and determining if we require anything more customized for our needs. So far, there hasn’t been any major issues.