Reviewed April 2017
Olivia Miller, Public Services Librarian
James Addison Jones Library, Greensboro College
The Lillian Thomas Pratt Archives and Fabergé at VMFA website and the Fabergé at VMFA mobile application are free resources that function as celebrations of Russian decorative arts, the practice of collecting in the 20th century, and the value of documentation and archiving. The website and app can be used without the other, but together they provide an encompassing look at a collector and the lives of Karl Fabergé and the Russian imperial family.
The website is home to the digitized archives of Lillian Thomas Pratt, mostly consisting of invoices, letters to dealers, and price tags that were digitized with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Also included are embedded Internet Archive scans of two VMFA-owned rare books related to the subject matter. This focus on archival materials related to the collection causes the website to be mostly geared towards scholars and researchers. Scholars and novices alike, however, will appreciate the videos and 360° views of the five imperial eggs included on the website. The website also is home to a great 27-minute documentary about Pratt and the VMFA’s acquisition of her collection that would be helpful to users of various knowledge levels.
The app serves a wider audience, yet one that is limited to users with devices running iOS 9.3 or later or Android 4.0 and up. Users can pick one of four historical timelines to follow the history of Mrs. Pratt, Karl Fabergé, and the Russian Imperial family. A “create your own” egg area and a Russian fairy tale are also included for kids and kids–at-heart. For the most part, the language and contents of the app seem to be best for those who are novices to these subjects. The content includes a list of further reading for those who are interested in taking their studies to the next level.
The website and app both present a high-quality visual presence without appearing over-designed. A navy and blue color scheme unites the two products and makes them feel like distinct entities from the rest of the museum’s digital presence, further bringing attention to the uniqueness of this focused collection. Museums often highlight specific collections but few go to the length of dedicated spaces and apps with their own unique style. The website feels similar to other digital archives (such as The Art Institute of Chicago's Irving Penn Archives, The Magna Carta at the British Library, and The Michigan Daily Digital Archives), but the focus on the collector and expanding that focus to include Russian history and the life of Karl Fabergé in the app makes this a standout resource. The app is simple yet immersive, with a customizable experience. It would not take longer than an hour to read through all of the included text, but there is no requirement to read every element of text on the app. Users can choose what timeline to read and what images to tap on for more information.
The production quality of these resources is lacking in only a couple of areas. One is the quality of the images. On both the website and the app, images look grainy when zoomed in. Overall the website is easy to navigate, but those unfamiliar with digital archives might have difficulty understanding how to proceed. The archive’s search function does not search the text of the documents, a functionality from which the archive would truly benefit.
Overall, the website and app are well-produced resources that show the potential for museums to develop engaging digital humanities products that can be informative and entertaining for users at different levels of scholarly need. Users with an interest in 20th century American collecting practices, Russian history, or decorative arts would find this accessible website and app a wonderful use of their time. Those who are already familiar with Russian history and Karl Fabergé may not find any new information in the app, but could benefit from the pictures and the connections made through the different timelines.