Reviewed April 2019
Spyros Koulouris, Collections Services and Photograph Archivist
I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
The John G. Johnson Collection: A History and Selected Works is the first digital publication of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ambitious project was launched in 2018 and aimed to develop an online series, available for free, focusing on the museum’s renowned collections. The Johnson collection catalog has a clean interface with images playing an important role as they occupy a big part of the page. This makes the website visually appealing and easy to navigate. Although the publication comprises a large number of resources and is organized in such a way that facilitates discoverability. The editors opted for a structure that highlights essays and artworks entries. These are combined with twelve focus areas that provide an additional way to thematically browse the collection. This kind of grouping of resources is available for regional schools, artistic movements, and in some cases for individual artists.
The essays and entries, written by specialized scholars, offer detailed information on the various aspects of the collection. Within the essays, texts are organized in sections. An index with links is always available on the left side of the screen, allowing users to move quickly between the various parts of the page. Extensive use of links is also made in the body of the texts, this often includes links to various photographs and catalog entries. Most importantly, there is a significant number of links to other online resources, such as books, images, and digital projects, offered from external databases. All sixty-four object entries are organized in the same way. Through the linked references and resources it is possible to read about related artworks, both in the museum’s main website and in the webpages of other institutions. Additional features allow the user to compare two paintings side-by-side with the image viewer and to see the essay’s endnotes directly beneath the related phrase instead of at the end of the document. All previous catalogs of the collection have been digitized and made accessible to scholars, which is extremely useful for art historical research. Starting from the 1892 catalog, a total of eight volumes (including the fundamental three-volume work published by Bernard Berenson and Wilhelm R. Valentiner) are now accessible through the online publication--and all under public domain dedication.
Archival materials from John G. Johnson Papers and the Johnson Collection Curatorial Records have been digitized and integrated with the rest of the publication in a way that allows readers to continue to explore the history of the collection in a variety of ways. This primary source content includes old inventories, Johnson’s personal photo albums, and correspondence with art dealers, scholars, and experts. This is one of the rare cases in which researchers can consult a scholarly publication as well as the sources cited in the bibliography in one publication. Indeed, as mentioned by the editors, this volume has been “approached with researchers as its target audience.” Similarly, the rich information provided regarding copyright ownership of each object and the high-resolution images are a further aspect of functionality that can facilitate scholarly research, while the mobile-friendly design makes it accessible and responsive to contemporary reading and research habits.
Overall, the John G. Johnson collection catalog is an excellent example of how online publications and digitized content can increase their value when brought together. Researchers, students, and the general public can benefit by accessing detailed information within the context provided by manuscripts and vintage photographic prints. That will enable the reader to understand the history of the collection and appreciate the artworks.