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Accessed : The Imperial War Museum Art Collection
A Case Study on the Partnership between the Imperial War Museum and VADS

The Art Collection of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) hosts some of the most notable military images in art history. Running from John Singer Sargent's famous Gassed : The Dressing Station at Le Bac-de-Sud through Paul Nash's aerial depictions of the Second World War to Peter Howson's recent works on the war in Bosnia, the museum's art collection depicts a century of conflict. In December 1999, approximately 2,000 images from the collection were made publicly available from the VADS website. Visitors to the VADS site ( can now explore a wide selection of works from the museum's art collection, examining the images as well as the textual records that accompany the collection. This case study examines the reasons for the Imperial War Museum depositing their data with VADS. It highlights their concerns over issues such as access and preservation, and also details the process of delivering the data from the museum to VADS.

Figure 1 - An example record from the Imperial War Museum's Concise Art Collection

Figure 1 - An example record from the Imperial War Museum's Concise Art Collection

The Reasons for Depositing


When VADS was launched in early 1997, the IWM had already created a database of its art collection. Around 2,000 images (mainly paintings, but sculpture and graphic work were amongst other media represented) from the collection had been incorporated into a database cataloguing and describing the images. The database was hosted on a terminal in the museum's Department of Art Print Room, where researchers could book a slot to examine the computerised collection. The availability of this database afforded the Museum some immediate advantages. For instance, most of the actual art collection is held in storage - there is room for only a limited number of images to be exhibited in the museum's galleries at one time - and therefore visitors had to ring and make an appointment before viewing any particular painting. The database made it far easier for researchers to decide which paintings they wanted to see from the hundreds available in the stores. However, the database was extremely limited in who could access it. The Art Department itself only has space for four researchers at a time; at the computer terminal that houses the database there is space only for one. The benefits of having a digitised collection were therefore not being fully exploited.

VADS approached the IWM in October of 1997, offering the museum the opportunity to deposit the art collection on its site as part of the Arts and Humanities Data Service. The museum had briefly considered hosting the collection with the commercial company who had created the database, but this proved to be too costly an exercise. VADS, on the other hand, offered a (free-of-charge) site and interface to house the Imperial War Museum's collection, as well as advice on the technical and administrative issues in arranging a database on the web. Hosting the collection on an Internet server would be the way to unleash fully the advantages the earlier digitisation had initiated.

The museum also believed that depositing their collection on the World Wide Web would help raise its profile. Perhaps overshadowed by other London collections at the Tate or National Galleries, there was little public awareness of the either the quantity or quality of a collection that spanned nearly a hundred years, and included artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer. Placing the collection on the World Wide Web would naturally increase awareness of its existence.

Initially, however, the main concern of the IWM was not in reaching the general public with its collection. (The museum was fulfilling this role by expanding its own website to provide a catalogue of all collections in the museum.) The principal user that the IWM wanted to reach with its electronic database on the VADS server was the professional researcher. This comprised the scholarly researcher, studying the paintings for academic purposes, and the picture researcher, examining the IWM's images for their possible use in books, magazines and other commercial items. These had been the main two groups to make use of the original database placed in the Art Department Library, and the Imperial War Museum saw the need to facilitate this procedure of accessing and studying the collection.


Besides improving the accessibility of the museum's art collection, the IWM had other reasons for depositing their data with VADS. They were particularly keen to place their collection in an interoperable environment. The IWM realised that researchers would not want to explore the museum collection in isolation, but would want it to be part of a larger image bank that would draw in works-of-art from diverse collections to form a kind of digital museum. So while the creation of their own website, with a record of all objects in the museum as a whole, would cater for an interested general public, the IWM, as a long-term strategy, wanted their art collection to remain with VADS so it could exist as a valuable resource interacting with other digital resources. The Museum also felt that placing their database with VADS extended the scholarly reputation of its contents.


There was one other factor in the IWM's decision to deposit their data with VADS. Again, this was an extension of the advantages provided by the original project of digitisation. When picture researchers had visited the museum before there was a computer database, their method of study had been to examine paintings via the museum's collections of transparencies, an intricate and time-consuming task, especially when many images needed to be consulted. In the course of examination, many of these master transparencies became damaged, necessitating the cost of having them re-created. The digitisation of the collection dispensed with such problems, allowing researchers to examine the paintings and other works of art on screen. The arrival of the collection on the VADS server expanded the possibilities; researchers no longer had to travel to the museum.

Digitisation also protected the actual images themselves. Beforehand, it was a lengthy process for researchers to arrange to view and, if necessary, photograph the paintings. Researchers would ring and book a space in the Print Room, use the computer to search the text database, then check to see if there were colour transparencies available. If not, they would then have to either arrange for them to be photographed or do the photography themselves. Most researchers only actually needed a reasonably high-quality surrogate of the image to conduct their study. With the VADS database online, there were images of sufficient quality to be downloaded from the Internet and printed out. By digitising the most important part of the collection, they were saved from further damage by light.

Placing the collection on the VADS server was also part of the museum's long-term preservation strategy for its entire collection. VADS have the expertise to ensure that the data is still machine-readable after future changes in technology. Even if in the future the art collection is open for public consumption on the IWM website, the museum still want to have the relevant data securely stored in another location, thus protecting them in case of a fire or other such catastrophe destroying all the data (or even the objects themselves) at the museum.

The Method of Depositing


Every digital resource needs an interface - the intermediary means by which visitors can investigate and study the data in question. Creating the correct interface very much depends on the type of users who are going to be accessing the resource. As mentioned above, the IWM was placing its collection on the VADS server mainly for the benefit of researchers rather than to a large public audience. Based on these specifications decided upon by the IWM, VADS could create an appropriate interface.

By aiming the data deposited at VADS at a specialised group of users, who would already be familiar with the background to the collection, the interface required no excessive preamble to introduce it. On arriving at the site therefore, the user is immediately presented with two types of search tools. A free-text search allows visitors to enter any particular word or phrase; the server then looks for the appearance of the word in question at any place in the catalogue. Because of the manner in which the database was created - with short text descriptions of each image - this is a useful way of finding images related to a particular theme. The illustration below shows the all the search result for 'ruins'.

Figure 2 - Search Results for 'Ruins'

Figure 2 - Search Results for 'Ruins'

The IWM considered the free-text search useful for those new to the site, or those not quite sure of the images they were looking for. A more sophisticated Advanced Search, using Boolean operating tools, allows experienced visitors to the site to home in on particular images, artists, media etc.


Placing images on the web always raises issues of copyright. The Imperial War Museum was fortunate in that around 90% of its art collection is Crown Copyright, and therefore not under the ownership of any private individual or institution. The situation was obviously a little different where the copyright resided outside the public sector. It was the responsibility of the IWM to contact all rights holders to gain their permission to broadcast the images on the Internet. While this task took some time to execute, it was a relatively straightforward process. In the majority of cases, copyright holders were happy to have their images online, although a few did demand financial recompense, which the IWM's budget could not afford. In these cases, the catalogue simply shows the textual record, but not the image.

However, the problems regarding copyright do not end there. Even if the right to publish images belonging to others on the Internet is achieved, this does not stop the actual appropriation of images by those visiting the IWM collection at the VADS site. Worries ranged from users taking images for their personal websites to business organisations downloading the images for their own commercial purposes.

For a while digital watermarking, that is giving the electronic image an identifying mark, was considered. However, on reviewing sites that had used banners to watermark the images in their particular collections, it was decided that this would damage the aesthetic integrity of the images in question. The museum found the idea of invisible watermarking, where a mark not discernible to the human eye is incorporated into the image, to be too expensive and time-consuming to be worthwhile.

Attending seminars on copyright and liaising with the few other galleries undertaking similar projects at the time eased the IWM's worries few other galleries were doing similar projects. Because of the resolution that the images are delivered on the Internet, it would not be possible to make use of them for commercial ends. While their resolution is high enough for good printouts to be made for individual users, a much higher resolution is required should somebody want to create a printed image commercially. Additionally, the consensus was that it would be very unlikely that any serious commercial organisation would embark on such a project without approaching the IWM. There was, and still is, concern that images from the collection could be downloaded and appear on websites of dubious ethical stances, e.g. the use of military images for far right-wing organisations. However, the Museum wanted to follow a liberal policy in broadcasting their images. They believed that trying to impose any restrictions on the use of images would conflict with the entire purpose of the placing the collection online, that is, to make the collection available to a much wider range of users.


Because the textual data accompanying the images existed in a rudimentary ASCII database, it was actually quite easy to deposit the information on VADS' Unix server. This was quite unusual - more complex databases require greater adjustment when they are being moved on to a new platform. The situation with the IWM database was further helped by its coherent design, again facilitating the process of placing the data on the VADS server. The only real change the IWM had to make was the removal of surplus data from the original database - index numbers and such like that were only needed by internal staff at the museum.

As regards the images, the matter was a little more complex. The transparencies had originally been digitised as very large-scale bitmap graphics, which, in terms of web delivery were unsuitable. It was therefore necessary to convert the bitmap images into the JPEG format, the standard web format used to provide compact versions of complex graphics. Once the IWM had converted the images, they were ready to be transported to VADS. Despite the additional time required to convert the images, the IWM believed this to be a very worthwhile process. Besides being used on the VADS website, many of the JPEGS created have been used on the IWM website. Once the images had been translated into the requisite format, they were saved on to high-density Zip discs and posted to VADS. This data was then incorporated with the interface, placed on the VADS server, and become instantly available to a much greater number of users.

More information about the Imperial War Museum Concise Art collection

Thanks go to Jan Bourne of the Imperial War Museum, and Catherine Grout and Phill Purdy of VADS for providing the necessary information for the creation of this case study.



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