Connecting art and ideas

A far-reaching project to create a “virtual collection” of all the artwork in the Mills College Art Museum—and to make the images available online—sparks new ways of thinking for curators, students, and anyone who cares to look.

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By Linda Schmidt
Portrait of Georgette Magritte (Standing), Rene Magritte, c. 1940

The works in the Mills College Art Museum collection date from 3,000 BC to the present and represent every continent. Art pieces range from Native American baskets to ceramics, from etchings and paintings to sculpture and textiles— more than 10,000 items in all.

But when Museum Director Stephanie Hanor came on board three years ago, she faced a great dilemma in trying to utilize this treasure trove of resources. “We had a very basic database of the collection, with very limited functionality,” she recalls. “Less than 1 percent of the collection was documented in digital format, so it was very hard for me to know what we had. You could only find a piece if you knew specifically what you were looking for.”

And so began an extensive, multi-year project to sift through every drawer and carton and cabinet of the museum, creating digital images and recording as much information as possible about every item within. The end result of this massive “spring cleaning” not only allows the museum staff to create exhibitions and programs more effectively, but also makes the collection more accessible, visible, and useable in a variety of ways.

“Digitizing solves myriad problems for us. It allows us to know what we have and to better use it and better connect it to our community,” says Hanor. The works in the museum will be more readily available for student-curated exhibitions, to outside researchers, and to members of the public.

Most importantly, she adds, “Increasing our ability to access the collection allows us to integrate artwork into the curriculum on a broader level, not just within art history and art, but within history or education or English or biology.”

Birds of New Guinea and Environs, John Gould, c. 1875

Professor Bert Gordon, for example, is encouraging students to research World War I and World War II propaganda posters in the collection, from both the United States and Europe, as part of his class on early 20th century European history. “That’s a really great resource for students to see and understand how the visual language of propaganda was used in the war,” says Hanor. Professor John Harris, who leads an ornithology class in the biology department, will be sharing a selection of 19th-century hand-colored lithographs of bird species from New Guinea with his class.

“One of the things I love about being at a college art museum—and especially with the kind of eclectic, diverse collection that we have at Mills—is finding ways to make work relevant to things that students are thinking about now,” Hanor says. “We live in an extremely visual society; having access to visual pieces provides an important way to understand history and culture and the way we live.

“Digitizing helps spark ideas, not only for us as curators, but for the students themselves. We’re connecting art and ideas to expand the ways that students are learning.”

Magnolia Blossom, Imogen Cunningham, 1925

“We greatly admire Imogen Cunningham, an early female West Coast photographer and co-founder of Group f/64, a wildly influential group of 20th-century San Francisco photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Sonya Noskowiak. Her husband, Roi Partridge, taught at Mills and was the first director of the College’s art gallery. This image is particularly striking—seen so closely, the magnolia flower becomes abstract and almost alien.”

—Katy Kondo ’13

A core group of work-study students are the heart and hands of the digitizing process. Working closely with Stacie Daniels, the museum’s manager of collections and exhibitions, they are learning technical skills such as photography, lighting, and how to handle delicate artworks properly. They have already digitized over 6,000 works on paper and are now moving on to other areas of the collection, including ceramics, textiles, and sculpture—all of which will eventually be available to view on the museum’s website. The students are also encouraged to do background research on the artwork they are documenting. Several of them found the work so exciting that they started a Tumblr blog to post the images and comments.

“For example, when hurricane Sandy hit, our students did a Tumblr post of World War II posters from the American Red Cross, about helping others in times of disaster. They saw a connection there,” says Hanor.

Senior Katy Kondo has been involved in the project from the beginning. “I get to look at art all day, photograph art all day, and blog about art all day,” says Kondo. “It’s definitely fun, but it’s also great to be part of a larger discourse. We are connected to museums across the country and it’s so valuable to be a part of a community that’s growing around art online.”

A studio art and public policy double major, Kondo sees art as a direct expression of ideas. “For me it’s about creative problem solving, about finding ways to address an issue or a concept, and in not just a novel, but a practical, way,” she explains. “In policy making, that’s like recognizing what I can do to change an issue out there in the world. And in art making, it’s about taking an interesting concept and figuring out how I make someone else start to think about that same topic. They are both about new ways of thinking and reimagining the world that we live in.”

Restricted Bridge in Tokoyo (Mansei-Basi), from the series 1923 Kanto Earthquake, Shuin Kondo, c. 1923

“The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was still in our minds when we came across this Japanese print from a series about an earthquake. Seeing this connects historical and contemporary experiences; it helps us remember that what we experience today is connected to the past. Sometimes pain feels so new, and so fresh, and so unbelievable, but there is strength in understanding our history, and power in knowing that we’re not alone in time.”

Katy Kondo

Hadirepulogep Kiallitas, Budapest, Hungary, 1917

The digitizing project has yielded some unexpected benefits. “The biggest surprise has been discovering that we had far more artworks than we originally thought,” says Hanor. The previous database did not contain complete up-to-date records of all the museum’s holdings, and Hanor has new knowledge now of several thousand additional pieces. The endeavor also serves as a way to perform a full inventory of every object. “We’re literally looking at every single thing and making conservation notes for the items that need some extra care,” says Hanor.

The project opened up a whole raft of new questions and decisions that needed to be made. “When you’re creating a digital image you’re creating this whole separate collection, and you have to maintain and store that collection as much as you do your actual objects,” says Hanor. Staff needed to make choices about what type of file formats to utilize, how to plan for adequate media storage and backup, and ways to make sure the new data would be compatible with future changes in technology.

Several consultants provided experience and understanding. Michael Black, who works for the Hearst Museum at the University of California in Berkeley, and an intern from John F. Kennedy University’s graduate program in museum studies helped write a digital standards manual. Bob Futernick also contributed valuable guidance. As associate director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (now retired) with particular expertise as a conservator of works on paper, he had managed the massive digitizing of over 80,000 works in their collection. “We took advantage of their knowledge, what they encountered, and what they wouldn’t do again,” says Hanor. “We were able to make choices and adopt standards used by the Getty Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, to help us develop our catalog properly and to the highest level.”

The museum was able to acquire all of the cameras and computer equipment needed for the process through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a government agency. The grant also enabled the purchase of a specialized collection management database as well as software that will allow public access to the images through the MCAM website.

Hanor acknowledges that the digitized pieces are surrogates, but sees that the ease of access and added information will increase the usefulness of the collection dramatically. “I am a huge advocate for the actual physical object,” she says. “But I hope that this will pique somebody’s interest so that they want to come and see the real thing, to have that experience of being able to stand in front of a work of art.”

Katy Kondo, who laughingly says she “lives on the Internet,” sees a particular advantage in providing online access. “Museums are intimidating institutions for a lot of people,” she says. “You can’t touch anything, it can feel so stifling and uninviting. But the Internet is so accessible—it isn’t scary, and you can just find an image, and think about it, and fall in love with it.”

“I’ve definitely gained a new respect for some media that I never had been interested in before— like etching, which always seemed so stuffy and dull. I have an appreciation now for the skill, the craftsmanship, the fact that so many of these pieces are so small, and yet so incredibly detailed. There’s always a sense of wonder, in every box or every drawer you open.”

Katy Kondo

The Ardent Bowlers, Peggy Bacon, 1932

Explore the museum’s image bank at See the students’ blog of images and comments at