Want to peruse the art collections of some of Alaska’s largest museums from the comfort of your desk or easy chair? I promised in my April 15 posting about online resources for “Keeping Up With Contemporary Art in Alaska” (see the archived posts from April, if you missed it and are interested) that I would have more to say about two new internet portals to viewing Alaska museum collections online.
Through the magic of VILDA , searches can be made for visual imagery in the collections of the Alaska State Library, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Seward Community Library Association, University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Not only artworks, but historical photographs, film and video clips, and other media are included.
Doing a quick search on several artists demonstrates both the wonders and the limitations of the database as it currently exists. A quick search on Sydney Laurence, for instance, turns up 41 items, including six paintings in the collection of the University of Alaska Museum and 35 photographs of the artist or by him, from the collections of Library and Archives at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Alaska State Historical Library. Each of those 41 items can be clicked on individually to reveal substantially more information about the images.
What the search doesn’t turn up, of course, are the many photographs of and by Laurence that haven’t yet been scanned and added to the database, nor the many other Laurence paintings in the collection of the University of Alaska Museum. Nor does it reveal any of the dozens of Sydney Laurence paintings in the collection of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which doesn’t seem to have uploaded any of its art collection into the database. But more items are being added all the time, and the amount of imagery and information already available is remarkable.
It can also be searched not just by maker, but by location, subject matter, or virtually any other key word or words. You can search, for example, for paintings of moose, or images of Klawock, Alaska. And a search on Fred Machetanz, for instance, turns up 40 hits which include not only several of his paintings at the University of Alaska Museum and two artifacts made by an Eskimo artist for Machetanz, but more than 30 film clips produced by Fred and his wife Sara, of everything from Eskimo blanket toss performances to celebrations of Alaska statehood. Amazing!
VILDA is a joint effort of the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the Alaska State Library in Juneau, initiated with funding by a congressional award and contributions from these institutions. The University of Alaska Museum, by the way, has been scrupulous in requesting permissions from contemporary artists for inclusion of their work in the online database, which is greatly appreciated.
Equally remarkable is this site, which provides access to the combined collections database of the Alaska State Museum, in Juneau, and the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. This online searchable database includes information on every item in their collections—approximately 32,000 objects. Currently, more than 5000 of the object descriptions include digital images, and more photographs are being added all the time.
A search on Sydney Laurence at the State Museums' site turns up images of and information on twenty items in the Alaska State Museum collection—all sixteen paintings currently owned by the museum, two Alaska Steamship Company posters featuring Laurence images, and an Alaska Steamship Company menu with a Laurence painting reproduced on its cover. A click on any item’s “Object Detail” button brings up a screen with a wealth of further information, ranging from medium, date, and size, to provenance of the work and in many cases, commentary on its execution and imagery.
As with most computerized databases, it’s important to remember that they only give you what you ask for. If you search this database for Kesler Woodward, for example, you get images and information on two paintings in their collection. But if you do a search on Kes Woodward, you find that they have three more of my works, catalogued under that version of my name.
Similarly, it’s important to check not just nicknames, but common misspellings. On the State Museums’ database, for example, if you search under Sidney Laurence (Sidney with an “i,” instead of the correct spelling of Sydney with a “y,” you find that they have another menu with one of his paintings reproduced on the cover--just catalogued under the misspelled name. You have to be patient and persistent to find all there is to find.
The Alaska State Museums' Collection Search, like VILDA, provides numerous advanced search options that enable lookup by keywords that can include locations, subject matter, medium, and a host of other flexible options. Perusing the collections is addictive, and patience and persistence reveal many items and a wealth of information that you might not think to ask for directly.
These are marvelous tools for anyone interested in the art of Alaska. They are beautifully organized, easy to use, and growing all the time. Thank you to the great State of Alaska and the individuals who work in these institutions for providing us such valuable information and easy access!