The Gothic Ivories Project, a Digital Museum Exemplar
One of the primary advantages of hosting an archive online is that it can be revised and expanded from anywhere in the world by any number of individuals. This the approach chosen by such projects as “The Gothic Ivories” (http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk). It serves as a repository where institutions from around the globe can post descriptions, images and discussions on these ivory pieces into a single digital museum. The project launched in October 2010, and consists of material from 98 institutions from 15 countries. The project allows for anyone with ivories to add to the collection, from public museums to private collectors.
Gothic ivories were popular in Western Europe from the 13th to mid 16th centuries. They consist of small carved elephant ivory figurines, including miniature statuettes, mirror backs, diptychs and triptychs (two or three hinged tablets of images). The pieces are primarily carved with liturgical scenes of the Virgin Mary or the Crucifixion for display or personal devotion depending on the size and design. However, later pieces contain secular and more domestic scenes, made into combs and other toiletry items. Interestingly, the project also includes a large number of fakes produced in the 19th century. While these may not be as informative regarding the culture or behavior of medieval peoples, it is interesting to compare these against the originals.
The brilliance of a project like this is that by hosting all of the pieces in a single location, we can have a more nuanced understanding of the range of expression occurring in this type of art. Traditionally, the interpretation of artifacts has been limited to those pieces which have been found and whose location is known. By putting the pieces online, and allowing for any institution to collaborate, the project increases the breadth of the knowledge base. Also, by allowing for interpretation of these pieces to be open to a wide range of scholars from a variety of disciplines, a more nuanced understanding of this type of art form can begin. The quality of the repository is ensured by a number of online curators who check all uploaded information and pictures in order to maintain research standards. This is also a major benefit to the more general academic community, specifically medieval scholars.
As an archaeologist, I can see many benefits to having access to this type of resource. For example, the ivories could be an invaluable line of evidence when assessing the ideal gender roles in the medieval era in France. The pieces show women’s and men’s activities, both servants and upper class. One mirror case image includes women hunting using hawks, one woman playing a harp and a woman crowning a hunter with a chaplet. Another piece shows a women hunting using a bow. Only men are pictured in war scenes where humans are killing one another. Sadly, the provenience of these pieces is limited to a synopsis of which museum they are from and who the museum received them from if available. A possible way to resolve this is to compare pieces to find whether the specific ivory guilds have their own artistic marks which can be used to differentiate manufacturers. This could link pieces back to specific locations.
As the online collection grows to include more images and information from around the world, a better understanding can be gained of what this art form represents. These types of community sourced projects are important in that they allow for a wide range of works to be viewed in a single location, in a format that would never have been possible before. I would anticipate, and hope, that projects like this will become more prevalent in the near future, as their benefits become more apparent.
The Courtauld Institute of Art. 2010. Gothic Ivories Project. http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk
Guérin, Sarah M. 2010. Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era, 13th–15th centuries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goiv/hd_goiv.htm