Stephanie de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images
One of the most massive museums in the world has announced a global digitization of its vast collection.
“The Louvre is dusting off its treasures, even the lesser-known ones,” Jean-Luc Martinez, president and director of the Louvre museum, said in a statement on Friday. “For the first time, anyone can access the entire collection of works for free from a computer or smartphone, whether on display at the museum, on loan, even long-term, or on deposit.”
Some of this is hyperbole. The entire collection is so huge that no one even knows how big it is. The Louvre’s official publication estimates that around 482,000 works have been digitized in its collections database, representing around three-quarters of the entire archive. (The museum’s newly revamped homepage is designed for more casual visitors, especially those using cellphones, with translations in Spanish, English, and Chinese.)
“It’s just overwhelming,” says Andrew McClellan, a Tufts University professor and author of Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics and the Origins of the Modern Museum. The strategy of putting almost everything online is in line with the Enlightenment ideals that shaped the museum after the French Revolution, he says: “bringing together the world’s knowledge under one roof, then making it available to researchers and the General public “.
Major institutions have been digitizing their collections for many years, but the Louvre’s online archives required particularly exhaustive work. Each image, according to the museum, is accompanied by scientific data: “title, artist, inventory number, dimensions, materials and techniques, date and place of production, history of the object, current location and bibliography. … These Documentary records, drawn by museum curators and researchers, come from two databases of museum collections and are updated daily.
Given the expense of maintaining these databases, McClellan and other observers wondered if the Louvre could find ways to monetize some of these images, and whether collecting them online would affect actual attendance. (“I’m sure this digital content will inspire more people to come to the Louvre to experience the collections in person,” the museum director said in his statement.)
It’s also unclear how many of the images online may be of sacred objects, originating from countries other than France, and not meant to be viewed casually. The digital catalog includes items that may have been looted — by Nazis or colonial forces — in a separate album titled “Oeuvres du MNR,” which stands for Musées Nationaux Récuperation, or National Museums Recovery.
“It has to come up against these questions around restitution and repatriation and think about what it means to digitize cultural heritage in a contested context,” observes Suse Anderson, professor of museum studies at George Washington University, who studies the impact of digital technology on museums. She’s generally impressed, she says, with the Louvre’s online expansion, especially as it steers visitors past obvious works of art like the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.
“I am a chance explorer,” she says. “I’m not the person who searches for hero works. They’re so easy to find. I’m the person who wants to find the unexpected.”
Like the museum itself, the Louvre’s online collection opens avenues for new discoveries, says Anderson. “It helps you see things that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. It helps you find surprises. And that’s where I think you often get the connection to your own life is when you find something resonating thing, it’s not the thing you were looking for.”
And online you can… louver … the crowds of tourists jostling far behind.