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Mills College Art Museum’s Digitizing Collection Project

“I AM THE DAUGHTER OF THE EARTH AND WATER.” by Kitty Hu, Mills Alumni, 1957. Photos courtesy of Mills College Art Center.

The Mills art gallery was in the midst of change: stripping, sweeping, painting, and preparing for an upcoming exhibition. While the gallery was taking its new form, so were hundreds of pieces of art just meters away, in a cold back room with a storage-room feel.

Mills College seniors Daisy Wong and Rachel Levinson, both work-study students for the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM), are digitizing 8,000 otherwise unknown pieces of art. Students, alongside a database specialist brought in specifically for the project, are working to archive the Mill’s art collection electronically and preserve them in digital permanence.

The Museum is home to an expansive art collection, encompassing works from many different artists and eras. The museum’s collection houses prints, paintings, photographs, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, and Native American basketry. Despite the large volume of pieces in the collection, its existence is largely unheard of and hidden from the public eye. This, according to Wong, in addition to much-needed funding, is what started the digitizing endeavor.

“The whole point of this is to have all the pieces in our collection accessible online to the public,” said Wong. “Most of the things in here are not going to be seen for a really long time so being able to do this is really great.”

Mechanic by Jean Gardner, Mills Alumni 1978.

The print collection, including photographs, drawings, watercolors, prints, and small paintings, is the first to be digitized.

The work-study students are responsible for the preliminary process of digitizing, which starts with taking high-resolution photos of the art, piece by piece, followed by editing and color-correcting for online presentation. While the photographing and editing is done by students like Wong and Levinson, the archiving of the newly-digitized works is done by Stephanie Boris, who helps to organize institutional, specifically museum, databases. The database of the collection is expected to be available the the public online by 2013.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the entire project is the student involvement, especially with pieces by famous artists like Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray, amongst others.

The first day of Levinson and Wong’s work involved handling the work of a famous artist.

“It was a book that Manet painted of his impressions while listening to jazz music,” said Levinson.

According to the MCAM’s website, the collection includes pieces ranging from works by relatively unknown artists to reproductions and pieces by the extremely famous. The fame of certain artists doesn’t determine the level of student involvement with the work, allowing them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with prominent pieces of history. Wong feels the most rewarding aspect of being apart of the digitizing is “seeing work that’s really beautiful and that is done by really famous people you’ve only read about in history books.”

As Levinson puts it, “Unless you go into conservation, you don’t normally get to do this.”