Dürer goes digital

Albrecht Dürer: Rhinocerus, 1515 (Photograph: Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich)
Albrecht Dürer: Rhinocerus, 1515 (Photograph: Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich)

The Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich has digitised over 50,000 artworks and made them freely accessible. Linda Schädler, Head of the Graphische Sammlung, explains in an interview why she hopes to do the same with the remaining 110,000.

Ms Schädler, ETH-s collection of prints and drawings has now digitised 50,000 of its artworks. Doesn-t the museum risk making itself redundant?
No, digitising the works is a fantastic complement to the exhibition, but definitely won’t replace it! Whenever we curate an exhibition, we make a conscious selection. We provide access to works by artists that might otherwise go undiscovered and place art within a context. This means that visitors automatically receive even more information and make new connections between the artworks. Digitisation offers other advantages.

Such as?
The works in our collection are almost always on paper, which makes them sensitive. So we can’t have all of the works permanently on display and need to store them in boxes, away from the light. Digitisation allows us to make these works of art accessible even when they-re not on display. This means we can protect them while giving people an idea of the great treasures we hold.

Walter Benjamin once remarked that the aura of a work of art is devalued in the age of technical reproducibility. What do artworks lose through digitisation?
The fragility, the paper, the various printing techniques or sometimes simply the size of an artwork are aspects that can’t be experienced on a computer screen. For all of that, you have to see the original. Lots of people don’t realise that you can arrange in advance to view the originals in our study room.

...but the work of art also gains something?
As a museum, we-re in an exceptional situation because we-re part of a technical university. With the Game Technology Center (GTC), for example, an augmented reality app was created that provides exhibition visitors with a wealth of background information on the individual works, while presenting current ETH research. Digital representation is vital if we want to use these new forms of art education.

So it-s also about research?
Absolutely! One of the reasons why digitisation is so important for the ETH Library, to which we belong, is that it makes important sources accessible to all researchers around the globe. And this of course also applies to our works. A researcher from Salamanca, for example, only found out through our online catalogue which of the works by an artist she was researching we have here in Zurich. And naturally, putting images online also has some very practical benefits; for instance, you can zoom into a work to get a better look at a particular detail.

You-ve now digitised the first 50,000 works out of a total of 160,000 - how did you choose them?
One quirk of a collection of prints and drawings is that the works are organised primarily according to size. We work through one box at a time in order to protect the works. This can mean, for example, that we digitise all of the smaller works by a specific artist from the relevant box, but don’t get to their medium-sized works until later on. On the other hand, we’ve set priorities for particularly important artists who are often in demand. We’ve put all the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi online, for example, even though it meant opening different boxes at the same time. And whenever we have a new addition, we want to naturally catalogue it in full from the beginning - such as the donation of works by Bernhard Luginbühl in 2020.

Are there any particular challenges involved in digitising prints and drawings?
Both the men and the women who work with the artworks are strictly prohibited from wearing nail polish in order to protect the artworks (laughs). No, seriously, the works should be moved as little as possible and exposed to as little light as possible. Given the value of the items involved, it-s also important for us that the digitisation process takes place on the premises. But that’s by no means the most challenging part...

So what is?
Determining and cataloguing the metadata. From size and technique to any labelling or stamps - everything has to be catalogued exactly and checked again. For one person digitising the work, there are another four cataloguing all the data. But all the effort pays off for the museum, because digitisation also makes collection management much easier.

Digitising art is a time-consuming process that involves high costs. Who-s financing this undertaking by the Graphische Sammlung?
The ETH Library is financing half of the project and, fortunately, we have found - in collaboration with the ETH Foundation - two donors, who are covering the other half. These are the Ernst Göhner Foundation and the Georg and Bertha Schwyzer-Winiker Foundation. It’s not easy to find donors who support digitisation projects, although it-s an important part of today’s museum work.

50,000 is an extremely large number. But the Graphische Sammlung is huge. What’s next?
Around one-third of our collection has been digitised. Compared to other museums, this is a very high number, both proportionally and in absolute terms. Stopping now, when we-re already halfway, is not an option for me, which is why we-re looking for more partners and donors for this multi-year project. If we manage to catalogue around 12,000 works a year as planned and put them online, we-ll have digitised the entire collection by about 2031. This is important because I’m convinced that the future of museums is also a digital one.

The Collection Catalogue Online

The Collection Catalogue Online with over 50,000 digitised artworks from the Graphische Sammlung is freely accessible.

Almost all works by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and Pablo Picasso, for example, are now available online. Interested parties can also view new additions online, such as the extensive donation of drawings by Lucerne artist Max von Moos (1903-1979). The project is ongoing, with artworks being digitised on a continuous basis.

Franziska Schmid