Digital Collection Catalogues at the Getty Museum

Ancient Lamps cover

Between 2014 and 2018, I worked as a software developer at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty is a world-class art museum that also houses a research library, conservation laboratories, a publishing operation, and a philanthropic trust. The museum’s collection houses some of the most important works of European art history, from Antiquity to the Renaissance.

Thymiaterion Supported by a Statuette of Nike
Thymiaterion Supported by a Statuette of Nike, J. Paul Getty Museum

I worked on the Digital Publications team within the Getty’s Publication Department, and was the only full-time developer on this team. One of our main projects was to develop and then implement a plan to publish the museum’s collection catalogues in a digital format.

The Web was invented as a tool for academic publishing. But in spite of these origins, “digital publishing” has long struggled to catch up to the feature-set of the printed books and journals that came before — especially in the academic world, where long-term persistence and cite-ability are crucial.

After a few bad experiences trying to shoe-horn academic publications into a traditional CMS, we decided to take a different approach: we would develop our digital books with static site generator technology, but provide compelling interactive features on the client-side using Javascript. By utilizing CSS3’s paged-media module and print-on-demand technology, we were able to come full-circle by automatically generating printed books from the same markdown files which powered the website.

Working closely with curators in the museum’s Antiquities Department, we created a series of digital art catalogues which were able to take advantage of the possibilities of modern technology without sacrificing the design, academic quality, and long-term availability of the print editions.

Show some images of the publications here

Key Features

  • Beautiful reading experience
  • Interactive features (maps, image viewer, search)
  • Cross-platform output
  • Public source-code and revision history

Takeaways

  • Breaking down disciplinary boundaries leads to exciting new results
  • The work done in these projects led to the the creation of a new digital publishing framework based on this approach, Quire, which is still under active development.