Museums and the Web 1999

Best of the Web

Archives & Museum Informatics
2008 Murray Ave.,
Suite D
Pittsburgh, PA
15217 USA

Join our Mailing List.

Published: March 1999.


Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online: The Challenge of Documenting and Presenting Non-traditional Art Collections

Richard Rinehart, University of California, Berkeley, USA


Conceptual & Intermedia Arts Online (Project CIAO) is an collaborative project between 7 institutions to create networked access to educational and scholarly material on the broad theme of conceptual and intermedia art. I will provide, as succinctly as possible, the background and context so that I can move on to some of the surprising and farther-reaching outcomes of this continuing project.
  • Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive @ The University of California

  • University of Iowa Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts, a joint program between the University of Iowa Museum of Art and the Library

  • The Walker Art Center

  • The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College

  • Franklin Furnace

  • National Gallery of Canada

  • Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities
are developing a searchable, broadly accessible and educational knowledge-base dedicated to conceptual & intermedia art as represented by the collections and scholarship of these institutions. Conceptual and Intermedia art, broadly defined by this project, include many art forms including: performance art, mail art, artist books, installation art, earthworks, video installations, as well as new media art including CD-ROMs and webworks.

Conceptual art, while a subject of central concern to twentieth-century art history, presents problems of access that impede its use by scholars and students, and its exposure to the general public. While there may be literature on and exhibitions of conceptual art, but collections access is impeded by the ephemeral, documentary, and multi-part, mixed-media nature of many conceptual art works. The works often challenge traditional methods of art description and cataloging. Since access to collections promotes new scholarship and learning, and since conceptual art represents some of the most compelling and significant artistic creation of the modern era, it is eminently worthwhile to improve access to these under-utilized cultural resources.


The participants are committed to the use of Standards wherever possible in this project for several reasons. The first of which is simply to provide a common ground for the consortium to work within. Secondly, this leaves the project open-ended so that other institutions may more easily contribute in the future, creating a growing resource of increasing value. Standards will also allow this resource, wholly or in parts, to be integrated and shared in the larger scholarly and cultural heritage information universe.

Several standards are being employed, of which I will touch upon two of the most primary, one here and one in the next section. The collections "record format" for this project is the EAD (Encoded Archival Description); so the partners will export data from their own systems into the common, standards-based EAD format. Then the project server will run a search engine which is able to search and display EAD encoded information. EAD is based on SGML and XML which, as an industry standard, provides a selection of affordable tools for information conversion and delivery. Rather than detail the specifications of the EAD, it will be most useful to simply outline why it is appropriate for this project.

The EAD allows one to create collection-level records for collections as well as item level records. This is useful for two reasons: many collections of conceptual art have not been cataloged at the detailed item level, making a collection-level record essential. Also, the creation of a collection-level record (or finding aid) allows us to present our collections as discrete groupings of objects (e.g. the Joseph Bueys Collection), specifically detailing the relationship between objects. This is also essential in dealing with multi-part conceptual art forms which may only have meaning together, unlike a more traditional, monolithic oil painting or statue. If an institution has detailed item-level cataloging, then they would use the EAD to provide contextual and interpretive material about the collection at the collection-level, followed by each detailed item-level record and image/sound/audio/video object. Lastly the EAD is flexible, and allows us to integrate object records with manuscripts or documentation. Linking the "objects" with the "archives" is also crucial in that it's often unclear where one stops and the other begins in conceptual art works and both contribute to a fuller understanding.


This project has a fairly focused theme: conceptual and intermedia art. This focus has allowed some unforeseen and surprising developments; specifically scholarly interest and vocabulary development.

Unlike a museum collaboration with a very broad mandate such as type of museum or large geographic area, conceptual and intermedia arts is more the size and nature of a field of existing scholarly research, a subject area, and thus has naturally begun to capture the interest of working artists and scholars. Some of these will not only have their work and research represented in the resource, but are founding participants developing the project. CIAO developed a specific consortium membership category for artists and scholars so that they could contribute without necessarily being attached to an institution that holds collections of conceptual art. This interest and participation is important because the scholarly subject knowledge will greatly help in understanding the complex material and thus organizing and describing the whole and not just individual objects in ways which are accurate, meaningful, and useful.

Since scholars, instructors, and students can readily understand the scope of the resource, they can readily envision uses for it as well. For instance, the online resource will not only be a place to get collections information and related scholarship, but a forum for discussion about conceptual and intermedia art among classes or researchers, and a place to post one's own research. This could create a truly interactive cycle where the resource fosters research and teaching which in turn comes back to enrich the resource.


One of the main problems in describing conceptual and intermedia arts in a standardized way is that the "canonical" resources such as the AAT or Library of Congress Subject Headings are lacking in terms for these hybrid, odd, media art works. Of course this is no coincidence since many of these artists intentionally adopted new forms and processes specifically to defy art historical categorization and, perhaps as an unfortunate by product, simple museum cataloging.

Another unforeseen benefit of the focused scope of the CIAO project has been that vocabulary development can be addressed in-depth without spawning another project as large as developing a second Art and Architecture Thesaurus! We realized we'd have to develop terms and new languages for describing many of the collections, but did not want to do so in a vacuum. Again the subject knowledge of the scholars became an asset alongside the expertise of cataloging and information professionals, as well as the voice of the artists themselves.

Even in developing the necessary new terms to accurately describe these intermedia works we did not want to abandon standards, which could prove very useful on this level. So, the CIAO consortium formed a partnership with the AAT (currently at the Getty Information Institute) whereby we would regularly contribute new terms, with appropriate vetting and documentation, to the AAT. Our first steps have been to review the AAT and LCSH to see what existing terms could be used, then those which exist but might need modification in application, and lastly which terms we'd have to develop from the art documentation and materials themselves.

Given the nature of the materials we are describing it is natural to extend especially our vocabulary development to include new digital media works of art. Digital art works, like many of the other non-traditional art forms we are dealing with, are often: time-based, ephemeral, multi-part, documentary, interactive, and of course mixed/multi/inter-media. Digital art works also fit into a history and context of art making, much of which can be traced to conceptual and intermedia art experimentation. Terms which succinctly describe these new types of works (not just type of objects), subject as distinct from depicted objects, or relationship to a larger schema in time and behavior as well as space, could prove useful across recent and preceding 'new' media art forms.

Conclusion for now

In many ways this project is still beginning. The standards are being tested in a working environment against the twin goals of accomplishing something feasible and building a resource that is useful and capable of growth and integration. This feasibility together with a need in the field to address these specific kinds of collections dictated the subject-specific scope of the CIAO project. This scope (which often still seems too large to manage) in turn has revealed some positive implications about the nature of subject-specific projects which could be applied elsewhere. As with any project developing a real-world resource there are two outcomes; what we create and what we learn. What we create will, I hope, a useful component of a larger structure of deep information. What we learn in this is slowly revealing itself and will of course be most useful when put in context with other, similar, experiments. See you there!