It seems a very basic piece of common sense, but to crowd-source, you actually need a fairly considerable crowd. It’s almost impossible to imagine something like The Art Detective taking shape anywhere but the web. As a museum exhibition it would prompt primarily questions, with few answers- as a film or a multimedia presentation it would meet its audience in limited clusters, one at a time. Online it encounters millions of curious folk, with all the diversity of backgrounds, approaches, and knowledge sets that such numbers suggest. And its success has been facilitated by that very crowd.
Let’s back up. What is Art Detective? Art Detective is a project of the UK Public Catalogue Foundation, supported by the Arts Council England. In their own words:
Art Detective aims to improve knowledge of the UK’s public art collection. It is an award-winning, free-to-use online network that connects public art collections with members of the public and providers of specialist knowledge.
The problem of many collections- the problem of data, attribution, origin- is encapsulated in identifiers like “Anonymous Flemish Artist,” or “Unknown Italian Artist, 1650-1700.” For many works, we simply don’t have the paper trail to say with certainty where they came from and who their makers were. Art Detective seeks to change this, not with traditional in-depth provenance research performed by an individual (or a small team), but with crowd-sourced sleuthing. Their call for “specialist knowledge” emphasizes a need for sourcing and authority when making claims/offering data, but the range of that specialist knowledge is vastly diverse, ranging from expertise (or personal connections) in genealogy and family research, botany and horticulture, mapping, military history, and more.
We welcome information such as clues as to whom unidentified sitters may be, artist attributions, an execution date of a painting, or the subject matter. Whether you spot a mistake, or have an interesting story to tell, all submissions are welcome. – Art Detective FAQ
Opening the doors has clearly made an impact: the section of their site marked “Discoveries” lists triumphs of identification, attribution, and storytelling. Paintings have been freshly attributed, locations and subjects have been identified, and the body of knowledge associated with these works has been considerably (and usefully) expanded. The site’s designers obviously worked hard to make the experience of contributing knowledge as simple and intuitive as possible- the links at top direct you to “Discussions,” where you can see investigations in progress and add your own contributions, while a section titled “Resources” offers help for paintings evaluation and research queries for small collections managers and interested amateurs. So: not only does the website gather research, it encourages and inspires research. And does it stylishly within an interface I found easy to navigate. Powerful stuff. Museums and collections, take note: your audiences may contain some of the expertise you desperately need to close gaps.