'The RA - a Chronicle'

June 5 2018

Video: Paul Mellon Centre

It's non-stop coverage of the Royal Academy at the moment, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary. At the beginning of the year we had the stupendous Charles I show. Last month we had the triumphant opening of their new buildings in Burlington Gardens (I went to see the new display of works from the RA collection and mighty fine it is too.) And this week the annual Summer Exhibition opens, curated - if that's the right word - by Grayson Perry. In case you missed it there was a documentary on the BBC all about the RA's history and how it operates today, available here. It's all a fine reflection on the energetic leadership of the RA's team, including the Chief Executive, Charles Saumarez Smith. In his more then ten years at the RA, Charles has transformed an organisation that was in danger of not only losing its way, but losing all relevance. In The Sunday Times last week, Richard Brooks said it was high time Charles was given a knighthood. AHN agrees!

Anyway, the point of this post is to make you aware of the latest exciting RA development; a new website charting the history of the Summer Exhibition. It has been put together by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Chronicle 250 is a comprehensive database of of every exhibition held since 1769, with scans of the catalogues, and essays by art historians. It's well worth a look, and for many researchers will be indispensable.

It's also a great demonstration of the possibilities offered by digital art history. Not so long ago, this kind of overview of the RA summer show would have been a book, which would necessariliy have been limited in what it could contain (certainly no scans of all 250 years of catalogues) and stuck in stone, so to speak, once it was published. The new site can be constantly updated, a living work of scholarship.

Of course, digital art history has its limitations too. I'm told that the Paul Mellon Centre's bill for image fees was eye watering. Because their image licensing model is based on 20th Century realities (ie, book publishing) most insitutions view online publications as either cash cows, or something which must be 'controlled', usually by the imposition of licenses that limit the number of years an image can be used online. This is because in the old days, insitutions could issue licenses based on print runs. But in the online age, if something is online, it's reach is limitless. So they impose time restrictions instead. It's all very pointless. And it's really only because a few charities like the PMC have deep pockets that projects like the RA Chronicle are able to happen. Imagine how much richer digital art history would be if image fees weren't the barrier to scholarship that they have become. 

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