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New Projects in Digital Art History: Provenance on Steroids: Or, the Promise of Big Data

In this lecture, originally presented in the conference “New Projects in Digital Art History” on November 21, 2014, Christian Huemer, of the Getty Research Institute, discusses The Getty Provenance Index® as a tool for data visualizations. A pioneering project in the digital humanities, the Provenance Index is a collection of databases offering free online access to source material for research on the history of collecting and art markets. It currently contains 1.5 million records transcribed from sources such as archival inventories, sale catalogs, and dealer stock books. As an example of the data visualization possibilities offered by the Provenance Index, Huemer and his collaborator, Maximilian Schich (The University of Texas at Dallas), use 230,000 auction sales records to develop network diagrams of 22,000 agents connecting 130 sale locations in Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands from 1800 to 1820. The ability to map multiple records at once allows researchers to recognize relationships between numerous data points. Huemer argues that these data visualizations, addressing the flow of objects, money, and people over time and through space, have the potential to draw attention to evidence difficult to see otherwise and prompt new research questions.