Nicolaes Maes, Vertumnus and Pomona, c.1655, not in the exhibition catalogue (but who knows?)

When creating a digital collection of textual content, some attempt is made to structure the individual texts in a standard way. After all, every journal article has a title, an abstract, and references. Surely the humanities will have similar standard rules for organisation and layout?

Sadly not. Books don’t have abstracts, which makes the entirety of the abstracting and indexing tools (Web of Science, Scopus) unusable for humanities content.

But it gets worse. Exhibition catalogues seem not to follow any rules at all. Because of the pandemic, I was not able to visit an exhibition of Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693) at London’s National Gallery. Since I didn’t pay for admission to the exhibition, I consoled myself by buying the catalogue (published by Waanders Publishers, Zwolle, together with the Mauritshuis, The Hague, and The National Gallery, London). This would enable me to read about the exhibition. An article by Clare Bucknall in the London Review of Books described the exhibition, and mentions several of the works in the exhibition, as you might expect.

Finding the pictures described turned out to be a challenge. The catalogue has no index, so to find a picture from the exhibition the reader has to go through the book page by page (mercifully, there are only 36 pictures in the exhibition). At the back of the catalogue there is an index, but it is an index of the literature referred to in the essays – not something most of us will refer to very often. Before the literature index is a section called “notes to the catalogue entries”. This is a closest the catalogue gets to a list of exhibits. However, if you see a painting that interests you, there is no indication of what page that picture appears on in the catalogue. In other words, this exhibition catalogue is a navigational nightmare. Someone once explained the benefit of library cataloguing systems such as Dewey by imagining where would be without cataloguing: a big pile of books in the middle of the floor, and good luck to you finding the one you want. This catalogue is a bit like throwing all the paintings on the floor and leaving you to find the one(s) you want as best you can.

It might seem strange that this blog, which celebrates all things digital, should complain about the lack of a back-of-the-book index. The index of a book is by no means perfect, but it’s better than nothing. You could even argue that digitisation will bring some order to the chaos of print.

The catalogue combines essays interspersed with the catalogue of works, so although the works appear in the order of the exhibition, you have to scroll through several pages to find the next picture: catalogue no 21 is 38 pages away from catalogue no 22.

Where are the pictures from? Well, the style of the catalogue is to show the name of the collection, and the place – not the country. So “National Gallery, London”, is fine, but what about “Queens University, Kingston? Is this Kingston, Jamaica? Kingston, UK? No, Kingston, Quebec. You begin to feel that the catalogue is a kind of obstacle course, making it as difficult to use as possible.

Like any catalogue, this one refers to some paintings that are not in the exhibition. At least, I assume so. The London Review of Books article mentions Vertumnus and Pomona, Maes’ only known depiction of a mythological subject. Is this referred to in the catalogue? Who knows? Without a digital version, it would take me hours to find out. Instead, I turn to Wikipedia, that has a lovely high-resolution image of the painting, as good a resolution as anything in this catalogue. In fact it might be quicker to look up any painting described in the review by turning to Wikipedia rather than using the print catalogue.

Finally, the catalogue follows the current vogue for reproducing some images from the exhibition at the start of each section. So page 126, facing the section “A Career as a Portraitist”, has a lovely portrait by Maes. Who is this a portrait of? There is no caption to be seen. Captions to the section headings can be found at the very end of the book, on page 224 (not that you would know). And, if you are interested, it is catalogue number 30, which can be found on page 165 (but you don’t need me to tell you this).

If, one day, all the exhibition catalogues in art history were digitised, these inconsistencies and oddities would be revealed. Each exhibition catalogue appears to follow its own rules. You could argue that it is less important for researchers to be able to find every reference to a painting by Maes, just as science researchers would want to find every reference to a virus or a condition for a systematic review (and that raises its own problems). Digitisation would partially solve one problem (finding references), but would reveal many others.