The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD possesses a world-renown collection of over 900 illuminated manuscripts from around the world that spans over 1,000 years.
For conservation reasons, the Walters’ manuscripts are limited to exhibition for no more than three months at a time once a year, and a page opening cannot be exhibited more than once every five years. Additionally, it is physically impossible to showcase an entire manuscript in the galleries due to the fact that its folios cannot be readily turned once it has been mounted for exhibition. Digitization provides an alternative to these limitations, creating opportunities for full manuscripts to be viewed online by anyone from any location in the world. The Walters has made a commitment to digitizing this collection in its entirety, allowing for unprecedented public access. To date, over 300 manuscripts have been fully digitized and released on thedigitalwalters.org, along with complete cataloging information.
The Walters was awarded three generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, in 2008, 2010, and 2012, to begin digitizing the collection. The first grant, The Islamic Digital Resource Project, focused on the museum’s collection of 128 illuminated Islamic manuscripts and single leaves. This was followed by Parchment to Pixel, which allowed for the digitization of 105 manuscripts of German, Russian, Armenian, Byzantine, Ethiopian, Dutch, English, and Spanish origins. Currently, the Walters Digitization Initiative is wrapping up work on its third NEH grant, Imaging the Hours, which is overseeing the digitization of 112 Flemish manuscripts dating between 1200 CE and 1600 CE. The majority of these manuscripts are Books of Hours, which are personal books of devotion that were custom-made for wealthy patrons. These books contain lavishly detailed miniatures painted in jewel tonesand embellished with gold. Other important works included in this grant are a variety of Psalters and most notably,the multi-volume Beaupre Antiphonary, a set of brilliantly illuminated choir books considered to be a central text to music historians, as it is the earliest extant large format choir book from Northern Europe.
Beginning in September, the Walters Digitization Initiative will be absorbed into the museum’s daily operating budget. At this time, imaging and cataloging of the Walters’ collections of French Books of Hours as well as French and Italian humanist texts will commence.
Once a manuscript has been fully digitized, it is placed online at thedigitalwalters.org. High resolution images of each manuscript piece (e.g. all folios, bindings, bookmarks, etc.) and extensive cataloging information are made freely available for download here under a Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0 Unported License, thus opening the digital collection to unrestricted scholarly application. Additionally, the Walters uses the XML format TEI to makeits cataloguing information machine readable.
The Walters is in the process of working with an outside studio to develop a companion website to thedigitalwalters.org. While thedigitalwalters.org will continue to function as the project’s official raw data repository, this new site will allow users to perform dynamic searches, thus enabling them to explore the digital collection in a more active and engaging way. A page turning application for each fully digitized manuscript will be included, along with important cataloging information displayed in a user-friendly interface. Additionally, plans have been made to include virtual exhibitions of archived manuscript focus shows from the Walters. A launch date has been set for January 2016.
The digitization of such a rich but physically inaccessible collection represents the Walters Art Museum’s mission to bring art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. It is the museum’s hope that through this project, manuscript scholarship will be further encouraged and expanded.
The Walters Digitization Initiative can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Full resolution images and extensive cataloging in both TEI and human readable formats are available at thedigitalwalters.org. Additional images and updates from the project are shared via Flickr (Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts) and Twitter (@MedievalMss).
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