The Tate is the UK’s largest art institution. The free and open release of Tate’s collection data shows just how far open data has come in the last decade, and makes a major resource available for study. This resource allows us to follow two lines of investigation.
The first is into the history of art, using the Tate’s collection as a model of art in general, particularly of British art. The Tate’s collection data describes the form, content, attribution and dates of a sample of art from the past several hundred years. This is a history of art, and as long as we place it in its historical context it can be a useful one.
The second is institutional critique, to analyse the Tate’s collection and contrast it with other collections and with other models of the history of art (verbal, data-based or otherwise). Rather than allowing or controlling for the historical context of the data this makes recovering and examining that context the focus.
It’s possible to succeed or fail at each, and neither requires taking the claims of Museums to represent history or of data to represent reality at face value or in a vacuum. Data visualisation and statistical analysis are ways of dealing with datasets that would take a human reader many years to examine. They are forms of rhetoric, but they are also useful tools.
With suitable modesty of aims and suitable reflection on the historical and political contexts which have given rise to our tools and materials, let us begin…