The INHA databases now combined but with mixed results

30/4/11 – Internet – Databases –The INHA has posted a new system for its databases, named AGORHA(Acces global et organise aux resources en histoire de l’art) with the purpose of offering only one point of entry and allowing users to search for a term on all the databases at the same time.
While yielding faster and more extensive results in certain cases (given that all the bases can be searched at the same time rather than just one by one), we regret that the system in many instances, for technical reasons, does not allow some requests which are extremely practical for art historians. Obviously, high tech sophistication takes precedence over users’ needs.

We would like to illustrate our point by taking the example of the excellent database for Italian paintings in French public collections which we already discussed (see news item of 29/6/08).
Until now searches were simple and possible using various references as readers may recall on this page which holds the archives for the previous system, with only five regions (Bretagne, Centre, Pays-de-Loire, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Poitou-Charente). Searches could be made by location, choosing a region or a city, or even a precise building, resulting in a complete list of all the possibilities ; users could also find the names of all the painters quoted in the entries in the proposed indexes. It was all quite simple and perfectly clear even for someone not particularly familiar with a computer.
Now, although several regions have been added, it is impossible to know which ones since the indexes are no longer available. There are now ten regions after having added Auvergne, Basse-Normandie, Haute-Normandie, Champagne-Ardennes and Picardie [1]. Users now have to keep a mental list because they won’t find it elsewhere. And you cannot make a mistake : if you type in “Normandie”, one draws a blank : it must be either “Basse-Normandie” or “Haute-Normandie”. As for the cities, as it is impossible to memorize a list of all the ones holding Italian paintings, the lack of an index for these makes it impossible to wander through the base unless you know exactly what you’re looking for beforehand.

Again, it is important to know what to ask for. To look for all the Italian paintings held in Brittany, for example, starting from the AGHORA home page, you must :
- Click on the left-hand column at the top where it says “Recherche sur”
- Click on “Oeuvres”
- Click on “Recherche avance
- Under the heading “Filtrez votre recherché”, click at the right on the small symbol of the open book,
- Close this window
- Select “Lieux” in the space above
- Type in Bretagne in the space above

You will then obtain, finally, a list of all the Italian paintings held in Brittany. This lengthy process needs no further commentary when compared to the simple selection of the heading “Bretagne” in the old database.

We now need to compare the results of the old database with those in the new one (it is impossible to provide our readers with a link to the latter due to the system ; to see it, users must go through the process described above).
Unfortunately, here again, the comparison is not a favorable one for AGORHA since the photographs which appear on this list are much smaller, too small in fact to have an accurate idea of the painting. Here, one needs to click to obtain the technical entry which is the same one as that on the old database, with a slight advantage : users can click on the bibliographical references, thus yielding all of the paintings indicated by this reference. We would also like to point out, and this is truly a major improvement over the previous database, that the size and definition of the photographs when enlarged is much more significant. Still, it takes a while to get there.

The same principle applies to the Repertoire des tableaux francais conserves en Allemagne (see news item of 23/6/07). There, the (too) small vignettes which appear on the pages are also an improvement compared to the old database where there was a total lack of images for these lists. But the same thing can be said : unless one goes through the whole list of works included, there is no way of knowing simply which German cities hold French paintings.
We went no further in our exploration, discouraged by the complexity of the system. Several elements on the menu remain a mystery : what do the menus “Fonds d’archives (and the sub-menus, “Arborescence” and “Notices”), “Evenements” and “Personnes et organismes” correspond to ? The explanations provided when clicking on the question mark are not clear.

Our criticism may appear a bit harsh when thinking of the colossal work involved to elaborate this new database. But it reflects our disappointment : the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A cross-referencing of all the databases is certainly useful in many cases but the fact that it is impossible to search in a precise base, based on available indexes, is a severe handicap in many instances. Bigger should also be better. We think it is imperative that this capacity be reintroduced or else the system’s complexity will discourage people from using it.

Didier Rykner, samedi 30 avril 2011


[1] The departments of Seine-et-Marne and Bourgogne should be added before this summer.

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