Pinakotheken Blog

Stories from the museums

7/10/23 | Priscilla Pfannmüller

One word, one picture | ALTE PINAKOTHEK UNFRAMED

What is probably the most frequently used color in the paintings of the Alte Pinakothek? Red! Would you have guessed that? Well, neither did we. That's just one of many new insights we've gained by keywording the paintings on display at the Alte Pinakothek.

Since 2022, funded by the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and Art, we have been working on "Alte Pinakothek Unframed," a new digital assistant that enables visitors to rediscover the Old Masters. In addition to thematically curated tours, visitors will be able to create their own tours according to their own interests and share them with friends and acquaintances. Based on personalized recommendations, visitors will be able to explore and discover topics dealt with in the paintings of the Alte Pinakothek.

To enable visitors to discover the masterpieces in this way from this winter, we have tagged almost 700 paintings in the Alte Pinakothek, i.e. described them using terms such as "woman", "saint", "heaven", "happiness" or even "pain". This makes it possible to view paintings on specific topics and discover new connections. This keywording is more complex than one might think: because every person sees (and feels) art differently and has a different prior knowledge. In this respect, it is important that not only one person uses keywords, but several, in order to exclude such a bias - which, of course, can never be completely ruled out.

The vocabulary

Another aspect that precedes keywording is the development of a vocabulary with which to describe the paintings. The basis for our vocabulary were so-called controlled vocabularies. These are vocabularies in which each term is clearly defined - so there are no synonyms. Each word has a specific meaning. The selection of specific terms from the large corpora is subjective and based on the main themes of the Alte Pinakothek. Through constant iteration, review, and statistical evaluation of the keywording, misconceptions about the vocabulary can be corrected. If a term is used too frequently, then it is too non-specific. On the other hand, if another term is not used, it may not be relevant to the collection. At the same time, it is always necessary to weigh how useful it is to include a specific term. The motto is: as general as necessary, as specific as possible.

An example

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Stillleben mit Rosen, Tulpen und Sonnenblume, 1710 
The National Gallery, London,
On loan from the collection of Janice and Brian Capstick
© Private Collection
Rachel Ruysch, Flower bouquet, 1715, Inv.-Nr. 878

The flower still lifes of the painter Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) captivate with their precise depictions of specific species of flowers and insects. However, it is not expedient to name the different species exactly and to include terms such as "passionflower" or "amaryllis" in the vocabulary - because our goal is for users to have more than one painting displayed in their search. In this respect, only flower types that appear in a larger number of paintings are in the vocabulary, such as roses, lilies or carnations. The situation is similar for musical instruments and animals. There, we opted for umbrella terms such as "stringed instrument" or "big cat" to generate a large enough set of hits.

This new way of indexing paintings across collection areas and epochs is not only appealing to visitors, but also to art educators and collection managers. Through the indexing, they can also discover the collection again and again and find new approaches to it.


Contribution by

Priscilla Pfannmüller Priscilla Pfannmüller has been project manager for the Digital Assistant - Alte Pinakothek Unframed from April to December 2023. Previously, she was a research volunteer at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen with stations at the Bavarian Army Museum, the Bavarian National Museum, and the Alte Pinakothek. Before receiving her doctoral defree in art history, she was a freelance research assistant at the Munich Marstall Museum during her studies.