Art Institute of Chicago Online Collection

Reviewed by:
Peter Klubek, Reference and Research Services Librarian
Edith Garland Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

The Art Institute of Chicago online collection is a freely accessible web-based platform that provides access to the most complete virtual version of the resources and collections of the museum. The site is full of detailed visual, textual, and multimedia material for more than one-hundred and sixteen thousand objects, showcasing the best possible representation of the museum’s holdings less a visit to the museum in person. This resource offers many opportunities to explore various aspects of individual artworks and the museum at large, including research guides, teaching resources, bibliographies, links to the museum’s library and archives, and other tools for exploration and learning.

The landing page features images of some of the most famous items in the Art Institute’s collection, tiled below a search box and a row of small clickable thumbnails to browse the items by genre, era, subject, object type, or medium. The larger images of artworks are displayed four images across with roughly 50 artworks per page, with lesser-known works shown on numerous following pages. When a user clicks on a thumbnail of an individual artwork, they are taken to a page displaying a brief written piece that covers the artist, history, and content of that particular work, with links to museum audio tours, more detailed information on artists and artworks, and personal reflections by museum staff and others. The writing throughout is clear and accessible, and could be used as a starting point by researchers at any level. Item-level metadata is more extensive than comparable museum collection websites, and a wide set of criteria on the left column allows users to filter and sort items. Users can toggle to display only items currently on view in the museum or in the public domain, among other selections. Some metadata is searchable but not displayed; for example, a search for “rabbits” reveals some items that depict rabbits even though the word “rabbits” does not appear in the public display of the corresponding item record.

An example of brief text in an artwork item record.

Users that could benefit the most from this resource include historians and arts educators, as well as artists and art students needing high-resolution images to explore technical aspects of an individual work. Scholars of art history will find useful the downloadable high-resolution images, exhibition histories, provenance details, and lists of publications related to each artwork. Developers can make use of the museum’s public API. Arts educators will appreciate the option to check the box in the filter menu that reads “Has educational resources available,” which displays over one hundred items with attached Educator Resource Packets to help with classroom instruction. Multimedia resources linked from artwork item records include videos and audio tours, along with links to past exhibition websites that include a wide range of materials.

Accessibly options could be improved, as it is difficult to locate the alt text of an image and keyboard control options appear limited. Despite these factors, the website is easy to navigate, with a logical delivery method and good performance on all tested browsers. The mobile version of the site is seamlessly adapted from the desktop version, offering the ability to enhance a museum visitor’s experience in the physical space of the museum, while also thoroughly serving users who are accessing the collection as a virtual-only experience. In the COVID-19 era, virtual options for using and viewing the museum collection are invaluable, and the AIC online collection is well-designed to meet the challenges brought by the pandemic.

On the whole, the structure of the online collection is coherent, well-organized, and suitable for both non-expert and expert users. The Art Institute of Chicago online collection provides an enjoyable and comprehensive virtual experience that exceeds the virtual platforms of comparable museums. The St. Louis Art Museum virtual collection offers many of the same features, including downloadable high-resolution images, but it does not share the additional in-depth written material included in the Art Institute of Chicago online collection, nor the extent of cataloged objects (about 6,000 objects). The Museum of Fine Arts Boston virtual collection is also similar, but is chunkier in its execution and usability. Overall the Art Institute of Chicago online collection is an excellent tool that could be useful in any art or research library.