Strolling through the world of art

Contemplate the Mona Lisa close up, without having to queue outside the Louvre for hours beforehand? Then stop by Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and discover portraits from other periods or movements at the same time? A stroll through the international world of art and museums via mouse click – with the openArtBrowser, knowledge communication is easy. The brainchild behind the online platform is Bernhard Humm, computer science professor, and the project has been implemented and further developed by several generations of students at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences.

By Astrid Ludwig, 6.4.2022

Lectures on artificial intelligence by Bernhard Humm, computer science professor at h_da, are a little different. To illustrate the topic, he often uses paintings and works of art. Not only does he himself find this particularly delightful – his students also instantly see things in a quite different light. That was already the case four years ago, when an idea planted itself in his head that was also concerned with art: an online portal which would revolve around paintings, sculptures, photographs, artists, movements, periods and museums. A digital art experience for everyone: the openArtBrowser was born. From the idea for the art platform emerged an ongoing student project. Together with his young computer scientists, Humm produced the web app and further developed it over the course of six semesters with several generations of bachelor’s and master’s students. In 2019, the openArtBrowser went online with around 100,000 works of art – today, visitors can find 700,000 artworks from 400 movements, over 35,000 artists, 50,000 motifs as well as 37,000 museums and exhibition venues. And more and more are added each week.

Mixture of research and teaching

Humm describes the openArtBrowser as a mixture of research and teaching – “entirely without funding,” he stresses. Instead of money, the project is about credit points for students and empowering them to apply course contents such as artificial intelligence, ontology extraction or semantic enrichment in practice. The objective was and is a multimedia art experience in digital space, a stroll through different periods, where enthusiasts can familiarise themselves with various genres, artists, materials and motifs. “A voyage of discovery, but without searching. Art education, but not like at school or wagging a finger,” explains Humm. Rather, users of the platform should acquire a knowledge of art along the way, as it were, by surfing through the openArtBrowser’s portfolio as the fancy takes them.  

Bernhard Humm took many of the ideas and concepts from a research project with which he, colleagues and students at h_da had already caused quite a stir a few years previously. As part of a consortium which included, among others, the University and State Library Darmstadt and software company SAP, the Faculty of Computer Science and the Faculty of Media of Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences jointly developed the “Digital Collection” for Städel Museum in Frankfurt: an app that attracted nationwide attention when it was launched. “We even made it onto the evening news on TV,” recalls Humm.

To mark Städel Museum’s 200th anniversary and with funding of around €2 million from the Federal State of Hesse, the two h_da faculties spent several years developing an online platform which the museum wanted to offer as a “stand-alone art experience and not just a poor digital imitation of the physical galleries,” says Professor Humm. The aim was to make something possible that is impossible in the museum. This is how, among others, the charming idea evolved of enabling users to curate their own exhibitions from Städel Museum’s collections. The app made it possible to saunter past the art treasures in the depository or museum, and all kinds of cross-references were conceivable – the only limit to the user’s imagination was the volume of art data made exclusively available by Städel Museum. “It was a great project,” says Bernhard Humm, thinking back at the innovative platform, which is still online. In 2014, the two h_da professors received the Hessian Research Award of the Universities of Applied Sciences for the app, and in 2015 the “World Summit Award” in the category “Culture & Tourism” was presented to Städel Museum.

Freely accessible data sources from throughout the world

For the openArtBrowser, Humm transferred this concept to an open source approach. In place of the limited, legally protected datasets of a museum, freely accessible sources from throughout the world are used, that is, those provided by Wikidata and Wikimedia, the basis for the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia. “Quality and metadata – for example, information on the respective works of art – are naturally not comparable to what a museum team can achieve,” says Humm, but nevertheless an excellent foundation. 

An initial design for the openArtBrowser was created in 2018/2019 in the framework of a bachelor’s project with students of different nationalities, explains Humm. In the following six semesters, over 30 students further developed the platform – “all with great enthusiasm,” he is pleased to say. One of them was Adrian Kailus, 25, a master’s student who has just graduated in computer science. He worked on the art browser for four semesters and helped to programme it, later even supervising it as project manager.

At the beginning of the project, there were seven categories: artwork, artist, movement, motif, material, genre and location. Later, an eighth category was added: type of artwork, reports Kailus.

Among others, new data and information on the respective artworks have been entered and videos integrated, and a timeline added that shows, for example, the creative process of the artists and movements. Using a web crawler developed by students, the datasets are collected from Wikidata and assigned to the right place. “The project was really delightful and fun. I was able to contribute my skills in a creative way,” says Kailus, who wrote his master’s thesis on IT security.

Spin-off project for Marburg Photo Archive

Adrian Kailus’ parents are both art historians in Marburg. They, too, followed the project by h_da’s Faculty of Computer Science with great interest. In 2020, it even led to a spin-off project for their employer, the German Documentation Centre for Art History – Marburg Photo Archive. “Over the course of a semester, we developed a variant of the openArtBrowser for the archive,” says Professor Humm. With around two million original photographs, the institute, part of the University of Marburg, is one of the largest picture archives worldwide for European art and architecture.

Out of Bernhard Humm’s idea for an art portal has evolved a student project with numerous further developments. In the meantime, it runs more or less autonomously because the openArtBrowser’s content grows by itself. “We draw data from Wikidata once a week – that’s done automatically,” explains Humm. Users of the browser meanwhile have a choice of over 800,000 datasets. And the number is constantly growing. Wikidata is maintained by volunteers, “a gigantic data source,” says Professor Humm. More recent objects – such as the Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) – also find their way into the art browser. The brass plaques laid in the pavement – a project initiated by artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 – commemorate people deported, displaced or murdered during the Nazi regime.

The number of views is also growing steadily. In 2021, users accessed the openArtBrowser 16,000 times, with 48,000 page views. They came from 82 countries, headed by the US, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Which is not surprising, as the online platform is multilingual. Information and artworks are retrievable in five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

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Contact details

Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112

Translation: Sharon Oranski