Vivian Maier Exhibition
Vivian Maier Exhibition Source:

In the Digital Age, the role of the curators is changing dramatically.  Curating an image exhibition is a complex task which needs to take into consideration numerous issues, more particularly access and preservation, as well as some legal and ethical issues.

In order to build a collection which is easily accessible and searchable, the curator needs to make a decision on how the images will be organised, and what type of metadata (for example CDWA, VRA Core, Dublin Core) and controlled vocabularies (such as ICONCLASS) will ensure easier accessibility of the collection.  More information on the importance of metadata and controlled vocabularies can be found in my blog-post “The Importance of Metadata Standards” which can be viewed here.

Choosing or designing the most suitable information system (or software) which can be used for the retrieval and display of images, and is also vital for ensuring successful access and search.  If the collection in question is made available online, then careful consideration should be given to the type of web-publishing platform which will be employed.  Whether it will be a specially designed web-based platform, for example Photogrammar, or a readily available one like Omeka, it will be dependent on the specific circumstances of each individual exhibition, the target audience, the purpose of the exhibition, available funding, etc..  Overall, all technical decisions of the curator must be made with the purpose of a simplified and efficient search and access to the images, especially in circumstances where the collections contain numerous and varied images.

Another area of concern in image curating is the standard of the digitisation process itself.  As digitisation is expensive, it is necessary to be carried out to the highest standards.  The transformation from analogue to digital media has to take into consideration the preservation of the originals and also to ensure that the digital copies are of the best quality possible.  A number of image files need to be created in addition to the “master” or archival image.  Different digitising approaches and methods should be employed dependent on the type and value of the original objects (Frey 183).  In addition, the curator and the other people involved in the project should have digital experience and interdisciplinary knowledge to guarantee that the process of digitisation is carried out to the highest standards (Frey 182).

When curating an image collection another issue is the preservation of the originals, as well as of the digital images themselves.  The problem of digital preservation and permanence stems from the lightning speed with which software and hardware become obsolete, and also from the lack of standards for digital preservation (Frey 184).  While the originals need to be stored at optimum conditions and not handled unnecessarily, the preservation of the digital data is an active and ongoing process of the digital images being regularly monitored and copied (Frey 183-184).

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait Source:

Other issues that can arise in image curating are legal and ethical matters.  It is necessary for the curator to balance the aspirations of public institutions for making their collections publicly accessible and the rights which third parties might have, for example copyright.  An interesting illustration of the legal and ethical concerns for curators of image collections is the curious case of Vivian Maier (for more information you can watch the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” on YouTube).  According to the ethics code of the International Council of Museums, museums should not acquire objects without “valid title” and that evidence of the lawful ownership does not constitute valid title.  It further prescribes that museum professionals should not support the illicit traffic or market, directly or indirectly (Coffee 6).  The case of Vivian Maier poses the question of whether posthumous curation is lawful and/or ethical.  The preservation and publication of her work is arguably a morally positive act but making profit out of it without copyright can be considered immoral.  The problem is exacerbated by the lack of knowledge of her expressed intent and will, and by the fact that she was an extremely private and reclusive person.

Overall, curating an image collection is a complex and gargantuan task in the Digital Era.  The curator needs to address a myriad of technical, legal and ethical questions in order to ensure that the collection is compiled to the highest standards and easily accessible by the end-user.


Coffee, Kevin.  “Misplaced: ethics and the photographs of Vivian Maier”. Museum Management and Curatorship, 2014, pp 1-9, Accessed on 15 November 2016.

Frey, Franziska.  “Digital Imaging as a Tool in Preservation”, Preprint from the 9th International Congress of IADA, Copenhagen, August 15-21, 1999, pp 182-185, Accessed on 15 November 2016.

Layne, Sara Shatford. “Subject Access in Art Images”, Introduction to Art Image Access.  Issues, Tools, Standards, Strategies, edited by Murtha Baca, Getty Research Institute, 2002, pp 1-18, Accessed on 15 November 2016.