Search-friendly database boosts access to more than 7,000 artworks at Brown’s Bell Gallery

Brown University’s contemporary art gallery launched a new web-based database where scholars, curators and the public can explore a dynamic collection of photographs, paintings and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Photographs from the 1963 March on Washington. Rare portraits of artists and socialites taken by Andy Warhol. Early conceptual sketches of scenes from “Blade Runner.” A seldom-studied Rembrandt painting. 

There’s a wealth of artwork to explore in the David Winton Bell Gallery’s permanent collection at Brown University — and now, its treasures are easier to find than ever.

The Bell Gallery, a contemporary art gallery at the University, recently launched a new web-based database where scholars, curators and members of the public can easily search through more than 7,300 unique works in its collection, which includes photographs, paintings, drawings and sculpture spanning more than 500 years. While much of the collection had been searchable, its online catalog is now more search-friendly than ever, with more images of the artworks and much more comprehensive metadata available.

The refreshed database comes after more than a year of inventorying and re-cataloging led by Nicole Wholean, curator of campus collections and registrar at the Bell Gallery, and two Brown undergraduates. The work was made possible by a $49,975 Inspire! grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

“We have this amazing permanent collection at the Bell Gallery, and so few people use it,” Wholean said. “Lots of people might not know it exists at all. The idea behind this grant was, let’s get the word out about this collection in the Brown community and in the academic community more broadly. Let’s enhance access to this collection, because it has the power to catalyze new thoughts and ideas.”

Using the grant funds, Wholean transferred the Bell Gallery’s online catalog from an outdated database to MuseumPlus — a platform that allows gallery staff to easily upload and update items in the online catalog, and to keep track of important conservation and insurance information.

Those added capabilities have made it easier to explore the Bell Gallery’s diverse collection, composed mostly of pieces donated by Brown alumni and families. The collection includes dozens of 1960s and 1970s photographs of Providence’s neighborhoods taken by Harry Callahan; several 19th-century prints of Francisco Goya etchings; pop-art posters and seascapes by Roy Lichtenstein; and “The Three Trees,” a striking and relatively unknown etched landscape by Rembrandt.

Wholean said using MuseumPlus may in the future enable the Bell Gallery to merge search functions with Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, which uses the same platform.

“Imagine being able to view a handmade mask in the Haffenreffer Museum’s collection alongside photographs of people wearing similar masks in the Bell Gallery’s collection,” Wholean said. “The ability to see these collections in the same place could unlock so many new exhibition ideas, possibilities for teaching and compelling student research projects.”