45th Annual Meeting – Electronic Media Session, June 1st “The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base: A Wiki-based Solution for Conservation and Exhibition Documentation” by Glenn Wharton and Denna Engel

The initiative

Glenn Wharton, Clinical Associate Professor in Museum Studies at New York University, started the talk by the initial following challenge: how to organize and access the data created by time based media conservators during the treatment process of a contemporary artwork? Based on the MediaWiki platform, this project ended up dealing with larger issues met in time-based media conservation.

Conservation Documentation

Conservators create a lot of documentation, in various formats (notes, videos, drawings, etc.) and one problem is how to organize this information and make it available within an institution. Also, as Wharton mentioned, at the New York University, teachers tend to help and encourage students to work and experiment with different programs.

The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base

Wharton followed by introducing David Wojnarowicz, an artist and activist who died of AIDS in 1992, who produced, among other materials, paintings, drawings, and videos. His archives left at NYU were the primary sources of information – a page of his journal was shown as an example. In order to complete these precious resources, the students interviewed several persons who worked with the artist, and a computer scientist did technical research on the tools he would have used.

As Wojnarowicz is getting more and more attention internationally today, people worry about how to preserve and exhibit his work. In that regard, the idea was to gather more information available for researchers, curators and conservators. One challenge was to document his “Magic Bow”, found under his bed and containing objects related to several of his artworks. The question here was how to report the very complex relationship between those elements and the actual artwork pieces using a searchable database.

The project goals and system requirements

Deena Engel, Clinical Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University, presented the goals to be reached by the future database. The idea was, along with conservator students, to think through the approach of the software development, in particular, how to capture the complex relationships between the different elements, with an easy to use interface, and a long term preservation of the data.

In order to select a suitable software, they established the requirements for the future database as follow:

  • Be a support for a directed graph model;
  • Support user authentication;
  • Be an open source software:
  • Require only standard maintenance;
  • Support extensive discoverability for all;
  • Have a clear navigation;
  • Support controlled vocabularies.

In the lab: Software testing

The students used the data collected early to test different softwares – such as Omeka, Drupal, Plone, Collection Space and WordPress. After a lot of searches, they chose the MediaWiki, an open-source software with a strong user community, easy to use and configure, which supports text, image, audio and video medias, allowing for example to publish conservation reports and audio interviews, and filled their technical needs – In particular, they wanted the pages to be available on all types of supports (phones, tablets, etc.).


The content was organized in categories and subcategories; for example the category “Works on Paper” was subdivided in “Drawings”, “Prints”, “Stencils” and “Xeroxes”. The different pages related to each other are connected via hyperlinks; furthermore, the “what links here?” part allows to reach the pages that lead to the current page.

Launching of the database

A Beta Test Session was organized with the NYU students, conservators and archivists, were questions were asked, in particular about the user interface, the user experience and the scholarly goals that had to be reached.

On April 21, 2017, a Symposium about David Wojnariwicz’s work was organized at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University, were the database was presented and launched.

Though, the project is not over! This is an ongoing research, and anyone can contribute by sending pieces of information to: fales.wojnarowicz@nyu.edu.

For the future, the scholars at New York University are interested in working with museum professionals on similar projects, using MediaWiki again or other software – Deena Engel mentioned that she would prefer to experiment with other tools.

This presentation allowed to appreciate the common effort made by scholars, archivists and art historians, as well as computer scientists and curators, in order to make available qualitative information about a contemporary artist’s complex work, in an accessible and intelligent form. Glenn Wharton added that university was a great place for that kind of research, because of the possibility to get research grants, the available time and the deep interest and motivation of the students.


The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base: http://cs.nyu.edu/ArtistArchives/KnowledgeBase/index.php/Main_Page

Presentation of the Artist Archives project: http://nyuhumanities.org/the-artist-archives-project/

The Artist Archive Initiative: http://cs.nyu.edu/ArtistArchives/Initiative/