Artist/Maker Unknown: Hierarchy, Bias, and the Museum Database

Thursday, 15 June 2023
11:00AM - 12:30PM (AEST)
This is an online event.
This event has ended.
A svayambhhu (self-manifested) linga

Viewing museum collections online, one will find endless references to an “artist unknown”—or, in the context of objects made in India, an artist “unknown, Indian”—displayed prominently in the topmost registers of the webpages. Other metadata, like the work’s title, date of completion, and medium, typically appear below that. As “natural” as this informational hierarchy may seem, it betrays a clear bias for cultures and periods that privilege (or have privileged) artistic authorship over and above other facets of an object’s production and use. Simply reordering the online record’s text would hardly correct this bias, for many museum collections management systems reproduce the very same hierarchies.

Image: Svayambhhu (self-manifested) linga identified in the collections database online as made by an "artist/maker unknown (Indian)" (detail). Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994-148-59.


This talk examines some of the ramifications of these data flows, focusing in particular on the digital representation of objects from South Asia, especially today’s India. It addresses the historical and contemporary privileging of a particular notion of authorship, and the concomitant erasure of others, in the discipline of art history and in the cataloguing of these materials in fine arts museums.


Headshot of Yael Rice.
Yael Rice

Yael Rice is associate professor of art history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, Massachusetts. She specializes in the art and architecture of South Asia, Central Asia, and Iran, with a particular focus on manuscripts and other portable arts of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Between 2009-12, she held the position of Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Recent publications include “Art History Beyond Objects” (Art Journal Open, published 26 January 2023), on the importance of centering critical digital methods and tools in the teaching of collections-based art history courses; and, with Stephennie Mulder, “The Mystery of the Timurid Qur’an” (Prospect Magazine, published online July 22, 2020), on the commercial sale of Islamic manuscripts lacking any publicly-stated authenticating provenance. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Brush of Insight: Artists and Agency at the Mughal Court (University of Washington Press, 2023).