Behind The Scenes

Archives & Access project: (Subject) index to the soul: opening up Tate’s archives By Darragh O’Donoghue

Hallo, I am Darragh O’Donoghue, Subject Index Manager on the Archives and Access project.  The Archives and Access project aims to open up Tate’s archives to new audiences, by integrating them with the Art & artists section of the website, as discussed in Alex’s and Tijana’s posts.

What is subject indexing?

My work as Subject Index Manager is to broaden access further by linking objects with similar subjects and themes.  I look at an archival item, try to decide what it’s ‘about’ and how it relates to other items in the collection, and to pass this information on to the user.  The content of an item is broken down into index terms which will allow users to find artworks from the collection and other archival items through browsing on the same subject.  In this way, the subject index is a mix of the traditional index you get at the back of printed books, and the cross-referencing applied to entries in encyclopaedias.  For the user, the index offers two basic functions: it provides a summary of individual items, and it is a way of opening up those items beyond their obvious art-historical interest.

The index used for this project is adapted from Iconclass, an art-historical classification system used to divide the multitude of possible index terms into (relatively) logical themes.  The items digitised for the project are a mixture of textual and visual archives, so some headings will be more relevant for different items.  The themes used by the project include Group/movement; Emotions, concepts and ideas; History; Literature; Nature; People; and Places.  The index terms can be found by clicking on the ‘Explore’ section of an item’s webpage.

Looking at subject indexing in Walter Sickert’s letters

Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson

Walter Richard Sickert
Page 1, Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson c.October 1914
View this item in Art & artist

© Henry Lessore

Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson page 2

Walter Richard Sickert
Page 2, Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson c.October 1914
View this item in Art & artists


© Henry Lessore

Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson page 3

Walter Richard Sickert
Page 3, Letter from Walter Sickert to Nan Hudson c.October 1914
View this item in Art & artists


© Henry Lessore

To show how such an index works in practice, let’s take as an example Walter Sickert’s letter to Nan Hudson, c. October 1914.  Written in the early months of World War I, Sickert discusses his new trade in painting nurses and soldiers, including dead officers; his difficulties with government officials over his naturalisation at a time when nationals from ‘enemy’ countries were interned as ‘aliens’ (Sickert was born in Germany to a German father); the activities of other British artists in response to the war; the development of an actual painting held in the Tate, Tipperary (N05092) – an emblematic picture of a young woman playing the piano – and other Sickert projects, as well as the artist’s general comments on his work; reports on contemporary British politics; and references to places important to Sickert.

In order to make this letter accessible to as many users as possible, and not just those with an interest in early 20th century British art, I have indexed this item quite elaborately, listing:

  • The various movements Sickert and Hudson were involved with (e.g. Camden Town Group, Allied Artists’ Association)
  • The types of architecture and interiors mentioned (prison, flat, drawing room)
  • Emotions expressed in or referred to (e.g. anxiety, humiliation)
  • The historical context (World War I)
  • Artworks mentioned by Sickert and others
  • The variety of objects mentioned (e.g. piano, bread, bomb)
  • The many individuals, groups/organisations (bureaucratic as well as artistic) and occupations cited.

People specifically interested in Sickert will be able to click on an index term and trace all the artworks and archive items relating to the Camden Town Group held by Tate, his paintings in general, a specific work or his whereabouts at any given time (which can be found not only in the addresses on his letters, but in their content too; they give detailed accounts of painting campaigns, walks and rides on various forms of transport, exhibitions and parties attended, and Sickert’s many travels). 

Scholars of World War I can find information on behaviour and attitudes on the home front.  Local historians can chase up references to villages, towns and counties.  Object fetishists can indulge their passion for musical instruments or food types.  In this way, subject indexing widens the scope of interest in archival items beyond the intentions of their original creators.

See also