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Making Medieval Modern

Digitizing medieval manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum

How is a richly-colored, hand-crafted manuscript from the 9th century transferred to a digital museum catalogue?

The answer can be found at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the NEH is funding the digitization of the museum's manuscripts.

Medieval manuscripts are unique historical documents as well as works of art, and the museum's collection includes both little-known treasures and well-known examples such as the Beaupré Antiphonal, which was made for the Cistercian convent of Beaupré in 1290 and which, as the earliest extant large-format choir book from Northern Europe, is central to the history of music.

Digitizing these rare works requires advanced technologies and preservation expertise.  The Walters Art Museum has developed an in-house process to prepare the original manuscripts, photograph them, and archive the final digital images.  You can learn more about these activities in the video above.

The museum's Islamic collection was the first to be digitized.  Consisting of 53,000 folios, it is distinguished for its illuminated manuscripts of the Koran as well as illustrated volumes of Persian poetry that date from the ninth to the 19th century. The collection represents all major cultures and languages of the traditional Islamic world (Arabic, Persian and Turkish).

A second NEH-funded project digitized 105 manuscripts from Armenian, Byzantine, Dutch, English, central European and Ethiopian Christian cultures.

The third and current project is digitizing 112 Flemish manuscripts from northeastern France and Belgium dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries, with particular attention to 80 Books of Hours, personal devotional compilations that contain texts and images tailor-made to reflect the interests and preoccupations of their patrons.

You can find the images in The Walters Art Museum online catalogue. You may also want to visit the museum's online exhibition Poetry and Prayer: Islamic Manuscripts from the Walters where you can learn more about the manuscripts and listen to audio clips of recitations.

And if you want to learn more about the ways that online access to the manuscripts has opened up new and exciting avenues for research, creativity, and the recovery of local history, see the presentation and accompanying slideshow given by Lynley Anne Herbert, Curatorial Associate and Project Coordinator at the Walters Museum, as part of the NEH session, Technology Transforming Museums and Historic Sites: The Digital Humanities Perspective, at the American Alliance of Museum's Annual Meeting held  in Baltimore, MD, May 19-22, 2013.

Check back to the site in the coming months as they add more manuscripts.

The projects mentioned in this article have been awarded through the NEH Division of Preservation and Access's Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program: PW-50086-08, PW-50518-10, PW-51019-12.

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