Museum treasures now online for all

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

25 September 2002 | Spearheaded by Berkeley academics and curators, an ambitious experiment is making it possible for anyone with Internet access to explore some of the richest historical and cultural collections at museums around the state — for free.

The Museums and the Online Archive of California Project (MOAC) provides easy, one-stop web access to historical and cultural materials housed at 11 public and private museums in California, with more to come. The archive ( currently contains some 150,000 images, both historic and contemporary, of artifacts, installation art, paintings, manuscripts, photographs, and architectural blueprints.

The project is run by the California Digital Library in the UC Office of the President. It was initiated by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where it is still managed.

The Berkeley campus has the highest concentration of MOAC participants, including BAM/PFA, the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the Bancroft Library, and the Museum of Paleontology. MOAC partners also include the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and Fowler Museum of Cultural History, the Japanese American National Museum, the UC Riverside/California Museum of Photography, and the California Digital Library.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art joined the project this fall, and many more museums are expected to follow suit, says MOAC project manager Richard Rinehart, director of digital media for BAM/PFA and a teacher in Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice.

“Most material culture in museums is all locked away in vaults,” says Rinehart. “It has been hidden from us by the very institutions we hire to preserve and protect it for us. Our ultimate goal is to open it up and make it available to the public.”

In the past, he adds, online access to museum collections has been limited and, in some cases, subscription-based. Now, MOAC has made searching collections easier for everyone — from the casually curious to the academic researcher.

“What we know is that it works, and it works very well. No one else has worked out this level of detail for integrating museums, libraries, and archives on such a large scale,” Rinehart says. “MOAC is already a national model.”

First images are the iceberg’s tip
California has more than 2,000 museums, notes Rinehart, and MOAC’s 150,000 images are just a fraction of what it ultimately could contain.

MOAC offers thumbnail images of collection items as well as both low- and high-resolution images of each item, along with summary descriptions of the collections and information about individual artists and objects.

There is no cost for a museum to join MOAC, other than the expense of describing and imaging museum collections, then getting that information to a central server. Several museums also use the resulting data and images on their own websites as well as on MOAC.

First to go online with the project were items from the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. collection of early Califor-nian and Western American pictorial material at the Bancroft Library. Other major collections in MOAC include the Hans Hoffman Collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and the Dorothea Lange Photo Collection, the largest Depression-era collection in the world, at the Oakland Museum of California.

The UC Office of the President is paying for a computer server on which to store MOAC’s growing inventory of treasures. Financing for the two-year experiment came via a $500,000 development grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency.


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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