Way back in 1990, we were involved in an attempt to publish a catalogue raisonné of the works of Colin McCahon. For a number of reasons, the main one being the Auckland Art Gallery advising the McCahon family against it, the catalogue was never published and the $50,000 offered by Government never picked up. It was made clear that this was not a job for the private sector. This might seem reasonable in retrospect if we had a catalogue raisonné to leaf through today, but we don’t. Instead we have the Colin McCahon Database and Image Library.
The database was organised by the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust and its publication taken over by Te Papa five or six years ago. Each year Te Papa notes in its Annual Reports that it hosts the database and records the number of visits (in 2006 it was 13,454 visits). And each year, in its statement of intent Te Papa claims: “Te Papa Speaks with Authority. All of Te Papa’s activities are underpinned by scholarship ….” So has an exception been made for the McCahon database? It appears to be virtually unchanged since it was first put online.
So what's it like? Around 1600 works are included with basic catalogue details. The quality of many of the images is poor with some badly cropped and damaged. The search function is primitive with a search by year, for example, delivering not only the art works for that year but every work that has a bibliographic reference for that year. You can only be thankful that there are so few bibliographic references. The functionality is very limited. It is not possible for instance to compare two works on the same screen. A section promising essays "on Colin McCahon's life and work" has been empty since its inception.
Of more concern in a database published by a national institution like Te Papa, are the many errors that undermine the credibility of the project and certainly compromise any claims to scholarship.
A random selection:
cm001244 A painting for Uncle Frank is credited as being in a private collection. In fact it is in Te Papa’s collection, and has been since 2004.
cm001709 is titled Crucifixion with MacPalene. Unfortunately MacPalene was unable to be at the crucifixion, they probably mean Mary Magdelene.
cm000073 is titled A vessell(sic)... ('Prayer for the Second Coming' Peter Hooper). The (sic) is inappropriately pedantic for this level of scholarship, and unnecessary as Vessel is spelt correctly by McCahon on the painting.
cm000512 is titled As there is a constant flow of light we are born into a pure land (McCahon to Shadbolt). The painting is inscribed by McCahon ‘Shadbolt from/McCahon’
cm000002 and cm001220 are in fact the same painting recorded with two different unique numbers.
Some questions. Why has Te Papa had responsibility for the database for so long, and left it in such a amateurish state? How do they reconcile their commitment to scholarship with this project? Has the database in fact been abandoned and was never intended to be a growing resource for research? Is Te Papa even able to correct the many mistakes in the database?
Te Papa should either put in the resources needed to make the database the tool it should be, or take it off line and hand it over to another institution willing to make a serious and professional commitment.
The Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust is credited on every reproduction of a work by Colin McCahon and The Trust’s name fronts the database along with a list of its members. So you might also ask what are they doing about the database? They are: Julian Miles (Chairman), Victoria Carr and William McCahon (McCahon family), Chris Saines (Auckland Art Gallery), Dr Seddon Bennington, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Te Papa), Trish Stevenson.