The prized collection of medieval manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum - about 38,000 pages - is heading out of its usual, controlled environment and into the light. The light of computer screens, that is.
Thanks to a $315,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, 105 medieval manuscripts from several centuries and cultures will be digitally photographed, cataloged and distributed during the next two and a half years.
"This gives us the chance to make accessible, and for free on everybody's desktop, some of the greatest works of art from the Middle Ages [housed] in America, works that, until now, have never been seen," said Will Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters. "The most people see at the Walters from the manuscript collection is 20 images at one time."
Free access to the images will be made available on The Walters' Web site, thewalters.org, "and other portals, like Flickr," Noels said. "People can use them as they want."
That arrangement is made possible under a "creative commons" license. A similar arrangement covers the digitizing of the Walters' complete collection of Islamic manuscripts, totaling about 53,000 images, a project that was launched in 2008 and likewise funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
The medieval project announced Monday is due to be completed by Dec. 31, 2012.
It will cover manuscripts from Central Europe, Ethiopia and more, including a 9th-century gospel book from Charlemagne's court, a 12th-century English bible and a 13th-century Armenian gospel - all part of the material collected by the museum's founder, Henry Walters, from 1895 until his death in 1931.
The collection is one of the largest this side of the Atlantic.
"Getting a digital printed book online saves you a trip to the library," Noel said. "Getting these digital images saves you a trip around the world."