Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne

I decided to start a smart image library and I almost went bananas

The What

I am an artist. Well, OK, I am studying an MFA. I am in a creative dry spell and I am doubting whether I deserve the “artist” accolade. ANYWAYS. I think visually, which is not to say I do not think conceptually. My concepts are sometimes visual. One image leads to another, like a chain of metaphors. Sometimes my brain gets image-saturated (it is a 1986 processor afterall) and I have been wanting to find a substitute storage for all this visual collection for a while. So, with the excuse of the specific research I am doing for my course (on the Void), I decided to create this database/library/thingie for once and for all.

You would think the world has needed this before. In 1924 theoretician Aby Warburg started collecting black and white images on dark panels in a much revered project, the Atlas Mnemosyne (if you are curious at all, this site is fab). He wanted to see (quite literally) the symbolic relationship between pictures. That is, he was not only interested in finding formally similar elements, but in establishing links of meaning. The Cornell university site explains it much better:

"attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how images of great symbolic, intellectual, and emotional power emerge in Western antiquity and then reappear and are reanimated in the art and cosmology of later times and places, from Alexandrian Greece to Weimar Germany. Focusing especially on the Renaissance, the historical period where he found the struggle between the forces of reason and unreason to be most palpable, Warburg hoped that the Mnemosyne Atlas would allow its spectators to experience for themselves the “polarities” that riddle culture and thought.”

There you go.

My needs were much less grand, but this cult antecessor kept on popping up in my mind. If Warburg was alive today, how would the Mnemosyne look?

The Requirements

After playing around with my already existing squarespace site; and good, old tumblr, I kept on facing limitations that I couldn’t overcome with my technological knowledge (better that my mum, worse that your geeky cousin). So I started a list of what I wanted:

  • I had to be able to share my image map- I am doing it as part of a subject, so it has to become something I can deliver and share. It would also be neat to be able to embed it in my site.
  • It had to offer an “all in a glance” overview- no lists with .jpeg names, but rather all my images together.
  • It had to be smart-ish - I could spend a few days making individual pages/posts/entries that looked perfect and link them all manually, but I wanted a system that could “recognize” links between images and establish them automatically. Like this, whether I have 10 or 1000 images I don’t have to worry about updating it all by hand.
  • I had to be able to filter it- I don’t know how far my filtering ambitions could go, but I would rather find a way to combine filter requirements that work with single filters (for example, I wanted to see images that were tagged both ‘pop culture’ AND ‘chaos’, like overalapping Venn diagrams). I never thought twice about this before, but this proved challenging.
  • Couldn’t be pricey- I am an art student (worst potential target customer ever).

The language problem

Pretty soon it became evident that I didn’t even know how to call this thing I needed. A “visual database”, according to google, looked like this:

Hello accounting software.

Not what I had in mind.

I really wanted this visual connection, like a mind map. But “mindmap for images” brought these up:

Not ideal.
Where are the images?!

“Image mapping software”

Nailing it.

I had a spark: “art catalogue software”

Now we are talking!

Found a bunch, but as they target museums and public institutions these monster softwares cost anywhere in the thousands. Not my studet budget.

Let alone explaining to google what I needed- even explaining to close friends in my same field what I wanted the software to do (“I think you just mean Pinterest”) was a challenge. I clearly had a language problem (that I am not sure I have sorted).

What I tried

After stumbling upon “lateral thinking” options such as software for people building genealogy trees, programs for private investigators, a guide to reproduce instagram in ruby on rails, and what not, these are the contenders I actually downloaded, or signed up for and played with for a bit:

  • Hyperimage!

Hyperimage came into my life and I felt like the clouds had parted and angels started singing. Made by a university it was the right kind of nerdy. It had everything I needed and more.

So what happened? I very quickly became confused with how to install it. Support references were mostly in German, and the English version was “coming soon”. My brand new laptop kept on refusing to install some of the obscure database stuff because it didn’t like the source it came from. I was both sad and ignorant. I never made it past the database problem. I still have its remnants in my files. It was beautiful whilst it lasted.

  • Programs to build multi-narrative storytelling

I stubled upon a particular corner of the internet where people write choose-your-own-adventure-like stories. Good stuff! I thought the way they map their options could somehow be useful to map my visual narrative. It sounds far-fetched but it was actually fun and pretty close. The one I got along with best was Twine:

Not your usual text processor.

I thought that even if I had to link the different nodes myself, the final interface was engaging. It was free and I felt very cool and alternative for having come up with this. The problem? Images. And that’s a pretty big problem. You CAN insert images easily in Twine 2.0, BUT I really wanted an image-leads-to-image presentation. I could make a post for an image and then have clickable words to lead to another, but I never managed to insert a link in an image. Apparently Twine 1 was better at image stuff, and i didn’t manage to find the earlier versions to download.

My progress
  • Multi-narrative presentation software (see a pattern here?)

I am a recovering Prezi advocate. I used to think it was so cool. I was so alone in this belief, too. Then it kept on failing to be super useful, or just simpy failing at key moments. Prezi and me parted ways. But for this I thought what about something in this rare field of innovative presentations? And boom, I found it: Vimodi.

I even instagrammed it

It looked clean, and modern. It was super easy. It was quick! And the final presentation was like an exploration. Vimodi and me became fast friends. i emailed the founder about being an unexpected audience. We bonded. It was beautiful. But then… Vimodi is young. The poor thing cannot handle many associations to one specific image. I was compromising a lot of the relationships I wanted to establish. It was a hard break-up. One of those it’s-not-you-it’s-me things. I wanted too much from someone too young. I still have it in my ipad and I am very fond of it (I actually still use it to quickly see the basic mapped associations).

  • code without code website

I kept on believing this thing had to exist already- I just didn’t know how to find it. But since it was a very simple, straight forward idea, I could build it using a code-without-code approach. Boom. There are many fab options here, but one I got really into was Webflow.

It was like a puzzle that was just hard enough- I kept on advancing and figured out what I needed was called CMS (content management system). Webflow is good at this! I heard the Rocky soundtrack in my head. I made this:

Yes, it was basic-looking, but almost in a I’m-too-artsy-and-cool kind of way. You clicked on an image and it lead you to related tags. It wasn’t perfect but it was mine. Until I asked too much from it, again. It could show me all the tags for a specific image, and create thumbnails for other posts, but I never managed to make it show thumbnails for a specific tag (apparently this was ‘nesting dynamic collections’ and it’s just not there yet). Le sigh.

  • mindmapping solutions

Mindmapping software always sounds like a good idea until you use it. They are always so… clunky. And they are NOT good at images. But amongst these, there is a solution that is a bit different: Realtimeboard. RTB is a weird beast because it does so many things, it kind of doesn’t belong anywhere. It is literally like an infinite white wall where you just add stuff. remember Aby, the guy with the b&w photos in the early 20th century? Well, if he could do it with actual boards, I could do it with that, right? Right.

This was good! Not too smart, but I was giving up and ready to settle. BUT THEN.


This is VUE- aka, Visual Understanding Environment. Again, made by a university (Tufts). This was where-have-you-been-all-my-life level.

My hero! Two views of my map- this is the future (at least as visualized a few years ago)

It’s not the prettiest (neither am I! We can be average-looking together!), but it filters with a vengeance, it tags images AND links, it established a visual map AND can create presentations.

Also, it completely f*cks you up if you move its files. Don’t move its files. VUE hates that.

Angry VUE


For now I am in a committed relationship with VUE and hopefully that’s that.

I hope this helps fellow technically-challenged visual nerds.

Go visualise, connect, filter, tag and analyse!