Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid,c. 1660, oil on canvas, h 45.5cm × w 41cm (Rijksmuseum)

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid,c. 1660, oil on canvas, h 45.5cm × w 41cm (Rijksmuseum)

Smarthistory is digital art history. However, to date, gatherings focused on digital art history have not made a place for projects that focus on teaching. This is not unusual; the emphasis in the digital humanities has also been almost exclusively on research. One study by Scott Weingart found that “DH peer reviewers or editors are more unlikely to accept submissions on pedagogy than on most other topics, even though they sometimes represent a decent chunk of submissions.” This division and its destructive hierarchy seems to have been adopted wholesale by many art historians without consideration of the potential benefit of teaching and research going hand in hand. What we learn with digital art history can and should be used to inspire a new generation of art historians—beginning at the undergraduate level— to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills. These issues seem especially critical given the fact that art history has historically been shaped by the reproductive technologies it uses the classroom and in the research center.

Don’t get us wrong, we are excited about all the digital art history projects launched in the last few years. It is clear that “distant reading” as applied to art history will radically change how we see works of art. Johanna Drucker has outlined the kinds of questions and projects we can start to imagine. But we are equally excited about the folks who are bringing new methods into the art history classroom to engage their students.

We became art historians in a period when reproductions of works of art were rare and often represented by a single image—usually the one found in the textbook was the same as the one in the slide library (though with luck a few additional views of a frescoed chapel, or a church portal could be found). We longed for more and better images that would help us put the work of art within its larger context for our students. Slides and print photographs are, of course, quite different than holding a drawing, or walking around a sculpture. Nevertheless, a good reproduction was not to be dismissed—here was means to look closely and repeatedly, to study an object in ways that might not otherwise be possible. And these few treasured reproductions allowed us, to a limited extent, to bring our students with us to places we were interrogating even as we remained in a darkened classroom.

Stephen Murray expressed the existential absence at the center of teaching art history in the classroom in his essay from 2011, “The Crisis in Art History?”:

The paradox in the enterprise of the professor of art history is that we spend most of our time as teachers in the classroom talking about what is not there—the absent work of art, represented by a surrogate image projected onto a screen. I believed from the start that the way that we bring the image of the work of art into the classroom is not a passive factor in the representation of the work of art and the history of art, but rather that it has the potential to change the way the student sees and comprehends. However, in some ways we have simply traded in our slide carousel for our PowerPoint and our slide room for ARTstor. The computer has the potential to be so much more than an intelligent slide carousel, and the interactive medium of the Internet should, I think, provide a stimulus for new explorations and collaborations.

For at least the last ten years, the digital has seemed the best possible way to make the absent present for our students. With a small, hand-held recorder, we record unscripted audio conversations on-site (the echo of a church and our hushed voices communicate a lot about place). We use photographs that show the work of art embedded in a world our students recognize, often with tourists and worshippers, and that convey the more complex experience of moving around an object, examining it actively, from multiple points in space. Many of our photographs are very different from the ideal vantage point so often chosen for textbooks. Essays published by Smarthistory often have half a dozen images or more, and videos commonly make use many dozens of images. Teachers and learners tell us these strategies are essential for conveying the complex and subtle experiences of place.

Lessons from The Yellow Milkmaid

The art history community has largely forsaken the web, the environment where most of our students and the public turn first for information. The academy has allowed a vacuum of high-quality information to develop on the web that has been filled to a great extent by low-quality commercial enterprises that perpetuate clichés and misinformation. Our work is generally inaccessible and the profession is too often caricatured because we have not taken seriously the need to make our work meaningfully available to the general public (even at a time when museums are enjoying record attendance and the art market reaches ever more dizzying heights).

Our lack of presence on the web has had serious ramifications for our discipline. Harry Verwayen at Europeana has written about a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Yellow Milkmaid syndrome,

The Milkmaid, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey the Rijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘Yellow Milkmaid’.

While the Rijksmuseum (and many other institutions such as the Walters Art Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The J. Paul Getty Museum) have sought to counter the “Yellow Milkmaid syndrome” by openly licensing their images and metadata and in this way have taken a leadership role on the web, too often art historians and departments of art history continue to disregard their potential impact on the web. We create a vacuum—not in regard to images—but rather with the critical tools we can provide to a public immersed in more images than at any time in history. We can fill this vacuum with scholarship, learning content and pedagogical strategies and make our work more broadly accessible and more influential.

Art history on an entirely new scale

The “digital” in “digital scholarship” and “digital pedagogy” can refer to many things including gleaning insights from large data sets, scanning and preserving at risk monuments, or even reconstructing lost cities, but—and here’s what often gets lost—it is also about the potential scale of dissemination. We are referring here to the potential to leverage the web to make art history more broadly accessible than has ever been possible before. Scale is especially important for those disciplines—like art history—that are not often taught at the k-12 level and are currently under pressure, even in universities. There is some irony here. Art history is of course simply the study of our visual cultural heritage, the product of the human creative impulse—one of the central ways that we define human experience. Nevertheless, art history remains largely inaccessible to those without an elite college education or who live far from an art museum. This constitutes the vast majority of the world’s population, even those with digital access. Art historians have an extraordinary opportunity—collectively—to share our expertise openly on the web and thereby help to educate the world about visual cultural heritage. Given the long deplorable history of the destruction of cultural heritage sites and monuments and the recent destruction of so much irreplaceable work in Syria and Iraq, it is our discipline’s clear obligation to promote cross-cultural understanding by freely sharing our expertise.

As one example of this potential scale, Smarthistory’s pages were accessed from around the world nearly 14 million times in the past academic year.  A single video that we recently created with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank on a sculpture of the Aztec goddess, Coatlicue, has already been viewed nearly 60,000 times. Our most popular video, made with Dr. Bernard Frischer and using footage from his amazing Rome Reborn project, has been viewed more than 480,000 times. This is a scale of an entirely different order than most of us are used to. Most of us teach a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, students each year. Yet millions of people around the world are interested in learning the history of visual culture but have limited opportunity. For the first time in history we can reach beyond the walls of the university, and the limited distribution of academic publishers, and we can do so at virtually no additional cost.

Open art history

This magnitude of outreach is impossible without a commitment to open licensing. Smarthistory is an open educational resource (OER), and content is published with a Creative Commons share-alike, attribution, non-commercial license. Our Flickr account has nearly 5000 images of commonly taught objects (shown in context with high-quality details and reliable metadata) and is growing. These photographs are viewed thousands of times each day and have been accessed some five million times overall. But “open” is also an approach. We think of Smarthistory as a way to open our classrooms to share pedagogical strategies for engaging students. The 150+ art historians contributing essays in their areas of expertise are not simply conveying information about important monuments, they are sharing ways they’ve found to make material and art historical process engaging to undergraduates. Sharing teaching strategies has always been important to us. Even before we began Smarthistory we invited each other to visit the other’s classroom—we can now do this on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

Smarthistory is an inherently open and collaborative project, and the content is being translated into dozens of languages. We want to thank our contributors, generous scholars like Jeffrey Becker, Kristen Chiem, Lauren Kilroy Ewbank, Sally Hickson, Peri Klemm, Rex Koontz, Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis, Melody Rod-ari, Nancy Ross, Virginia Spivey, Bryan Zygmont, and many, many others listed here. Interested in contributing? Have a look at the Trello board and drop us an email.

Here are a few tenets we think are important for digital art history.

  1. value pedagogy and scholarship equally—if you organize a workshop or conference make sure both are represented
  2. use the web to speak to a broad, global audience and demonstrate the value of our discipline
  3. publish research online with an open license and create complementary learning content  for students and the broader public
  4. teach students about copyright, licensing, and fair use
  5. value serious virtual reality projects
  6. open your classroom and teaching strategies where possible
  7. use more images and share your images
  8. avoid powerpoint in the classroom, use the web instead
  9. collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
  10. make the absent, present
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