We decided to launch a new series of posts from Smarthistory contributors and users – about why they contribute and how they use Smarthistory content. Our inaugural post in this series is by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, contributing editor for Art of the Islamic World.
“Why do I contribute to Smarthistory?”
by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis
Walking through an archaeological site or museum, talking to a captive audience of quasi-willing friends, family, or students is one of my favorite things to do. Smarthistory allows me to share my passion for the ancient Mediterranean and Islamic worlds by educating others through the study of the remarkable and diverse material culture that these worlds produced.
Making videos with Beth and Steven allows me to recreate the discussions that I have in my classrooms with students, and in the halls of my university with my colleagues. Also talking about objects and architecture with students—I hope—helps them to understand that works of art are not straightforward, but rather that they are complex, sophisticated pieces of history and culture that scholars attempt to make sense of. There are almost always two, if not more, sides to an object or building. An art history textbook rarely focuses on the debates about an object or building, but talking with Beth and Steven can! Also, conversation is dynamic—one remembers so much more by debating and discussing an object than when lecturing.
But there are more important reasons that I contribute to Smarthistory beyond my love of spending a day visiting Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, or the Mosque of Rustem Pasha in Istanbul.
I believe that scholars have an obligation to share our findings with the people of the countries where we work. We are guests in these countries, and people open their houses, hearts, and minds to us. Many universities outside the United States and Western Europe have excellent scholars and bright students, but they lack the resources that we take for granted at most American institutions. They don’t have ebrary, JSTOR, or an extensive library. I believe that open-access, free resources are vital to sharing knowledge, allowing access to the scholarship that has been done on their visual culture. Knowledge cannot reside only with affluent western institutions. Smarthistory believes that anyone can have a world-class education. I do too.
As an archaeologist and architectural historian who has worked in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and other Mediterranean countries, I feel a compelling urge and duty to help write about and inform the public about the richness and complexity of architecture and works of art that were produced in these lands—from the tombs of Petra to the Great Mosque of Damascus. Because so many monuments are under threat in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, I want people to be able to educate themselves about these great monuments and to understand how these monuments may one day help in the narratives of rebuilding and reconciliation that I hope will one day come to many of the countries in the Middle East.
Lastly, it is an often a repeated refrain that the humanities are under assault. If so, we could blame others. However, if we decide to take responsibility to combat this idea, archaeologists, art historians and others can use and contribute to Smarthistory to reverse this narrative. I believe that academics need to write for the public, as much as we do for our peers. Smarthistory encourages conversation, and the easy, engaging writing style of the essays promotes accessibility. You don’t need an advanced degree in archaeology or art history to learn about Islamic art or ancient gardens – all you need is curiosity. And that’s why I contribute to Smarthistory—I hope that I can help others to be curious, just like I am.
Listen to Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis on the following videos:
and read many of her essays here.