Doing digital art History & archaeology won’t hurt much! (I promise…) —a post from Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis

View from Süleymaniye to the Golden Horn, Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque for the Sultan Süleyman the Lawgiver, 1558, Istanbul

This week we feature a second post from Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis.


I love teaching my graduate students. They are smart, insightful, and curious. They read Latin, Arabic, and even Ge’ez! They are, however, often self-professed luddites.

I teach at the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, an institution that is very supportive of students and faculty undertaking digital scholarship. We have an Initiative for Digital Humanities, a master’s degree with a track in Digital Humanities, Digital Fellows, a Digital Scholarship Lab, and The CUNY New Media Lab, among other centers and programs. The Digital Fellows and the tech-friendly librarians run numerous free, informative programs for students and faculty to become more educated about how to effectively integrate technology into their scholarship and teaching. While I work as the deputy director of an open-access photo archive and multi-media resource for the Middle East, Manar al-Athar, I took advantage of these seminars to learn WordPress and to learn the ropes of social media, since “tweeting” for me was something associated with my mother’s line of work as a field ornithologist.

So I decided a way to encourage students to explore digital tools in their research and teaching was to embed digital assignments into my seminars on the archaeology of the Greco-Roman East and Egypt, and on Islamic art and architecture, as well as my graduate-level introductory course, “Great Digs.”

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, Arts of the Islamic World class website

Students were asked to build websites on archaeological sites using Wordress in two of the classes and to write Smarthistory-style essays on single objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection that were posted to the class website, all built in WordPress. Having been assured that they would get ample support and guidance (including two digital seminars and clear guidelines on how to do things and a grading rubric), the students—even the ones wary of technology—were willing to give it a go. Plus in the case of the class on Islamic art and architecture, Beth and Steven were willing to work with me to revise some student essays that were appropriate for publication on Smarthistory. The opportunity to publish was exciting for my students and made the assignment more real.

The results were largely good and interesting—especially the essays written in the Smarthistory style. The students learned a lot of useful things. They learned how to write for non-academic specialists, and how to write concisely—skills that will serve them well in academia or in the museum world. They actually had fun, I think, because they could be more artful in their writing. The students also learned how difficult it is to work with images for publication—either in a traditional format or online. They had to source images that they could legally use for publication; they had to secure image permissions or use images with Creative Commons licenses. They also had to learn to resize images for the web and understand what DPI means and why 6 MB image files don’t work well online. These skills are the same for traditional publications. In essence, students learned about digital images—a vital part of the practice of archaeology and art history. None of the students—MA or PhD level—had experience doing this.

Six essays from the class were published—a huge success for the students. I am very proud of their willingness to take a risk and do something new and innovative.

To read more about the successes and failures of integrating digital components into my courses, see my article in issue seven of The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy about mentoring art historians and archaeologists for the digital age.


Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis is Contributing Editor for the Arts of the Islamic World. She is an archaeologist and architectural historian. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor at the Graduate Center at CUNY and serves on the governing board of the Archaeological Institute of America. She has a DPhil in Classical Archaeology from Oxford University.

Smarthistory contributions:

Art of the Islamic World
About chronological periods in the Islamic World
Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne
The Dome of the Rock
Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque
Hagia Sophia as a Mosque
Pyxis of al-Mughira

and much more…

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