How Smarthistory stacks up (and why museums should care about YouTube)

As part of our effort to assess Smarthistory’s effectiveness, we have begun to compare our reach against that of other providers of high-quality art history content on the web. Museums produce learning content that is broadly similar to that produced by Smarthistory. However, very few institutions come close to our increasingly global scope, number of assets (Smarthistory now offers some 1500 videos and essays), and breadth of contributors.

Here are some stats…

Smarthistory—with a staff of two—now has more YouTube subscribers than every art museum in the U.S. and U.K. (save MoMA and Tate).

YouTube subscribers as of April 8, 2016:
56,918 The Museum of Modern Art (620 videos)
56,869 Tate (740 videos)
47,670 Smarthistory (696 videos)
40,794 The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1127 videos)
22,711 The British Museum (235 videos)
18,866 The J. Paul Getty Museum (370 video)
14,645 Musée du Louvre (209 videos)
13,396 Prado (1007 videos)
 9,711 Guggenheim Museum (293 videos)
 7,924 The National Gallery (London) (172 videos)
 5,393 Art Institute of Chicago (165 videos)
 5,015 Musée d’Orsay (132 videos)
 3,861 Whitney Museum of American Art (270 videos)
 2,275 Rijksmuseum (194 videos)

And according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most recent annual report, the Timeline of Art History received an average of one million visits per month in fiscal year 2015 (Annual Report of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2014-15, p. 6). In comparison, Smarthistory content received 13.5 million views in 2015. Now of course, museums do much more than make educational video and essay content—they have objects and visitors to care for. But then again, most museums have more than two staff members and many have been around for a century or more and so have had a bit of a head start. The point is, Smarthistory, with its tiny funding stream, has had an outsized impact.

Why are we, in this post, focused on the web, and specifically on YouTube? Well, for one thing, by the end of 2014, it was estimated that 3 billion people were online, and Google believes that number will reach 5 billion by 2020 (we are continually inspired by Michael Edson’s work— see “The Age of Scale”). And most importantly, YouTube is now the place many people go to learn. Nicholas Mirzoeff, in his new book, How to See the World, reports that 6 billion hours of video are watched on YouTube every month. Perhaps even more astonishingly, Mirzoeff reports that the global photography archive increased 25% in 2014 alone (one trillion photographs were taken in 2014). In a world of selfies—in a world awash with images—those of us with expertise in the history of art and visual culture have a serious obligation to situate contemporary visual culture within its history (Mirzoeff does a brilliant job placing the selfie in the history of the self-portrait).

Smarthistory is likely a leading re-user of open content relating to museum collections and we are obviously deeply indebted to the generous open access image initiatives of the past few years. Those of you who have helped to pioneer these initiatives—we thank you! We are pleased to see that there have recently been a slew of conferences about open access initiatives that are beginning to ask about actual use (see the “Ready to reach out: conference on Digitization of Cultural Heritage” in Amsterdam in June).

Here are some more statistics about the content we created and published (videos and essays) in 2015 and 2016 (as of March 26, 2016):

  • Prehistoric to Medieval art in the West (47 assets: 1,420,341 views)
  • Art from the Renaissance to the 18th Century in the West (32 assets: 221,274 views)
  • 19th Century European art (11 assets: 100,740 views)
  • American art to 1900, includes Mexico (12 assets: 23,669 views)
  • Architecture: Renaissance to Contemporary (12 assets: 52,957 views)
  • 20th and 21st century art (33 assets: 165,300 views)
  • Native North and South American art (8 assets: 139,955 views)
  • Pre-Columbian art (20 assets: 244,827 views)
  • Colonial Latin American art (6 assets: 17,172 views)
  • Art of Africa (12 assets: 117,844 views)
  • Art of the Pacific Islands (6 assets: 43,030 views)
  • Art of China (6 assets: 48,597 views)
  • Art of Japan (4 assets: 26,138 views)
  • Art of Korea (1 asset:  8,731 views)
  • Art of the Islamic World (6 assets: 27,051 views)
  • Art of South and Southeast Asia (4 assets: 15,840 views)
  • Design and Thematic selections (4 assets: 62,876 views)

According to analytics generated by Google—and looking only at assets that we have published between January 1, 2015 and March 26, 2016—we find that these 224 videos and essays generated 2,724,330 views.

In the coming year, we will continue to expand our “global” content—especially in Africa (thanks to Dr. Peri Klemm), East Asia (thanks to Dr. Kristen Chiem and Dr. Yoko Hsueh Shirai),  the Islamic World (thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis), and the Americas, pre and post-invasion (thanks to Dr. Lauren Kilroy Ewbank, Dr. Sarahh Scher, Dr. Rex Koontz, and Dr. Maya Jimenez). Special thanks also to Dr. Jeffrey Becker, Dr. Bryan Zygmont, Allison Young, Dr. Nancy Ross, and the many other art historians, curators, and archaeologists that have generously contributed their expertise (including Smarthistory’s contributing editors)

Imagine the impact we could have if we worked together to make art’s history accessible. This would mean thinking differently about video content (and YouTube). If you are an art historian or work for a museum, we are always looking for new partnerships and hope you will be in touch. You can contact us here.

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