Smarthistory: shifting the boundaries and possibilities of art history scholarship—By Michelle Millar Fisher

An edited version of this article appeared in caa.reviews on May 23, 2018. Our thanks to author Michelle Millar Fisher for allowing us to publish the complete text. Fisher is currently the Louis C. Madeira IV Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Design at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


When Smarthistory.org debuted in 2007, it was a radical proposition. Instead of requiring expensive textbooks, students could access videos modeling in-depth visual analysis of well-known works of art and architecture, robustly researched essays on single works and overarching themes, and images that articulate a global art history survey for free through their web browser. Both the online website interface and the YouTube-style videos contained within were, in many senses, more germane to students’ consumption patterns and learning habits than a ten-pound textbook. On this basis alone—though there are further reasons that I will articulate below—it is hard to write a review of this resource that is anything but glowing.

Smarthistory’s co-founders, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, both graduates of the doctoral program in Art History at The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate Center, have from the project’s inception insisted upon a Web 2.0 approach that stresses the importance of free, open access content with no paywalls, and the possibility for its users—students and teachers of art history at the college and high school Advanced Placement level, yes, but many more casual learners too—to remix and reuse the content as needed. [1]

A brief history of Smarthistory

At its inception (in 2005, two years before its custom website launched), Smarthistory was a series of unscripted podcasts recorded on a $30 microphone, shared on a blog, and originally intended for use by student visitors at two of New York City’s well-known cultural institutions (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art), as well as by college-level students in classrooms in the city. This genesis resulted from the founders’ prior occupations: Harris was the inaugural Director of Digital Learning at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Zucker was chair of the program in art and design history at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. While both continue to teach, Smarthistory has now become their main focus, funded along the way by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Terra Foundation for American Art, among others. [2]

For a brief period between 2011 and 2015, the site was associated directly with Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization and platform founded in 2006 which, similarly to Smarthistory, uses YouTube videos as teaching tools. While the Khan Academy site still hosts Smarthistory content, the independent Smarthistory site prevails as a more intuitive hub for visual information and a dedicated, discrete site for visual history. It is impossible to overstate the reach the project has, with over 35 million site views in 2016 alone. The Smarthistory YouTube channel sits snugly among major international institutions in terms of its subscribers; with 89,000 subscribers and counting, it commands more than every U.S. museum institution except MoMA, which has 146,000. In comparison, the Met has 60,000, and even large international institutions pale in contrast—the Tate has 59,000. [3]

It might surprise many in our field at large to discover that two art historians and a Mellon fellow (Dr. Nara Hohensee, also a CUNY grad) have attracted more than three times as many unique site visits than such venerated resources as the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, which received 10.4 million—and was that museum’s most popular web destination—in the same 2016–17 annual period when Smarthistory received over 35 million. [4] But then, the field of art history has more than a little catch up to play in the digital realm.

Robust content

While uptake and accessibility lie at the core of Smarthistory’s mission, and such figures are radical in terms of the reach of our field, the content of the site is as robust as its statistics. Each of the site’s 1,500 (and counting) essays—on single works or sites such as the Bamiyan Buddhas (authored by Dr. Melody Rod-Ari) or on themes such as “Images of Enlightenment: Aniconic vs. Iconic Depictions of the Buddha in India” (authored by Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi)—are written by specialists in that subject area. This is quite different than the in-classroom U.S. art history survey model where one teacher must often struggle through areas of the prehistory-to-present curriculum that defy their comfort zone.

The essays published on the site are pointedly designed as teaching resources. However, the site’s core genius is, and has always been, the voices of its two founders (joined more recently by some of their contributing editors), which evolved from their early podcasts into short yet rich, informally delivered, and well-researched and illustrated YouTube videos. In the broad sweep of chronologies, geographies, and aesthetics presented, their insistence on modeling close looking, detailed descriptions, and visual analysis within these videos as the central tenets of art historical practice is key to their success in retaining the robustness of art historical inquiry in a wholly digital format fit for purpose in an age when students consume so much through this means.

Close looking and conversation

In 2016, in their reflection on the joy of teaching written for Art History Pedagogy and Practice (AHPP)“Making the Absent Present: The Imperative of Teaching Art History”—Harris and Zucker cited renowned museum educator and art history pedagogy scholar Rika Burnham’s practice of “close looking” as the foundational skill we inherit and pass on as art historians. Pairs of art historians, curators, or archaeologists stand in front of works or sites and deliver unscripted (although edited and refined) dialogues that, paired with images of the object of discussion, draw the listener in as an active participant and models deep, thoughtful, and multilayered visual analysis. Much like former British Museum director Neil McGregor’s insightful BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, the conversations are object-centered (or concerned with a particular building or site), using the work as the locus for an historically grounded and intersectional consideration of material culture, history, aesthetics, and critical thinking.

In 2012, the site was featured on the Huffington Post, where Harris and Zucker described their method: “We record most of our audio on-site to give students a sense of what it’s like to be in the museum, church, or the palace we’re visiting. The textbook tends to isolate and decontextualize the object.” They are insistent on the experiential understanding of art works, using multiple images instead of a textbook-style single, cropped work; the fact that their videos incorporate the sounds of the museum or sacred site in which the conversation is recorded enlivens and contextualizes the understanding of objects as, in Zucker’s words, “something that is accruing meaning, even in [the student’s] world.” This is eminently possible to achieve in the online format in a way that is more difficult to do in print (which has its own advantages), where images are usually limited to one and rarely more than two or three per object or site discussed. As Harris and Zucker explained in their AHPP paper,

A transcript of Smarthistory’s video on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens is more than twice the length of the entries in Janson’s History of Art and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages—roughly 1300 versus 550 words…[The] video uses over fifty high-resolution photographs and diagrams…Given the complexity of architecture in general, and of this monument in particular, such minimal coverage [in print] cannot possibly do the monument justice. For most students, this is likely to be their only exposure to such an influential building.

Helping instructors embrace the digital

The site also offers adaptable syllabi for the art history survey that aid instructors in synthesizing the site’s free content for use in a semester-long survey class. This catalyzation of others is the intention of open education resources, and Harris and Zucker are almost evangelical about empowering students and teachers to synthesize at will from the materials they produce. [5] It is difficult to critique as robust a resource. Areas for development are noted by Harris and Zucker, and they operate a Trello board to encourage the community of scholars around the site to populate, Wiki-style, and fill the gaps. Further design and decorative art examples, as well as fashion design, would be a welcome addition, if only to signal a more expansive and inclusive envisioning of what art history means today. An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant in 2015 resulted in further content creation in art from Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Islamic world, and Oceania, underlining the site’s commitment to supporting global art history.

The few years preceding Smarthistory’s debut witnessed a much broader reassessment of the delivery of art history teaching in the digital age. Slide projectors were swapped out for the digital ease of PowerPoint; art historical images existed within the infinitely larger pool of mass media available online, from which instructors or their students might synthesize a never-ending Warburgian mnemosyne atlas from the dizzying visual soup. Video—then in its infancy (YouTube was founded in 2005), and now in high-definition and 360-degree variations—can take students out of the classroom and place them in front of artworks in major museums worldwide (and a good few smaller ones, too—the rise of the Digital department in museums of all sizes that produce such content has mirrored this trajectory). It is possible to see entire collections from major museums online, to read through digitized exhibition histories and publications for free (MoMA’s 2015 project is comprehensive), and to virtually stroll through San Vitale in Ravenna or enter any number of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.

These are only the tip of the digital iceberg. The Smarthistory site even pre-dated the inception and rise of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). [6] And yet, as Zucker reminded the audience at the Openlab Workshop Unconference in 2015, “That so many institutions still seek to control high-resolution images of public domain works of art is simply an abuse of their missions and the beneficial status that we the public grant them.” Thus, Smarthistory reminds us of the politics of teaching the visual.

The power of collaborative practice

Apart from the radical proposition of dismantling the textbook racket and making high-quality learning resources available for free use and remixing (a foundational tenet of the growing Open Educational Resource movement), Smarthistory also models pedagogical research and publication as a viable, laudable, and rigorous form of art historical labor. Harris and Zucker recognized the potential of re-educating those teaching art history about the power and politics of free digital resources (I still remember showing the site to several teaching peers and mentors in its infancy and their reactions—excitement, but also distrust of art history in such a different format). It is in this attempt to centralize pedagogy as an important part of the art history discipline, in the insistence on a collaborative model through which to form and deliver its content, and its existence as a digital project without the temptation to monetize through more traditional publication, advertising, or participation models that Smarthistory, in my view, has made the most long-lasting contribution to the scholarly field of art history. That the site has attracted over two hundred different contributors in the last decade is a testament to the broad appeal of the model of open-access pedagogy, of the site’s academic robustness, and of the power of collaborative art historical practice.

In 2012, as a CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellow halfway through my three-year tenure, I wrote that:

I have found that survey instructors are often teaching in the dark, isolated from opportunities to converse on this subject, afraid to ask for help for fear of seeming somehow incapable, or are often just too time-strapped. Whether tenured or contingent teacher, it can be difficult to innovate and experiment with teaching the art history survey when so much else is demanded from our time. How often do we observe other teachers teach survey? Give constructive feedback to our peers? Have time to practice and refine class activities before debuting them?

Digital and online resources are a huge part of the answer to this question, and Smarthistory has pioneered this format. The discipline of art history has been notoriously slow to evolve and embrace digital technologies (even while the artists it studies did so enthusiastically). [7] Smarthistory was at its inception in 2005—and in many ways still is—an outlier in the discipline; it was conceived of and willed into existence long before the so-called digital humanities became a trendy, career-and-budget-enhancing buzzword in universities and has maintained institutional independence, criticality of both content and approach, and rigorous review of the materials it produces, even while expanding to encompass millennia of art history authored by over two hundred scholars. This is important not only for the students and instructors who benefit from using the resources on the site, but also for the way in which such a project reshapes the notion of art history as a discipline and practice.

The need for recognizing digital scholarship

This is not without tension. Harris and Zucker operate outside an academic institution, but for many contributors to the site—esteemed tenured or tenure-track art history faculty in the majority, with strong entries written by adjunct faculty, curators, and archaeologists, all of whom hold a terminal degree in their discipline—this open peer-reviewed pedagogical research and writing joins similar labor on other more traditional subject areas within the discipline. Yet, as Sheila Cavanagh highlighted in the Fall 2012 special issue of Journal of Digital Humanities dedicated to investigating the problem of assessing digital humanities scholarship, many on P&T boards have no idea how to welcome this work into the academy—and reward those producing it:

Numerous faculty members, department chairs, deans, and others involved in the faculty reward system continue not to understand the shifting parameters of research, teaching, and service that have been instigated by the digital revolution. Many of these individuals, in fact, remain unaware of their ignorance…unwittingly contribut[ing] to an environment that impedes intellectual innovation. Despite the pressing need for reconfigured standards of evaluation and new approaches to mentoring, many of those holding the power to address this situation do not recognize the issues at stake.

Over the last five years, as it has become career-enhancing to engage with the digital humanities, Smarthistory has been joined by a raft of other online projects that traverse the boundaries of art history research, pedagogy, and practice. As the joint CAA-SAH guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship in art history highlighted, the collaboration inherent to Smarthistory (and other projects like it) “is not a puzzle where each person brings a predetermined piece to the final picture; rather, it is a process through which intellectual content is generated within and through the collaboration…[It] generally takes more time than single-authored work, rather than less.”

New possibilities

In modeling this process of meaning-making on so many levels—in YouTube conversations, between a work of art and a viewer, or between instructor peers—Smarthistory has radically shifted the boundaries and possibilities of art history scholarship. Harris and Zucker have been explicit in sharing the process of prototyping their research and delivery systems. More so than instructors, their goal is educating learners, not simply through catering to their intrinsic abilities and preferences for the digital—though that is certainly part of the site’s relevance—but the insistence in teaching from a place of expertise to open the door and lower the threshold for the participation of others.

It may be some decades before this is truly recognized and appreciated within the most traditional areas of the art historical field or by institutions that are slow to let go of what they see as their cultural property, but given that the newest art historians are now digital natives, this new dawn is coming. It is up to each one of us to choose how we will engage with it, but engage we will have to, one way or another.


Notes

1. The OpenStax (originally Connexions) project, founded in 1999 at Rice University, pioneered the formation of open educational resources online as an alternative to prohibitively costly university textbooks and materials and encouraged their free use and adaptation through Creative Commons licenses.

2. As the Samuel H. Kress ten-year report states, “In FY2009, Kress placed a little bet on two tenured art history faculty, Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, then at the Fashion Institute of Technology (State University of New York), with a small grant. Committed educators, frustrated by the standard survey art history textbooks, and eager to find more effective ways of reaching their undergraduate students, they developed a modest online platform of videos, which featured conversations about canonic art works. Kress’s initial support helped the Smarthistory team further develop the online multimedia web-book.”

3. These figures were correct as of December 2017.

4. The Museum’s website ended fiscal year 2017 with a total of thirty-one million visits, thirty-five percent of which were international. The Met’s online collection and the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History continue to draw the most visits, with 8.3 million and 10.4 million, respectively. See The Metropolitan Museum of Art Annual Report 2016-17, page 9.

5. One of the very first posts I published when Art History Teaching Resources, the online peer-populated teaching resource site that I co-founded, debuted in 2013 was a semester-long syllabus and reading list built from the outlines offered on Smarthistory.org—an act that spurred others to experiment similarly, publish further posts, and present at the annual College Art Association on their outcomes.

6. There are competing narratives: HASTAC (the online Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) claims it was the first to produce a MOOC, in 2006-07; it was 2008 before the term itself was coined; and 2012 when the New York Times declared it the “year of the MOOC,” a suggestion that the idea of online and hybrid (in-person and online) learning became truly mainstream only within the last five years.

7. “Most CAA respondents, across all professional ranks, have never used data gathering and imaging tools (83%), data analysis, and visualization tools (80%), three-dimensional modeling (75%), digital storage and preservation tools (73%), and geospatial analysis tools (65%).” College Art Association and the Society of Architectural Historians, Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in Art and Architectural History for Promotion and Tenure.

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