Connecting with the world—by Dr. Nara Hohensee

Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007, (The Museum of Modern Art) here enacted 2009 (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker)

This is the last in a four-part series of posts authored by Smarthistory’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Naraelle Hohensee.


“We are moving from an era of scholarship based on the individual author of the “great book” to an era of scholarship based on the collaborative authoring possibilities of the “great project.”

—Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, authors of Digital_Humanities

“To a great extent, the academy once controlled the circulation of reproductions of cultural monuments. That is no longer true. If we want to engender a respect for images as more than illustrations that accompany text, our discipline must engage [new digital] technologies more comprehensively.”

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, the founders of Smarthistory, penned the above words a decade ago. Sadly, our discipline has yet to widely embrace the methodological or technological possibilities afforded by the dissolution of the traditional slide library: it lives on in the form of powerpoint presentations shown in lecture-driven art history classrooms everywhere. In a recent video titled “Why You Don’t Like Art History,” Sarah Urist Green of PBS’s The Art Assignment beautifully articulates how the traditional slide-based survey lecture does a disservice to art history, and how her work as a public-facing art historian promotes learning about art in ways that address the complexities of today’s world:

For all of the nuance we’ve added to the study of art at the upper levels, very little has changed in our introductions to art….We’re told a story of advancement and progress…as if the creation of art is a single timeline rather than a vast, confusing web….Complication and nuance are reserved for higher level courses….The more linear version of history you first learn may have been easier to memorize—and promptly forget—but it recklessly sacrifices so much in its efforts to simplify and smooth over….I would argue that you don’t like art history because the stories you learn usually don’t bear any resemblance to the world as you experience it, which is messy and complicated and hard to make sense of….Maybe the goal is to absorb as many of the flawed incomplete and biased histories as we can, appreciating what is there, what’s missing, and who’s telling it…allowing for diversity and difference and change, which is ultimately a more accurate and more compelling representation of the fullness of the world.

If we are, like Green, to leave the hallowed pages of Gardner, Janson, and Stokstad and embrace an art history that is both more consciously inclusive of both marginalized voices and objects, more interdisciplinary, and more critical of the biases inherent in the discipline, we also need openly accessible, high-quality, and modular learning resources to support our endeavor. Affordable digital media production tools, the growth and availability of high-quality images, and the Internet as a distribution channel make this possible—but we also need art historians with the skills to do it.

The impact of “narrative” digital art history

If we really believe that images matter, we should be looking to have the highest impact possible on teaching and learning. This includes learning outside the walls of the university, commonly referred to as “public scholarship.” Art history has always done this within the context of the gallery and museum space, using exhibitions as ways to tell stories about art to vast and diverse publics, and in other public context like walking tours that include architecture, public art, and monuments. Academic art history needs to do the same, and we can.

Given our discipline’s reliance on the images themselves, a necessary first step for academia is a greater recognition of the importance of digital learning resource production across our field, and, more specifically, in the discourse on digital art history. The shift in this direction is happening now, as universities establish departments dedicated to digital learning, and offer incentives for faculty to utilize technology, but we could be doing much more to educate instructors on how to effectively deploy these tools in the classroom.

Sadly, the literature on the digital humanities tends to ignore teaching. The current scholarship highlights how new technologies have revolutionized publishing and authorship in significant ways, but recent assessments of digital art history as a field focus almost exclusively on computational, data-driven projects as the loci of innovation. For instance, Johanna Drucker, in an article entitled “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?” (Visual Resources, March-June 2013), distinguishes between “digitized” (image repositories, digitized slide libraries) and “digital” art history (art history that uses computational methods)—but storytelling and other formats that I would term “narrative,” including writing that is distributed digitally, are left out of her analysis.

This is unfortunate, because these narrative formats, I would argue, have the highest potential for resolving what is now rightly recognized as a crisis of recognition and importance in both art history and the humanities in general. As co-founder Beth Harris noted in a recent interview, Smarthistory has always been focused on innovative, rigorous, and accessible content, rather than on the bells and whistles of the technology itself:

Art is one of the ways that we define what it means to be human, and yet it is the among the least supported disciplines in all but the most elite schools. We take art and its history for granted, and because it is often (and incorrectly) associated with wealth, we view it as elitist and without practical utility. This is nonsense. Art’s history is our shared human experience. It belongs to all of us. We use a digital platform simply because it can efficiently distribute complex ideas in an engaging way.

Smarthistory is only one of numerous digital platforms where innovative art historical research is being produced and shared. The Vistas project at Fordham University, the University of Iowa’s Art & Life in Africa, Mapping Gothic France, Italian Renaissance Resources, the Kress Technical Art History website at the University of Delaware, the Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project, Rome Reborn, the Open University’s Travelling Objects project, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and Art History Teaching Resources are just a few examples of the outstanding work being done by others in this vein.

Practitioners and collaborators

Today, we have the opportunity to do this more quickly, flexibly, iteratively, and collaboratively than ever before. While the monograph and the journal article still have their place, we should focus equally on creating co-authored, narrative digital projects that foreground the latest thinking about images and foster productive, critical connections between objects and methodologies.

“For digital humanists,” argue the authors of the book Digital_Humanities, “authorship is rooted in the processes of design and the creation of the experiential, the social, and the communal. We no longer imagine authorship as autonomous work or as the labor of a solitary genius (something that, to be sure, critical theory has been chipping away at for decades). Instead we think of the harnessing and expressiveness of the creative energies of an ever-expanding, virtually boundless community of practitioners.”

Back in 2008, Beth and Steven pointed out how the slide library had long functioned as a place to build community within a given academic department, offering “a place to speak with colleagues in an informal context…Conversations that took place there naturally turned to general teaching strategies and specifics such as image comparisons, visual learning activities, or museum assignments.” With the Internet as our new “slide library,” we must also embrace new ways of building community so that those important conversations and collaborations can continue to take place. While we know that the Internet is not always a neutral “public square,” its potential for connecting people is vast—and we should be creating spaces where that can happen.

Skilled art historians needed

Smarthistory works with over 250 diverse, expert contributors, including 26 talented contributing editors. But to achieve the next level of collaboration and fully utilize the possibilities of the digital world, art history needs more scholars and instructors who can effectively use technology to deploy images and narrative media in their work and teaching, and they need a place to share and learn from one another. Image search, image manipulation, the principles of design and layout, audio and video editing, and web design are now basic skills that everyone can and should acquire. This is why Smarthistory is offering a workshop on these topics this August, and will soon be providing free materials about these techniques online.

We see Smarthistory, like the slide library of the last century, as a community that can help foster productive, critical, and practice-driven discourse about how to address the issues addressed in these posts. For this, we also need the input of expert voices, especially in underrepresented areas of the discipline.

For the last decade, Smarthistory has been committed to making the landscape of our field one that better represents the world and its multiple, complex histories and diversity of voices. We want to an impact by providing teaching and learning resources that support this approach, and make it possible for everyone who teaches at the introductory level to employ it in their classrooms. Our breadth and depth of content, as well as our format (modular, conversational, yet rigorous) have made us the most-used learning resource for art history in the world. With a growing community of committed collaborators, we can continue the work of bringing art history to the world and the world to art history, with lenses that are critical, self-reflexive, and that strive for inclusivity and equity.

If you are interested continuing the conversation or contributing your voice to Smarthistory, please contact us.

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