Issues in Art History

by Annie Poslusny

Page 2 of 2

Digital Project 2

Here is my Google Map of the favorite places I’ve been, and places I would like to go. I really enjoyed this project, and found I had to force myself to stop working on it. Google Maps is fun and easy to use, and I hope you enjoy looking at it. For my truly favorite, favorite places I have used a heart icon, and I’ve written some text describing it. There are a couple of caution signs in red, for things you may want to watch out for in those areas. I’ve also added what I’m interested in seeing in the places I would like to visit layer.

Digital Mapping

Thee project, Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market led by scholars Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, began with Fletcher’s question: how did the commercial art-gallery system operate in nineteenth-century London? Fletcher was curious about where people encountered works of art, and how did the physical and social circumstances of those encounters shape their responses? She was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer volume of data, and realized she needed a way to organize the data, as well as a means to put the individual accounts of galleries into a larger pattern. The first part of the project involved mapping all the data points, and the second step was creating the animated map. The team used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to do so, and because modes of mapping time in GIS were inadequate, they chose to animate the map using Flash. Fletcher relays that the map originated as a tool to organize and understand the large amounts of data uncovered through her research of the London art market, but that the visualization quickly suggested new interpretations and avenues of inquiry. Fletcher and Helmreich are not advocating for a single hidden meaning that can be extracted from the sources. What they are advocating for is the adoption of new modes of analysis that will allow us to view the historical record in new ways – from a point of view of distance that permits us to observe patterns that would otherwise elude us. The scholars state that the new methods do not displace other modes of art historical analysis, but instead work in concert with them.

Fletcher goes on to address seven lessons the team learned while working on this project. The first, is to understand that digital scholarship requires an extensive time commitment. The work is very labor intensive, and requires a lot of time. The scholars note that they originally thought that inputting the information into the computer would go quickly. They soon realized that this was not the case, and that leads to lesson two. The second, is that digital scholarship rests on data standardization. This is a significant point, and those who are not experienced with digitization may not consider the fact that the computer requires standardized spellings and other repeatable formats in order to organize the data and perform efficient searches. This can be a challenge with historical texts and changes in language structure over time. The third, is to revise traditional scholarship and publishing workflows. With digital projects the publishing format is variable and therefore all viable options must me considered at the start of the project. The two aspects of the project – generating new scholarship and publishing new scholarship – must be managed concurrently. This is a new way of working and conceiving a scholarly project, and it can prove difficult to make all the decisions at the start of a digital project that must be made. Fourth, collaboration is crucial for success. To undertake these kinds of projects, the expertise of specialists in data management, database construction, computing programs, and web design and development are needed. Each team member must be treated as an equal, rather than as a service provider. I think for an effective team to operate, each member must feel that their contribution is valued. While I agree with Fletcher and Helmreich, I’m not sure how this would actually work in a museum setting. Museums, like much of society, is based on a hierarchical system, and currently the people doing the digitization projects are either art librarians, (who are also busy completing many other tasks) or graduate students, who most likely are not getting paid. I would suspect that this is the system at smaller museums, while larger museums could possibly have a full-time staff working on digitizing their collection. The fifth lesson, is that we must rethink traditional models of authorship. The new models of collaboration that is required for digital projects of this type require new ways of determining authorship. Fletcher notes that they had many conversations about who, from the project teams, should be identified as authors. I can also envision this becoming a problematic issue. How do you decide whose contribution is significant enough to be considered an author? Is this decision made solely by the scholars in charge? And if that is the case, then the entire team are not really ‘equals,’ are they? What criteria do you base this decision on? Is this a decision you make based on the amount of contribution by a member of the team at the end of the project? Or will some people be guaranteed authorship at the start? Author status has the potential to become a contentious issue. Sixth, is that digital scholarship is a form of scholarly interpretations. In other words, there were many choices to be made along the way in a project of this magnitude, and other scholars may have made different choices, leading to a possibly different conclusion. This doesn’t make their research any less valid, it means that simply because there is a digital, computer-based aspect to the research doesn’t mean it is the only answer to the research question. And finally, seventh, is to reconsider the traditional models of scholarly argument. Their research was not limited to the text, but also embedded in the map and visualizations, and they are an integral part of the project. You cannot extricate one from another, they must be reviewed together, as part of a whole. This article shows the highlights and pitfalls of a digital mapping project. It also shows the opportunities available to researchers if they are open to new ways of thinking about scholarship, and authorship.

This week we began experimenting working with Google Maps as well as StorymapJS. I found Google Maps to be easy to understand and use. I had difficulty with the number of steps it took to get an image ready for StorymapJS. It seemed to me to be a complicated process, and I still am unsure if I did it correctly. I was surprised how much I enjoyed working with Google Maps, and I can see myself using that technology on future projects.

References:

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012). http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/autumn12/fletcher-helmreich-mapping-the-london-art-market.

Oral History in the Digital Age

Linda Shopes “Making Sense of Oral History” offers some key information for beginners on how to work with oral history interviews as historical evidence. Shopes describes oral history as a dialogue between interviewer and narrator. The questions shape the responses, as well as the narrator’s frame of reference, and what the narrator deems is crucial information. Alessandro Portelli posits, “Oral history refers to what the [narrator] and the interviewer do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview.” The interviewer must choose her questions with care, because the questions will shape the narrator’s responses, and those responses will inform the next question. This creates a feed-back loop of each participant shaping the response of the other. It got me thinking about how potentially different the responses of the same narrator would be with a variety of interviewers. How do you account for the variables in age, sex, race, and personality? How reliable are the narrator’s perceptions? Would they change depending upon the interviewer? I believe the answer is yes. But how would we take this into account when assessing the oral history account?

Shopes advises us that perceptive questions are best, and that we should also encourage the narrator to recall details. It is the interviewer’s job to find clarity in the account, and evoke assessments of what it all meant then and what it means now. She states that we must remember that all interviews are shaped by the context within which they are conducted, which includes the purpose of the interview, and the states of mind and physical condition of the narrator and interviewer.

Even with all the variables that exist with oral history accounts, for the historian, oral history interviews are valuable sources of new knowledge about the past and offer new perspectives on it. Shopes states, “Oral histories also eloquently make the case for the active agency of individuals whose lives have been lived within deeply constraining circumstances.” Oral history is an excellent way of giving a voice to those who have been denied the opportunity of sharing their perspective. It is also one way to bring the past alive, it makes the past seem more real, and vivid, when you have an individual you can relate to as a person. Often, depending on the presentation, history can be dry and dull. But many oral history interview are good stories. They are often deeply personal, and the emotional account of individual experience draws listeners in. Oral history is a way to open the listener to a life which may be very different from her own in a non-threatening way. It can be a vehicle to connect us all in the human experience, which is something quite powerful.

However, Shopes cautions that oral history interviews are not necessarily unproblematic. Interviewers must use criticial judgment when using these interviews, and just because an account is deeply personal doesn’t necessarily make it true. Also, just because a person lived through a particular time or experience, doesn’t mean they automatically completely understand what happened. So what is the answer? Shopes relays that we should consider the reliability of the narrator and the verifiability of the account. She advises that we compare the account both with interviews on the same subject and with related documentary evidence. If the interview seems reasonable in this context, and if it builds upon or supplements this evidence in a logical and meaningful way, one can assume a certain level of confidence in the account. If not, then we must account for the reason for these inconsistencies. It is also common for narrators to get names and dates wrong, conflate disparate events into a single event, and even relay stories of questionable truthfulness. This lack of truthfulness may be merely forgetfulness, or purposeful distortion.

Shopes describes oral history is an interpretive event, not so much an exercise in fact finding. The narrator compresses years of living into a few hours of talk, selecting what to say and how to say it. Shope states that an “interview is a storied account of the past recounted in the present, an act of memory shaped as much by the moment of telling as by the history being told.” What the narrator says is also an expression of identity, consciousness, and cultural assumptions. As important as what is said is what is not said, what a narrator may misconstrue, ignore, or avoid. Silences may signify misunderstanding, discomfort with a difficult subject, or mistrust of the interviewer.

Oral history accounts can be problematic in a variety of ways, and it is up to the interviewer/historian to corroborate and verify the overall truthfulness of the account. In addition, we must keep in mind how easy it is to influence the responses, based on not only what the questions are, but who is asking the questions. Consideration should be given to who is the best person to ask this particular group of people questions.

These stories of oral history are a remarkable way to bring the past alive, and make an otherwise unimaginable experience relatable. These historical accounts are as much an expression of an individual’s identity as a recollection of a significant moment in their life. To be successful, an interviewer must be skilled in selecting questions and phrasing with care, having carefully researched the time period and major events in advance. The interviewer must be skilled in the ability to listen and formulate the next question, while also interpreting silences. Above all, a good interviewer must have good people skills. Oral history is a way to capture a moment in time, in the life of one person. But when you connect these stories together, you not only wind up with a fascinating account of the past, you also connect each person to another, weaving a powerful statement on the human experience. While oral history accounts offer a new perspective on events, you are also creating an opportunity for understanding and compassion between people who may lead very different lives, and it is this connection that makes oral history so remarkable.

References:

Shopes, Linda. “Making Sense of Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/making-sense-of-oral-history/

Art and Fair Use

One of the articles we read this week was Paula Aufderheide’s report on Copyright, Permissions, and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Visual Arts Communities. Fair use is part of the United States copyright law, and can be confusing. It refers to the right to reuse copyrighted material without permission or payment. Sherrie Levine and Roy Lichtenstein are two American artists who appropriate images from other artists. Appropriation in art and art history refers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their work with little transformation of the original. Some contemporary artists have taken this movement to the point of using images which are virtually unchanged (Sherrie Levine). While this is common practice for some artists, Aufderheide notes that up to a third of visual artists are more cautious, and avoid or abandon projects out of a fear violating copyright laws. The area in fair use that I believe causes the confusion is the issue of transformation. Often, if a copyright infringement case goes to court, a judge will use the amount of transformation from the original to determine if there was infringement. This begs the question of, how much transformation is required? Most likely it would be decided on a case by case basis, which adds to the probable desertion of projects.

For art historians, fair use applies to analytic writing, and enables scholars to quote, excerpt, or reproduce copyrighted works, according to the College Art Associations Code of Best Practices. However, if we plan to publish a book and include images to support our analysis, then we will be required to pay a licensing fee for permission to use the image(s). Depending on the artist, these fees can be prohibitive. This may cause art historians to eschew contemporary art all together in order to avoid the expense of licensing fees, resulting in a loss of scholarship. For example, any work done before 1923 falls under fair use, and those images are available for use without the financial concern of licensing fees. Another area where art historians can run into difficulty is if the copyright holder wants to stop the publication of an unwelcome focus on the artist, and will use copyright law to squash the project, again, resulting in a loss of scholarship. Curators must also consider copyright issues when planning an exhibition. They may be forced to discard a potential exhibition if the costs are too high. This is a practical concern which results in the loss of exposure to certain artists, as well as a loss for the public.

I have always found the work of Roy Lichtenstein an interesting example of free use. Lichtenstein used images from popular culture, mainly Romance and War comic books of the 1960s. The artists whose images he appropriated were not well paid, and had work-for-hire contracts, meaning they did not own the creative work they did. In interviews, Lichtenstein would sometimes speak positively about the work he had appropriated, but in others, he spoke disparagingly. He said he was turning the “low art” of comic books into “high art.” Essentially, he equated the creative work of other artists with Duchamp’s urinal. Comic book artists were insulted, and resentful of how much money Lichtenstein made on his paintings. While Lichtenstein”s changes were subtle, such as changing the scale, the colors, and tweaks to the composition, these changes did add up to a transformation of the work.

In class, we began working with Omeka. I had trouble logging into my c-panel, even though I had saved my username and password. I wound up sending a request for a new password. Uploading an item was also problematic, as the image I uploaded only appeared as a thumbnail, and not the actual image itself. I had to change the settings, which I did, but it still didn’t work. Other users had the same issue. We had to add a code in settings, and then it worked. Once I get my password reset, I will try to change the theme.

It is frustrating when technology doesn’t work they way it is supposed to. When it doesn’t, without the aid of someone more knowledgeable on the subject than myself, it becomes time-consuming to find out how to fix it. I would like the Omeka platform to be more intuitive. Why, if we’re already signed into Omeka, do we then have to sign into c-panel? Shouldn’t it recognize us? I’m sure someone with more technological knowledge could easily explain why it doesn’t. To me, it seems illogical. I’m sure the more the I use Omeka, the more comfortable I will get with it, and the easier it will become. I didn’t have the opportunity to add the theme I wanted because of the c-panel issue, but we were shown the process, and it appeared complicated, with multiple decision points. Unfortunately, multiple decision points for a beginner like me translates into multiple opportunities for mistakes.

That said, there are two aspects of Omeka that stand out for me. The first, is the possibility of collaboration, and the second is the exhibit builder. If an art historian becomes a faculty member at a college or university, Omeka opens up a variety of ways art history students could work together on projects, or create their own exhibition. An art historian who works in a museum or historical society could easily collaborate on projects, and the ability to design an exhibition in Omeka would prove quite useful. Curators could also use Omeka to build online exhibits which could offer even more information about an existing exhibition. Or, they could create an online exhibition which would supplement or enhance currently existing physical exhibits. I wonder if Omeka could be used to create an archive? This would be an advantageous way to organize research data, especially for a larger project like a dissertation. After the dissertation is published, you could make your archive public. All in all, I appreciate the possibilities of Omeka, and will continue to work with the program in the hopes of becoming more adept at using it.

References:

Patricia Aufderheide, et al. Copyright, Permissions, and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Visual Arts Communities: An Issues Report(College Art Association, 2014). http://www.collegeart.org/pdf/FairUseIssuesReport.pdf.

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in the Visual Arts (College Art Association, 2015). http://www.collegeart.org/fair-use/best-practices

Making the Invisible Visible

In 1901, one of the first acts of the Commonwealth of Australia was to create a system which would keep the newly-formed nation white. The legislation was specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. In Australia, this idea focused particularly on people of Asian descent, but applied to all non-whites, including indigenous Australians, who were viewed as a ‘dying race.’ [1] In his article, It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People, Tim Sherrat, an historian and self-described hacker, turns this system of rejection and control on its head by making the invisible, non-white Australians visible through the creation of a database.

The administration of what was to become known as the White Australia Policy created a colossal volume of records, most of which is still preserved within the National Archives of Australia. In the National Archives of Australia there are thousands of photographs attached to certificates that non-white residents needed to get back into the country if they traveled overseas. These certificates are poignant reminders of the thousands of lives which were tracked and supervised by the government of Australia.

Non-whites took back some of the control of their lives by having professional photographic portraits taken, rather than using the standard mug shot style photos, and were able to present themselves instead in a dignified manner. Sherrat has used facial detection technology to find and extract the photographs from digital copies of the original certificates made available through the National Archives of Australia’s collection database. He reverse-engineered the web interface and created a script that would harvest the metadata and download copies of all the digitized images. [2] Thanks to this ingenious technique, Sherrat built a resource which granted the opportunity to view these certificates and photos not as records, but as people. He linked the faces he found to the copies of the original certificates back to the collection database of the National Archives, effectively constructing a finding aid.

Sherrat quotes Margaret Hedstrom, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, as she describes the archival interface as a ‘site where power is negotiated and exercised.’ Sherrat asserts that finding aids or collection databases are the product of conscious design decisions. His hope is that his database will return a portion of power back to the people within the records. Sherrat was able to create his database without any assistance from the National Archives itself. In doing so, Sherrat has managed to shift some of the power away from the National Archives and to his database which is refers to as a resource that adds information to the existing archives, but simultaneously is also a pointed critique of the collection. It is digital technology that has taken some of the control away from cultural heritage collections and given it to the public.

I agree with Sherrat’s statement that recordkeeping systems tend to reflect the structures and power relations of the organizations that create them. His assertion that records can find new meanings and power can be reclaimed with technology is significant when we consider that Nazi records of items confiscated during the holocaust have been used to assist the process of restitution and reparation. In addition, through the examination of slave records in the United States we can accomplish a similar goal to Sherrat’s, in that we can show the slaves as people, rather than a commodity being bought and sold.

In my own work in the field of American art history, I may not be ready to write my own code, but I can see myself creating a database on Winslow Homer. I would like to include an interactive map of where he painted, and where the paintings currently reside. There could also be a timeline of important events of the nineteenth century cross-referenced with Homer’s work. Perhaps I could tie my database to other scholarly sites on Homer, as a potential finding aid.

One archive I found of interest is the Digital Library on American Slavery, created by UNC Greensboro. [3] You can search for information by names, or by keywords. There is also an advanced search option in which you can search by year, state, and slave status. The site also contains the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, which provides information on approximately 150,000 individuals (slaves, free people of color, and whites). This data was gleaned from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, as well as a variety of related documents which includes wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, and amended petitions. In these documents are the names and data of roughly 80,000 slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners. The archive also contains the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, which provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1840. These ads offer a view into the social, economic, and cultural world of the American slave system as it pertains to North Carolina. The site includes The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database from Emory University, which features information on more than 35,000 slave voyages for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Researchers can also find a collaborative endeavor between the UNCG University Libraries, North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, and North Carolina Registers of Deeds, called People Not Property – Slave Deeds of North Carolina. This project is leading towards a unique, centralized database of bills of sales indexing the names of enslaved people from across North Carolina. Finally, the site includes a section of Slavery Era Insurance Registries, an index of insurance companies who wrote policies insuring slave owners against the loss, damage, or death of their slaves. The Digital Library on American Slavery is an excellent resource which offers many potential avenues of research for historians. One that comes to mind is the cross-cultural influence on art using The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database as a resource.

NOTES

[1] National Museum Australia (2006). White Australia Policy. nma.gov.

https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/white-australia-policy.

[2] Tim Sherratt (2011). It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People. Discontents.  http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/its-all-about-the-stuff-by-tim-sherratt/.

[3] https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/.

Digital History: A Guide

In Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig unequivocally state that the future is digital, and that the historians of tomorrow will “glory” in a digital historical record. They announce that this digital historical record will transform the way historians research, present, and preserve the past. Daniel J. Cohen is an associate professor in the department of History and Art History at George Mason University, and the director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Roy Rosenzweig was Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University, where he also headed the Center for History and New Media (CHNM). Rosenzweig passed away in 2007.

Cohen and Rosenzweig have created a guide which is in many ways a primer on how and what to digitize, and the pros and cons of doing so. The authors concede that it may be impossible to move from analog to digital with no loss of information, but that is not what we should ask ourselves. They advise that the first thing we should ask, is what is the cost of representing the original as closely as possible? While technological advances continually improve the amount of information we can preserve from the original, the costs of doing so have not diminished. This presents a quandary for museums. High-quality images are necessary for research, but the cost can be prohibitive. Do museums sacrifice quality, or only provide images for a small percentage of their collections? In terms of loss to the historian, they either would not have access to a high-quality image, or, they (possibly) would not find the object they are looking for because it hasn’t been digitized yet. And who is going to decide which objects are digitized and which are not?

According to the authors, one of the greatest benefits of digitizing material is the advantage of access. An object may be too fragile to be handled, but once successfully digitized, it can now be viewed by millions. In my previous post I discussed researching at the North Carolina State Archives and the process of searching through boxes of letters and documents, hoping to find something relevant to my research. If the information in those boxes were to be digitized, it would make the research process dramatically faster. Digitization affords you the opportunity to view a greater volume of information expeditiously, while granting you the ability to be more efficient.

Remote access is another advantage to digitization. Being able to search the Getty archives, the Frisk’s Collector’s files, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art without traveling is a boon to historians, not to mention less expensive as well. Again, there exists the opportunity to increase our efficiency. Digitization is a tremendous tool for researchers, but it can never replace viewing an object in person. It is impossible to capture (so far, at least) every nuance of an artifact from every angle. I believe it is essential for historians to be able to be in the presence of the object. When I observe an artifact in person, I always notice some new detail, each time I view it. I had the opportunity to view paintings in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s conservation lab once they were taken out of their frames for restoration, and the difference in the level of detail I was able to see was amazing. I noticed aspects of the work I had not before, even though I had studied the painting in the gallery, as well as the digitized image online. The details were so much more accessible, especially the brushwork and paint application. Having that opportunity was remarkable, and one that can lead to new avenues of research for art historians.

A crucial aspect of digitization to consider, is who is going to do the actual work of digitizing the material? The article discusses two options; do the work yourself, or outsource it. This information is somewhat dated, (2005) and while there still may be companies who outsource today, in terms of museums and historical societies, this solution is a non-starter. Many of these items in their collections would be too fragile to be sent to the Philippines, India or China for digitization, and others may be too valuable to leave the museum. With outsourcing there is always a chance that the artifact could be lost or damaged, and that is unacceptable. To digitize the material ourselves requires time, technical knowledge, and funds.

The authors note that in digitizing images, the quality of the digital image rests on the quality of the original, the method used to digitize the material, the skill of the person doing the digitizing, and the degree to which the digital copy has adequately “sampled” the original. I consider the two most significant factors in digitizing materials for museums to be the cost and the technological knowledge required. Many art historians working in museums today have a basic knowledge of technology, but lack the technological skills to successfully digitize material. Even if they had the technological know-how, I suspect that many art historians would prefer to spend their time in research. Funding is an issue for all museums, large or small. Unfortunately, the result is that much of this work falls to interns, which does nothing to increase art historians’ knowledge of the techniques, or their level of engagement with the process of digitization.

In terms of my own work as an art historian, I intend to use technology to organize my research materials. Scanning images, and having the skills to use Photoshop to correct any deficiencies in the original (such as fingerprints or scratches) is essential. Using metadata to identify and locate specific inquiries quickly is also vital. In the digital methods course today I learned about Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which recognizes text from scanned documents, and I am excited to learn more and grow proficient in its use. I want to familiarize myself with the technology so that I am aware of what is possible, but for me, research will always come first.

Postcard from Germany featuring the style of American Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein.

References:

The Serendipitous Discovery

Diane Zorich’s study, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers and Digital Scholarship surveyed art historians to clarify the perceptions on the role of digital scholarship and its future impact on the discipline of art history. Completed in 2012, this survey displays the key issues which prevent art historians from wholeheartedly embracing the digital arena, which range from perceived threats to existing research paradigms and behaviors, insufficient capacity structure and technology infrastructure, and the absence of digital art history training and funding opportunities. However, the obstacle which must be overcome to increase art historian’s participation in the digital arena are the “behavioral barriers” common to the discipline. Zorich attributes these behavioral barriers as the leading cause of the low level of digital engagement in the field. Through a series of interviews and research center site visits, Zorich examined various areas, including:

  • the role of art history research centers in supporting digital art history,
  • challenges in art history teaching, research, and scholarship in the digital realm,
  • access to digital tools, services, and resources needed by the discipline,
  • digital pedagogy in art history, the role of digital publishing in the discipline,
  • current and potential partnerships, sources of innovation in the field,
  • the role of funding agencies in supporting digital art history

Diane Zorich is the Director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, and she heads a team which digitizes the Smithsonian collection for the public. This survey was sponsored by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in conjunction with the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media survey at George Mason University and completed in 2012. The survey does a thorough job of outlining the current barriers to the increased use of digital technology in the field of art history.

Zorich identifies the first behavioral barrier to overcome is the belief that art history is a solitary endeavor. One respondent bluntly stated that, “Art historians do not want to work in a group.” This disciplinary isolation is at odds with the collaborative nature of digital art history, and convincing art historians that there are benefits to changing long-established techniques of work and scholarship is an uphill battle.

The second barrier discussed is that art history is a conservative discipline. Digital art history is viewed therefore as a threat to the established methods of the discipline, because it will require new training, new methods of research, and new modes of communication and distributing research results. Zorich attributes the conservative nature of the field to underlying fears. She underscores the territoriality that pervades the discipline, and the possibility of having one’s research stolen. From my own experience as a curatorial intern at the NCMA, I would say this is not an unfounded, or irrational fear, as I was warned to be cautious with whom I shared my research. I learned that many art historians have been disappointed and disillusioned by their peers or a person in the role of a mentor in this manner at some point in their careers.

Zorich also points to a lack of technological knowledge as the nature of art historical research tends to slow and methodical. Surveyed art historians conclude that the technology learning curve is too time-consuming, and that the benefits to themselves and their research is improbable. The result being that most art historian’s technology skill set is rather basic. Is this the case because art history attracts those who aren’t interested in technology, or, is it that historically art historians have not needed to rely on technology in order to succeed?

The belief that only print publication is valid still permeates the discipline, further frustrating any potential forays into digital publication. Zorich notes a perception that art historians who conduct digital research are not serious scholars because digital scholarship is not viewed as “top-notch” scholarship. There exists a pernicious skepticism about digital art history in the art history community. When I asked an art historian mentor her opinion of graduate degrees in digital art history, her response was a disdainful, “They’re trendy.” She went on to elaborate that either I could spend my time doing research (a graduate degree in art history) or, I could digitize (a graduate degree in digital art history) but in the current art historical environment I could not do both, and that by choosing a degree in digital art history I may be restricting my future career options. This is not necessarily true, but it remains a pervasive perception in the art historical community.

For myself and my work, I believe it is crucial to have the technological skills to be independent in whatever setting I find myself working in. I hope to work in a museum setting in the future, and I may not have access to a team of digital experts due to the size/funding of the institution. In my past research, I spent a lot of time rooting in boxes at the North Carolina Archives. The only options available to me when I found something pertinent was to either pay to have the document photocopied, or take a picture of it with my phone, and neither solution was ideal. However, the experience of looking was one I will always remember, as well as the excitement of finding a letter or document no one knew or remembered existed. I found what I was looking for, but I also found equally interesting information that I would not have found if someone had digitized the contents of the box, and those discoveries added new avenues for future research. I would hate to lose the possibility of a serendipitous discovery.

What is the future of digital art history? If more technology training continues to exist at the undergraduate and graduate levels, then it is likely that art historians will continue to grow more and more technologically savvy, as it applies to their work. If art historians see a value to their work in learning the technology, then the field will continue to change and evolve, and the line between art history and digital art history will become blurred, rather than a stark line of division.

Resources:

Newer posts »
css.php