First foray into the DH digital forest; or where are my breadcrumbs?

I initially thought that there must be a robust engagement with the digital humanities in the Art History field, because we deal with images which make for visually alluring projects.  But as I began my general Google search I was surprised to find a somewhat limited result.  This is not to say that the field is vacant, but as one narrows the field, the results become much more sparsely populated.

At first look, many projects stem from museum collections, as museum curators seeks to engage an increasingly distracted visitor population.  Sit in any museum and watch as the majority of people spend minimal time engaging with the works, let alone the wall didactics.  More common still are the people taking multiple pictures with their phones to share on social media to prove they are cultured.  I’m not saying people should not take photos of artworks with their phones, they should.  It allows them to re-engage with the work periodically as they scroll through their photo feeds, or Facebook reminds them what they were doing on a specific day three years ago.  The issue is that the old format of museums, with lengthy wall inscription and somewhat vague image labels does not invigorate a modern audience.

Technology, rightly or wrongly pervades our daily existence, our job as scholars should be to evolve in how we present our research.  No, we do not need to abandon the scholarly papers that dominate academia, but utilizing digital platforms and methods of communication provide additional avenues that open up our scholarship and create new audiences.  In this new age of public distrust of the intellectual we should not double down on archaic practices that exclude participation.  Instead we should work to show the public why the humanities, and art history, matter.

In 2012, Diane M. Zorich, an information management consultant for cultural and education organization, adapted an excerpt from her longer report about the state of Digital Art History for an article in the Journal of Digital Humanities entitled “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.”  In this article, she explores the ambivalent attitude of Art History toward digital humanities, why the digital humanities in the Art History field has failed to develop as robustly as other disciplines, and what can be done to ameliorate some of the barriers.

While she brings to the discussion many excellent points, ultimately the issue comes down to comfort, funding, and tenure.  Early career scholars are more likely to have an interest in digital methods and a comfort with technology to support that inquiry, but their careers fall in to jeopardy if they expend too much time and/or effort on digital projects as they do not hold sufficient weight in considerations for tenure.  Middle- to late-career scholars possess the freedom to explore digital projects as they’ve established themselves in their field and (likely) secured tenure, but either do not want to or do not know how to explore digital methodologies.

With much of this in mind, my own current scholarship is in a stage of transition.  Although trained as a medievalist through my post-bac experience and early graduate program, over the past year and a half I’ve turned my attention toward research interests in more contemporary issues such as decolonization, race, and environment.  Deeply rooted in a desire to make my research more relevant (pedagogical, personally, socially, culturally), I am moving away from questions about the past and toward questions about how the more recent past continues to affect us today.

Toward this end I begin my journey exploring the digital humanities of Art History and Environmental Studies.  Below I present some initial projects related to past, present, and future research interests.  As I explore my own interests and further develop my future research directions I anticipate adding more projects, textual references, and scholars to this list.  The first two I am particular drawn to for the use and organization of data, models for future projects.

One project that I have always admired is Mapping Gothic France, as it has grown over the years to include more data and technologies.  A project initiated by Stephen Murray, Professor of Art History at New York University and Andrew Tallon, Assistant Professor of Art at Vassar College, Mapping Gothic France uses digital photography including 360° images, floor plans, elevations, and mapping to present a robust sense of the gothic architecture of medieval France.  While some sites have more information than others, the project provides a tool for scholars, teachers, and interested public to visually explore these spaces.

While I personally am not that scholastically interested in Andy Warhol, the warhol: timeweb, a joint project between the Andy Warhol Museum and a local Pittsburgh design company Gradient Labs, provides a fascinating look at the intersections of Warhol’s life and art with wider historical events, social changes, and technological advances.  The visual elements of this particular project allow for the user to engage with the material and information on the site based upon their own interests, rather than being led through the site according to the museum’s narrative.

Art History DH Projects:

Smithsonian’s Freer-Seckler Galleries and Wayne State University:  The Peacock Room

University of California, Berkeley: Jan Brueghel’s Complete Catalogue


DH Scholars and Blogs of interest:

Alicia Peaker:

            Ant Spider Bee


More to come…

2 Replies to “First foray into the DH digital forest; or where are my breadcrumbs?”

  1. Jennifer – if you look at the history of public galleries, public libraries and museums since the 1890s, there’s a very clear pattern which emerges. The more that the institution imagines that everyone who walks through the door is an ignoramus, and the more the artefacts are displayed as ‘icons’, the lower the number of visitors to the institution, other than as tourists for special exhibitions.

    In the 1800s-mid-twentieth century, the practice was to stuff the cases with bits and pieces, with labels that were brief and factual: ‘head-mask collected Borneo 1945′ sort of thing. Children could stand and gaze and marvel – it was like being in a huge curiosity-shop. And everyone loved it. It was free and it was fascinating and probably politically-correct not at all. But the point was it sparked interest and fascination and curiosity… and people went home to find out more.

    Now, you walk into a museum, or a gallery, and the rules for fire, for wheel-chair access, for obligatory conservation (and costs) reduce what people see and increase the distances they have to walk to see much. Then there’s the authoritative-condescending didacticism of yards of labelling and text. Boring. Tiring. Unexciting. Doesn’t provoke wonder and leaves most people as tired of the thing as if they were on a tourist bus being told what to look at, where to look, when to look, and what they have to think… uniformly.

    People are taking photos on their mobiles in order to AVOID the unpleasant atmosphere and endless assumption that they know nothing before they arrived.

    Then they go home. Put thing on their desktop, or print it off, or make it into cards, and think about it, maybe look it up online – have a facebook chat to see what their friends think (not deputy directors of the PR section). Art and artefacts are becoming more real, not less, and will-you-or-nill-you, the people are taking back their right to wonder, to discover, and NOT to know too much if they don’t care to.

    It’s time to drop the ’70’s-80s’ ethos and return staff to the role of responsive rather than initiating providers. Cheers. Nice post. Enjoy blogger-hood. 🙂


    1. Diane-

      Thank you for your comments. I do agree that modern museums have become less accessible to the average visitor. However, many works of art simply do not translate fully to a digital platform. If they simply want a pretty desktop photo or make these works into cards, they need not wade into the halls of the museum as a quick trip to Google images can provide a plethora of images. I do think museums can do better serving a wider range of visitors. Just the other day I read about the Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts developing new wall placards that contextualize works within their social-economic-cultural histories in order to highlight the histories of erased and forgotten people in American history, namely slaves and Native Americans (article for reference: Can Art Museums Help Illuminate Early American Connections to Slaveryo) The museum is taking efforts to provide extra contextualization for works of art that many people don’t know and a simple google search is unlikely to provide. As for the jammed packed museums of old, they still exist in many places, although mainly in Europe or small local museums that do not have much in the way of storage so everything is out. The biggest one of these giant curiosity cabinents if you will, that I have visited was the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. Many of the upper floors are only display cases snugly packed in around all the walls. In the arms and armor sections, lances, spears, and other long weapons without a place along the walls were stored in the rafters above. It was overwhelming and I couldn’t tell you about a single thing I saw because it was too much and there wasn’t anything provided that contextualized the pieces. I won’t get into the colonial origins of a museum such as the Pitt Rivers, but this style of display does erase not just the history of the objects, but also that of the cultures that produced those objects.

      So I guess the tl/dr of my response is I agree to a point, but also disagree. Museums need to do better, but so do visitors. 😉

      Thank you for writing to me…sorry it took so long to approve and post. I just noticed today.



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