A visit with old friends

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Isabella Brant, c. 1620-5, oil on canvas, 20 13/16 x 18 1/16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art.

I was recently in Cleveland at a symposium in honor of my advisor Ellen Landau’s retirement and contributions as a scholar and teacher. It was an honor to be among her former students invited to speak at the event, and it gave me a chance to reconnect with people from my past and hear about their current projects.

The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art

It was also the first opportunity I’d had to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art in over a decade. This homecoming of sorts prompted me to reflect on my time at the CMA and its formative influence on my training as an art historian.

As a graduate student in Case Western Reserve University’s joint program with the CMA, I had extensive access to the museum.  Classes were taught on site.  I had my own study carrel in their impressive research library. I worked in the education and curatorial departments in the 1990s, first as a student intern and later in my first real job at a museum.  It was an immersive experience that allowed me to teach and learn art history—a subject that relies heavily on reproductions in a classroom or textbook—through the study of objects in the collection.

I was speaking at the symposium on the role of the material art object in technology-enhanced classes, so I’d been thinking a lot about how academic art historians incorporate museum visits and object-based assignments into our teaching. While the primary goal of these requirements has been (and still is) to distinguish real works from the mediated formats shown in class, they also highlight limitations of the discipline to rely on formal characteristic of canonical examples to create a history of period and artistic styles.  A visit to most any museum can quickly blow apart tidy categories like “Neoclassicism” and “Surrealism.”  The range of objects found in the galleries reveal the stylistic diversity, overlap, and subtle transitions that make up art’s actual history.

Walking through the CMA’s galleries, which have changed significantly as part of an expansion project completed in 2013, I was reminded of the theory that says as we become accustomed to looking at works of art, we return to those we’ve seen before and find something new, as well as the familiar.  It was as though I’d been reunited with old friends, a sensation made even more enjoyable by the reinstallation.  Guided by muscle memory, I rediscovered old passages among the new in my search for favorite objects, and I stumbled onto other works, long forgotten, but which had once served as my go-to examples of certain movements, concepts, and techniques.

Lately, there’s been a wave of discussion about how people should view art in museums.  I side with those who say there is no singular way.  Visitors should aim for a variety of experiences.  Go alone for private moments like I had in Cleveland.  It was an opportunity to let my mind wander and to reflect on the art and its importance in my own life.  Go with friends to talk, hear their responses, and realize just how differently we see things from others.  Their background and knowledge may complement your own, or provide insight that gives you a whole new understanding of something you’d seen many times before.

Let children guide your tour and be amazed by the things they notice that you’d never seen.  (A young patron once showed me a circus decal on the underside of an abstract sculpture, entirely visible from his height of 3 feet, but which I’d never seen from above.)  Attend a lecture or other event to learn something new or to think about a broader context for the work of art.  Interact with art through technologies that offer innovative ways to see, experience, or share your perspective with others.

Our motivations and conditions around visiting museums vary, and every experience can be of value.  Take advantage of what museums do offer–objects collected and displayed for us to see, enjoy, discuss, and think about–different from the way we might view them on-line.  Not better or worse, but like other things in our increasingly digital culture, encounters with material objects encourage us to reflect on distinctions between the virtual and the real, and consider how each might contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of art.

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What I learned at THATCampCAA

New Adventures in Art History

THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp, and this year’s THATCampCAA was the second to be held in conjunction with the annual conference of College Art Association.  Art history lags far behind other areas of the digital humanities that have embraced the use of technology. THATCampCAA is part of an effort to increase interest in digital art history, and to encourage more art historians to incorporate its methods into their research and pedagogical practices.

I admit to being a little intimidated by the notion of a digital art history, but I’m also excited about the potential–particularly to explode traditional disciplinary boundaries.  As I’ve learned more, I realize that, like technology-enhanced learning, digital art history offers additional ways for scholars to conduct art historical research that might lead to new discoveries and understanding.  A great introduction can be found in the projects presented last fall at the American Art History and Digital Scholarship conference organized by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Modeled on an unconference, THATCampCAA was refreshing in its emphasis on dialog and the active exchange of ideas.  Session topics ranged from workshops on technological tools, discussions of digital research projects and resources, and the need to develop (and validate) new models for publication. THATCamp Coordinator Amanda French explained that sessions, which are determined collectively by participants, develop around questions.  By admitting what we don’t know, we can work together to explore possible solutions.  Take away:  confession is good for art history, as is collaboration.

New Adventures in Teaching

What I wanted to know was how will the emergence of digital art history impact teaching in the field.  What new skills and information will students need to know in the future?  And, how can these dovetail with traditional art historical methods that we already teach?  Here are a few thoughts that I left with.

We need to introduce students to a variety of digital tools and technologies. This means both providing hands-on experience with these methods and including digital research findings as part of our course content. Some scholars in DAH feel students should learn about computer programming and computational analysis.  Having such skills would allow art historians to create specialized tools to meet distinctive needs of the discipline, and make us less reliant on technology specialists or tools created for digital research in other disciplines.  

The practice of digital art history reflects broader shifts in contemporary culture and higher education.  These demand we rethink established values of humanities research and publication.  Students should learn how to work collaboratively without feeling proprietary about their contributions, or threatened that collectively developed projects will undercut their final grade. As teachers, we need to design better assessment strategies that can distinguish individual student learning from the active processing and shared understanding that occurs in a productive collaboration.   

We might also do well to expand students’ knowledge of archival resources and collections management practices used by institutions.  As more materials are digitized, students (and scholars) will have greater access to explore them in depth, but they need to understand how that information is organized if they’re to find materials relevant to their questions.  Students should learn how metadata is essential to their research and important to organizing their own findings (data). Visual resource librarians and archivists are important allies in this effort.  We should take advantage of their experience with digital technologies as we develop assignments, and encourage our students to seek them out as well.  

What’s Old is New Again

While asking art history students to learn computer skills might seem radical to the field, technological literacy is a necessity in the 21st century, and it is appropriate to include in our curriculum.  Our goal should be to demonstrate how students might employ digital tools, in addition to other art historical practices, to further their intellectual inquiry.

Digital art history still requires students perform the visual analysis and critical thinking that distinguishes art historical study.  In a culture where technology changes at lightning speed and new digital tools appear almost every day, it seems all the more important for students to master traditional research skills, which have not always been emphasized in recent years.  They must learn to develop clear research questions and define appropriate methodological approaches if they are to choose the tools that will yield fruitful results.  

Several years ago I heard someone at CAA say that the Internet was made for art history.  Both are non-linear, densely layered, highly interconnected, and mostly visual.  Art history is a messy discipline that resists efforts to classify, simplify, and understand it through tidy explanations. I learned at THATCamp that digital approaches to art history can help organize such complex information in ways that we may look at it more clearly.   Not toward the goal of singular meaning or universal theories, but as visual objects that invite the type of analysis that art historians are trained to do.  Students can only benefit from learning more about digital art history, the tools it employs, its relationship to established practices, and its potential for future research.