THATCamp CAA Day 2: Digital Platforms and Tools Usher In New “Ways of Seeing” Art History

Yesterday’s talks and workshops all emphasized how digital tools can enable new and exciting approaches to data comparison and scholarly collaboration, phenomena that have, historically, been powerful catalysts for change within the broader field of Humanities. Scholars shared impressive platforms that allow for new ways of aggregating and dissecting data on a scale that dwarfs what art historians, who traditionally work with a limited group of art objects, have previously attempted. From Lev Manovich‘s analysis of one million works of contemporary art from DeviantArt (or the entire arc of Van Gogh’s career) to the Google Art Project with its gigapixel images of museum masterpieces, we saw “big data” (in a relative sense) come to art history.

Many of the digital based projects presented have enabled small teams of scholars to come together to find not only new answers, but also to propose new, previously un-askable questions. Paul Jaskot’s lightning talk on his research project Holocaust Geographies focused on the scale of construction at Nazi concentration camps, and demonstrated how building projects were not merely secondary concerns in the daily life of these camps, and instead were intimately woven into the suppression—as well as the attempted rebellions—of the inmates. Stephen Murray’s truly excellent Mapping Gothic France web project revealed how these sorts of comparisons can be made useful to students; by allowing them to overlay renderings of different cathedrals from different time periods, students are able to more easily internalize stylistic changes in Gothic architecture across Europe, and to relate these to wider shifts in the political and cultural climate.

Ultimately, what impressed me about the sessions at THATCamp CAA was how they called to mind conditions similar to those that, according to Bruno Latour, prefigured the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. For Latour (see “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together), what precipitated these worldwide historic upheavals was not a change in man’s intelligence, Rationalism, or even scholars’ willingness to account for experimental data. The real catalyst, Latour argues, was that for the first time, scholars were able to compare observations based on a broad range of historic data, from both Eastern and Western sources. The laying side-by-side of these observations enabled scholars to spot errors in a systematic way and encouraged a wholesale rethinking of “truths” that had gone unchallenged for centuries. We may have to wait some time to see the fruits of these new comparative models enabled by digital technology, but I am confident that exciting new ways of looking and thinking are sure to result.

Mike Maizels, Predoctoral Fellow, National Portrait Gallery

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Media Thread and Digital Pedagogy

I wanted to do a combined post on these two topics because they productively addressed many of the same issues. The pedagogy working group addressed a number of fundamental questions about how technology can make teaching more effective and more engaging for the students, and ideally, easier in certain ways for the professor.  While we agreed that there can be a steep learning curve for the adoption of technology, another factor to consider is the way in which this adoption can force a larger re-thinking of what one does in the classroom. A number of tools and techniques were discussed (including an exercise of letting the class put together the slide lecture on the fly with something as simple as google image search), but the platform of  Columbia University’s Media Thread ( provided an environment for tackling many of these challenges.

This software allows students and teachers to capture media from almost anywhere on the web, but it is particularly smoothly integrated with sources like Artstor and Youtube.  It allows embedding high resolution images and videos, which then creates the ground for a rich environment of tagging and annotating.  Students can analyze images with careful links to a specific detail of the painting, while professors can provide live feedback with fully integrated content.  The program allows a self-contained ecosystem—a kind of microcosm of scholarly discovery, collaboration and review which cannot help but prepare students for the 21st century realities of content management and analysis both inside and outside the academy.

Mike Maizels, Predoctoral Fellow, National Portrait Gallery

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Digital Publishing Working Session

This session focused on the way that changing technology has the tendency to work against the grain of established cultural habits, both within and outside the academy.  The rise of the digital seems to mean that we rethink not just how we present our scholarship, but what we present and why (for example, Smarthistory content is accessed by users in an incredible range of cultural contexts, all of whom can bring a rich array of background information towards a global conversation about the meanings of artworks).

Overall, the most pressing needs articulated were to be our own advocates.  Some argued for pressing forward with the adoption of models from the sciences (such as open peer review or rapid response publishing) that could make scholarly publication more open and dynamic. Others considered how conventions like citation need to evolve to stay current in a world of digital publishing. Many advocated for a revised model of evaluating the scholarly importance of digital material for tenure and promotion and suggested the inclusion of outside referees to ensure it received adequate recognition.  Perhaps the most interesting conversation arose as to how to archive digitally published material, which can have a disturbing short “shelf-life” compared with more traditional books or articles.  No consensus was achieved but many fronts were opened for further conversation and collaboration.

Mike Maizels, Predoctoral Fellow, National Portrait Gallery

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Opening session: “The Tidal Wave is Here”

As we emphasized in the opening session, the digital revolution in art historical teaching and scholarship is already here.  In the past few years, we have seen tremendous upheavals in the way we as art historians conduct our research, collaborate with our peers, publish our work and teach our students.  We live, as it was put in a memorable phrase, in a “do-it-ocracy,” where innovators are rewarded for pushing back the frontiers of not just what we know but how we can know it.

As I took it, the conference was set up to channel these upheavals in two specific directions.  The first, “lowering the reputation cost” will look at how we can reduce the professional risk to scholars, especially young ones like myself, for thinking outside the box.  For example, while digital journals are proliferating (more on this in a subsequent post), digital scholarship is often not given proper recognition for tenure and promotion.  The second goal is to harness the truly staggering number of people—hundreds of thousands from all over the world—who are already accessing art history resources on the web so that we can exponentially increase the effect of both our scholarship and our teaching.

Mike Maizels, Predoctoral Fellow, National Portrait Gallery

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Coding as a Foreign Language

In the session “Digital Skills for Art History Students,” learning computer coding was compared to learning a foreign language. One participant went so far as to suggest that perhaps traditional art history graduate program language requirements could perhaps grow to include coding as a substitute for a language that might not be useful for specific students. As the importance of digital tools and digital humanities projects expands in academic settings could it become more useful for art historians to know how to code than to read German?

Depending on one’s area of interest this idea is definitely thought provoking, but is it valid? On the one hand, one can argue that the knowledge of coding can lead to digital projects which have potential for groundbreaking research and scholarship, not to mention the ability for an art historian to work sans collaborators, a costly and often time consuming consideration, for more basic projects. Possessing certain computer skills could be similar to having knowledge of multiple foreign languages in one’s tool kit.

However, for most art historians, we only learn how to read  languages. The ability to write, and often speak, in any language requires additional years of study which most of us do not have the opportunity to undertake. While it seems implausible that coding language could come to replace our need for knowledge of foreign languages or that we will require art historians to learn how to code as an additional stop on the road to a graduate degree, we do need to start thinking about incorporating digital tools into methods classes as they become a ever-more essential piece of our field. For now, at least, familiarity should probably remain more important than fluency with the tools.

Sara Ickow, Graduate student, Institute of Fine Arts

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Two Tracks for Digital Humanities Projects – the graduate perspective

Two types of digital humanities projects seem to have been identified during discussion sessions at today’s THATCamp CAA 2013. In the session “The Digital Art History Portal” there was a call for a way to standardize, catalog and create a sustainable environment for digital art history projects to be peer reviewed and publicized. However, in an earlier session focused more on how students can make use of digital tools, the discussion focused on the flexibility and experimental nature of these types of projects.

Therefore, is there a need for support for these two types of uses simultaneously? Projects which are more collaborative and provide opportunities for testing and experimentation – providing alternatives to how we currently think of lectures and papers presented at conferences, and those which allow students and more established scholars to create “publishable” products. Both need a place to “live” and a community to ensure their future.

Nevertheless, projects which are considered more final, in line with how we now think of dissertations and books, do require more work in order to create a standard procedure for peer review that could give additional weight to students, recent Ph.D.s, or established scholars’ credentials.

Should we be thinking about distinct forums for these two modes of digital projects or do we need to find a way to put them both under the same umbrella?

Sara Ickow, Graduate student, Institute of Fine Arts

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A Few Digital Humanities Links and Resources

During the first day of THATCamp CAA 2013 several resources for Digital Humanities and Art History information and projects were mentioned in Lightening Talks and discussion sessions. Some represent potential models from other humanities fields while others represent a broad spectrum of DH resources. A few are listed below.

Bamboo DiRT

TAPOR: Text Analysis Portal for Research

Digital Humanities Now

DH Commons

Getty Research Portal 

Press Forward

Spatial History Project at Stanford

Sara Ickow, Graduate student, Institute of Fine Arts

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Lightning talk, Monday 3:30-4PM: Mediathread, Mark Phillipson and Adrienne Garber

Mediathread is CCNMTL’s innovative, open-source platform for exploration, analysis, and organization of web-based multimedia content. Mediathread connects to a variety of image and video collections (such as YouTube, Flickr, library databases, and course libraries), enabling users to lift items out of these collections and into an analysis environment. In Mediathread, items can then be clipped, annotated, organized, and embedded into essays and other written analysis.

Work in Mediathread can be shared with classmates or larger audiences, requiring students to formalize thinking, clarify interpretations, and improve arguments with evidence. A customized home page helps students track work being done by their classmates on shared items and projects. Instructors may also publish announcements, assignments, and model projects to the home page.

To get started with Mediathread in your course, send an email to .

The Mediathread is a Digital Bridges Initiative project.

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Project highlight: Visualizing Venice

Visualizing Venice

Visualizing Venice, a project initiated by “a group of Faculty and graduate students in Architecture, Architectural and Urban History, and Engineering who seek to show how urban space evolves over time. Our project is educational and experimental, but we also hope that it will become a mode of public outreach that can explain place and space as evolving process. Visualizing Venice is a series of inquiries into how social and economic change shaped the city of Venice over time. Using documents and archival sources, collaborative groups of students map and model the process of change in the city.”


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Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market – Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich with David Israel and Seth Erickson

“In this article, we explore the dialogue between the local and the global art markets that established a distinctive dynamic for the British art world as experienced in London. Our analysis derives from two complementary data sets and visualizations. The first is a map plotting the locations of major London commercial art galleries between 1850 and 1914, authored by Pamela Fletcher and David Israel. The second is an analysis by Anne Helmreich, with the assistance of Seth Erickson, of sales data drawn from the stock books of Goupil & Cie, and its successor Boussod, Valadon & Cie, which cover transactions at the firm’s various branches located in Paris, London, The Hague, Berlin, Brussels, and New York during the years 1846–1919.[2]

Combining these two analytical fields—the geography of the London art market and the social and financial network of a retail firm situated within that landscape—is a first step toward our larger goal of representing, or perhaps more accurately, modeling, the full warp and weft of the London art market. The figure in the carpet, we argue, cannot be comprehended without a sense of the overall design; the significance of any one firm within the field—or the action of an artist—cannot be ascertained without a full understanding of the whole. But what defines that whole? Our discipline’s increasing recognition of the transnational conditions that shaped the production, reception, and consumption of art underscores the importance of this question.[3] It is particularly relevant for London’s art market, which was one of the most robust in the world in the nineteenth century. Its identity as a central hub in global networks of finance, trade, communication, and Empire made it a critical nexus in the international art market. In this article, we use the international reach of the firm of Goupil & Cie/Boussod, Valadon & Cie to define the geographic boundaries of our “whole.” Conceiving this article as both a summation of our projects to date and a building block for a larger study of the art market, we anticipate that subsequent data sets will allow us to expand these geographic parameters.”

Full article available here.

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