Art history and the brave new, digital world

November 10, 2012

The Florens 2012 roundtable discussion on the dissemination of cultural information was held on Wednesday 7 November, featuring a panel of notable speakers with both an Italian and broader international scope. Each of the speakers  openly acknowledged the present as a time of great change, where modes of practise for spreading cultural information are still in flux, with business models yet to be finalised.

The web was clearly identified as an integral part of the distribution of cultural information from each of the media sectors represented by the panel. Massimo Ferrario, director of Rai5 (part of RaiTV) in Italy acknowledged that the social media presence of the station had attracted a large following, fostering lively online discussion of the content presented in its cultural programming.

Terry Garcia of National Geographic provided a fascinating commentary of specific projects his organisation has been involved with, encompassing both consumer participation and digital tools as vital for an efficient collaboration between content producers and end users. He also issued a timely warning to media companies who have resisted embracing digital technologies, citing an inability to adapt to new modes of distribution as crucial to the survival of even well established media entities.

Terry Garcia at Florens 2012

From an art historical perspective, the comments of French born Italian art critic Philippe Daverio were particularly enlightening. He first clarified that his role was primarily as an essayist, but acknowledged that having his writing published online allows it to reach an audience of millions, compared to the relatively limited exposure of a printed volume of his work, which would mostly be sought by a niche audience. He also noted that having his work appear in a format accessed by a broad audience promoted exposure to new types of readers, including non-specialists who were not fully aware of the history of the works discussed in the article, but found his presentation sufficiently captivating to read and reflect on the content.

Daverio admitted that many of the topics he writes about come from a point of rudimentary knowledge, where choosing to explore a specific object or artist allows him to become immersed in that subject. It is this zeal for new learning that is reflected in his work, and makes his writing more appealing and accessible than a specialist writing in a formal, academic manner.

This work process is often shared by many bloggers, particularly those writing about art history, either as students or teachers - where an idea for a post or project is sparked by an experience in the classroom or museum, or even a personal interaction.

Philippe Daverio

Daverio also made a comment which was particularly relevant to art history online, and the creation of digital resources. He marveled at the dazzling technology showcased by sites such as the Google Art Project, allowing users to view many artworks in great detail. He warned that presenting this content without an explanation of the works' meaning made it significantly incomplete. Daverio in fact used the term "dead" when describing art sites lacking such information.

Daverio's point is worthy of emphasis due to its relevance to specialist web-based projects that have begun to appear online over the last few years. Notable examples include the National Gallery of London's Raphael Research Resource (link), the Cranach Digital Archive (link), and the Rembrandt Database (link). These sites contain an unprecedented level of technical information on the artists featured, but in each case are still unfinished, and in the case of the Raphael resource, represent a project that is now defunct. 

These sites are publicly accessible, yet seem more geared to specialist audiences, unlike more approachable sites such as Universal Leonardo (link) and Essential Vermeer (link). These database type sites are often difficult to search and navigate, and are not designed with mobile device compatibility in mind, making their appeal to a wide user base significantly lower. Also relevant to Daverio's comments is the fact that many of these sites have omitted a plain language description of the general purpose and meaning of each work, arguably the essence of art historical knowledge, particularly that intended for dissemination to the widest possible audience.

Projects realised with this component missing do themselves a great disservice, significantly limiting their target audience to a select group of specialists and students. It is hoped that future web based projects will be more considerate of a diverse audience, including consideration of design elements that make a site easy and enjoyable to navigate and search.

Although the updated version of the Google Art Project did provide enhanced features and content, it is still designed as an overtly visual resource, with its textual and multimedia content is often proving difficult to search and navigate.

A resource of superior quality is the Metropolitan Museum of New York's newly refurbished web site (link), including its wonderful Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (link). Another valuable source of quality art historical content online is the comprehensive Smarthistory (link), often described as an online art history textbook.

Art history on the web continues to grow in scope and popularity, yet well designed and executed projects are still the exception rather than the rule. A solution to this lies in collaboration between the diverse stakeholders, from museums to web design professionals, but with a continuing focus on the target audience and accessibility features overcoming platform, device and language barriers.

3PP would like to thank the Fondazione Florens, organisers of Florens 2012 for the opportunity to attend the events, and enable the promotion of content presented at a global scale through social media and blogging. A special thanks also to Alexandra Korey and Costanza Marrapese from Flod, for their inspirational work co-ordinating the team responsible for the social media and blogging coverage of the events.


K. Bender said...

Thank you, Hasan, for sharing this information and your thoughts, like always 'to the point'! I fully agree with your appreciation and critical remarks on art web sites. I would like to add on the positive side the really very remarkable new website of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. I think one of the best presently. On the negative side, something you do not mention: the watermarks some public-owned websites apply in the middle of the image (e.g. Berlin, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz-BPK).
All the best to you in Firenze!

Sedef said...


This is such encouraging news, as art history bloggers we are so lucky to have you there.



Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments

@Bender - I was pleased that Daverio did steer the direction of this conversation into art historical websites, as many of the other presenters were discussing the web in the broader context of "content distribution" - rather than looking at specific indicators if quality. Indeed, a panel dedicated entirely to "art history on the web" seems to be a topic that should increasingly on the agenda for future conferences, and will be addressed to a degree at CAA in New York next year.

Of course the issue of image rights and watermarking is a perennial problem hen dealing with art historical content online (and in print) but it is heartening to know that more institutions are providing access to their collections.

@Sedef - I am pleased to have been able to report on some of the relevant art historical discussion to a broader audience. I eagerly wish that the hard work of the local and international teams assembled by Alexandra will have a discernible, positive impact on how this and similar events are covered in the future.


Jenna said...

Great summary of this roundtable, which I also found very interesting. I especially enjoyed listening to Terry Garcia and appreciated his view of the current importance of responding to different platforms, i.e. that young people now want to get information online quickly and often for free. And thank you for links to these excellent art history resources.

Unknown said...

Hello Jenna. Many thanks for your insights. I was wondering what you thought about this panel but did not get a chance to ask you about it. It was definitely the most notable one for me given my areas of interest.

Garcia's comments were wonderfully to the point, refreshingly so given some of the speakers we had to experience during the week!

The issue of free access is a significant consideration given the fact that media entities are still finding ways to adapt their business models to provide for this.

We can only hope they can find a way to do it without hampering access or the user experience (eg. by ad saturation etc.)

many kind regards

K. Bender said...

Thanks, Hasan, for your reply to my Comment. In my blog-post of October 2, 2011 I wrote: 'There are numerous art catalogues online of all brands, types and level of functionality. Unfortunately, not all of them apply 'best practice' rules for end-users like me (if such rules have ever been described...).' Isn't it time to establish such 'best practice' rules? Here is an attempt from an end-user 'dilettant':
* it is multilingual
* search results can be retrieved by relevance, author, title, date of creation, type of work, call (inventory) number
* it has a complete Help
* re-use of information or images allowed with mention AND NO WATERMARK on the images!
* no registration needed
* full technological information about the database.
I am sure more 'rules of best practice' could be added, they could be differentiated according to the target group of users and they should be adjusted regularly when major software developments occur.

Jenna said...

I definitely see what you mean about free access to information online and being sure the experience is not hampered with ads, etc. The New York Times is an example of not providing it for free--one has to sign up to view it and pay for access beyond 20 articles per month. I'm not sure what is best, but it's definitely an issue. I did not share my impressions with you because I had a hard time understanding what the focus of the entire talk was about and synthesizing Garcia and Daverio's ideas, but I came late.

Edward Goldberg said...

Hasan--It is difficult to uproot the false assumption that a web-based resource needs to choose between a specialized or a popular audience. With intelligent planning and a little mental flexibility, it is often possible--even easy--to target both at once, without debasing the quality of the information nor unnecessarily narrowing the user base. Your many fans in Florence were delighted to see you here for Florens 2012 and look forward to seeing you again--well before Florens 2014 (it is a biennial event). Then we can all get together and take you shopping. You need a pair of striped socks like Philippe Daverio and a purple tie (Alé Viola!) like Terry Garcia. I am sorry that Fiorentina played away on the Sunday that you were here but not at all sorry that they kicked Milan's you-know-what! Ed G.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the follow up comments

@Bender - I was indeed aware of your user experience shortlist, and concur on its points. I would clarify that "complete help" should be as simple as possible, not an extensive manual of what and why. On the web, time and attention span is of the essence. If anything is created that is daunting to navigate, a large chunk of the audience will be lost within seconds. This is the audience I am dearly interested in engaging, along with everyone else of course. For Open Raphael, I have used images and tabs as repeated design elements to allow intuitive navigation that is almost entirely visual.

@Jenna - the talk did seem to go into different directions at points. That it just happened to be about the aspects of cultural information online I am most interested in made it less jarring for me. Each of the speakers were essentially bringing a different type of experience to the panel... what we really needed on there to complete the picture was a project leader from an initiative such the Rembrandt database, and a prominent art history blogger - then the discussion would have been truly transcendent and up to date. Maybe next time.

@Ed - cheers for the warm welcome in Florence, that daunting day in Rome, and everything else. I did feel an affinity for Daverio's comments, and am wondering how to follow this up. I do agree that a universal resource is possible. Universal Leonardo and Essential Vermeer come close, but the finer details are still not there. I will strive for Open Raphael to overcome this.


Alexandra said...

Hi Hasan and all his many, active readers!
It's great to see the conversation about Florens continuing here. Certainly issues of the web were lacking somewhat at Florens, and are something that interest US, particularly.

As Ed mentions above, it is possible to target multiple audiences with a website or database. Perhaps museums are the most likely to do so if they already have a similar approach to museology. As we saw at Palazzo Strozzi, for example, you can make wall text to appeal to different audiences, that make people think on different lines. In an online paralell, I have always liked the British Museum's website You can use the 'explore' function as a general public appreciator to find things that are interesting, or you can use the full collection database to search if you know what you need. Almost everything is online and photographed, and you can apply for use of photos (without watermarks :) ) online.

Sedef's guidelines raise an interesting issue that I think most online news outlets, and also cultural information producers, are addressing. These projects take investments of time and money, and if there's no monetary or tangible return on that investment, the project will likely be abandoned. As Jenna points out, the NYT's paywall is an example of paid information online, and most newspapers are going in this direction. With The Florentine, I have been quite against that so we made a PDF subscription instead of giving free access to the pdf online and people complain about it bitterly. Yet we have salaries to pay! Culture is wonderful, and free things are great, but nothing is truly free - somewhere, someone is paying for it.


Katya said...

Great post Hasan, and encouraging to see these discussions being embraced by events like Florens. On the day you published this I was speaking to art historians in Sydney about the future art historian and the need to embrace the online, digital world or risk seeing art history become invisible. I also mentioned the rise of new voices (like yours!) in the discussions we have about art history, such fascinating times.

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