Getty leads the way in digital art history

March 10, 2013

The Getty Research Institute (GRI) continues to lead by example in the field of digital art history, supporting a number of unique digital initiatives, as well as fostering global discussion on the topic through blog posts and social media. Earlier this week, the GRI hosted a Digital Art History Lab, chaired by Murtha Baca, the institute's head of digital art history access.

In addition to the blog posts summarising topics presented at the lab, the Getty Trust also hosted two "hangouts" (video conferences) on the Google+  social media platform. These can be viewed below. I have included a short-form summary of participants' statements in the notes below each video. These summaries were written to provide a timely and accessible text version of the discussions as transcripts or closed-captioned videos are not yet available. In this instance, I decided that the most efficient way to cover a Google+ hangout was to report it in the manner of a liveblog. Some additional commentary and relevant links follow the summaries.

i. Resuscitating Art History
Posted March 6 2013
• Murtha Baca - head of digital art history access at the Getty Research Institute.
• Anne Helmreich - senior program officer at the Getty Foundation.
• Susan Edwards - art historian and digital humanities technologist, J. Paul Getty Trust.
• Moderated by Annalise Stephan - editor - Getty Voices project

Notes - listed in chronological order
Stephan poses the question "why does art history need to be resuscitated?" 
Baca because of its apparent hesitation in embracing digital technology, art history risks being marginalised, adds that art history is being dropped in a number of academic programs.

Helmreich other disciplines eg. history, literature, media studies more active in digital humanities. Due to prevalence of images in modern discussions of culture, art history has a unique and significant contribution to make to this discussion.

Baca addresses - what is digital art history? No one definition of digital art history currently exists, but emphasised need to view digital art history beyond creation of databases. Offers her own viewpoint that "digital art history is using digital technology to both conduct and produce, and publish new knowledge in the realm of art history."

Helmreich adds that traditionally, art history has embraced new technology, citing the impact of photographs at the end of the nineteenth century and later colour imaging. Adds to Baca's statement "it's really taking that next step and asking how the digital technology might make available new ways of knowledge formation whether in dialogue with students or in dialogue with the peers in ways in which we can think about changing the discipline and not just how it is published and disseminated through the online environment, but the very questions we can ask."

Edwards identifies that some art historical concepts require extra processing/analysis to be expressed in digital environment, compared to text based fields - such as literature and history - gives example of Perseus Digital Library. Adds that archives and libraries relevant to art historical research are behind in digitising their resources, limiting scope of more detailed analytic work.

Helmreich "good building blocks" already available, mentioned University of Virginia's William Blake and Rossetti Projects. Having these resources makes data more accessible (than in books) and allows analysis in new and more efficient ways. eg. comparing artists' reworking of images over time. Helmreich also adds "as a community we need to push ourselves and ask those new kinds of questions."

Baca describes challenges when working with historical documents in digital context, where analysis is not possible until data is "scrubbed and standardised" (ie. handwritten manuscripts would need to be transformed to computer text to capture content, but also in manner that does not lose fidelity of content present in manuscript version -hn).

Stephan introduces a question from Amy via Tumblr re- "codified" manner of art history students seeking publication in order to advance their career and gain acceptance in the scholarly community. "What more can be done to welcome emerging digital art historians"

Baca answers, this is slowly changing, refers to Getty Voices blog post from earlier that day (link) Emphasises that the Getty recognises the need to view digital (online) publications equally valid as print publications:
... up to now...a young scholar has to have print publications to continue their career and if they do an online project it doesn't really add to their professional profile. Something that the Getty can do, and my institute in particular, and also Anne's section of the Getty, is to start saying these digital projects which result in online publications are just as valid as a print publication, and they should further a scholar's career no matter what point in their career that they are at.
Helmreich concluded that MLA and Historians Association (ie. the AHA see this link -hn) are already working on guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, noting "in the end, it's peer review that matters"

ii. Digital Art History
Posted March 7 2013
• Hans Brandhorst - editor of the Iconclass system (link) and the Arkyves Web catalogue (link)
• Johanna Drucker - Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor Bibliography in the Department of Information Studies and founder of the Digital Humanities program at UCLA.
• Emily Pugh - Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art, and Web developer for the online journal of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (link)
• Nuria Rodríguez Ortega - chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Málaga, Spain
• Moderated by Susan Edwards - art historian and digital humanities technologist, J. Paul Getty Trust.

Notes - listed in chronological order
Drucker clarifies that many art historians are already using digital tools in their work, primarily via computer access, but this is to be distinguished from digital art history, which she describes as " engage with the computational capacities for analysis, presentation, posing of new research questions or to work with what we call the computationally encoded (ie. digitised, plus with descriptive "meta" data -hn) existence of images and to think about what can be done specifically using computational processes for research, analysis and so forth."

Drucker adds that not every art historian needs to do digital art history, but advocates for an awareness of digital infrastructure/tools and how they can be best utilised in a research context. Drucker further adds that many questions being faced are logistical, including questions of (image) rights, publication formats, new structures of argument (ie. for collaborative and peer review communication), reward systems (ie. recognition of contributions? -hn) Drucker expands, noting questions around the "encoded condition of digital files makes images computationally tractable" (ie. digitisation of images allows for analysis in new and more detailed ways -hn)

Brandhorst responds to question by Edwards regarding whether art historians need to have technical skills around use of digital tools, coding etc. Brandhorst replies that the skills required depend on the nature of the research that is being conducted. Also adds that even if an art historian is not proficient in a certain skill themselves, to understand the nature of what can be achieved with particular tools is important. He did clarify that in a general sense, sufficient insight into the skills possessed by programmers is required to "meet them half way" - which is done in the interest of meeting project goals efficiently.

Pugh adds that art historians naturally seek to learn skills that will help them address their research questions. Traditionally this new learning has been around archival research, languages etc ; hence learning, or having insight into digital tools would be undertaken when relevant to achieving research aims

Brandhorst encouraged that for tasks that seem trivial - such as cropping images - if a researcher has not done it themselves, they should seek to do so, or understand what is involved before directing others (research assistants etc) to do these tasks.

Drucker  comments on the modern training of art historians, where the integration of digital methods into graduate training requires consideration. Compares it to learning about medium studied in order to better understand and describe it eg. learning about techniques used by painters and print makers etc.

Ortega responds to a question by Edwards on whether the European art historical community's engagement with digital art history, stating that core/problematic issues are similar between Europe and US, but did identify "different intellectual traditions" an "different cultural behavior" in Europe can result in different approaches to digital practises. Described Spanish concept of "digital art history" is still in formative stages and requires development appropriate to local practises. She gives the overall comparison that different regions/institutions are hence dealing with digital humanities "at different speeds"

Brandhorst adds that there is diversity across different European centres, and that it is "still early days" in many cases. Describing the rapid development in the field, he notes "digital humanities is like a tree that grows new branches all the time."  Describes position of Dutch institutions as strong, involving a higher degree of organisation and collaboration, forming combined archives etc.

Pugh responds to a question from Edwards about digital research being viewed as valid in a career context, stating that perceptions towards this are changing - add that "you just do it..if it is quality scholarship then your audience will find you and the respect will find you. Pugh also highlighted that there is presently a lack of infrastructure to encourage or support these projects and that "digital humanities is not quick or easy" noting the challenges of building these new tools set against other work commitments. Makes a distinction that junior faculty should advocate their individual digital  projects strongly to demonstrate the validity to administrators and senior staff.

Edwards related a question submitted by Melissa via social media "How can we adapt academic programs to prepare younger scholars for a future that is not only digital but that also goes beyond art history's historically Euro-centric focus."

Drucker responded by reflecting on knowledge representation from a non-western point of view, describing that specific systems can be designed to maintain regional distinctions without imposing an "Imperialistic" western world view on the way the knowledge is represented, classified etc.

Brandhorst expands on this point with an example describing the "keeper" of Chinese art at the Victoria and Albert Museum - who has been exploring adapted and translated versions of the iconclass system applied to a Chinese context. Translated versions would open up the study of Western art to Chinese universities, but it was also noted that translations of certain elements of the iconclass system do not have an analogue in Chinese. Similar considerations would also apply for the design of an iconclass type system adapted for Chinese cultural artifacts. 

Edwards related a final question (submitted via social media) "If you could choose one thing that individuals or institutions could do to advance digital art history, what would it be?"

Pugh reflected on the need for specific funding to advance digital art history projects. Time and career constraints force those with an interest in this field to explore these ideas as side projects or in a limited fashion. Dedicated funding would solve this, as well as help build the infrastructure necessary to further advance work in digital art history.

Brandhorst responded that those interested in developing the field should continue to "do more" - emphasising that practical applications of digital projects are the best way to develop these skills (as opposed to simply discussing their implications) Drucker added that the infrastructure development necessary also goes beyond hardware and software, and must account for people who are interested and engaged in furthering work in this field. Ortega also emphasises the need for dedicated financial support, as well as institutional promotion of digital humanities programs to create a "new generation of art historians with a new mentality and new skills..."

An important clarification made during these discussions was that a lot of art historical work already has a digital element. eg. computer based library catalogue searches and email communication with colleagues are some of the more common forms of digital practise. 

However, the full extent of "digital art history" may not be realised until platforms exist which enable efficient collaboration and publication of projects. Ideally, these would be broadly utilised in academia and beyond. Such platforms would not only facilitate an efficient collaborative process for scholars and students, but also allow interaction with participant organisations eg. galleries and museums, as well as have a function or project goal that can be accessed by the public.

Some examples of this do exist, with showcase type projects and installations at museums being prime examples - such as the Cleveland Museum of Art's Gallery One (see video below). The realisation of this project would have required a high level of collaboration between museum staff, art historians and a technical crew with experience working in this sector.

While impressive, realising a project such as Gallery One requires a significant outlay of resources. Perhaps one of the more fundamental realisations regarding the feasibility of digital art history projects is that not all should require "project mode" thinking, or a large grant and crew of individuals. Existing content management systems (wiki, drupal, joomlah, or other publishing services including blogging platforms) may hold the answer for a smaller scale project to be realised with lower costs and present a less challenging learning curve than inventing platforms from scratch for each project.

The Getty's Digital Art History Lab, and its unique and inclusive coverage across its blog and social media presences set a new standard for engagement in digital art history discussion. It will be interesting to monitor the Getty's continuing pioneering work in this field.

A special thank you, and kudos to Annalisa Stephan and Susan Edwards of the Getty for their active promotion of this discussion via social media.

Related Links - digital art history content posted by the Getty 
Rethinking Art History by Murtha Baca link
It's Time to Rethink and Expand Art History for the Digital Age by Nuria Rodriguez Ortega link
Creating "Getty Scholars Workspace": Lessons from the Digital Humanities Trenches by Francesca Albrezzi link

Tweet summaries from Getty's Digital Art History Lab, via Storify:
Day 1 Summary link
Day 2 Summary link
Day 3 Summary link

Further commentary 
Martin, A. Art history in the digital age. Carravagista. March 7 2013. link
Grosvenor, B. What is digital art history (ctd.) Art History News. March 6 2013. link

For an overview of the concept of "digital art history" and relevant publications, research and links see this earlier post at 3PP : The moment of digital art history? link


Anonymous said...

How wonderful to see a major institution like the Getty taking these bold but necessary steps. I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Ortega's call to ensure this new learning is integrated into undergraduate programs to ensure that the next generation of scholars can adopt "digital" strategies as a standard part of their work.

Many thanks again to you Hasan, your annotations on some of the more technically vague statements were most useful - art history has enough troublesome vocabulary without adding "computationally tractable" into the mix!

What exciting times!
Stephanie S

Unknown said...

Cheers Stephanie! It was great to see the GRI showcase some of the discussions from the digital art history lab at the Getty IRIS blog, and the youtube videos.

I think an important point should be made about using the the term "digital art history" in some descriptions because many work with digital tools to some degree (email etc).

While this is true, perhaps in these initial stages at least the term "digital art history" may represent a commitment to work in a more collaborative mode, viewing to create and use tools that go beyond archives and databases etc.

At the end of the day though, whatever it is called, the actual work done by these innovative individuals and institutions is what counts.


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