January 30th, 2011
The Smarthistory.org Kickstarter campaign launched one week ago and we wanted to offer an update to our amazing contributors and a little kick for our supporters who have not yet given.
First, a huge THANK YOU to all that share our vision for open educational resources (OERs) and for Smarthistory. We see a very bright future for education where problems with access diminish thanks to extremely high quality OERs. In our own field, we see a future where art museums, libraries, colleges and universities no longer produce content primarily for their own students and visitors but instead develop systems where resources are pooled to create more comprehensive resources for a much larger audience of learners.
In the meantime there is our little project, Smarthistory. We are already reaching across institutional boundaries to create historical narratives and hope the crowd-sourced funding model that Kickstarter has pioneered will be the engine for our growth. Maybe, if we are successful, other OERs will take this path.
Our focus now has to be meeting our $10,000 goal since Kickstarter is an all or nothing structure. We have had an amazing week and have already raised $4,455 toward our goal, but if we only raise, for example $9,000, the project doesn’t fund and Smarthistory get nothing.
Most of those reading this have already given and so this is preaching to the choir, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t end with an appeal, please encourage your friends and colleagues to watch our video and support the free and open education that Smarthistory.org offers. Thank you.
October 9th, 2010
The Next Generation Learning Challenges blog asked, “What makes an e-textbook work?” and last night, I responded with the following,
This important question may need a little rephrasing. The textbook is of course not a given, but rather, the result of a particular technology and a reflection of the needs and interests of a specific historical moment. The textbook promised the comprehensive treatment of its subject, accuracy, and a single, coherent, sequential structure.
The web has shown that these premises are limited and our students seem to know this. Perhaps this is because in their experience knowledge seems more expansive, intricate, dynamic, and cumulative and the very notion that a bound and static textbook that purports to be comprehensive is for them, inherently suspect. Diderot’s noble belief that his great Encyclopédie could contain the full extent of “each and every branch of human knowledge” was beautiful and wildly ambitious, but it was an expression of the mid-18th century Enlightenment.
Must we remain bound, even through metaphor, to the print textbook as a model? The economics of print technology required standardized editions that fail to reflect the fluidity of knowledge. We now have an incredible opportunity to invent an entirely new means with which to introduce and interact with a given discipline. Let’s leave the metaphor of the textbook behind us. Instead, open, networked learning should aggregate and respond to discovery and analysis in real time while drawing relevant materials from resources across a spectrum of disciplines. Further, we can include many more voices and create much more engaging models for learning.
Dr. Beth Harris and I created Smarthistory.org, a conversation-based multimedia art history web-book to begin to do exactly this.
Add your thoughts to the conversation over at the Next Generation blog.
January 9th, 2010
Just back from Rome. And while I was there I googled around on tourism and art history (found a few books and ordered them) and also did some searching on youtube. I found this video after searching “San Pietro in Vincoli “– by someone named zThirdTry:
I love it! It’s very much about his experience of standing in front of the church and entering it – and he speaks directly to us – trying to share that experience with us. He translates the name of the Church for us and explains why it has attracted worshipers for centuries (no, not Moses, but St. Peter’s chains). He talks about the lights going on and off and he shows all the tourists taking pictures. Now I’ve taught Michelangelo’s Moses for many years and never showed the outside of this church. In fact, I’ve never translated the name of the Church and explained the relic that is there. I teach Moses in the context of Michelangelo’s oeuvre and the patronage of Pope Julius II, as I imagine most art historians do. I talk about Julius II’s vision for Rome, for the Papacy and for himself. I show Michelangelo’s ambitious sketches for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and I show what the tomb looks like today – usually with an image like this one – tourist free of course. I talk about the High Renaissance approach to the body – as a vehicle for expressing the spiritual and emotional.
Went I was in Rome visiting San Pietro in Vincoli, I was surprised by how the exterior of the church looked and by the pannini/snack cart permanently parked outside it to serve the throngs of tourists who came to see this Michelangelo masterpiece. I didn’t know where to find the monument within the church. I shot one video to show tourists, and a couple more of the outside of the church, and another one of entering the church and approaching the Tomb – will post those soon, though this one is up now on Smarthistory. Perhaps what I like about zThirdTry’s video is that it shows me a different perspective – a tourist perspective, a tourist who is very interested in art – but who is also a religious person. I think that’s what is missing from the art history textbook – those different perspectives. So, I guess the questions are – do we agree those are important, and if so, what’s the best way to bring those in?
January 2nd, 2010
Beth is in Rome (and I am quite jealous). Despite many years of study in Europe, this is her first visit. We have been discussing how beautiful and overwhelming the city is and the delirious shock of seeing, for the first time, art you have studied and taught in reproduction for many years. This is an experience I remember very clearly and we have been prompted to think about the responsibilities we have to our students and the failure of our discipline to prepare us for what we see and feel when we look at canonical works of art in situ.
Here is her most recent dispatch:
Nothing I learned in graduate school or during years of study and teaching prepared me for Santa Maria del Popolo and the Caravaggios in the Cerasi Chapel. Nothing prepared me for the way the church is situated in an inconspicuous corner of the enormous Piazza del Popolo, or the woman begging on the steps, or the swirling frisbee-like souvenirs that light up when they are tossed high in the air that are being sold in the Piazza, or the traffic that streams by the church and its very worn steps and narrow door, or the people praying close to the altar, or the lights that go on and off in the chapel as tourists contribute Euros, or the way each chapel in the church looks so very different, or the way this particular chapel is just beside the altar, or how works of art from different periods combine in this one church, or the colors of the marble surrounding the paintings, or the way the paintings’ meaning is affected because they face each other in a narrow chapel—Paul blinded and chosen, Peter crucified.
Nothing I have seen in Rome has looked or felt the way I imagined it would. Flickr images of the church and Square and YouTube videos of the interior of the church help, sure—but not a lot. I’m a well-trained art historian. I understand the importance of looking at objects in the location they were made for. I value historical context. I appreciate the tools of visual analysis art history has given me. But Steven and I wonder if there is a way to teach these objects while still allowing them to be living objects in the world.
The following was co-written by us both:
Should we have been better prepared for Santa Maria del Popolo or the numerous other similar encounters throughout the city? What is art history’s responsibility to us and to its students in this regard? Should our discipline offer a more comprehensive and current context for the objects we study? In class, we often show paintings such as Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter—isolated, against a black background, as an object of empirical analysis—and too often as an example of a “style.” The caption in the book, or the entry on an image list we hand to our students does little or nothing to even suggest the range of factors that will affect our viewing experience in person.
Edward Said argued that the West depicted the “Orient” removed from history thus creating a timeless world—and by so doing, creating the comforting distance the West needed to compare itself and feel superior and justified. Perhaps it’s time to ask what it is that we that gain when we photograph frescoes from impossible angles, and without the worshipers, tourists, lights and noise that embed the work of art in a living city.
Art history’s form and methods were largely established in response to 18th and 19th century needs and interests. Many of these driving forces remain of course; there is still a thriving art market hungry for authenticity and other narratives that create value. As in centuries past, art’s history is still prized as an extraordinarily rich cultural strand and perhaps most importantly, our discipline has created a language and experience of seeing that is deeply enriching. However, our success has also lead to our failure. The nineteenth century empiricism that structured the discipline removes the experience—the emotion of the tourist and art history student (not to mention the pious then and now) and the sensual environment of many of these objects. As we all know, the discipline is no longer the sanctuary of an elite minority. Twenty-first century art history is taught to secondary and college students as a matter of course. It is no longer unusual for community college students to be asked to differentiate the work of Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, ambitious high school students regularly enroll in advance placement art history classes, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the most-visited tourist attraction in New York. All of this suggests to us that perhaps it is time to re-examine the assumptions and conceits built into the art history survey and its methods of instruction. We know that thousands throng to visit works of art in situ the way the pious once made pilgrimage—so why not acknowledge this reality more openly in our survey classes and texts?
The ideological battles of the 1970s and 80s opened our discipline to numerous theoretical models and far broader historical contexts but our experience tells us that we have not gone far enough—especially in the classroom. We teach taxonomies infused with study of the period in which the artist created and rarely (if the circumstances are dramatic enough) we may discuss the later life of the object. For example, when the painting by Caravaggio, The Conversion of Paul is taught, its formal elements, available biographical information about the artist, patronage, and the broader context of Counter-Reformation Rome are all treated. In essence, we teach what we can of the meanings we believe this painting had at the start of the seventeenth century when it was produced. But what we don’t do is explicitly acknowledge to our students that the painting continues to accrue meaning and in fact exists in our present not simply as a canonical support of our construction of the Early Italian Baroque but as a real object, deeply embedded in the fabric of a living city and tourist industry now.
Can we develop a survey that treats art in its historical context while also situating it in our contemporary experience? What would that look like for the Caravaggio? In addition to primary source materials and art historical analysis, perhaps we should make room for urban historians and environmental psychologists, for those who regularly worship in Santa Maria del Popolo, and the tourists who visit. We might include curated Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and details from Google Earth. Understanding the ways a painting is understood now, wouldn’t diminish Caravaggio’s achievement, but might provide a means for students and visitors to engage the art more deeply and personally. We understand the enormous importance of seeing works of art first-hand, but some of our students may never have that opportunity, can we give them some sense of the reality of the current life of the work we ask them to study?