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Digital Art History
November 02, 2023

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker are co-directors and co-founders of Smarthistory, “a radical collaborative of more than five hundred art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists committed to rewriting the colonial legacies of art history and unlocking the expertise of hundreds of leading scholars, making the history of art accessible to more people, in more places, than any other publisher.”

Read on to hear more about their work and Smarthistory, in conversation with Shea Spiller from the Kress Foundation.

At Smarthistory we believe art has the power to transform lives and to build understanding across cultures. We believe that the brilliant histories of art belong to everyone, no matter their background.
Smarthistory, Our mission: public art history

Shea Spiller: Thank you both so much for speaking with me. Not only because of your longstanding history with Kress, but I also have to say, personally, I’m a big fan of Smarthistory and have relied on it as a resource throughout my art history training.

To start us off, can you introduce yourselves and tell me what your roles are at Smarthistory?

Beth Harris: We are co-executive directors of Smarthistory, which we co-founded about 20 years ago when we were both teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), part of the State University of New York. At that time the web was really just in its early stages, and it was an exciting moment in education and educational technology where the possibilities felt limitless.

This was also a moment at the beginning of digital images, which is hard to believe now, and when Max Marmor (President, Kress Foundation) was recruiting institutions for Artstor. For the first time we were going to have a digital image library and not have to rely on slides. The images themselves were so much more beautiful; you could see so much more and it made the material more compelling to students. At the time we were both fascinated by what technology was capable of doing in the classroom and felt there were major opportunities to engage undergraduates with the material in different ways. A lot of what Smarthistory does comes from what we thought our students needed.

We were compelled by the way that images, text, and audio could come together. In a textbook you have images and text and the reader is constantly shifting between the two. But with audio, you can overlay it, much like in the classroom where you can make art history come alive. You can ask, what does it feel like to be in these places? What are the emotions? The experiences? How do you really see the image? How do we react to the image? How do we have opinions about images? How do we not present art history as monolithic?

Steven Zucker: Beth and I are really both teachers, and we are always thinking about what our students need and how we can open up an historical world to them. Especially in survey courses where students were taking the class because they were required to. Beth and I saw it, and still see it, as our solemn responsibility to get them to fall in love with art history.

BH: And it was in the classroom where we witnessed students getting really excited about art history when we would teach it, but that kind of excitement and engagement was not reflected in the materials. At the time there were almost no materials on the web and you could barely find an image you wanted.

SZ: And then photographs of Hagia Sophia showed up on the web, on Flickr,  and we were just over the moon. This was a time when research libraries like the Frick literally had catalogues of every iteration of every photograph of a work of art, and that was still possible. But that's just how rare reproductive images were, especially of non-canonical objects. It was really a different time and it’s a bit hard to recall that.

SS: That’s incredible to think about. With these digital art history conversations, I think it’s really crucial to place us in time and recognize how much the field has drastically changed in the past 20 years. As a student of 2023, I truly cannot imagine learning in a time when images were that rare to come by.

SZ: And across academia and museums there was a real reticence about anything digital. Kress did really important work in supporting research that was foundational in understanding the digital landscape and its implications, and also the reticence of the field to adopt it. Kress was such an important forerunner and helped to lay a healthy foundation for the discipline which it is only beginning to benefit from.

SS:  Moving us forward in time a bit, I'd love to hear more about one of your recent Kress-funded projects, Reframing Art History. Can you tell me about that project and how you see it evolving in the future?

SZ: Reframing Art History is a major project that we’re very excited about. It was the result of Smarthistory’s growth—we now have over 1,000 videos and around 5,000 essays, and with that breadth comes an added responsibility for building new pathways. Right now, most of our content is focused on a single object, which is how most people teach. What we wanted to do was build pathways that resemble the glue that a professor adds in the classroom, bringing together objects and creating a larger narrative arc. We have more than fifty chapters that have been published and we're publishing more all the time.

The idea is that this is a born digital textbook, however it differs from a traditional textbook in several ways. First and foremost, the textbook is free. This is not only just a nice thing for students, we think it's actually politically an important stance to take. One of the reasons that people don't study art history is because of the cost of humanities materials, and art history textbooks are famously very expensive. Accessibility is crucial to this project. While all of Smarthistory’s content is free and without advertising, I think it's especially unusual for a textbook. In addition, we're not constrained by the physical limits of a printed textbook. This is not a printed textbook with digital components, this is a fully digital resource.

Reframing Art HIstory—Smarthistory's "textbook" (from a live webinar)

SZ: There's been tremendous enthusiasm among authors as well. Smarthistory is not just Beth and me—this is an important point which we have not addressed yet—Smarthistory is a radical collaborative of more than 500 academics that believe in what we're doing, believe in our mission, believe in the idea of making art history more accessible, and these people step forward and produce content in their area of expertise. While in a traditional textbook you might have a dozen content authors that are writing in their areas, there's often an effort to homogenize those voices to create a seamless single voice. And that's not what we do with Reframing Art History, or for Smarthistory more broadly. These are signed essays, these are the voices of particular scholars, and we think there's a kind of authenticity and value there that is really helpful for students and helps to create a greater sense of the way that art history actually works.

Selection of chapters from Reframing Art History, Part 5: Art and architecture, c. 1400–1800

SS: That’s something I definitely appreciate about Smarthistory, that you emphasize there are many, many different perspectives and narratives that are informed by the different backgrounds and expertise that people are bringing. This also comes through so well in the conversations between the two of you and with other scholars. You can really hear the way that art history is formed and written in a way that I think is incredibly useful to students. Like you said, it’s more authentic and transparent, rather than suggesting there is one authoritative perspective that everyone has to conform to.

BH: As you know, when you go to graduate school, you end up specializing and as you go on your expertise becomes more and more focused. Then you start teaching and someone says, “OK, well, your first class that you're teaching is ancient Greek and Roman art,” and you've had maybe a course or two, if you're lucky or the first part of the survey. But you're certainly not as prepared as someone who has a PhD in that specific area. Part of the idea of having experts writing in their field grew out of the way Steven and I used to go to each other's classrooms to exchange ideas since our areas of expertise are in different centuries.

There was a similar feeling of exchange in the slide library, where you would see and talk to other faculty. Smarthistory is what we dreamed we needed and what we dreamed students needed, but it was also what we dreamed other teachers needed to allow them to teach in a way that is exciting and draws a learner in. 

Kress was there at every stage for us from the very beginning, from the very first grant. And then additional grants to update the website so it didn't start to look stale, then support all the way through to Reframing Art History today and support during the COVID pandemic so we could give out honoraria to early career art historians, that was a really important moment for us.

Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca bust), early 2nd century C.E., marble, 63 inches high (Capitoline Museum, Rome), part 2 of 2; Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Beth Harris

SS: That's actually a good segue to my next question. Could you each share an example of a recent or future project that you're particularly proud of or that you’d like to highlight?

BH: The most recent grant from Kress was in support of a project to update the website in a really profound way by adding taxonomies using Getty vocabularies and custom vocabularies so that we can make the content much more flexible.

Right now, everything lives in a silo by country, geography, time, style, culture… and it can only live in that one place. We need a more flexible system where one object can very easily appear in many different contexts. Art history is being taught in different ways, more and more we’re teaching world art history and emphasizing the interrelationships between objects and the way that they travel and move and have interconnectedness embedded in them.

For a long time, art history was taught where you learned one place at one time, but then all of a sudden, you'd realize there are all these connections between people, places, and artworks that the discipline didn’t make apparent, especially at the undergraduate level. I think a lot of that was leftover prejudices from a discipline founded in the 19th century that looked at things in isolated ways and from a very Eurocentric perspective. It’s great to break down those boundaries, but we also need the underlying technology to be able to break those down, and that's what we're in the middle of now.

It's a two-year project and we’re about one year into it; we hope to have the first iterations of it go live in the spring or summer of next year. Kayla McCarthy on our staff is leading the charge, Steven and I are involved, and our other full-time employee, Julia Campbell is involved. We've assembled a really knowledgeable team to support us through this complicated process. What we have to do now is go through about 5,000 pages and add taxonomies and tags so that the content can be interrelated. We’ll also have a much stronger search function, so you'll be able to better search and filter, allowing for many more opportunities to see connections between objects.

We don't want to just reflect where the discipline is now, we want to help transform the undergraduate classroom.
Beth Harris

SZ: In addition to the technical staff and affiliates that we're working with, who are incredibly important and wonderful in every way, we're also reaching out to groups of scholars. This is something we often do, but this has been a project where we have reached out to a much broader group of specialists from all over the world in an effort to understand from them what they are actually teaching and what the theoretical directions are that their disciplines and sub-disciplines are moving in. How do they handle issues of language and colonialism? What are they avoiding? What are the problems for them? What are they trying to elucidate? We want the structures that we're building through this project to help support those directions.

BH: We don't want to just reflect where the discipline is now, we want to help transform the undergraduate classroom. There’s a lot of effort to do that by rethinking the boundaries of our discipline, decolonizing it, making it more worlded and interconnected. We want to be able to support those shifts, so we have to build that capacity into the new design for the website. New design isn’t the best word for it because it’s going to look very much the same, but it will have these new features and new capacities.

SZ: And Kress recognized the importance of this project and enthusiastically stepped forward, and we’re very grateful.

From a live webinar: BIPOC Reader Teaching Strategies with Dr. Maya Harakawa and Olivia Chiang

SS: One of the things that’s so interesting in these conversations about digital art history, is to really think about how there are all these underlying frameworks and processes that you might not be aware of as a user, but it’s those very frameworks and tools that then allow you to use the material in a completely different way.

BH: As Steven said before, at no point twenty years ago did we sit down and say let's build a giant thing and we'll need tags and taxonomies... It grew very organically, based on the funding available and, most importantly, how we viewed the needs of the teachers, students, and communities we were engaged with. Looking back, there's part of me that thinks, why didn't we build that stuff in early on, but in a way, it's really important that we didn't because we were able to be flexible and responsive and could really allow the content to grow. But the content is growing so much that now we need to have more finding aids on the site, and now we have a better idea of the kinds of vocabularies that we need than we would have had ten years ago.

SZ: That’s part of the reason that we've been working with scholars in all of these sub-disciplines, and these are increasingly scholars from around the world who are bringing non-U.S. based perspectives to art history. And I think that is helping us better understand what those vocabularies should be.

It has really been a process of growth. We have been dependent on scholars and their generosity throughout the entire project, but increasingly we've been able to attract the participation of scholars from parts of art history that have historically been neglected by the discipline. We have a long way to go, but I think we’re starting to make real progress in terms of a diversity of perspectives.

BH: There are a lot of us working on this question of how does the discipline transform and become more equitable? And is it even possible for art history, given its foundations and its limited vocabularies? This of course has been a question for decades now, and while there's real value in writing books about that question and theorizing about it, I think being on the ground and just trying to do it in the best way we know how, by talking to a lot of scholars in a lot of different fields, is answering an important need in the discipline for students and teachers now. A reframing of the discipline doesn't just happen at a theoretical level, it really needs to be implemented in the classroom. And some attempts may be imperfect, but the important thing is to try and see what happens.

Smarthistory's Flickr page

SZ: There are ramifications to that public expression of art history. Right now, we're all grappling with Chat GPT, for example, and we're currently experimenting with how it can be valuable for us and also what its profound limitations are. Chat GPT is simply taking what exists out on the web and reiterating it in different ways, including lots of imperfect information. At this moment, it's crucial that human scholars are out there in a public forum.

There's an analogy to this… When we first began, and even now, if you do a Google search for a painting, a lot of what comes up is junk poster sites. Works of art are poorly photographed and there’s incorrect or nonexistent metadata, and images are cropped or have been transformed in some way. Smarthistory now has over 15,000 high resolution photographs up on the web with a Creative Commons license broadly available for teaching and learning on Flickr and they’ve been viewed more than 45 million times. We tried to create a solution to the junk images that exist out there on Google, and what I'm suggesting is that there is a kind of analogy between that and the art history that something like ChatGPT pushes out. When students query, versus the kind of quality public art history that scholars are making accessible through Smarthistory and other resources.

BH: Many professors are still teaching with old PowerPoints with terrible images. We have a really amazing library to draw from that we want to share widely.

SS: It’s amazing how often the images that we're still working from are so poor and, to your point from earlier, especially for objects from outside of the canon of traditional art history. Often times you're really operating with a half blind perspective of the thing, because how are you supposed to really get a sense of what it is that you're talking about when it's a blurry photo that someone took of a textbook page?

SZ: Yes, actually in an article we posted on the blog, Beth makes that point exactly and says it's like trying to read Dante with a quarter of the words missing. And how can we get students to fall in love with our discipline and take it seriously if we don't give them high-quality content?

Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Still a problem: images and art history (2018)," in Smarthistory

SS: To end with, can you share what makes you most excited about continuing to work in this field in the future?

BH: I know that we're serving a really important need. We hear from teachers and students all the time, so that's what keeps us going.

SZ: And I would just add that I think that what we're seeing is a transformation and I hope that Smarthistory is a part of it, where art historians see each other as working together towards a greater goal and not so much in isolation. I think that there's an opportunity, through the digital and through projects like Smarthistory, for a much healthier, more collaborative art history.

SS: Well, thank you both so much. It’s been so interesting to hear about the history of Smarthistory and how it has paralleled so many larger changes in the discipline.

There's an opportunity, through the digital and through projects like Smarthistory, for a much healthier, more collaborative art history.
Steven Zucker