From Oral Histories to Cultural Analytics

Well, I fear this week’s blog post might be a bit all over the place, but that is because I am so excited about this week’s readings! We covered a lot, stretching from the do’s and don’t’s of Oral History to using big data and cultural analytics to analyze Rothko’s oeuvre. Whew! Here are the readings for reference for those interested as I will be talking about them throughout the post:

The overarching theme for the week was “Beyond the Static Image,” and our readings showed the various ways in which we can incorporate sources beyond images, not only in our scholarship but also our own research. I was very interested in reading about the Oral History projects, especially because of my background in my own undergraduate program. I had two different advisors in my undergraduate program who had incorporated oral history projects in their own scholarly work and was taught in these courses how to navigate sources beyond the written text. Some of the points that Shopes highlights in her article, namely how to navigate interviewing someone for an oral history project, how to conduct yourself, and many other tips. Additionally, it had very useful information regarding the ways in which you can interpret oral histories. Just as any other piece of information or source you use in your scholarship, it is not something that you can always take as pure fact; there are various levels of understanding oral histories and many factors which impact people’s statements. One passage that I found quite interesting was Shopes’ reference to President Kennedy and the way in which people remembered him:

Similarly, John F. Kennedy’s assassination not only reshaped Americans’ subsequent views of him but even changed how they remembered their earlier perceptions. Although Kennedy was elected with just 49.7% of the vote in the fall of 1960, almost two-thirds of all Americans remembered voting for him when they were asked about it in the aftermath of his assassination.”[4]

This pertinent quote goes to show that people’s memories alter as time passes and this affects the ways in which they remember and interpret their historical past. Similarly, Shopes discusses the ways in which an oral history might change based upon the interviewer and the situation in which the interview was taking place.

All of that being said, oral histories should not be discounted for their complications but rather embraced for their intricacies. Comparing two oral histories with the same person interviewed by two different people, as Shopes highlights in her article with the example of two interviews from Susan Hamlin (or Hamilton), a former slave in South Carolina, one interviewed by a white person and another by an African-American person. The interviewers produced two very different viewpoints of Hamlin’s histories, providing a clear example of the ways in which a situational difference, such as the identity of the interviewer, can affect the oral history, something that can be embraced in scholarly analysis.

For art historians, especially modern or contemporary art historians, embracing oral histories of artist interviews would be a fantastic way in which you can engage with a new source. For my own research, I work on an artist book project called A Humument: A Treated Artist’s Book by a British artist Tom Phillips. He has conducted many interviews in his lifetime, but there are no oral histories or recordings of these interviews which I would very much like to use in my scholarship as I believe the tone and other gestures that are not recorded in a simple transcription would affect my interpretation of the interview. After reading many of his interviews, he seems to have a very dry, sarcastic personality that sometimes does not fully come translate in a written transcription.

Beyond the oral history readings that we did for this week, we also looked at two articles that I want to briefly touch on in this week’s blog post as I was extremely interested by both of them, albeit for slightly different reasons. The first is John Resig’s article “Using Computer Vision to Increase the Research Potential of Photo Archives.” To give a rather poor summary (go read the article, it’s really interesting!), Resig worked with the Frick and the technology of TinEye (a reverse image search engine) to try to pair up unidentified photographs from one of their archives.

As I have stated before in my blog posts, I am a dual master’s student in art history and library science and, although this is an art history course, this reading really brought out my library science side. This technology, along with the technology shown in the “Cultural Analytics” article, seems really interesting from a library science side, but I am slightly apprehensive about it from a an art historian’s perspective. In a very basic sense, both of the programs involve teaching computers to analyze images. Resig used TinEye’s search engine to find potential matches for anonymous images whereas the technology from the Software Studies Initiative transforms an artist’s work into big data to be analyzed, seen clearly in this video about Mark Rothko’s oeuvre:

These technologies are interesting and very inventive, but it brought be back to my favorite Druckerism: is it digitized or digital? In my head, the most importance factor in this distinction factors on whether or not this new technology will impact a research question in my scholarship. What new scholarly inquiries will this technology open up? In the case of Resig’s article, many ideas regarding new research questions emerged for my work as a (hopeful) future art librarian. But as an art historian, I was stumped as to how this technology would actually alter my scholarly inquiries. In our class discussion of these technologies, my lovely classmate Taylor pointed out that for some areas of art history, particularly Africanists, connoisseurship is still an extremely important and foundational part of the field, and these technologies would be a great way in which they can revitalize their work, something I had not thought about myself. As we continue to learn and adapt these technologies throughout the semester, I look forward to engaging both sides of my academic interest.

Making Moves: From Idea to Creation

This week’s class topics really excite me because we are moving towards the actual creation of a digital project. As I have said in some of my different posts throughout the weeks, while I have a background in digital art history in terms of its scholarship and some familiarity with various projects, I myself have never been involved with the creation of a project nor used many of the ‘standard’ tools found in many digital art history projects.

Because this week (like most weeks) is divided into the theoretical side and the technological side, I am going to divide this blog post into two sections. I am doing this not only to make it easier in composing the post, but also so that I can write and reflect on my preconceived notions of the tools before actually encountering them on Thursday. After playing around with them in class on Thursday, I will then reflect on my experiences and compare it to my earlier thoughts.

Part One: In Theory

For this week, we were given a wide variety of readings, ranging from the College Art Association’s Copyright, Permissions, and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Visual Arts Communities: An Issues Report to a blog post that provides advise and experiential knowledge regarding starting a digital humanities project, especially in regards to graduate students who may not have worked on a project like this before. While these two items might appear to be discussing two different ideas entirely, at the center of each is an issue that is essential to understanding digital art history: the use of images.

One of the most shocking aspects of the CAA’s report is the range of knowledge and understanding of copyright, permissions, and fair use in regards to visual imagery, something that Paige Morgan highlights as essential knowledge when starting your DH project. In addition to not having your project related to your dissertation (something that I will touch upon in just a moment), understanding copyright, fair use, and permissions issues should be one of, if not the, first thing that you do when you are starting your project.

Unlike any other humanities discipline, the use of the object (its formal analysis, contextual placement, detailed images) is the most important aspect of art history scholarship, making the use and publication of images a necessity when sharing said scholarship. Because of this, it is necessary to understand the basics of copyright, fair use, and permissions in relation to visual imagery. Although this might seem tedious, it guarantees protection for your project and academics, as well as graduate students, are almost always protected under the guise of Fair Use. Additionally, once you get past the initial fear of conquering copyright, you are faced with the realization that digital platforms are incredible ways in which scholars can engage with digital imagery! Unlike a print publication, a digital platform allows you to engage with the images in multiple ways; there can be 3D replications of objects, extremely detailed sections of an object, and other ways that you can engaged with the object other than just one view of the object. Being able to zoom in on the object, view it in a couple of different angles, compare it directly with printed drawings or studies, etc. In light of this, having the background and knowledge of copyright, fair use, and permissions of visual imagery is essential in taking the first step towards creating your digital project and platform.

Part Two: Creation Stories

I write the second part of this blog post after just completing my first digital assignment for class (my Omeka site is linked to my menu and you can view it here). One of the things that I want to accomplish in this class is to build digital collections and related digital material in relation to my Art History Master’s Thesis topic. In this project, I am looking at British artist Tom Phillips’ relationship to ornament, seen most clearly in his work on his artist book A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Because of this, I wanted to create a digital collection of images related to this topic on Omeka. Ideally, I would like the digital site to be supplementary material to my thesis. Heeding Paige Morgan’s advice, I do not envision this to be an integral part of my thesis, but rather further resources for both myself as I continue to conduct research and formal analysis on the images, but also an open resource to those who are interested in Tom Phillips, A Humument, ornament, and/or artists books.

With that being said, I was extremely excited to get started and create a digital repository on Omeka. As I was able to look at various sites that utilize Omeka for their digital projects (see examples here), I was excited to use the service in my own research. Overall, I am a little disappointed with Omeka and its capabilities, especially when I think about how I would use it in my own research. I think that there is a relatively steep learning curve and for people like myself who are not digitally proficient, I do not know if I would have been able to navigate the site to start my own digital collection without having had a lesson in class. I do think that, just like anything else, the longer I played around with the tool and my comfortability with it grew, I would be able to use it more efficiently and in a way that I would be able to directly apply it to my own research. But, at this present state, where I truly want to build a digital collection in which I could use to visually analyze the objects that I am using for research for my master’s paper. I approached Omeka in the hopes of creating something like Tropy offers where I could upload images and annotate them with tags and be able to search across the collection all cases in which I tagged “typography,” for example.

Unlike what I would like to use Omeka for, I think this operating system would be a great resource for a public facing project. Being able to provide scholarly resources and include essays or lots of description for an image or video would be a great resource for someone who is creating any type of public history project. But for me, when I really want to use it as a source for my own research, I think having my own private collection, either on Tropy of NVivo, would be a better resource for me. If I wanted to turn my project into more of an outward facing project, I can absolutely see the value in both Omeka as well as Scalar. In my brief exploration of Scalar, it seems to be a valuable tool in which you can create individual “books” related to a specific topics. One of the benefits of Scalar over Omeka is the clear Menu option and the ability to easily navigate across the various pages, whereas I find that navigation quite difficult on Omeka. I look forward to continuing to use and play with these tools throughout the semester!

Digital Art History Resources: So What

In the past two weeks, we’ve covered a lot of material in relation to digital art history, including laying the foundation with seminal articles such as Johanna Drucker’s “Is There A Digital Art History?”, the first Issue of The International Journal of Digital Art History, as well as Diane M. Zorich’s Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship. We talked about the ways in which digital art history has developed in relation to other humanities disciplines, especially in relation to Adam Kirsch’s article “The Limits of the Digital Humanities,” as well as how digital art history is distinct in inalienable ways in comparison to the *capital letters* Digital Humanities.

This introductory material evolved from the question state, i.e. What is Digital Art History or Is There A Digital Art History, to Now What. Personally, I find this the most satisfying part to analyze. We are able to establish that there is a digital art history that utilizes new methodological tools than other areas of the disciplines that allow us to approach the field in a new interesting way. What’s left? Looking at the projects!

In class on Tuesday, we talked about a variety of digital art history resources that are currently available and I was able to look at and present on Harvard’s Bauhaus Collection. This was a wonderful example of a digital art history resource for me in particular as I am taking ab art history seminar on the Bauhaus and I am looking at the legacy of the Bauhaus for my seminar paper. This resource acts as a great example of a bridge between a physical and digital collection. This resource is very much rooted in the objects that Harvard physically owns and throughout the digital resource there is mention of (and encouragement to visit) the actual collection.

When I was thinking about what I wanted to focus on for this week’s blog post as well as the resources that I wanted to discuss in this blog post, I was of course drawn to two resources in particular: Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative and the Canadian Online Art Book Project as these were two out of the three sources that I analyzed in my SILS master’s paper. And, although I would love to talk at length about both of these sources as I find them absolutely fascinating for a variety of reasons and I believe they would help shed some light on many of the issues that we have discussed in class thus far, I felt like it was cheating a bit to focus on resources that I have already studied in depth. Perhaps in another post in which I focus more upon the publishing side of digital art history I will delve into Getty’s OSCI Project or the Canadian Online Art Book Project (or even the third resource I looked at which are the catalogues raisonne published by Artifex Press), but for the sake of this post I will look at a resource that I have not yet looked into.

I decided to look at Leonardo da Vinci and his Treatise on Painting a project that is focused on Leonardo’s canonical text.

Screenshot of the homepage of Leonardo da Vinci & his treatise on painting.

One of the first things that I noticed that it is a relatively undeveloped home pages and is somewhat reminiscent of an earlier era of the web. It is clearly Copyrighted in 2012 and shows that its home base is found at the University of Virginia. The “About the Project” states that main purpose or aim of the project:

Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting is a digital archive dedicated to the Treatise on Painting, the pivotal text for disseminating Leonardo’s art theory in Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Rather than focusing on Leonardo’s original manuscripts, which remained largely unavailable until the early nineteenth century, the digital archive focuses on the Treatise on Painting, the only text by Leonardo that circulated widely in Renaissance and Baroque Europe.

One of the aspects that I found most interesting in this project is that right after the “About the Project” paragraph, the authors incorporate a clear “Methodology” section:

The project adopts new representational and interpretative methodologies that integrate traditional scholarship in art history, philology, literature, and cultural history with new research tools in information technology. These modern methodologies are eminently suitable to represent and analyze the precious, and thus far neglected, internal evidence of the manuscript copies of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, particularly their textual and visual variations, the relations between word and image, and their physical characteristics.

The sophisticated database structure and research tools make it possible to account for the synchronic and diachronic diffusion of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting in many copies, in different places, and at different times.

I found this to be a valuable aspect of the project that I have not encountered in many other resources; by making a clear distinction of the methodology of the project, not only creating a concise reasoning of why they made the project in the first place, but also so that researchers and scholars have a clear methodology already outlined for them.

After these sections, this project has a detailed explanation of the various resources incorporated in the project as well as a helpful overview in how to best use the website. Additional aspects of the project that I found particularly enlightening was that they incorporated a very detailed Copyright section in which they describe the rights and attributes to the entire site as well as the material that is incorporated in the site.

Screenshot of Conditions of Use and Copyright Information from

Overall, this seems to be a really great resource for scholars; I think that it has a steep learning curve in regards to Leonardo’s writing so I think that it is definitely aimed at scholars in the field rather than students or general users. There is a beneficial comparison tool in which you can look at two different texts or two different images from various manuscripts (although for art historians, the lack of a zoom function seems a smidge frustrating).

Being Basic: Digitization

As we learned from Johanna Drucker’s seminal article “Is There A Digital Art History?” there is an integral differences between digitized and digital art history. Digitized art history is often the first step in moving towards digital art history and the various projects that fall under the umbrella of this new academic field. Scanning archival images, creating 3D replications of architectural buildings, or scanning ephemera from artist’s files to create a digital repository is all considered digitizing. As a point of contrast, digital art history differentiates from just digitizing art history as it is fundamentally asking a different research question. It is using the new technological tools that have been introduced and using them to look art art history in a new way.

I write this rather basic introductory paragraph not just as a regurgitation of facts that we have talked about in the beginning of our class, but also as a reminder to myself. While I am extremely interested in digital art history and, from my past course experiences, feel like I have a thorough understanding in the field, I still often times get caught up in the differences between digitizing and digital. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, regardless of the fact that digitizing is the first step towards a digital art history and not necessarily a new methodological way in which you can approach the field, art historians have resisted the use of digitizing in comparison to other disciplines in the humanities. This resistance to the use of digitizing technology might initially come as a shock to people as it now seems so basic, but once you truly ponder why they might have been resistant to the influx of digitization, it makes more and more sense.

Unlike any other field in the humanities, or even the social sciences, art historians are first and foremost focused on the object itself. While the field has embraced new ways of looking at objects, i.e. Marxist, feminist, queer methodologies, the object is always the first and most important field of inquiry. Before we can look at anything else, art historians first, and always, examine the object: the medium, its form, its material, etc. Now, why would the extra emphasis on the object matter so much to art historians? Wouldn’t that be a reason to embrace digital technologies as a way to gain access to more and more art objects? One must only do a simple Google search of a famous art work, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as a pertinent example.

Google image search of the painting the Mona Lisa.
Google Image search for Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa. “

The range of images that appear when searching the Mona Lisa illuminate a pertinent reason why art historians have been resistant to digital technologies. Each of these individual images have a different variation of the painting: from differences in size, color, placement, and much more, one would not be able to tell which was the “right” Mona Lisa and which one was not. Since the object, its color, material, shape, and size, are all essential in the analysis of art history scholarship, it becomes a bit clearer why art historians might be resistant to these technologies. Slides and printed images are considered (by some art historians, not necessarily all), to be truer to the original object of which they are studying.

That being said, art historians have embraced digitizing in their efforts to become more technologically advanced and because of this, it is essential that we are not only aware of its practices, but also be constantly skeptical of the way in which the field utilizes these new tools.

When I think of the ways in which art history can utilize digitization tools, I always think that the first question one must ask is what is actually being digitized. If one of the main benefits of the use of these tools is to increase access to art objects, it is essential that practitioners be cognizant in what exactly they are digitizing. What cultures do these objects reflect? In what ways is digitizing these objects helping the field to expand to create a more diverse field? Are there any biases that are inherent in a department’s digitization practices? How are these technological tools being used to create a more diverse field of art history?

These are just some of the questions that one must ask, as well as remind oneself, when dealing with the field of digital art history. If the first step of this new scholarly practice is digitizing, then we must ensure that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that this new wave of methodological practices embraces a larger field of scholarly inquiry. The first example that always comes to mind is that of the racial bias inherent in photography and digitizing photographs. It is essential that practitioners are aware of the way in which digitizing objects, photographs, and ephemera can affect the way in which future scholarship is conducted. Much like an archive, digital repositories affect scholarship in an extremely basic way: if the object or information isn’t there, scholars are unable to conduct research on the object. While technology and digitizing art history is a great way in which scholars are able to open up the field, it is also essential that we are aware of the way in which it also may close the field.

Digital Art History & Me: An Introduction

I was first introduced to the idea of Digital Art History as a field in my first semester of my graduate program in my Art History Methods Course. A required course for Art History graduate students, Methods is created with the intent to expose students to various methods and theories in the discipline of Art History, ranging from a Marxist framework to a Feminist perspective. One for the various topics inevitably covered was that of Digital Art History and we read Johanna Drucker’s article “Is There A Digital Art History?”

Published in 2013, this article has truly acted as the introductory article to the field. While the discipline of Digital Humanities developed much earlier than 2013, Drucker utilized this article to move beyond the Digital Humanities as a broad discipline, or field, that encompassed the entirety of the Humanities to focus specifically on the field of art history. This is an important distinction because there are inherent attributes to the field of art history that make the application of ideas, tools, and methodologies of the Digital Humanities different than, say, the discipline of History or English.

Since my first encounter with Drucker’s article in my Methods course, I have re-read the article many times: for one of my SILS courses called INLS 749: Art and Visual Management, my own research, and now for this course: alt-Methods: Digital Art History. More importantly, my interest in regards to the Digital Humanities, especially Digital Art History, has rapidly evolved since that first Methods course my first semester of graduate school. In taking Art and Visual Management my second semester at UNC, I solidified my academic interest in this topic and was able to educate myself more about the field and the literature involved. During this semester, I began a project that would then turn into my Library Science Master’s Paper. In this project, I investigated the landscape of digital art history scholarly publishing. I read extensively about the field of digital art history and was able to grapple with some of the main issues that the field of digital art history faces. As Drucker states:

Art history poses specific challenges for digital humanities on account of the visual nature of its core objects of study and their resistance to computational processes and analysis.

Johanna Drucker. “Is there a digital art history?” in Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, special issue, edited by Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich, Spring 2013.

Unlike other disciplines in the humanities, the “visual nature,” as Drucker writes, is the central component of the discipline. Because of this, scholars in the field have often been resistant of “the digital” as the digitized images were deemed sub-par in comparison to slides or printed images (that is, when the concept of the digital humanities first emerged in the discipline). Additionally, another component of the discipline’s urge to welcome the digital into the fold is the fact that the printed monograph is the gold standard in the discipline. In terms of promotion and tenure, most academic departments still require (or expect) a printed monograph, which deters junior scholars or graduate students in pursuing digital art history projects. Or, even if they are open to accepting these types of projects, they do not know how to evaluate the projects themselves. This avenue, the evaluation of digital projects and thinking about ways in which libraries can support scholars pursuing digital projects, led me to another project at Duke University in which I was a Research Assistant on a Mellon-funded project entitled: “A Framework for Library Support of Expansive Digital Publishing.” Through this project, I was exposed to a broad range of DH publishing projects and was able to then use this background knowledge to my SILS Master’s Paper, “A Content Analysis of Digital Art History Publishing Platforms.”

Just as my relationship with Digital Art History has evolved since my first encounter with Drucker’s article, so has the field at large. I wanted to have my first blog post for this course, and my new website, include a lot of personal information because I wanted to share what my specific background in Digital Art History is and highlight some of my specific interests, especially that of Digital Art History publishing. Moving forward in this class, I will explore my take on each week’s readings and how it applies specifically to my interest. One of the main reasons that I took this course, besides my interest in the topic, is my eagerness to learn the actual applications used in Digital Art History. While I may have a background in the scholarship in the field, I myself have never worked on an actual Digital Art History project nor utilized many of the tools that are common in the discipline. Because of this, I hope to not only be exposed to the tools, but also apply them to my own practice in Art History in which I study contemporary artist’s books. In particular, I hope to make a timeline of Tom Phillips’, a prominent book artist, work.