I’ve written about the digital humanities (DH) before, posting a brief introduction to some DH tools, classes, and resources. In this post I want to focus specifically on the practice of DH in the field of art history. DH can bring a lot to field, but the practice of digital art history is also not without its challenges. The field of art history entered the digital world when the switch from teaching with slides to teaching with digital images occurred, but academia has pushed further into the digital realm with the increasing ubiquity of researching, publishing, and pursuing scholarship in digital environments (Zorich, 2013).
Not isolated to the field of art history is the reverence for the print publication. Print publishing is currently still the marker by which professors are evaluated for tenure and advancement, Deviating from this model could negatively affect chances for such (Zorich, 2013). Digital projects also present problems in their evaluation. As of yet, there are no general rules or guidelines on how to evaluate the merit of digital scholarship projects in academia. Difficulties also present themselves in the very visual nature of the art history field. Digital image analysis methods are not nearly as straightforward as digital text analysis. (Drucker, 2013 ). Text analysis using digital methods forms a major part of DH scholarship, providing research based on a distant reading of texts (Drucker, 2013 ) Digital methods for image analysis are still “far from being able to imitate human abilities of perception and analysis” (Drucker, 2013, p. 8).
Despite the challenges of digital art history, it is still very much a worthy field to pursue. One way art history faculty can dabble in digital art history, without the pressure and problems associated with doing so in their own research, is by bringing DH methods into the classroom (J. Schell, personal communication, December 4, 2017). The difficulty in evaluating projects still exists, how does a professor grade a digital project versus the standard term paper, but the stakes are lower (J. Schell, personal communication, December 4, 2017). DH in art history offers different ways for students to engage with the material, build skills, and spark their interest in cultural heritage in a different new way (J. Schell, personal communication, December 4, 2017).
Scalar, Omeka, and WordPress are popular tools that are used for creating digital collections and presenting digital exhibits. ImagePlot and ImageJ can be used for analyzing large sets of images. The type of digital tool used really depends on what type of question is being asked. Text analysis can be incorporated into art history studies, too. MALLETT and Voyant are two tools used for text analysis. It could be an interesting project to analyze the papers or letters from an artist’s personal archive. These are just tiny handful of digital tools that can be incorporated into art history scholarship and add meaning to the field.
So, where does the library and the art librarian fit into this? Subject specialists and liasons to art history departments may choose to explore these tools on their own and bring them to their faculty and students as seen fit. If a college has a department or librarian dedicated to DH, the art librarian can create connections between these departments and their own. Librarians have long been champions and purveyors of new technology.. I think even in departments that may be hesitant to move into digital art history territory, the art librarian can bring some simple DH tools into the practice in a way that suitably fits the environment. Creating digital exhibits is a great way to being work with digital scholarship, without using overly complicated tools or needing complex tech skills.
Lastly, I’d like to share some neat digital art history projects I found via the Frick Art Reference Library Digital Art History Lab.
Drucker, J. (2013). Is there a “digital” art history?. Visual Resources, 29(1-2), 5-13. DOI: 10.1080/01973762.2013.761106
Zorich, D. M. (2013). Digital art history: A community assessment. Visual Resources, 29(1-2), 14-21. DOI: 10.108010973762.2013.761108