Recent years have witnessed a flourishing of activity in digital art history. Answering the question of what is digital art history is no longer a theoretical proposal; enough work has been done that we can now describe and reflect upon the field, as Pamela Fletcher did in a recent essay for caa.reviews.(1) Tools, workshops, scholarly gatherings, online publications, and innovative analyses have contributed to a growing dialogue. In addition, major funding agencies such as the Kress Foundation(2), the Mellon Foundation(3), and the Getty Foundation(4), along with private foundations such as the Seaver Institute(5), have funded projects that are anticipated to engender even more digital art history projects and tools in the future.
To advance the field, we recognize the importance of sharing “lessons learned,” including triumphs as well as “mistakes we made,” contributing to the field not just “what we discovered,” but the how and why of what we discovered. Any research endeavor is filled with a myriad of choices, of paths taken and not taken. Often when publishing, we keep those choices private in favor of emphasizing what we accomplished. But in the case of digital art history, scholars are anxious to learn how and why projects came about, and to benefit from what has already been done. In short, the journey is as important as the destination.
Recognizing the need for practical guides to conducting digital art history projects and producing concrete results, we have brought together three case studies, publishing today as posts on The Iris and as PDFs. Each reflects a completed project, and the narratives focus on how these journeys were planned. The authors discuss the approaches and skill sets selected and why, and share their challenges and successes. (Formatting note: for consistency with endnote numbering in the PDF downloads, in the Iris posts we’re using notes rather than links within the running copy.)
Persistent concerns are threaded throughout these projects. Each depended on historical data that had to be standardized (in processes that are sometimes referred to as “data scrubbing” or “data massaging”) and prepared for analysis. The complexity of these endeavors required a team-based strategy, drawing on multiple collaborators with different types of expertise. The linear method of scholarly investigation—research, analyze, write, and publish—had to be set aside for a more iterative approach that allowed for testing and prototyping.
At the core of each of these projects were valid scholarly questions; we believe that this point is worth underscoring. The driving force behind any research project should be the scholarly question, not a particular technology or tool. While new technologies can be alluring, the key point is to clarify the art-historical research questions at the core of the inquiry and then, once these are established, to determine if digital modes of analysis are well suited to pursuing these questions. If the answer is yes, then one must consider the historical data available and what formats or platforms will be applicable for analyzing that data.
This is the point in each researcher’s journey when he or she should begin to “read the guidebooks”—that is, to review existing projects and tools that could be appropriate models for their particular content, analysis, and desired outcomes. Scholars who want to embark upon digital art history research projects should also ask who should come along with them on their journey: do they need an expert collaborator or collaborators, and/or a team with a variety of skill sets and expertises, both scholarly and technical? As we hope our readers will learn from these case studies, it is important to bring project team members together early on in order to foster collaboration and to ensure that everyone on the team understands the tools, methodologies, and goals of the project.
Another factor worth considering early in the life span of the project is the long-term vision. What components of the project will be made accessible to the field and in what ways? Will potential users be engaged to help design the project’s outcomes? How long will these outcomes be made available to the field? And, just as you consider how the project will be disseminated and sustained, you should grapple with how it will be maintained and eventually archived.
The Goupil Stock Books Project(6), the results of which now reside on the website of the Getty Research Institute where the project was conducted, is described by Ruth Cuadra, applications administrator for the Research Institute information systems department, and independent scholar Agnès Penot, a specialist in the firm of Goupil & Cie—a wonderful example of a technology expert and an art historian working closely together. Cuadra and Penot have written an instructive and very practical study in transforming historical data so that it can be legible for the computer and thus usable for computational analyses. Between the covers of the stock books assembled by the art dealers Goupil & Cie are more than 30,000 transactions; without the database described by Penot and Cuadra, a scholar might devote his or her entire professional career simply to reading and sorting through this evidence of art bought and sold. By contrast, the digital environment allows query results to be produced within minutes. Read online | Download PDF
The benefits of the use of a database to house and analyze historical data are made clear in the essay by art historians Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, who describe their project in the essay “Local/Global: Mapping London’s Art Market.” Because Goupil & Cie had a business branch in London, it became highly relevant to their study of the infrastructure and behavior of the London art market. The study by Fletcher and Helmreich makes use of two key approaches in the digital humanities: network analysis, a means of exploring and assessing the nature of relationships between entities within a dataset, and geospatial analysis, which uses computational and digital tools and approaches to study issues of geography and space. The latter has proven to be particularly fertile ground for art historians, aligning strongly with the field’s current interest in the relationship between art and place. Moreover, both geospatial analysis and network analysis lend themselves to visualizations, and art historians, given their training in visual analysis, are ideal producers of imagistic approaches. Read online | Download PDF
These points become clear in the third case study, “Architecture and Maps, Databases and Archives: An Approach to Institutional History and the Built Environment in Nazi Germany,” authored by art and architectural historian Paul Jaskot and historian Anne Kelly Knowles. Their projects, emerging from a larger team-based inquiry into spatial problems of the Holocaust, establish that the tools and methods of digital spatial analysis can be applied effectively to art-historical investigations of the built environment. Read online | Download PDF
We hope that these case studies will inspire art historians who have yet to test the waters of the digital realm to join the journey, and that they will help to sustain the dialogue that is already under way among art history and humanities practitioners and their colleagues who are experts in the use of technology for humanities research. We are confident that these case studies—and the results that the projects described therein produced—make it clear that digital art history has much to offer, and is here to stay.