Digital Art History at UMD: How We’re Doing and Where We Can Improve

Below is a guest blog post I wrote for the Michelle Smith Collaboratory of Visual Culture on the state of digital art history at U. Maryland.

Week one of the two-week Getty-funded digital art history institute organized by George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Building a Digital Portfolio, has come to an end. Wow, what a week it has been! I have met an incredible group of emerging digital art historians and have been inspired daily by our instructors Sharon Leon and Shiela Brennan. This is the very first institute dedicated to training art history graduate students in digital methods, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate! It has been a truly invaluable experience. For those who are interested in a survey of digital art history methods and theoretical debates, the institute’s website and reading lists (with extras on Zotero) is a terrific resource. The Twitter #doingdah15 stream has also been a great live capture of the things we’ve been thinking through at the institute.

I wanted to contribute a post to the Collaboratory’s blog that was focused less on my individual experiences and more on how we’re doing as a department in terms of supporting the digital turn, and what else we might think about doing in the future. For my more personal reflections on Building a Digital Portfolio, I will link to posts on my new blog, made possible by the Getty Foundation and Reclaim Hosting.

In stepping back from the wider world of digital art history and turning to my home institution, I feel so fortunate for the resources we have at the University of Maryland and the Department of Art History and Archaeology. At the university level, we have MITH, which is nationally recognized as one of the top innovators in the digital humanities. (Just two days ago MITH received a $1.25 million Mellon grant for a project on African American Studies at UMD.) At the departmental level, we have the Digital Innovation Group in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory, which is a resource that my fellow participants at Building a Digital Portfolio have been excited to hear about. Some participants have talked about their individual advisors generally supporting their use of digital methods, but I haven’t heard anyone describe the level of support for digital methodologies that we enjoy in our department.

Before moving on to some things I think our department could improve on relative to the digital turn, I really have to brag about our faculty and the department as a whole. We offer paid positions for graduate students to explore emerging technologies for teaching and research. We have Quint Gregory, who is an invaluable resource for project planning, troubleshooting, and generally thinking through digital projects. We have the Michelle Smith Collaboratory, where students and faculty have access to software, equipment, and expertise to facilitate digital projects. We offer regular lectures and workshops throughout the semester that engage questions around digital art history and instruct interested participants in how to begin working with new tools. We even offered a week long series of digital art history workshops (Wading in DAH Waters) this past May. And there are many other exciting initiatives in the works. Our department’s embrace of digital art history, relative to what most art history departments are doing, is pretty mind-blowing to me. And I’m not writing this to get extra credit points from the faculty, but because I feel the need to publically admit that until this week I did not fully appreciate how unique the resources I have access to truly are. So thank you, Department of Art History and Archaeology.

With that said, there is always more that we could do. I have always wondered why, for example, we don’t collaborate more closely with MITH, or with other departments across campus. According to Lisa Spiro, one of the central values of digital art history is collaboration. While we certainly embrace collaborative work in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory (hence the name!), I think we could do a much better job of collaborating on digital projects with students and faculty in other departments. I know this is something Quint feels passionately about and works hard to improve, but I also want to go on record to say that if there is a student or faculty member in another department at UMD who wants to develop a digital project and does not, perhaps, have access to the resources we enjoy in the Art History department, I would be very happy to help! I think it would be really terrific if we could start a digital working group for students and faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences. We could meet in the Collaboratory just 2-3 times per semester, perhaps with the occasional short presentation of a project or new software, or maybe just as a dedicated place for people to talk through some of the projects they’re working on. The Collaboratory seems, to me, like a space that is very well situated to host this type of group, and I think it would yield very helpful results.

So cross-disciplinary collaboration at UMD is one thing, but on the much more basic level of digital hygiene I think we can all find some room for improvement. In our discussion on Day Two about how we find, store, and preserve information in the digital age, Sharon Leon or Sheila Brennan (I can’t remember who at this moment) pointed out that in the days of slide libraries, when a faculty member retired, their slide collection was typically inherited by their home institution. In this way, departments’ image collections continued to grow. Although the Collaboratory is constantly digitizing and archiving new images upon the request of faculty members, I wonder if there isn’t a better way that we could aggregate the collections of images that each of us already has hidden away on our computers.

I will admit that my own digital hygiene is pretty deplorable. The digital images I’ve produced for my own work are stored on my computer in a very haphazard way. My photographs are generally organized according to the particular research trip they resulted from, and there is practically no metadata associated with these photographs. Images I scanned from books tend to be in an even worse state. They are usually grouped in image folders within larger folders associated with the particular research project for which they were scanned. My system of organization has a fly by the seat of my pants feel to it. The organizing principle of my personal archives (if they can even be called that) is all about getting research papers written on time. I have obviously not thought carefully about preserving the digital traces of my work for others or myself to benefit from in the future.

Assuming that we can all stand to improve our digital hygiene to some degree, what should we do to remedy this problem? Perhaps the department (ie. the Collaboratory) should offer a workshop in the fall to discuss digital hygiene, and maybe we should also provide Shared Shelf accessibility for individual students and faculty to contribute their personal image collections to our institutional database. This would not only allow the department to benefit from everyone’s research, but we would benefit individually by creating another form of back-up for our materials. And of course, by writing ‘another’ form of back-up, I’m assuming that we all use an external hard-drive and/or cloud computing service to back-up our files; that’s a whole separate issue.

One final thought I have about our department after week one of digital art history training is that it would be great (and I think really important) if our Methods of Art History courses could begin to incorporate digital methodologies as part of the training that entering graduate students receive. Of course an entire class dedicated to digital art history would be the best way to train students to use and think critically about the different digital methods that exist, but even one day in the semester’s Methods course dedicated to introducing digital methods would be a great start!

Source: Digital Art History at UMD: How We’re Doing and Where We Can Improve