Visualizing Data

Do art historians have data? The answer seems to be yes. Once data is defined not as not only numerical values much of what we consider can be “data.” At it’s most basic level, formal analysis generates data. We start to deconstruct an object through our descriptions and look for diagnostic characteristics. Historical and archival research is then used to contextualize these features. However, these characteristics can also be expressed in a spreadsheet, but in a concise, standardized and organized manner.

Visualizations help us deal with this data and can be a apparatus for finding and interrogating trends within our corpus. They are not independent conclusions, but one of the many tools an art historian can draw upon. The visualizations lose meaning without an accompanying narrative. Graphs and maps can be misleading, which makes it even more important to explain the variables it embodies.

Another application for visualizations is in talking to non-specialist audiences. After years of specializing in our chosen fields (and sub-fields), much of our professional life is spent dealing with non-specialist audiences, from writing grant applications to teaching. Word clouds may be imperfect tools, but they seem like a perfect entryway into historiographical discussion and a way for students to see latent biases. Annotated maps are essential; every non-Western art class begins with a map exercise, stressing the importance of geography and location for the formation of art, culture and history. Additionally, we cannot ignore the connectedness of the world and the layers of interaction and multiple networks it engendered. Digital visualizations can allow one to consider these non-linear relationships as dynamic and fluid and prove to be tool for deepening our research.

Source: Visualizing Data