Sink or swim

Throwing kid into pool


When I was a wee lad of six or so, the intrepid counselors at Robin Hood day camp taught me to swim by a method that, while impressive in its simplicity, would no doubt have made the helicopter parents of today hyperventilate (and, most likely, follow up with a lawsuit): they unceremoniously tossed me into the deep end of the pool. In retrospect, their chosen method must have been an effective one, since I did learn to swim (though I’ve mercifully blocked out the details about how exactly I did so).

The organizers of our summer institute in digital art history at the Center for History and New Media are clearly the successors to those camp counselors of yore. Although it’s only been four days thus far, the group has already been introduced to a dizzying array of new information and resources and we’re tossing around terms that would have drawn a complete blank for me just a few short days ago: CMS, metadata, VRA Core, Omeka vs. Scalar vs. Drupal, and on and on. Along with giving me a whole new set of skills to use in my teaching, there’s another outcome that has delighted me as well: amidst all the technical insights I’m acquiring, I’m also thinking in new ways — and with renewed energy — about my work, after a few months of feeling rather uninspired in that respect. I’m jotting down all sorts of notes about my research and noticing connections I hadn’t before considered, and I’m even thinking about a quick research trip I’d like to squeeze in before the beginning of the fall semester (which will arrive way too soon for my liking!). This is just to say that, while prior to my arrival I was worried that the process of learning about these new digital techniques would totally tamp down my energy for my own (analog, archival, close looking-based) research, the end result has been quite the opposite. It’s always a relief to find that, rather than flailing wildly, one is doggy paddling quite happily around the pool.

Source: Sink or swim

Ivory Tower or Gatehouse?


One of the primary themes of our second day in so-called “digital art history boot camp” were the promises and problems brought on by the characteristic information overload of the digital age. We read an essay by Roy Rosenzweig that discussed the challenges of archiving digital information—an essay that, as Sharon Leon pointed out, raised questions that have still not been adequately resolved more than a decade later. We examined the treatment of metadata on diverse websites, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to eBay. And we learned some of the ins and outs of Zotero, which, while meant to help organize large bodies of information, is filled with such a plethora of features that it is (ironically) difficult to get an easy handle on.

While much of what we focused on during the day was technical, the ensuing discussions pointed to one of the reasons why (some? many?) scholars in the humanities are resistant to embracing digital approaches. Again and again, we returned to the point that the widespread availability of information in the digital age has given ordinary users access that was difficult if not impossible to gain in the past. (One of the assigned readings, by Tim Sherratt, was a rousing celebration of the effects—social, political—this sort of access can bring.) Since academics have long styled themselves as the guardians of specialized knowledge, it’s not difficult to envision the conflict that inevitably arises when their authority is eroded. But, rather than decrying this particular set of circumstances (which, frankly, isn’t just going to go away), one wonders whether scholars in the humanities could learn to see it, instead, as a salutary development. This dovetails with some of my thoughts lately about the relationship between academic art history and the museum, one that can be labeled, in shorthand, as that between the ivory tower and the gatehouse. In an era in which support for (and, regrettably, interest in) the humanities is in much-discussed decline, academics would do well to consider shifting their roles from tower guards to something more like gatekeepers: that is to say, not enforcing security but rather attentively watching and shaping how audiences of all sorts are given access to information, knowledge and cultural resources.

Source: Ivory Tower or Gatehouse?