A good couple of years

A good couple of years

Friday, July 10, 2015

Early on the Tuesday morning following Memorial Day, I nervously considered the prospects for success of the first-ever, four-day series of introductory workshops on popular digital art history methods to which I had committed myself and the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture. I had enlisted several graduate students to volunteer their time, just as their much-deserved summer breaks commenced. Would anyone come? In promoting the event, had I promised participants more than I should have? I need not have worried. “Wading in DAH Water: A Digital Art History Workshop for Curious Beginners,” was a rousing success and enjoyable experience for all involved, and a fitting culmination of two years’ worth of purposeful activity and fruitful experimentation in the Collaboratory.

Ten to twelve individuals participated throughout the week, from the Department, other units in the College of Arts and Humanities, and area universities (American University) and institutions (National Gallery of Art). They dove in to learning about, and using, a range of methods, from mapping (Google Earth), virtual modeling (Sketchup), creating online exhibitions and databases (Omeka + Neatline), and employing datasets in useful visualizations (using R coding platform). A dream team of Graduate Assistants, Hannah Schockmel (GoogleEarth), Cecilia Wichmann, Valentina Mazzotti, and Nicole Riesenberger (Omeka + Neatline), joined Matthew Lincoln (R coding) and me (Sketchup) to kick off the week with a showcase of methods, a Whitman’s Sampler, if you will, of different workshop options from which participants could choose their week’s focus. The outstanding presentations the workshop’s “curious beginners” made the afternoon of the last day reflected how much they had learned and capped a successful, if exhausting, inaugural event.

Not enough can be said about the importance of the projects undertaken by this year’s Graduate Assistants in laying the ground work for the successful workshop week. In the fall Cecilia Wichmann and Grace Yasumura got things rolling by exploring and mastering Omeka to construct an online complement to an exhibition that they and classmates conceived as part of Dr. Abigail McEwen’s seminar “Aesthetics of Exile: Borderlands, Disapora, Migration.” As important as the website they created in Omeka, the best practices guide they developed will shorten the learning curve for subsequent users and already has attracted attention from other universities. To this guide Nicole Riesenberger also contributed a wealth of information about Omeka’s mapping plugin, Neatline, which she used to build an Italian Renaissance Art History course she will inaugurate this August. Their collective experience inspired projects by other members of the D.I.G. (Digital Innovation Group), all of which can be consulted at the D.I.G. website, http://artinterp.org. This important repository, which I maintain, allows the Collaboratory great flexibility in testing out new ideas and prototypes. This resource helps the Collaboratory to fully inhabit its role as an incubator of ideas, approaches, and projects, as with it I can parcel out a digital acre here and there for scholars and students to develop their pedagogical and scholarly ideas.

The workshop week’s success as well is grounded in the fact that it was not the first instance of structured workshops in the Collaboratory. In fall 2013 John Shipman, then director of the Art Gallery, and I ran a series of workshops focused on Augmented Reality and its application in museums and art galleries. The immediate practical benefit of those workshops was a number of thoughtfully-executed audience engagement interventions in Art Gallery exhibitions, especially the exhibit “Carving Out Freedom, Piecing a Community,” in which iPad-accessible video and audio of the community-fueled artistic process adumbrated the excellent physical installation of prints and printblocks. Most recently, Augmented Reality was a focus of a day-long Innovation Studio in the Collaboratory with leaders and educators in local community museums and heritage sites, the start of a conversation promising a wealth of project opportunities.

The Collaboratory’s future is bright. As our expertise expands and deepens (time does not permit me to enumerate properly the other amazing projects – from syllabus-driven Google Earth maps to new directions for our Talking About Art video series – created by our talented Graduate Assistants), I am confident of the Collaboratory’s role as a leader in defining the significance of Digital Art History for our discipline, and in guiding students and faculty to meaningful experiences working in these new methods. Next year’s workshops already are in the works. Won’t you come wade, or even swim, with us?