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Building a Digital Portfolio 2015: Reflections on Day One
Monday, July 20, 2015
Reflections from DAH Summer Camp: How We're Doing and Where We Can Improve
Sunday, July 19, 2015

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 MediaBuilding 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 areas where I think our department could improve 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 share project ideas. The Collaboratory seems, to me, like a space that is very will 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 department. 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!

Stay tuned for more of my musings about Building a Digital Portfolio on Twitter or my blog!

-Nicole

Summer Camp!
Sunday, July 12, 2015

Last summer Digital Art History arrived in a big way in the form of four summer camps, more properly Summer Institutes, organized throughout the country. Two members of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Matthew Lincoln and Dr. Abigail McEwen, attended each a different summer institute, sponsored respectively by the Kress and Getty foundations. You can read more about their experiences in this excellent blog post by Cecilia Wichmann from last year.

This summer sees the return of the Summer Institutes, and we are quite fortunate that Nicole Riesenberger will be representing both Department and Collaboratory at the Summer Institute at George Mason University, Building a Digital Portfolio. As an added bonus, she will blog about her experiences while there, so look for her dispatches in this space. Good luck, Nicole, and we look forward to reading about your adventures!

Quint

A Visit to the Big Apple is Good For You
Friday, July 10, 2015

Well, okay, it was a bit jarring no longer seeing the giant marquee for The Late Show with David Letterman above the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway (the building seem diminished without it; full disclosure: David Letterman once name-checked me at the start of a show), but my recent two-day, multiple-museum visit to NYC was extremely productive, affirming the work we are doing here in the Collaboratory and providing avenues of inspiration for future work.

The focus of my visit was a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon, June 9, at the New Museum, "AFA ArtViews: Digital Space/Physical Space: Mapping the 21st Century Museum." Empaneled on the stage (and virtually) was a supergroup of thinkers and practitioners with respect to how digital practices/computational methods inform (art) museological practice in the 21st century. Representing the home team was Lauren Cornell, Curator, 2015 Triennial, Museum as Hub and Digital Projects, New Museum, whose experience curating and preserving digital art forms is extensive and pioneering. She is one of the driving forces behind RHIZOME and its all-important archive, Artbase, a home and incubator for born-digital art for several years now (almost 20 years!). Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, well-known through his prodigious use of social media (he is a super Twitter user!), has brought to the Met and art museum worlds fresh perspectives born of his many years as a professor and practioner of journalism. Jennifer Foley flew in from Cleveland, where she is the Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the creative force behind that museum's ArtLens app and the associated GalleryOne, both of which have received much well-deserved praise. Piotr Adamczyk, Program Manager at a Google Cultural Institute that continues to impress with its range of projects and commitment to facilitating the digital turn of smaller museums, joined the group from his home in London by Skype (which, predictably, led to some technical snafus!). Steven Mann, recently a curator at the Walters Art Museum, but now at the American Federation of the Arts, moderated the panel. If you find yourself with an hour and a half and want to get the full experience, click here for a video.

Still around? Want a condensed version?

Okay.

First question: What are the Digital Strategies for each of your institutions?

Lauren Cornell enumerated several examples of the strategy at the New Museum and of her own work, both of which have focused on creating conditions wherein digital art might flourish and find a home (the New Museum's launching of Media Z Lounge at the start of the century, the First Look on their website that highlights new digital art, the collaborative venture NEW INC, which acts as an incubator for all forms of art making, the Triennial exhibition (which had just closed), which featured several works that extended well beyond the walls of the museum, and, of course, RHIZOME. Sree Sreenivasan highlighted the Met's multiple strategies and huge investment in these for reaching its publics, including programming for the Breuer Building (formerly home of the Whitney Museum), the fact that they have both and infrastructure team of 50-60 people and the group he leads of around 70 people, devising strategies that best makes use of the tech that people bring with them (think smartphones!). He ticked off popular interventions, such as 82nd & Fifth, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History ("most popular digital resource at the Met"), and The Artists Project. When Steven Mann queried Sree as to the locus of their competition, he gave this memorable quote: "Our biggest competition is not another museum. It's Netflix, Candy Crush, etc." Jennifer Foley spent some time discussing Gallery One and how it brings together three elements that visitors seek now in a museum visit - "Art, Interpretation, and Tech."

Second question (directed first at Piotr, who, as the only non-museum employed panelist, idled during the first question): How are choices made to invest time and money in projects?

Piotr listed several impressive ways that Google seeks to democratize the availability and use of resources in the museum world that allows museums small and large to "archive and present material": the recently unveiled museum app platform, hosting tools, and tools for building digital/online exhibitions.

Third question (first to Sree): How is online presence affecting global presence?

Sree stressed that the Met's digital presences (note the plural) allows them connect to various audiences. He noted that China now boasts of some 300 million citizens with passports, which means a huge potential audience intersted in the Met's collections. Reaching them means configuring their digital presence to be discoverable on Weibo, the popular search engine in China. Indians are similarly plugged in, but are not at the Met, which Sree and his team seek to change. The headline number, of course, is that 6 million people visit the Met annually, but some 30-35 million do so online, and so resources must be devoted to the online experience, but not at the cost of the physical visitor (who, Sree, notes pays for admission!). Sree also related that Facebook officials once visited the Met early on in this networked era to work with them on their online presence and stated that "you (the Met) need to think of yourself as a media company." Fairly radical thought (and one I resist, as does, I think Sree and evryone else at the Met).

Fourth question: Museums are inherently physical. Will digital change our interests?

Jennifer Foley related the fascinating anecdote that a survey of users of the ArtLens app found that they engaged in a lot recontextualization through the digital interface, such that an box fashioned as an asparagus, "the Asparagus Box", now figures as one of their most popular items, even as it is displayed in relative obscurity. Sree related how the Met's director, Thomas P. Campbell, recently started posting on Instagram, a format that would seem to ill fit a scholar of Campbell's reputation, but, in fact, the picture-oriented quality of the platform allows followers to see with Campbell's curatorial eye on his visits to other museums. It appears to be a way to increase visitors access (in this case to the Director's activities) without dumbing down the scholarly enterprise. Lauren Cornell allowed that is is quite important that there not be a misfit between the institutional voice of the museum and the particular social media platform. In other words, a blog or Facebook post should have more of an institutional voice, whereas Twitter allows for a more expressive, creative side of the institution to flourish.

Stories

Fifth question: Steven Mann asked panelists to weigh in on their institutional efforts to "corrall" or engage community in social media.

Lauren noted the New Museum's commitment to an international audience and how social media can create a "mass effect" in this regard.

Piotr was asked about Streetview's effect on the museum-going experience, if it was "cannbalizing physical space" by dissuading visitors to the actual museum.

His reply is tops: "that is not in evidence."

With regard to stories and their importance to the museum experience, all panelists agreed that "core stories and narrative; that's what brings them in," and digital interventions that best accomplish that feat are those worth pursuing. They should not be seen as add-ons, but intrinsic to the mission of the museum.

Towards the end of this very worthwhile hour and a half, the panelists offered a few shoutouts of projects and museums doing intersting things: Cooper Hewitt Museum and Seb Chan's pen (about which more below), Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Genius Bar," where visitors can get expert help, the Davison Arts Center at Wesleyan College, doing so much with just 1.5 staff, the Walker Art Center's website, with its strong editorial voice, and Red Hook Journal. Also mentioned was the temporay exhibition, David Waterson's Filthy Lucre, at the Freer-Sackler Museum (through January 2016).

Now, apart from this central reason for my visit to New York, I also took in several museums or exhibitions, each promising an interesting dimension to the visitor experience through the use of technology (oh, and the Donatello show, which was amazing!). The most significant of these visits, and the most rewarding, was to the newly reopened Cooper Hewitt Museum. Sebastian Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Technologies at the Cooper Hewitt, has done amazing work, reconceiving so much of the institution through its website and its newly introduced "pen." This device, given to every visitor along with a paper ticket on which is printed an unique URL, allows one to store works of particular interest as one peruses the collections, the return of which at the end of your visit uploads all of the stored data in a way that one later can access it. Here's mine. To say that this technology possesses great potential is an understatement; it's amazing, and fun at the same time. Using it injects just the note of whimsy necessary when thinking about design and its processes (and doing it, too, in the front gallery, although I don't think the pen captured all of my likes). Oh well.

     

I must have traversed most of Manhattan in my two days (I am not kidding; I figure about 23.5 miles!), all of which was worthwhile, although I will admit that my tired feet and I did not appreciate the Augmented Reality-centric exhibition "Priya's Shakti" as much I had hoped. Essentially this exhibition is one that can be enjoyed at about the same level of experience both in physical space and in front of one's computer, and in the latter case with far less drain on one's smartphone's battery! Still, my discussion with the attendant at City Lore led me to a deeper appreciation of what the show's creator, Ram Devineni, is trying to achieve, and his belief in the democratizing possibilities of a thoughtful use of technologies such as Augmented Reality, a passion we seem to share.

Of course, the best way to take in New York is to spend good time with good friends in the evening, and there, too, I was in for a treat. If ever you secure an invitation to visit and stay with Professor Steven Mansbach and his wife Julia Frane, make sure you take advantage! Just lovely.

Quint

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?

Quint

 

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