Publishing art history digitally

September 26 2016

Image of Publishing art history digitally

Picture: NYU

There's an interesting conference coming up in New York in October about publishing art history digitally. It's at New York University - details here. The pitch says:

This event brings together art historians and publishing experts to share their views on the future of publishing digital art history. Combining a lecture and two roundtables, this symposium will be of interest to all those involved in, or wishing to embark on, digital publishing, as well as to those who are looking for solutions to publishing digital humanities research in compact online formats.

Organized by Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, the event is funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the NYU Center for the Humanities and is free of charge. It will be followed up by a hands-on professional development workshop at the College Art Association annual meeting in February, open to all CAA registrants at no extra cost.

Art history is, by and large, certainly behind the times when it comes to digital publication. But for me, the real change we need to make is not in the technology we use, but the attitudes we take. The printed page has primacy over everything, and there's a sense that really serious art history shouldn't be published online. If it is published online, then it's as an adjunct to a physical publication, like the Burlington Magazine with its £15-a-go PDFs: yesterday's technology at (what should be) yesterday's prices.

In other words, digital comes second. The publication of art historical research is still done primarily in a way that hasn't changed for centuries. You write it out, send it to a  publisher, and then they print it on paper, often with small and bad illustrations, and ship it out to institutions and shops in the hope that some people will buy it or read it. All of which is great - I love a nice book as much as anyone - but it's not necessarily the best way to get people engaged in the work art historians do. 

For me, it comes down to why art historians do what they do. Do they research new facts and make new discoveries for their own pleasure? Or do they do it because they want to be able to share their research with others, to communicate their passions, and inform wider audiences? If it's the latter, then surely digital publishing is the way forward. Not digital in the sense that an online version might be made available of a hard copy, in either a PDF or a clunky flipbook. But real, shareable, interactive, connected digital publishing. Art historians deal in images, primarily, so why don't we publish our research in such a way that allows us to easily click from one image to another, in glorious high-resolution, or x-ray or infra-red? 

If we assume that only a small audience of already academically minded readers want to read our research, which is how most art historical publications currently operate, then we shouldn't be surprised if fewer and fewer people are interested in what we do. We must let other people into the conversation - and the digital door is the easiest one to open.

Update - readers have helpfully sent in some pioneering examples of digital art history. Here's the new Philip de László catalogue raisonné website, which is excellent. Catalogues raisonné are of course perfectly suited to online publishing, which gives the great benefit of being easy to update. The new site also has a section of missing pictures - have a rummage in case you have any clues. Yale's new Richard Wilson website is similarly excellent, and likewise that on Francis Towne.*

A reader also alerts me to VISTAS; Virtual Images of Sculpture in Time and Space. Which:

[...] combines old and new. We marry the most innovative technology to the highest standard of traditional book publishing — all in support of sound, new scholarship. We produce dual publications, one part in print, the other online at Each will supplement the other, not copy it. 

I'm in awe of this site - do have an explore yourselves. The image quality is extraordinary.

Of course, there's also Google's art project, which has good images, but is lacking (so far) on the text and analysis side. They've recently revamped the site, which, sadly, has made it more difficult to navigate than it used to be.

*Sod's law; at just the time I want to mention them, the servers for both Yale sites seems to be down. Of course, the issue of what lasts over time is a different one. Books will always be with us - but websites? 

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