Digital Humanities
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“Digital Art History in Practice” Panel, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, NYCDH Week, February 11, 2016

On February 11, I attended an event called Digital Art History in Practice, which took part in conjunction with NYCDH Week at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. This event consisted of presentations about digital humanities projects in the discipline of art history by four professionals working in the arts. Presentations were given by Emily L. Spratt, Director of the Program in Art and Artificial Intelligence and Visiting Lecturer in Byzantine Art and Cultural Heritage Preservation Studies in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University, and three presenters from the Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library: Dr. Louisa Wood Ruby, the Head of Photoarchive Research; Samantha Deutch, Assistant Director of the Center for the History of Collecting; and Ellen Prokop, Associate Photoarchivist. These presentations focused on a number of different digital humanities methods that are currently being used in art-historical projects. Attendees were also invited to attend an event that followed called Digi Café, in which they could meet the presenters and learn some of the tools presented.

The first presenter, Emily L. Spratt, gave a lecture entitled “Through Machine Eyes: Art, Artifice, and Artificial Intelligence.” Spratt opened her presentation by discussing the systematic destruction of world heritage sites in Syria and Iraq that we have seen in recent years, and how some of these sites are being revived through digital reconstructions. For example, some projects have crowd-sourced photographs of world heritage sites to generate digital reconstructions. Some sites have been digitally reconstructed by creating 3D renderings or virtual reality environments. However, as Spratt argued, we approach these kinds of renderings with doubts about their authenticity. Spratt then transitioned into discussing the use of computers for analysis that would traditionally be seen as subjective, such as evaluating the beauty of an artwork by analyzing large data sets. Spratt is working on a project for an upcoming exhibition at Corfu Museum of Asian Art in Greece that will utilize digital vision technology to analyze religious icons in artworks. Visitors will be given written tests to identify their preferences and these results will be compared to the digital analyses. Spratt’s presentation was intriguing, as it offered a number of creative ways technology is being used to preserve and gain insight into works of art.

The second presentation, “Seeing the Future: PHAROS, ARIES, and Digital Image,” was given by Dr. Louisa Wood Ruby. Ruby discussed a collaborative project called PHAROS: An International Consortium of Photo Archives that is designed to bring together all digitized images of works of art in one place from this consortium of photo archives. The project utilizes ResearchSpace, which is an open source platform that uses linked data. The tool can pull together matches for image copies and different versions and representations of art works. The user can also compare text and images from different photo archives. Ruby also discussed a tool called ARIES, or Art Image Exploration Space, which is designed to mimic the functionality of a table for arranging and sorting images in the digital environment. Images can be uploaded to ARIES, moved around as if they were sitting atop a table, and then grouped by subject, and annotated. Images organized in ARIES can then be sent to other people to view and edit. For example, Ruby was able to prepare images using this tool and send them to a curator in Budapest for review. The tool is also particularly useful for comparing two images, and even minute details within images, side by side. Ruby noted that ARIES may seem fairly simple in concept, but that it is actually the first of its kind. Ruby’s presentation of PHAROS demonstrated how this new tool is enabling archives to bring their collections together, while ARIES facilitates collaborative curation for people in different locations.

Samantha Deutch gave the third presentation entitled “Data: Collecting, Consolidating, and Analyzing.” Deutch’s presentation was focused on discussion of data scraping and some of the tools that enable data scraping. Data scraping, also known as web scraping, is a technique used to harvest data from websites. One of the tools she discussed, Kimono, turns websites into structured APIs from a browser interface. Deutch demonstrated the use of this tool with data from a Sotheby’s sale from spring 2015. The tool allowed her to select which data to scrape and she noted that the data can be exported to Google spreadsheets. She also demonstrated how scraped data can be utilized in a FileMaker database. Deutch’s presentation illustrated how it is possible to utilize data that is already available on the internet for further consideration and analysis.

The fourth presentation was given by Ellen Prokop and was titled “GIS Technologies and Their Use for Art-Historical Research.” Prokop’s presentation concentrated on how GIS technologies can be used to gain added insight into how artists worked by spatially mapping works of art. She noted several published projects that utilize GIS technology, including a project called Mapping Titian ( Mapping Titian allows users to study the physical movement of Renaissance artist Titian’s artworks over time through geographic maps. She pointed out that software that enables projects like this tends to expensive and can be challenging to use. There are free options, but unfortunately, they rely on contemporary maps when historical maps are necessary for art-historical research. Prokop discussed a project in which historical GIS was used to research whether the artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) had ever seen works by El Greco (1541-1614). A couple of works by Cezanne closely resemble El Greco’s artworks, however, there was no evidence available to determine whether or not Cezanne had seen El Greco’s artworks. The locations of El Greco’s paintings were plotted on an historical map of Paris in 1908 with the data weighted by visibility of the artworks. Based on this mapping exercise, Prokop stated that she doesn’t think Cezanne ever saw El Greco’s work. Though still somewhat speculative, this project was a fascinating use of GIS mapping to uncover new ways of viewing the distribution of El Greco’s work in Paris.

I went into this event with little knowledge about how digital humanities methods were being used in the study of art history. The event was enlightening and demonstrated just a fraction of the innovative digital humanities methods in the discipline today. In “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities,” Lisa Spero proposes five central values for digital humanities: openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, and experimentation. These presentations touched on a number of the values identified by Spero. For example, openness, collaboration, and collegiality are critical components of PHAROS, the tool for sharing digitized images from photo archives, as presented by Dr. Louisa Wood Ruby. Samantha Deutch’s presentation on data scraping also embodied the spirit of openness, through its emphasis on access and harvesting of website data. Emily L. Spratt’s project in which humans and computers identify preferences in artwork and Ellen Prokop’s project that mapped the visibility of El Greco’s paintings are both highly experimental in nature. I look forward to watching the development of creative digital humanities methods and their application to art-historical projects.


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