Art History OER Review: What’s Out There and What’s Going On?
by Gwen Shaw and Helena Shaskevich, Art History
Art history may have been one of the last academic disciplines to embrace technology, but it certainly has made up for lost time. OERs for the teaching and learning of art history—once difficult to find on the open web—are now an embarrassment of riches, ranging from museum resources across the country to institutionally affiliated and freestanding not-for-profit resources and projects. Full disclosure: Given that we are writing this project as students and faculty at CUNY, this OER will mainly consider useful tools for teaching art and art history in NYC. (We hope to expand the scope of this project in the future.)
So what is OER? It stands for Open Educational Resources, and the Open part of that is really where the rubber meets the road when it comes to art history and OER: mainly because although many resources on art and art history are openly available (read: no paywall) they are not truly open resources in the sense of open pedagogy because they abide by traditional (and potentially restrictive) notions of copyright and intellectual property. Also, to use online material licensed by traditional copyright relies on the same logic as the use of non-online material under the foggy (but oft relied-upon) tenets of Fair Use, which is subject to interpretation on various levels.
Why does this matter? Because openness is about more than just the ability to access, and a Creative Commons license, rather than a traditional copyright, offers readers and users the opportunity to remix, as well as read and share. OER that embrace open pedagogy not only allow access to their content but also offer up an enhanced opportunity for engagement with the subject matter, and Creative Commons licenses offer many different iterations of credit-honoring licenses that may encourage the creation of derivative works and remixing.
To date, the only comprehensive resource that can truly say it puts the “open” in art history OER is Smarthistory, a resource that combines text and videos to create an object-focused compendium of art historical knowledge focused on the artworks themselves. Created by two former Art History professors looking to increase student engagement, Smarthistory presents an ever-expanding array of content on Western and non-Western art, enhancing traditional textbook content with synthesizing essays, videos, and an interactive taxonomy that organizes material chronologically as well as geographically. Bonus: Smarthistory offers its library of images—all of which are site-based and contextualize the work in situ (even if that site is removed from the originally intended space of the work)—via Flickr for use also using a Creative Commons license.
That said, there are several Online Educational Resources—different from the pedagogical origins of OER—that offer content and analysis for those looking to move away from traditional textbooks, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, which offers information and essays about works of art in the Museum’s collection and beyond—an excellent resource for teaching works from the Met for NYC area educators; another general resource is the BBC and British Museum collaboration, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” a podcast that encourages listeners to find history and context in specific works from the British Museum’s collection. While Smarthistory offers opinions and interpretations of works, as well as formal and contextual information, the Met and BBC resources mainly offer contextual and historical information. For resources on 20th-century art, The Art Story, a Modern Art-focused resource, includes essays and biographical information, as well as timelines; and for contemporary art, and Art21 uses videos and artist interviews to focus on contemporary art with an emphasis on the role of the artist.
In terms of tone, content, and presentation of information, Smarthistory, the Met’s TOAH, and the BBC’s History of the World are the most scholarly and conscientious about their pedagogical role, offering built-in citation tools and, in the case of Smarthistory, positioned and situated knowledge. The Art Story is created by Modern Art enthusiasts for art enthusiasts and those looking to understand Modern styles and conventions, e.g. The Readymade; and Art21 uses artist interviews and speech directly to cultivate interest and engagement with contemporary art and currently working artists.
For the sake of brevity and utility, the OERs under discussion here are broken out into two categories: unaffiliated nonprofit or freestanding OER and those that have an affiliation with another cultural institution.
At a glance:
Who it’s for: Educators, students, and the general public interested in art history at all various levels
What it covers: All art through the ages
Type of content: Articles, Videos, Images
Licensing: Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. According to Creative Commons, “This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.”
Smarthistory is a rich historical and visual resource for teaching art and its history. It was established in 2005 by art historians (and GC alumni) Beth Harris and Steven Zucker as a way to bridge the gap between traditional textbooks and student engagement. The site boasts hundreds of articles and nearly a thousand videos, which range in length from a couple of minutes—good for quick introductions to objects, styles, periods, or historical moments—to more involved videos on skills (e.g. visual analysis) and larger historical moments (e.g. the Crusades). All site content is Creative Commons licensed for teacher and student use—there’s even a handy citation at the bottom of each page! Smarthistory content is created by approved art historians and professionals from adjacent disciplines, and each article is proposed, revised, and edited. Smarthistory is a not-for-profit organization and accepts no advertising, leaving its site elegantly designed and uncluttered; they receive support from a number of arts and educational organizations.
The site’s articles offer solid introductions to world religions, as well as historical movements and styles, from antiquity to contemporary art. The site also offers suggestions for further reading—mostly from institutional sources like the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (more on that below)—AND include photos at the bottom of each content page that can be used for teaching and learning—from a variety of installation or in situ photographs of the object of study.
Recently, Smarthistory has worked diligently to expand non-Western material, which is now folded into both chronological and thematic taxonomies in the site. (For example, the Ancient Mediterranean section puts Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome in dialogue and on a map with each other.) The site also offers resources for educators, including sample syllabi and links to other OERs.
Full disclosure: One of the authors has worked with Smarthistory in the past and has, as a result of that work, received monetary compensation.
At a glance:
Who it’s for: The site seems mainly catered to the general public interested in Modern art history and artists, but is a good source for students looking for introductory information on Modern art and artists
What it covers: Modern Art
Type of content: Articles, timelines
Licensing: Traditional copyright. According to The Art Story, “The Art Story website is for informational purposes only and is provided to you solely for your own personal, non-commercial use. Written permission must be received from The Art Story Foundation to use the content on this website for any other purpose.”
The Art Story is a newer internet resource for art historical information that focuses on Modern Art. Founded in 2009 by businessman Michael Zurakhinsky, the non-profit site offers information on movements and an eclectic range of individual artists, as well as a smartphone app. Movement pages include a timeline, and are broken down into mini-sections that focus on a particular key term or artist. Artist pages also feature elegant, simple, and informative timelines—something that sets The Art Story’s presentation apart from other OER—as well as “key ideas” and works of art. The site’s interconnection between artists and movements is also helpful, and a good way for educators and students to forge connections between artists, styles, and movements across time and geography. The choices of key works—for every movement and artist—can be helpful but aren’t particularly reflective or reflexive on why some of these particular works are featured over others—especially for artists who have long and productive careers. Interestingly, The Art Story makes a clear effort to highlight work across such artists with long and prolific careers, showcasing both early and later work that is often less noted and discussed in traditional textbooks and literature. The selection of artists covered remains Eurocentric and white, much like Modern Art discourse and textbooks, although women—especially female artists married to male artists—receive more attention in The Art Story’s content. Like on Smarthistory, each page also provides a citation mechanism toward the bottom.
The Art Story does use advertising, presumably as a source of revenue; it also uses pop-ups and a series of widgets that hover at the periphery of an already content-heavy screen that might be a distraction for some. The site’s team includes writers and editors with a variety of educations, experiences, and specializations—again dedicated predominately to Modern Art. The site also links to video content across the web, providing helpful links and resources to outside content from a variety of online sources.
Who it’s for: As a broadcast resource, Art 21 addresses an audience of the general public (mainly the PBS or public radio set) interested in contemporary art and artists, but as an online resource, too, it is a good source for primary source materials focusing on contemporary and practicing artists
What it covers: Contemporary Art
Type of content: Interviews and Videos
Founded as a nonprofit in 1997--but conceived as early as 1995—Art 21 is another online and broadcast resource for educators dedicated to Contemporary Art. Unlike Smarthistory and The Art Story, Art21 is dedicated solely to contemporary art and artists, emphasizing artists’ speech and production. The site features resources for educators, and offers an index of all 674 films produced since Art 21’s first broadcast in 2001, organized by artist and series. Series like Extended Play feature artists on their own work, providing an “unmediated perspective,” which may offer a new type of digital primary source for teaching and learning. Art historians and educators may also find Art 21 an excellent resource for engaging fine art majors, with the site’s emphasis on artists’ perspectives and the material conditions in which they work. As a non-profit that airs on PBS, Art 21 does not use advertising for revenue, and its videos are hosted and available on its website (so you may watch and share but not embed, unlike YouTube which embeds into tools like google Slides, Timeline JS, etc.). The videos also feature closed captioning made for the videos (rather than the dictation captions inferred by YouTube for their videos).
Other Resources and affiliated OER
Affiliated OER, e.g. resources for teaching and learning that are associated with or a part of larger institutions, are also available for teaching art and its history.
The Met’s TOAH is an encyclopedic online resource for teaching objects in the museum’s collection and beyond, offering timelines, interactive galleries of objects by style, and articles about movements, styles, and issues. According to the Met’s website, “The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History pairs essays and works of art with chronologies, telling the story of art and global culture through the Museum’s collection.” Material here is published under traditional copyright and its incumbent restrictions. A notable exception: public domain images and their metadata are available for public use under a Creative Commons license, so images and photographs on the website, as well as personal photos, are fair game for remixing, editing, or using for your own pedagogical purposes.
The BBC’s Radio 4 podcast program History of the World in 100 Objects, a collaboration with the British Museum, is an object-oriented resource that pushes students to see history—its complications, entanglements, and interrelations—in objects. The twenty episodes available online examine objects from across time and history from the British Museum’s collection (which does, however, have indelible ties to British colonialism and its legacies of violence). As a podcast, the resources are auditory material (not to state the obvious), which can be taxing to listen to for an extended period of time. That said, aural learning and sustained listening—for all their unfamiliarity—might be a good opportunity to encourage students to receive information in multiple media. Material here is published under traditional copyright and its incumbent restrictions.