Please tell us about yourselves
The leadership team at Smarthistory, the Center for Public Art History, includes Beth, Lauren, and Steven. We are all art historians with many years of research, teaching, and museum experience, and we all gave up tenured university positions because we believe passionately in Smarthistory’s mission—that everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be able to explore the remarkable histories of human creativity in the visual arts. Our backgrounds include extensive work over many years using digital tools to teach art history.
What is Smarthistory?
Smarthistory is a not-for-profit organization, and we are celebrating our 20th anniversary in
2023! Smarthistory is a radical collaborative of hundreds of art historians, curators, archaeologists, and knowledge-bearers (and dozens of museums and cultural institutions) dedicated to the free and open sharing of knowledge. Smarthistory is now the most widely used resource for the study of art history. Students (high school, undergraduate, and graduate), professors, museum visitors, and lifelong learners use our content, which grows nearly every day (we produce and publish an average of ten videos and a dozen essays each month). Our library includes more than 1,000 videos and 4,000 essays. Our YouTube channel has roughly 275,000 subscribers. We are grateful to the open educational resource Khan Academy which helped to support Smarthistory for several years.
Smarthistory’s YouTube page
Smarthistory content is published with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License and is (and will always be) entirely free and ad-free, and no registration is required. We make more than 14,000 high-resolution photographs freely available for teaching and learning on Flickr and these also carry a Creative Commons license. Smarthistory uses an open peer review process to ensure scholarly excellence. At Smarthistory, we are committed to an inclusive, equitable art history, and one that is told by scholars and knowledge-bearers around the world. We are actively strengthening our content in areas that have been historically de-emphasized within the discipline of art history including the art of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific. We are also focused on offering more inclusive histories of Europe and North America and have made significant headway in African American art, Indigenous and First Nations art, the art of the Caribbean, and the worlds of Jewish and Islamic art. We are particularly excited by new partnerships with the National Museum of Art, Korea and the Museum of Art and Photography (Bangalore), and a new project focused on Latinx art.
Beth: One of the things that’s important to me is that, at its heart, Smarthistory is DIY. Even if our budget somehow tripled miraculously, we would make videos the same way we do now, using Screenflow, Garageband, and Photoshop. We don’t think videos need to be expensively made to be beautiful and effective and we never include a talking head in our videos, preferring instead to focus on the art itself. Oh, and did I mention that we also create the videos ourselves?
Steven: Picking up on what Beth wrote, all Smarthistory content is contributed by scholars with deep expertise in the area in which they are writing (or speaking in the case of videos). But importantly, the essays and videos are also edited, produced, and published by art historians. This means that decades of teaching experience inform the choices made in each video (for example, the particular photographic details that are shown, image comparisons, the inclusion of maps, annotations, the phrasing of definitions, etc.). Everything we do at Smarthistory is overseen by art historians for the benefit of learners.
Lauren: We also like to keep the videos conversational and informal to replicate the classroom experience. I like to think that viewers can imagine themselves jumping into the conversation at any moment, as if they are among friends. We want our conversations to communicate that there is no monolithic way to talk about art or understand it. The audio conversations in the videos are also recorded in front of what we are discussing because we want to capture the experience of what it is like to look closely at something, but also to include the ambient noises (like church bells or seagulls!) as a way to capture the experience of seeing something in person.
When and why was Smarthistory founded? What motivated you?
Smarthistory began in 2003 to support college students by leveraging the web to deepen their understanding and engagement with art. We recognized early on that with videos we could transport learners to the museums, and cultural and archaeological sites around the globe, making art history more experiential and engaging. We made the decision early on to make this content public rather than protect it within our university’s learning management system, so that everyone with access to the internet could get to it. Before long, and somewhat miraculously, people started to find our work. We went from teaching a few hundred students each year, to reaching millions of people in every country on the planet. Nearly three years ago, Smarthistory took a big step forward when Dr. Lauren Kilroy Ewbank joined us full-time, and we are now a core team of three art historians. Luckily, Smarthistory is also supported by the fabulous Kayla McCarthy and Julia Campbell who make our work possible.
Lauren: I’ve been lurking around Smarthistory for years, so stepping into this new role full-time was exciting—and a dream come true. My work with Smarthistory has always felt important as a way to engage with different publics and to make the histories of art accessible. In fact, accessibility to reliable, trustworthy sources has never been more important. Textbook costs continue to rise, which means that students either don’t buy the book or they can only rent them for short periods of time.
One of the projects that I have been thrilled to work on with about 50 other specialists (and counting) is Reframing Art History, a free, open-access multimedia world art history textbook. There are now about 50 chapters available, though that number continues to grow, and it includes a wide range of approaches and narratives, from the Silk Roads to contemporary artists responding to the early modern European tradition. Each chapter includes new framing text, as well as links to essays and videos already on Smarthistory. Authors decide what themes and issues made the most sense for their specialization, recognizing that this might look different for chapters looking at ancient Mediterranean or modern Chinese art. We want readers to be able to see that there is no one way to talk about art—and even that objects, sites, and buildings included in one chapter might very well appear in another that takes a different angle.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced or are facing today, and how are you
The extraordinary reach of Smarthistory comes with significant responsibilities. There are three key areas that we struggle with.
- Content breadth – We seek to make art from across time and geography accessible by drawing on a diverse array of voices with deep expertise. However, many areas remain understudied and can be challenging to cover responsibly. We have responded by creating a rotating group of content fellows with expertise in an area we need to enrich and ask that they function not simply as writers, but as ambassadors to their specialist community.
- Writing for the public – We spend a great deal of time editing and mentoring our contributors in the art of writing public art history. As art historians, we are trained to write for other scholars in our own specialized area, and so writing for a broad array of readers, many without advanced degrees, can pose particular challenges, especially since our goal is to ensure that we nevertheless convey the complexity and subtlety of scholarly work.
- Fundraising – As an independent 501(c)(3) organization, we spend a significant portion of our time seeking financial support to keep Smarthistory on a solid financial footing. We are art historians, not development professionals, and so have had to learn these skills as needed. Art history is often regarded as an obsolete luxury hopelessly mired in the colonial past and so funding is a significant challenge for us. If even a small portion of the students and professors who use our content contributed even a small gift, we would be able to re-allocate our time and produce more content. We want to say though that we are extremely grateful to the foundations who have supported our work including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Alice L. Walton Foundation, the Macaulay Family Foundation, and the Terra Foundation for American Art, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, and many individual supporters.
Smarthistory’s platform and interface invite a broad audience from different backgrounds to engage with its content. The website offers more than pedagogy tools, it encourages curiosity and provides endless avenues to pursue knowledge. How did you align the design of your interface with your mission? Which platform choices contributed to reaching your goals (for example- your categories, decision to combine videos with texts, offering webinars, etc.)?
Steven: We spend a great deal of time with the question of organization. We juggle a number of issues—including what is possible given our modest budget, the categories faculty, students, and casual learners expect to see, the significant changes we see developing in the discipline of art history, the depth of our content in a given area, etc. At the same time we work hard to offer an interface that is intuitive and that can surface the many thousands of essays and videos that we have created.
Lauren: With thousands of essays and videos, we need to focus on pathways to facilitate discovery. We are currently investing in an ambitious project that will give us far greater organizational flexibility in the future, as we transition from what is essentially a website that requires significant hand-crafting, to one that is based on custom taxonomies that will allow us to serve our content in many different ways, and make clear art historical interconnections across cultures and times. Keep an eye out!
Beth: In terms of audiences, we are ambitious. We aim to reach and engage just about anyone who has curiosity about art and its history. At this point, it’s not an overstatement to say that Smarthistory is the go-to resource for learners new to art history at every level and so we feel the responsibility that comes with teaching an entirely new generation and to address the issues that are important to them.
Smarthistory is a collaborative of more than roughly six hundred art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists. The Digital Humanities are known for encouraging collaborations between scholars, labs, disciplines, etc. How do you manage large-scale collaborative projects? Do you recommend specific platforms or programs for collaboration?
We use Zoom, Google Docs, and Slack. We have a forward-facing Trello Board for those
interested in contributing, and we use Trello extensively for project management. The backbone of Smarthistory is WordPress. We work closely with a design firm (C&G Partners) and have a wonderful programmer who helps maintain and update the site.
Which Digital Humanities tools are utilized by Smarthistory, and how?
Beth: As we all know, teaching art history has always transformed in response to changes in
technology and today is obviously no different. We believe that the future of our discipline relies on making art history engaging with learners through the use of video, 3-D photography, virtual reality, and by exposing them to digital art history projects. We regularly take advantage of the creative tools (Photoshop and similar programs) now available to make custom maps and diagrams. Many Smarthistory essays include google street view, custom-made maps and diagrams, and we have worked with scholars who are leading the way in the use of digital tools to enhance learning. For example, we collaborated with Matthew Brennan to create a guided virtual tour of the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, in Padua, and with Dr. Bernard Frischer to create a video of a flyover of a reconstruction of 4th century Rome which was based on two decades of research and the input of dozens of specialists. We believe that digital art history needs to reach beyond the scholarly community to the public to demonstrate the relevance of our discipline in the 21st century.
Lauren: We actually have resources for anyone who is interested in learning about how to edit audio, shoot and correct beautiful photos, and produce videos in Screenflow—just like we do at Smarthistory! You can find those, as well as other useful resources for teaching and learning, on our DIY Tools page.
Steven: We tend not to chase the new shiny thing. Instead we think about our core goals, and which technologies can help to bring learners closer to the art itself. Over the centuries
engravings, lantern slides, and virtual reality have all been used to replicate the works of art for students, but we believe that the most powerful Digital Humanities tools are the human voice telling stories, expressing what we see, and seeking to build empathy across time and across cultures.
How do you plan to continue incorporating and expanding Digital Humanities in
Smarthistory in the future?
Smarthistory has been using digital tools for two decades to bring art history to learners (we made videos in Vassar’s 2007 reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel in Second Life for example). Unfortunately, we have noted that many digital art history projects are undertaken primarily for the benefit of specialists and have too often not considered their wider pedagogical potential. We are interested in collaborating with those working on scholarly digital art history projects to expose them to a broader audience of learners. As we noted above, we recently embarked on a significant multi-year project to transform the site navigation of Smarthistory to better reveal connections between works of art across time and place. You’ll see the first signs of this in early 2024.
How can DAHS members best benefit from all that Smarthistory has to offer? How can
they contribute to Smarthistory and its mission?
We hope that DAHS members get in touch with us, we love to collaborate. Here’s some
information about contributing.