Interview | Taking a Close Look at Smarthistory

Dissatisfied with large, expensive and not particularly engaging art history textbooks, back in 2005, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker looked to the web—only to find further woefully uncreative art history resources. Having already developed quite a bit of content for their online Western art history courses, including podcasts and a few screencasts, it finally occurred to them: why not use the personal voice they use when they teach online and couple it with multimedia they’d already created for their course to create a “web-book” like no one has ever seen before? Done right, it wouldn’t just be useful to students of art history, but to museum visitors and other informal learners as well. Originally a free wordpress blog, Beth and Steven founded Smarthistory and it developed into much more than they ever imagined. Over the years, many great minds and art lovers have contributed content, skills and energy to the project. Another vital force behind Smarthistory is Juliana Kreinik, Smarthistory’s brilliant and generous contributing editor. Beth, Steven and Juliana teamed up to share their motivations and excitement for Smarthistory in this engaging interview. Enjoy!

Victor: Why did you create Smarthistory?

Steven: Smarthistory started because we wanted to untangle art history from the pretensions that make it seem so distant to our students. In 2005, we bought a cheap microphone and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create alternatives to the staid audio guides that were still then so prevalent. One of the most enjoyable experiences we can think of is to look carefully at a work of art and have a discussion right there in front of it. After introducing these recordings in our online art history courses, we realized that these unscripted conversations between art historians were actually quite engaging for our students. We were able to replace the formal, distancing language that too often dominates the teaching of art history with the authentic experience of looking and the emotions of discovery.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Beth: It’s mostly just a play on the words, “art history.” But also, it’s our attempt to find better, smarter ways to engage our students and the public. We are surrounded by images—online, in television and movies, in advertisements, and elsewhere—and over the past several centuries, the discipline of art history has developed extraordinarily sophisticated tools for understanding visual culture. We want to find meaningful ways to make these tools available to a broader public without the impediment of jargon.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Beth: Smarthistory.org is a free, creative-commons licensed, multi-media web-book designed as a dynamic enhancement or substitute for the traditional art history textbook. We use conversation instead of the impersonal voice of the typical textbook in order to reveal disagreement, emotion, and the immediate experience of looking. Smarthistory takes the inherent dialogic and multimedia nature of the web and uses it as a pedagogical method. Reliability is equally as important, however; we are all educators with graduate degrees in art history, and many of us have years of teaching experience, whether in academia or museums. Smarthistory is designed to be an encyclopedic resource, with vetted content that is fact-checked and edited by experts in the field. Reliability is essential—but so is the excitement of learning.

Steven: Smarthistory was created by Dr. Beth Harris, Director of Digital Learning at a NYC museum, and myself, Dr. Steven Zucker, chair of History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. We have since been joined by Dr. Juliana Kreinik, our Contributing Editor, and Lotte Meijer, our Information Architect and Project Manager. Mickey Mayo is our Designer, and we have a wonderful, expanding group of contributors (including Rachel Ropeik, Brian Seymour, Monica Hahn, Meg Floryan, Virginia Spivey, Julia Langley, J.P. McMahon, Allen Farber, and others). All these people are volunteers and donate their expertise to the site. You can see a full list of our contributors here. Smarthistory has also partnered with the Portland Art Museum and Otis College of Art and Design.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Steven: What an interesting question! Smarthistory tries to reinvent the textbook. It also helps people learn about art and to trust what they think when they look at art. We add new content regularly, sometimes as many as three to four new pages and videos a week. We have 285 short videos up at the moment. And according to Google Analytics, the site attracted over 70,000 visits in the past month. In a recent blog post on the Open College Textbooks blog we wrote:

“At Smarthistory.org, we have indeed tried to break new ground by imagining what a textbook might be when no longer constrained by the the economics and physical structure of the fifteenth-century technology of the bound book. We felt it was especially important to explore the potential of multimedia for learning resources given the tendency of some authors and publishers to simply take existing text, turn it into PDF files, and put it up on the web.”

We also see value in offering curated links to closely related material. It’s interesting to note in this regard, that many valuable resources come from institutions with an extremely high level of expertise, but that are outside the university, namely museums and libraries. The availability of so many free, high-quality learning resources has prompted us to wonder whether the very notion of the textbook, a format that has historically sought to offer a complete overview of a given subject, makes sense in an age when information has become so fluid and easy to obtain. Will our students trust that a single static resource reflects the most recent discoveries and debates? Why do textbooks have to be a separate genre? Recently, Louisiana defined “any medium or material that constitutes a principal source of teaching and learning to be a textbook.” That makes a lot of sense to us.

Beth: One of the benefits we see is in the use of multimedia. In a classroom, a museum—or anywhere art is discussed—we are able to look closely at the work of art while simultaneously engaging fully in conversation. Printed textbooks offer a different experience, in part because we tend accept the authority of words over images. What this means is that, too often, a student will read the text first, and only then look to the image specifically for what was mentioned. We believe in the importance of looking first—in other words, the object is as important as the text. In reality, the experience of confronting a work of art may not take place at all—but Smarthistory tries to bridge that gap.

Steven: Another advantage to our approach is that our recordings model “close looking.” Listening to two people discuss what they are seeing—as they are seeing it—serves as an invitation for others to do the same. It demonstrates that one’s thoughts need not be fully-formed when looking at a picture (although facts should be in order); Smarthistory shows that ideas can be generated through conversation. Close looking is one of the most critical skills we can teach our students. Many people are tremendously interested in art and hungry for a means to explore and understand art. By listening to the conversations on Smarthistory, people seem to gain confidence in their own powers of observation. Ultimately, we hope our conversations have prompted others to have their own.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Steven: Smarthistory is pretty unique. Here’s why: everything on our website—from texts analyzing art historical eras to recorded conversations and videos about particular works of art—are produced by art historians. We create the conversations and edit the videos and text, ensuring that they are accurate and, we hope, engaging.

Beth: The “look and feel” of Smarthistory is also important to us. We sought a design that reflected art historical method and would make sense to our students. For example, we wanted to be sure that there were several pathways into the content. You can access the art via a prominent visual navigation bar that doubles as a timeline and borrows from the metaphor of the chapters of an open book—or you can browse by artists’ name, style, period or select from a list of thematic entries.

Steven: From the start, we made sure that our website design and user interface was attractive and easy for students to navigate. We believe that our emphasis on user experience ensures repeat visits, and also distinguishes us from other educational sites. Our content is free—we are educators, and are firmly committed to providing students around the world with an open, trusted resource.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Steven: We started Smarthistory in 2005 with a free WordPress template. Then, in the summer of 2008, thanks to a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, we created a customized skin and templates using MODx, an open-source content management system. The framework we’ve developed could be used by other disciplines in the Humanities, an idea we actively encourage. Smarthistory has been relatively inexpensive to create, and is easy to manage and update—but all of our contributors volunteer their time. A second Kress Foundation grant enabled another phase of Smarthistory; specifically, a redesign of our navigation system and other enhancements, like the ability to leave comments. We foresee numerous additional projects and we’re currently exploring funding opportunities. For example, we hope to add more resources for teachers in the near future. It’s not always easy to switch from the textbook to more web-based resources, and we want to support teachers who are motivated to use new technologies to expand and enhance student learning.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Beth: You can get our videos on the main site, Smarthistory.org, but they can also be accessed on iTunes (if you want to be fully mobile!) and many of the videos are on YouTube, Vimeo and Artbabble. We also have a timeline on Dipity and a Flickr group so you can contribute photos to our pages.

Juliana: We also have two great Apps available on iTunes, called SmarthistoryTravel: Rome I and Smarthistory Travel: Rome II. We recognized that many people were using Smarthistory to brush up on their art history before traveling, and felt that we could serve as a kind of tour guide. To create the Apps, we curated existing content from our website (videos, texts, and photographs), and provided additional “tourist-centric” information (directions to monuments, recommended cafes, etc.). We also have links and Google maps, so the Smarthistory App serves as in-depth guide to art tourism in Rome. We’re in the process of creating additional Apps for London and Spain, so look for those in 2011! We worked with Toura to create our apps and the proceeds defray the costs of running the site and help keep it free.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Juliana: Smarthistory is completely free to use. The web offers such an extraordinary opportunity to provide high-quality educational resources, to an almost unlimited audience. The Open Education movement is incredibly important and we are committed to it. Smarthistory is currently accessed from over 150 countries and territories every month and we know that art historical resources aren’t always available in these places. We use a Creative Common Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license so that others can rework our content as the need arises. On the other hand, Smarthistory costsmoney to maintain and grow. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation has been very generous in the past and has supported the site’s development, however the day-to-day costs are an out-of-pocket expense. We are now a not-for-profit corporation and hope other will see the value in what we are creating and will help support the project.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Juliana: This is one of our favorite videos to show people who are not familiar with Smarthistory:

http://smarthistory.org/contarelli-chapel.html

It gives a good sense of how we want to make art history more experiential.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Beth: Smarthistory is for Art History beginners—for both informal learners and for students taking the survey of art history course at AP or college level. It’s also useful for anyone who wants to brush up on art history—maybe before visiting a museum, or after seeing a great exhibition. It’s not a resource for advanced art-historical scholarship, nor is it a site for publishing original research on specialized topics.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Steven: Clearly, education is at a crossroads, and we are very excited about projects and initiatives like the Open Courseware Consortium, P2PU, College Open Textbooks, Next Generation Learning Challenges, and the University of the People. The more we can put learning back in the hands of the learners and make it more personalized, the better.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Smarthistory?

Steven: Probably frustration! Textbooks and other standard resources didn’t convey the passion and opinion that can make art history come alive. Also, the experience of seeing works of art in person— especially those that are still in situ (in the original locations that they were created for)—is not something that the art history textbook can easily communicate to readers. In addition, not all art history students have the opportunity to travel to see these objects. We wanted to give our users a sense of what it feels like to be in a Baroque Chapel in Rome, for example. These great works of art are not relics, but are instead very much a part of our own culture. When you see them, they are not isolated and viewed from an ideal angle, but surrounded by tourists and worshippers, and often seen from angles that can dramatically shift the experience.

Victor: How does Smarthistory address some of your concerns about education?

Beth: We’re really proud to be part of the movement to create open courseware and open educational resources. It’s an exciting time to be an educator. We feel it’s important notto put course materials inside closed learning management systems, and instead, put them up on the web where anyone can access them and learn from them—we’re educators after all—and we’re interested in making education meaningful and accessible, now that there are the tools to really do this.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Steven: We’re very excited about the future of education. We believe that education will be more and more available outside of the traditional institutions of higher education. Applications like openstudy.com provide a (free) social layer that sits next to Open Courseware—and when we can connect learners like this, around free educational materials, we’re not far from a future where students hire itinerant instructors—and learning is put once again back in the hands of the learners, and we can put the past, factory-style learning behind us.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Smarthistory? What makes you say that?

Beth: We’ve heard from many educators about the value of Smarthistory. For those teaching AP Art History and undergraduate art history courses, Smarthistory offers areliable resource to share with their students. We’ve also begun to work more collaboratively with professors around the country, and their insights have been incredibly valuable for us!

Juliana: Here are some examples of what users have told us:

“What a fantastic website!  I am a new art teacher at a low income, Title I high school….I stumbled upon your website from another art teacher’s website and I am absolutely hooked. Every project we do is structured around art history and your videos and virtual tours have become invaluable to me! My students have never left a five-mile radius and may never be able to travel to see some of these incredible works of art. This generation of kids needs engaging via video and I am loving the entire site. I love your virtual tours because it exposes these poor students to a way of talking and looking at things as never before—we have talked lots about how to look at art and it helps them so much to hear you all talking intellectually about art work. They have never never been exposed to that—and with an 85 percent dropout rate, they may never ever have the chance to take even Art History 101.”

Steven: And here’s a recent tweet from Alexander Carpenter, who teaches at Pacific Union College: “Had students asking what other classes I teach. As I rattled them off, ego enlarging, students interrupted: but which ones w/ @Smarthistory”

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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