Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 13, 1999
Reindeer Company The Art Historian, 2 Vols., ("Ancient to Medieval" and "Renaissance to Modern and Non-Western") The Reindeer Company, 1998. 600 ills. CD-ROM $40.00

The Art Historian CD-ROM set is designed to supplement art history courses. This review addresses questions about function and educational value rather than details of interpretation or information. How does the product enhance learning beyond slide lectures or standard textbooks? How does the CD-ROM take advantage of digital technologies to present art-historical material? Can faculty construct digital lectures from the CD? How easy is the software to use?

Scope

A comprehensive CD set that paralleled the scope and depth of textbooks would serve the needs of students and instructors. Students could purchase the CD instead and benefit from additional software features. For instructors, an image library geared to survey class lectures would jump start the shift from slides to digital images. The Art Historian partially fulfills these needs. Each CD-ROM contains more than 600 images organized according to such standard stylistic divisions as Greek, Gothic, Baroque, or Asian, but the software omits Northern Renaissance, Rococo, Realism, and Postmodernism. Within periods, coverage varies from twenty-seven prehistory images to 110 works for the Gothic era. Surprisingly, the Mannerism section contains thirty-eight images while Modern Architecture receives a scant four examples.

For major sites, breadth dominates depth. For example, the software presents only four images of the Parthenon: an exterior view of the temple, a metope, one procession section, and the female figures from the pediment. In contrast, standard textbooks include seven to twelve visual examples to contextualize the art by adding the temple plan, Acropolis diagrams or models, photos to clarify the location of the frieze, and reconstructions presenting the original location of pediment sculpture.

Features

The Art Historian software functions primarily as a catalogue of images with textual information. Each unit begins with a voiceover of an introductory historical essay. A team of art historians, credited in the About/Program Credits section, wrote the text and developed the selection of images. Text sections, divided into a paragraph for historical context and a paragraph for visual analysis, generally follow the synthetic approach established by textbooks. Single clicking the catalogue thumbnail produces a full screen image; double clicking allows viewers to examine details.

Users can conduct self-tests using flash card, essay, or multiple choice formats. Some questions require rote memorization of factual material; others address major cultural context issues. Since the format for testing directs student learning, instructors should review the questions to determine if the material matches their educational priorities.

The best features, the Compare option and the Notes, surpass the textbook format by promoting individualized interaction. Users can view two catalogue and text descriptions simultaneously or juxtapose two large images side by side on the screen, such as the sculptures of David by Michelangelo and Bernini. However, because of the two volume format, users with only one CD-ROM drive cannot directly compare Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite.

In the Notes section, users can copy text sections to notes or write their own responses, then save the notes file as a text file, load the text file into a word processing program, and print the text. Users cannot print directly from the CD. The most valuable feature of the Notes section is the user’s ability to compose text and integrate it with the text description of an image as a reference. Instructors could create reference sections to provide additional information on earthquake destruction to the Basilica at Assisi or to comment that the Sistine Chapel ceiling photo predates the 1980s cleaning. In addition, instructors could add study questions to particular examples or suggest comparisons for students to examine. These notes can be added permanently to the CD but can easily be removed as the user directs. When used on an individual computer, this feature could be altered by students. Because the license prohibits networking and authorizes use only for individual computers, this valuable feature would need to be site licensed by the company before it could be used in computer labs.

Missing Features

The Art Historian omits some common features of educational software. The text sections lack hypertext links to explain terms, so users reading about “zoomorphic interlace” or “fibulae” cannot click on these words to access definitions. Unlike textbooks, the software does not include a glossary, bibliography, maps, time lines, or primary readings.

The software contains only static images and thus perpetuates a major limitation of textbooks and slide lectures. Today’s students may expect software to contain the animated diagrams, video clips, or virtual 3-D architecture available for free via the Internet. For example, the software could include animated diagrams tracing the path of the Panathenaic procession or present a video clip of Calder’s mobiles.

Installation, Interface, and Image Quality

Each CD-ROM volume of The Art Historian consumes over 10 MB of disk space. To run, the user must install the software on the hard drive and insert the CD-ROM; the program does not run independently from either the CD-ROM or the hard drive.

Color on computer screens varies according to the operating system, the brand of monitor, and the number of colors projected on the screen. Overall, color quality is good, even with 256 colors, though some images suffer from glaring masses of red or blue. Image quality varied little on different monitors; although Macintosh computers produced faint lines for some architectural diagrams, and the deep purple Quit and Index buttons were hard to see on some Windows monitors.

Organizational Issues

In slide lectures, organization is the key to content, but this software relies on organizational approaches alien to art-historical practice. Within each stylistic period, the examples appear in alphabetical order by title producing a thematically random series of works. The Impressionist section, for example, sequences: Degas’s Absinthe Drinker, Rodin’s Age of Bronze, Bazille’s Artist’s Family, Degas’s Ballet Class, etc. To instill visual logic into the sequence, users must create their own image library.

The ability to search the visual database and create custom image libraries could be the strongest feature of the software, but the archaic design of the search engine thwarts the process. Users cannot locate an example by typing in name, title, location, or key words, a standard feature for library and Internet search engines. In contrast to websites, the user cannot select from a series of thumbnail images to quickly access images through visual recognition or use standard interface design to click and drag images to a new file. Instead, the Index offers alphabetical text lists for Artist, Title, Period, or Location and users may scroll through hundreds of examples until they find the appropriate work. To assemble a custom unit on Gothic architecture using the Index, an art historian would typically begin with the location. However, to find St-Denis, the user must scroll through the entries to find “Abbey Church of St-Denis” under “A,” then scroll to find the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris under “N” and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres under “C.”

The search feature in the View Collections has even more limitations than the Index search engine. The Search selection produces one response even if the software contains multiple images for a specific site or artist. Thus, if you want to compare the competition panels by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, the unit search yields only Brunelleschi’s dome. By jumping to the Main Menu and selecting Index, the user can verify that the software contains Brunelleschi’s panel and, returning to the View Collections section, they will find the panel under “S” for “Sacrifice of Isaac.” However, they must retreat to the beginning to locate Ghiberti’s panel under “Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac.”

Conclusion

While many disciplines embraced digital technologies decades ago, art historians and publishers still grapple with the best ways to incorporate digital technologies into teaching and research. The Art Historian CD-ROM set presents major limitations as either a visual library or teaching tool. The Reindeer Company plans a new edition for the year 2000 that will include an improved index, image collections coordinated with specific textbooks, pronunciation guides, interactive analysis of artworks, and web links. If the promise of these changes is realized, The Art Historian set may become a significant tool for art history education.

For the current version, the most useful features are the image comparisons and the instructor’s ability to add notes and study questions directly to the CD. Until the publication of the next version, the arbitrary organization by title, the frustrating design of the search engine, and the lack of multimedia features such as hypertext, animations, or video, may lead both students and instructors to consider free Internet sources rather than purchase the CDs. Since Internet links need to be created and maintained, the ultimate solution would be a comprehensive set of CDs designed by art historians to match digital form with pedagogical function.

Ellen Schiferl
University of Southern Maine

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.