Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies

When SmartHistory.org, the online scholarly resource for art history students and instructors, debuted in 2007, it was a radical proposition. Instead of purchasing expensive textbooks, students could access videos modeling in-depth visual analysis of well-known works of art and architecture, robustly researched essays on single works and overarching themes, and images that articulate a global art history survey, free through their web browser. Both the website interface and the YouTube–style videos contained within were, in many senses, more germane to students’ consumption patterns and learning habits than a ten-pound textbook.

SmartHistory cofounders Beth Harris and Steve Zucker, both graduates of the doctoral program in art history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, have from the project’s inception insisted upon a Web 2.0 approach that maintains free resources, open access, no paywalls, and the possibility for its users—students and teachers of art history at high schools and universities, yes, but many casual learners, too—to remix and reuse the content as needed.1 At its conceptual inception (in 2005, two years before its custom website launched), SmartHistory.org was a series of unscripted podcasts recorded on a thirty-dollar microphone, shared on a blog, and originally intended for use by student visitors at two of New York City’s most esteemed cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as by college-level students in classrooms in the city. This genesis resulted from the founders’ occupations in academia and museums prior to instituting SmartHistory.org. It is impossible to overstate the reach the project has, with over 35 million site views in 2016 alone. The SmartHistory.org YouTube channel sits snugly among major international institutions in terms of its subscribers; with 89,000 and counting, it commands more than every museum in the United States except MoMA, which has 146,000. In comparison, the Met has 60,000, and even large international institutions pale in contrast—the Tate has 59,000.2

While uptake and accessibility lie at the core of SmartHistory’s mission, and such figures are radical in terms of the reach of our field, the content of the site is as robust as its statistics. Each of the site’s 1,500 (and counting) essays—on single works, sites, or themes—is written by specialists in that subject area. This is quite different from the in-classroom US art history survey model in which one teacher must often struggle through areas of the prehistory-to-present curriculum that can defy comfort zones. However, the site’s core genius is, and has always been, the vision of its two founders, joined more recently by some of their contributing editors. Their collective editorial voice evolved from their early podcasts into short yet rich, informally delivered, and well-researched and illustrated YouTube videos. In the broad sweep of chronologies, geographies, and aesthetics presented in these videos, Harris and Zucker insist upon close looking, detailed descriptions, and visual analysis as the central tenets of art-historical practice. This focus is key to their success in retaining the robustness of art-historical inquiry in a wholly digital format fit for an age when students consume so much through this means.

Harris and Zucker’s 2016 reflection on the joy of teaching published in Art History Pedagogy and Practice, “Making the Absent Present: The Imperative of Teaching Art History,” cited renowned museum educator and art history pedagogy scholar Rika Burnham’s practice of “close looking” as the foundational skill we inherit and pass on as art historians. Much like former British Museum director Neil McGregor’s insightful BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, the Smarthistory.org conversations are object centered (or concerned with a particular building or site), using the work as the locus for a historically grounded and intersectional consideration of material culture, history, aesthetics, and critical thinking. They are insistent on the experiential understanding of artworks, using multiple images instead of a textbook-style single, cropped work. That their videos incorporate the sounds of the museum or sacred site in which the conversation is recorded enlivens and contextualizes the understanding of objects as, in Zucker’s words, “something that is accruing meaning, even in [the student’s] world.” This is eminently possible to achieve in the online format in a way that is more difficult to do in print (which has its own advantages) where images are usually limited to one and rarely more than two or three per object or site discussed.

The site also offers adaptable syllabi to aid instructors in synthesizing the site’s free content for use in a semester-long survey class. This catalyzation of users is the intention of open education resources, and Harris and Zucker are almost evangelical about empowering students and teachers to synthesize at will from the materials they produce. Harris and Zucker note areas for further development and operate a Trello board to encourage the community of scholars around the site to populate and fill the gaps, Wiki-style. Further design and decorative art studies as well as fashion design would be welcome additions, if only to signal a more expansive and inclusive envisioning of what art history means today. An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant in 2015 resulted in further content creation in art from Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Islamic world, and Oceania, underlining the site’s commitment to supporting global art history.

The few years preceding SmartHistory’s debut witnessed a much broader reassessment of the delivery of art history teaching in the digital age. Slide projectors were swapped out for the digital ease of PowerPoint; art-historical images existed within the infinitely larger pool of mass media available online, from which instructors or their students might synthesize a never-ending Warburgian mnemosyne atlas from the dizzying visual soup. Video—then in its infancy (YouTube was founded in 2005, birthing video-blogging, or vlogging), and now in high-definition and 360-degree variations—can take students out of the classroom and place them in front of artworks in major museums worldwide (and a few smaller ones, too; the creation of digital departments in museums of all sizes that produce such content has mirrored this trajectory). It is possible to see entire collections from major museums online, to read through digitized exhibition histories and publications for free (like MoMA’s comprehensive 2015 project), and to virtually stroll through San Vitale in Ravenna or enter any number of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. These are only the tip of the digital iceberg. The SmartHistory.org site even predated the inception and rise of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). And yet, as Zucker reminded the audience at the Openlab Workshop Unconference in 2015, “That so many institutions still seek to control high-resolution images of public domain works of art is simply an abuse of their missions and the beneficial status that we the public grant them.” Thus, SmartHistory reminds us of the politics of teaching the visual.

Apart from the radical proposition of dismantling the textbook racket and making high-quality learning resources available for free use and remixing (a foundational tenet of the growing Open Educational Resource movement), SmartHistory also models pedagogical research and publication as a viable, laudable, and rigorous form of art-historical labor. This emphasis on pedagogy as a central component of the art history discipline, insistence on a collaborative model of content formation and delivery, and existence as a digital project that resists monetization through traditional publication, advertising, or participation models sets SmartHistory.org apart from its peers in the field of art history in both vision and scope. That the site has attracted over two hundred different contributors in the past decade is a testament to the broad appeal of the open-access pedagogy model, of the site’s academic robustness, and of the power of collaborative art-historical practice.

The discipline of art history has been notoriously slow to evolve and embrace digital technologies, even while the artists it studies did so enthusiastically. SmartHistory.org was at its inception—and in many ways still is—an outlier in the discipline. It was conceived of and created long before the so-called digital humanities became a trendy, career-and-budget-enhancing buzzword in universities, and it has maintained institutional independence, criticality of both content and approach, and rigorous review of the materials it produces, even while expanding to encompass millennia of art history authored by over two hundred scholars. This is important not only for the students and instructors who benefit from using the site’s resources, but also for the reshaping of art history as a discipline and practice. This evolution has not come without tension. Harris and Zucker operate outside an academic institution, but for many contributors to the site—the majority of them tenured or tenure-track art history faculty, as well as adjunct faculty, curators, and archaeologists, many of whom hold a terminal degree in their discipline—this open peer-reviewed pedagogical research and writing mirrors the intellectual labor on other more traditional subject areas within the discipline. Yet, as Sheila Cavanagh highlighted in the fall 2012 special issue of Journal of Digital Humanities dedicated to investigating the problem of assessing digital humanities scholarship, many on promotion and tenure boards have no idea how to welcome this work into the academy or reward those producing it.

Over the last five years, as it has become career enhancing to engage with the digital humanities, SmartHistory has been joined by a rash of other online projects that traverse the boundaries of art history research, pedagogy, and practice. As the joint CAA–Society of Architectural Historians (CAA-SAH) guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship in art history highlight, the collaboration inherent to SmartHistory.org, and other projects like it, “is not a puzzle where each person brings a predetermined piece to the final picture; rather, it is a process through which intellectual content is generated within and through the collaboration. . . . [It] generally takes more time than single-authored work, rather than less” (see CAA-SAH Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in Art and Architectural History). In modeling this process of meaning making on so many levels—in YouTube conversations, between a work of art and a viewer, or between instructor and peers—SmartHistory.org has radically shifted the boundaries and possibilities of art history research and scholarship.

1. The OpenStax (originally Connexions) project, founded in 1999 at Rice University, pioneered open educational resources online and encouraged their free use and adaptation through Creative Commons licenses.

2. Figures correct as of December 2017. 

Michelle Millar Fisher
Louis C. Madeira IV Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Design, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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