AcoHum Working Group on Computing in history of art, architecture and design

Minutes of the 1st working group meeting

Bergen, February 15, 1997.

Present: Britt Kroepelien (working group coordinator), Will Vaughan (chair), Anthea Peppin, Hubertus Kohl, Gerhard Nauta, Trish Cashen.


  • Prof. Dr. Koenraad de Smedt, TNP coordinator, was present during the first part of the meeting.
  • At the request of the working group coordinator, Britt Kroepelien, Prof. Dr. Will Vaughan agreed to chair the meeting.
  • Welcome and introduction

    Koenraad de Smedt introduced ACO*HUM and the concept of a SOCRATES thematic network project (TNP). The mandate of the ACO*HUM working groups (previously called area committees) is described in the documents accessible via the ACO*HUM home page.

    ACO*HUM is engaged in a reflective exercise - a needs analysis with regard to future developments. The present committee should look at and evaluate existing examples of IT integrated into teaching of art history, point out best practice and communicate with the members of the developing network to share experiences. The commitee was urged to come up with recommendations on matters such as:

    ACO*HUM will eventually define the future European IT strategy in humanities education.

    Prof de Smedt concluded by outlining the committee's tasks (in cooperation with the project coordinator) in the immediate future:


    Following this introduction by Koenraad de Smedt, the members of the committee briefly introduced themselves and provided some details about their backgrounds relevant to art history and computing. The participants then engaged in a free discussion on several issues.

    In attempting to identify generic problems (and some local solutions), the group raised the following issues: development of IT skills for teachers as well as students, compatibility of course structures, establishing databanks, access to sources, copyright problems, and problems of compatibility of image formats.

    As far as teaching was concerned, the group members were emphatic that it is important to introduce students to IT integrated into the working methods of their subject, not just generic introductions to IT. Gerhard Nauta described the University of Leiden's new Knowledge Media curriculum where 4 departments (Psychology, Language, Art History and Informatics) from 3 faculties cooperate in offering advanced integrated skills to students from a variety of backgrounds. The main problems identified by Gerhard Nauta were (a) the range of skills which needed to be taught to students with very different expertise - e.g. programming the on-line database, scanning images, storing images in the database and (b) teaching students the necessary skills to work collaboratively on group projects.

    The need to develop a special programme to educate teachers to enable them to use (and teach) advanced IT techniques was also discussed.

    Anthea Peppin remarked that museums in particular would be more willing to collaborate on projects which were not aimed solely at tertiary education - e.g. an attractive product might be an introductory course in art history delivered over the Internet. Hubertus Kohl noted that the degree structures in German universities being so different from those of other European countries might mean that common courses would not be widely utilised. Broad courses which could be relevant to many countries and institutions were felt to centre around non-controversial areas - e.g. sculpture techniques, or explaining very basic concepts such as provenance. BK suggested a "terminology bank" which would enable students to become familiar with key concepts.

    Gerhard Nauta described a project currently under development at Leiden - the Theatrum Biblicum', which aims to teach Biblical themes to undergraduate students. The project involves the production of resources (images, literary sources and Biblical sources) by more advanced students in art history, literature and religious studies and is used primarily by entry-level students. It involves the collaboration of the literature and religious studies departments who have editorial control over their own sections of the database, and it could involve collaboration with other universities in the future. At present all the images come from Leiden University's Print Room, so there is no problem with copyright, but in the future other universities could supply their own images to generate a shared resource.

    In identifying the main achievements involving the use of IT in art-historical contexts, William Vaughan noted the use of computer applications in conservation and the existence of some digital picture archives (e.g. the Bridgeman archive in London). The Group agreed that a priority would be to find out more about any other relevant projects and to assess what visual archives might be available.

    One suggestion (Britt Kroepelien) was to build up a large digital archive for use in teaching. Individual institutions could contribute images to the archive in order to build up a reasonably representative collection of teaching images. Even allowing for the fact that there was no 'core' curriculum, it was felt that a broad canon existed and that around 10,000 images might be sufficient for undergraduate use, with perhaps around 70,000 for use by postgraduates. A need was identified for both high-quality digital images suitable for detailed study - it was felt that this could be collections based - and a more generic collection of lower quality images which could be used for e.g. undergraduate revision. (Birkbeck College is currently making the slides from Prof. Vaughan's course on 18th-century portraiture available on its WWW server.)

    Since it is crucial for art historians to be able to access images, the problem of gaining access to sources was considered an issue of major importance. William Vaughan suggested the recommendation to develop specific IT tools might be interpreted to include working on a common Europe-wide copyright agreement for using images in education. (Britt Kroepelien noted that she is currently securing the agreement of Norwegian museums to allow the digitisation of Norwegian art works. The high resolution digital images would be used in undergraduate teaching.) The group briefly discussed MESL (the US Museum Educational Site Licensing Project) and suggested that a European project might be established which could build on MESL's experience and avoid some of their mistakes.

    Trish Cashen highlighted the need to address problems with the compatibility of image formats, capture methods and core data descriptions. Hubertus Kohl suggested that a CD-ROM project like DISKUS might be a good way of delivering large numbers of low resolution images for use in teaching.

    The main points emerging from this discussion was the need of the committee to point at the existing chaotic situation regarding digital image standards and to suggest strategies for computer-based training (CBT) in the teaching of art history. IT courses for art historians and students of art history should be identified as falling into two clear categories:

    1. introductory courses to basic IT programs and techniques
    2. advanced specialist studies which would teach students how to apply IT techniques to the working methods of their own subject.
    William Vaughan as chair then attempted to define the scope of the Working Group and to draw up an agenda.


    The committee agreed that "History of Art" should include architectural history and design history but not archaeology or anthropology. The need to consider critical studies and studio art was raised and it was noted that in some countries (e.g. the UK) aesthetics was taught chiefly by departments of Philosophy. The preliminary reports of the Group should define the frontiers of the subject clearly. The committee also agreed that some areas were being dealt with adequately by other working groups - e.g. textual analysis was covered by both History and Textual Studies. They should, however, comment explicitly on the relevance of textual analysis techniques to the history of art. It will be important to collaborate with other groups on formulating principles and standards concerning e.g. digitising texts and images. It will also be necessary to collaborate with the History group on the formal description of images - e.g. the use of SGML.


    The rest of the meeting was dedicated to defining the Group's agenda and to clarifying the Group's responsibilities in the various areas. The agenda will form a major part of the Group's report and different members have been given responsibility for writing individual sections. (These will then be circulated in draft form amongst the group members for comments and additions before being incorporated into the final report which is to be presented at the end of March this year.)

    Curricula (William Vaughan)

    A: We do NOT want a universal Europe-wide course! 1: Open and Distance Learning (Britt Kroepelin/Trish Cashen) 2: Overview of current practice and identification of suitable techniques 3: Presentation of an example course (e.g. biblical studies example) and a call for participation and partners

    B: Development of student IT-skills. What do we want our students to be able to do?

    1. Defining a basic minimum standard of IT competency for the students ( e.g. search in libraries, use e-mail, how to handle text- and image databases.
    2. Identifying opportunities for advanced development to move the subject forward
    3. Courseware development and provision

    Resources (Trish Cashen/William Vaughan)

    What is available now? What do we want to develop in the future?
    1. collections and objects
    2. visual archives
    3. construction of "canon" of images and "canon" of texts
    4. identification of existing useful resources to use as models

    Tools (Gerhard Nauta)

    What hardware and software do we need? We must collaborate with computer scientists to develop the tools we will need in the future.
    1. compatibility problem
    2. identification of relevant tools 3) demonstration of potential tools (e.g. at '98 conference)

    Standards (Gerhard Nauta)

    1. promoting the awareness of problems related to digital image standards (e.g. for Picture Archives)
    2. information interchange
    3. identification of relevant institutions
    4. identification of exemplary models

    Training (Trish Cashen)

    1. training of art history educators (debate about methodology)
    2. delivering standard core skills (some of this material is already available - e.g. Netskills)

    Delimitation (Hubertus Kohl)

    1. area definition (e.g. include film? Aesthetics?)
    2. methodological implications of IT use - limits and possibilities

    Participants (Anthea Peppin/William Vaughan)

    1. universities
    2. museums
    3. computer firms
    4. compilation of an email list

    Communication and Dissemination (Britt Kroepelien)

    1. identification of key people who should be invited to participate

    2. Internet communication
    3. compilation of a list of Websites
    4. demonstration of concrete exemplary projects - e.g. classical text, high-resolution image project.