Gerhard Jan Nauta

Towards more advanced tools

Recognition of the usefulness of IT for art history at first passed off quietly. Today it is increasing hand over hand, thanks to, amongst other things, the visibility of initiatives elsewhere on the World Wide Web. The fact that students are most eager to surf the waves seriously complicates matters. For older faculty, the challenge is to remain in pace with new developments. Some radicalists have even suggested to abandon efforts to train faculty in IT altogether and invest the available money in high-end laptops for the next generation.

Ideally our student will be confronted as a user with the presentation of art historical data in digital form, which of course is natural, since a growing number of resources is available this way, and will learn what is needed to realize such presentations. In this our student will take the full course: making use of IT from source to surrogate or meta-source, through the cycle of standardization, association, analysis, to the final presentation. Present-day computer networks will essentially supply in this process what is necessary to utilize - and contribute to - the distributed expertise belonging to his [the art historical] discipline. In the years to come to be familiar with the possibilities of knowledge representation in electronic form will be of vital importance for the professional art historian.

In this section we will present a concise discussion of the various tools that the art historian might have at her disposal. The focus will be on software. Development of specific hardware tools to be used in dedicated art history research has been a rare thing. At the end of this article we will propound a statement on some highly desirable improvements of university hardware environments.

Current state of affairs

Up to now the major push behind the application of IT in art history has been triggered off by local initiatives. The world of museums has taken a lead in this. Many museums have an experience of years standing in building large databases of art objects and the presentation of artifacts in professionally authored multimedia (CD-ROMs, Websites, and the like). Institutions in this field have put great efforts in reaching some degree of comptability (CIDOC, MDA, CHIN). The academic world is more conservative. Computers are mostly in use for basic word processing and e-mail and whatever the type of application, there is great variety in systems, which applies for both software and hardware. We know of only a few examples of the coherent use of IT in art history education (Birkbeck, Stanford Univ., Berkeley, MIT a.o.), and even less when it comes to taking advantage of network possibilities. This implies that our endeavour of a 'distributed expertise', placed at the disposal of distant students, will be hard to realize. In a typical art history dept. even for such relatively simple but useful applications as email or the management of databases of artworks, differing packages will probably be in use.

So although art historians make use of a great variety of hardware and software, teaching of IT in art history is primarily restricted to the application of ready-made programs. Generally these are relatively small, mass-market, commercial packages, developed for non-art historical purposes. This does not mean that all possibly useful tools are in effect being put into use by art historians. The bottle-neck being, apart from lack of knowledge of the existence of such tools, the high costs of licenses and maintenance. It is fascinating to imagine possible appliances of tools developed for the business-world, the transport and military systems, or the medical world. The price of these products is often high. Without supplementary financing, for example, it is practically prohibitive for a cultural institution to afford itself a powerful text-retrieval product. The only solution here seems to be the formation of consortia, where commercial companies might be invited to quote for solutions to well specified wishes (cf. Project CHIO).

Identification of relevant tools

Kolker en Shneiderman discern 3 categories of computer-related research in the humanities: Internet based applications (email, discussion groups & WWW), existing software (graphics, presentation, databases and mm-authoring), and specific purpose software. Although it is tenable to consider Internet-applications as a special branch of tools (see below), we propose to keep up to the fundamental distinction of general-purpose and bespoke software. Most of present-day Internet-tools should be reckoned among the first of these categories, e.g. email-programs, web-browsers, http-daemons, news-programs, although much of the enhanced interactivity on the web has been achieved with the help of special purpose CGI- and in the last two years Java-programs. To the existing software we could add packages for statistical analysis, text encoding, image enhancement and the like.

According to the processing levels of art historical data [see above], this amounts to the following listing of tools (commercially available, shareware or freeware):

In relatively few art historical research projects the development of new IT-tools is a decisive, substantial element. Of course some discipline-dependent software has been developed (e.g. commercially available museum DBMSs, AAT software, ICONCLASS Browser, etc.). The importance of these programs is generally restricted to the field of art history. In some research areas however, eventual parties in the development of new tools might benefit from discipline specific knowledge. What are these areas? One might think of the drawing up of smart retrieval procedures for large textcorpora; the associative disclosure of visual materials; integration of text-based and content-based indexing, i.e. indexing based on the formal qualities of visual phenomena; high quality image processing; interfaces for in-context presentation of multimedia data. The latter area will undoubtedly attract attention as intranets and similar groupware solutions become populair in the humanities.

Interfaces & intranets

One of the frequently heard objections against present day IT is that for every type of digital source or database you want to consult, you'll have to familiarize yourself with a different interface. The huge growth of the World Wide Web has effectuated that people come to know of each others work more easily. Moreover, in a kind of continuous fever, art historians exert themselves to make databases, multimedia-programs and other tools - often constructed for local use in the pre-web era - consultable/visible via the Internet. The final result is desultoriness.

Up to now, efforts have been aimed at two aspects of the problem: development of standards for data-storage and data-exchange [see below] and the design of different sorts of coherent interfaces to pluriform datasets. A good example is the so-called Alfa Informatie Werkplek (AIW; Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, The Netherlands) The design of this tool enables the user to consult multiple resources (websites, CD-ROMs, local databases) from his workstation by means of a consistent interface. As such the AIW focusses on bringing a pluriform world to the cockpit. This world is taken for granted: no attempts are made to apply structure to it; no attempts to model the behaviour of AIW-users. In jargon: points of view have been less relevant in the drawing of the working place.

Especially in art history education, institutions have begun running up interlocal solutions, aiming at offering access to divers collections of data, cf. Getty's ArtsEdNet, Perseus (the website), Landow's Victorian Web, etc. Structure becomes more important. An amplification in this will be adaptation of intranet technology: where specific tools, together with choice content materials will supplement or perhaps supersede traditional teaching. The focus is less on the nodes of the network, and more on the network as a whole, especially the sort of transactions it enables. Differing functionality is attained via a consistent interface. This will only work with a reconsideration of curricula.

Phases in the process

In summa, the following phases can be discerned in the process of integrating the use of tools:
  1. local use of general purpose hardware & software;
  2. access to stand-alone data collections at a distance (e.g. AMICO, FAMSF);
  3. consultation of distributed data, from multiple points of access (cf. Project CHIO);
  4. use of tools enabling the integration of consultation and contribution;
  5. integrated use and contribution to (re)sources and other data, communication ("approaching the character of a continuing seminar or colloquium", Warren Sanderson p.17).
We recall that the usefulness of intranets will not be restricted to the boundaries of the traditional singular department. More and more, educational institutions will develop cooperative liaisons, offering maximum gains in the addressing of professional knowledge and resources.
The following is an example scenario:
Institution A is in possession of a comprehensive collection of Renaissance prints and has the expert knowledge to take care of teaching production techniques for graphic materials; institution B is the employer of an expert in 16th century printing-trade and publishing studies; institution C specializes in the use of electronic authority tools (like an iconographical classification system); the library of institution D holds 15th and 16th century treatises on art theory, that have partly been digitized. Using combined skills and resources at least four different art history courses could be taught. Given that the necessary provisions are made - comptability of systems, consistency in the use of data structures, standardized subject descriptions, consistent recording of meta data, safety measures, etc. - these courses could be supported by a collaboratively developed intranet.
This, incidentally, does not prevent the introduction of local colour in the arrangement of content, lectures, assignments, tests, and the like. A unified infrastructure does not imply a totalitarian educational regime. Much will depend on the 'openness' of the blue print. Using such a blue print, to get off the ground these interacademic course-webs, cooperation should be started with non-humanist disciplines too (e.g. information science, software engineering, pedagogy).


So far we have left hardware issues out of this chapter. Nevertheless some considerations should be made. We believe that besides sufficient computing power for server machines two additional factors should be considered to achieve successful appliance of IT in art history higher education. The first is well equipped computerlabs where maximum sized, color calibrated computer screens are very much needed. The second factor is fast broadband network connections (a new academic information superhighway), which can provisionally be substituted by well-considered use of mirrorsites with replication procedures.

The role of ACO*HUM

Partnership in networks like ACO*HUM can force breakthroughs in areas like the following: Exemplary models to be followed in this course of research are: Sources: David Bearman e.a., Research Agenda for Networked Cultural Heritage, 1996, The Getty AHIP.