What Art Historians and Curators Can Learn From Scientists and Engineers

Jan van Eyck

Jim Cuno, the President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has an interesting article in The Daily Dot where he describes a change he’d like to see in art historians, curators, and professors. It’s a trait that he sees working well in fields like science and engineering. It’s the simple act of collaboration.

The history of art as practiced in museums and the academy is sluggish in its embrace of the new technology. Of course we have technology in our galleries and classrooms and information on the Web; of course we are exploiting social media to reach and grow our audiences, by tweeting about our books, our articles, including links to our career accomplishments on Facebook and chatting with our students online.

But we aren’t conducting art historical research differently. We aren’t working collaboratively and experimentally. As art historians we are still, for the most part, solo practitioners working alone in our studies and publishing in print and online as single authors and only when the work is fully baked. We are still proprietary when it comes to our knowledge. We want sole credit for what we write.

He cites the open source Closer to Van Eyck project as a good example for this thinking. Create a ton of data around a piece of art and share it to the masses.

We should also be more open to open sourcing our projects. The recent Ghent Altarpiece Web application, Closer to Van Eyck (supported by the Getty Foundation) is a case in point. The Closer to Van Eyck project documents the masterpiece in incredible detail. Each centimeter of the multi-paneled, 15th-century altarpiece was examined and photographed at extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. The photographs were then digitally stitched together to create large, detailed images that allow for study of the painting at unprecedented microscopic levels, with access to extreme details, macrophotography, infrared, infrared reflectography and x-radiography of the panels. The Web application contains 100 billion pixels and the images and metadata are available free of charge as “raw” data to be used by any and all researchers, amateur as well as professional.

It would be great to see more resources like this come online, and not just in the field of paintings. It makes me think of the robot that’s wandering around the Tate at night, that anyone on the planet can control. Imagine if through that experience you could get 100x the data and learn about each of the pieces in detail. There’s a lot of potential there, especially if people start working together.