Art History is Lagging Behind in the Digital Age

Art History is kind of an oddity in the Digital Age. Unlike its disciplinary cousin, History, it seems to be lagging behind and flailing its arms saying that it needs to make and produce new digital projects yet still seems reticent to enter the digital age. There is a lot of talk about pursuing digital art historical research, however there seem to be a handful of art historians who are actually conducting such research. A quick Google search on Digital Art History projects revealed an article published by Johanna Drucker called “Is There a “Digital” Art History?“, a blog and two Google Hangout sessions on YouTube produced by Getty Voices that discussed Digital Art History (you can find them here and here and here), and a few websites that didn’t really say much. As a result, I am left feeling as if Art History needs a way to develop itself into a bigger contender in Digital Humanities scholarship.

Art History has always been a very visual discipline (I mean we’re the historians who spend our lives looking at paintings, photographs, prints, sculpture, etc), so the tools that would be most useful for the discipline are those that can interpret visual material digitally. One technology that we have seen that can be useful is augmented reality. This week in HIST5702x we looked at 3D models of several historical objects at the Smithsonian, like the Tlingit Dakl’weidi (Killer Whale) Hat. This kind of model is great for educational purposes in a museum or gallery setting; it allows interested individuals to “play” with the object and to examine it at various angles and to zoom in or out at their discretion. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia has developed an augmented reality app that is an extension of MCA’s printed publication Site. which looks at the archaeological remains underneath the museum. Augmented reality seems like a tool that can enhance existing research, but I am not sure if such models will push art historical research into new realms. What needs to be done in art history goes beyond simple digitization. Art History requires tools that can take art historical research further.

On the practical side of art history, artists have taken advantage of augmented reality technologies to expand their artistic practice and how their artworks are exhibited. For example, the art collective Manifest.AR had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2010 where there were augmented reality artworks interspersed amongst 2D and 3D physical artworks in the museum:

This exhibition shows that artists are pushing the boundaries of what can be considered to be “art” and how we as art historians think about the art object. However, these new kinds of art objects are still being considered within the traditions of academia–we find new art and apply theory to it in order to try to explain it and situate it within history. Is this all that Digital Art History is capable of? I surely hope not, and this part of the reason why I am taking this class. I want to see what Digital History scholars are doing, and see which of their tools can be applied to art historical research. At the very least, I feel as though art historians should take a page out of the artist’s book, and learn how to step outside of the theoretical and into the practical like their cousins in History. I will end this blog post with a question: how can we study art with these new tools that the digital age has to offer? Hopefully, I will be able to answer this at the end of the semester.



  1. As an associate member of Manifest.AR, I’d like to chime in.

    Honestly, this will sound retrograde, but there has always been a fear of obsolescence in light of technology that is driven by capital and the tech sector. There is a bifurcation; Yes, we need to explore new forms and see where they take us. HOWEVER, I predict that digital culture will produce a gaping chasm in the historical record of humanity. My suggestion has been to work with ephemeral forms and document their effects in archival forms (those old-fashioned things called ‘books’). One example is Barbier et al’s EIO project that was a history-based AR collection that didn’t last 6 months because of the back end provider changing policy.

    Should we embrace technology? Sure. But we need the scholars at the Jedi Archives to preserve things for posterity, too.

    I have a saying; “Atoms trump bytes – EVERY TIME…”

    Make the app, them publish a chapter about it – IN A BOOK.

    1. Hi there! Really neat to hear from you on this topic–Manifest.AR has been doing some really neat stuff!

      I don’t think that books will ever disappear, because research will always be published in one way or another (be it in a book or online). I’m just worried that the research methods in art history are not changing to take advantage of digital technologies like AR and other visual analysis tools. I think that there is a lot of potential for art historians to create new ways of thinking about historical questions and how they study art in the digital age. Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on my own discipline, but I think that we’re still fairly stuck in traditional academic ways of thinking, and I’m wondering if we can learn some new methodological tricks through using digital tools.

  2. […] You can also find more on my thoughts on the state of Digital Art History in a previous post called “Art History is Lagging Behind in the Digital Age.” […]

  3. […] You can also find more on my thoughts on the state of Digital Art History in a previous post called “Art History is Lagging Behind in the Digital Age.” […]

  4. […] You can also find more on my thoughts on the state of Digital Art History in a previous post called “Art History is Lagging Behind in the Digital Age.” […]

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