Assignment: Examine in detail at least two public history websites, e.g., The March on Milwaukee, at least one of which is from a museum or archive. If you need suggestions, let me know. Add the sites you reviewed, with a few sentences of commentary, to the class Zotero library.
The first public history website I’d like to look at in detail is “Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars” by Dr. Michele Greet, Associate Professor of Art History at George Mason University. The site has a clear argument and subject – Which Latin American artists were exhibiting in Paris in the time between World War I and World War II and how were they influenced by the art scene in Paris at the time. The subject is ripe for digital investigation since a visual representation of the artists work and the location of the galleries where the artists exhibited are both extremely helpful in understanding the Paris art scene and how Latin artists navigated it. The site’s backbone is a database of artists and galleries that provides the foundational information that Greet synthesizes and explores on the About page.
Greet states that there is a lack in scholarship when it comes to the influence of modernism on Latin American artists. She states direct examples of artists who were influenced by cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and figural modes connected to the School of Paris. This is an argument that could be made in a non digital environment. But in a digital format she can systematically include lists of artists and galleries that create the evidence for her argument. I see the site as a way to keep track of her findings as well as a way to synthesize facts visually.
The screenshot above features a map of Paris and the locations of galleries that exhibited Latin American artists. The location pins are color coded based on the artists country of origin. Brazilian artists are represented by the color blue, Argentinian green, etc. From this vantage point the viewer can see pie charts indicating which countries had greater artist representation in certain locations in Paris. The map provides an interactive way to see possible relationships between artists, galleries, street locations, neighborhoods, and artistic influences that wouldn’t be possible in an analog format. Greet points out that along with discovering European artists in Paris, Latin American artists were also discovering other Latin American artists and this interaction led to “alliances that would complicate a purely national construction of identity.”
I think the site does a great job of presenting the two sides of a digital project. On the one hand there are examples of the artists work, a database of over 300 artists and galleries they exhibited in, and a map visualization, on the other hand, there is the essay on the About page that provides the argument and traditional historical text. The problem is that the two aren’t more integrated. I think this is a limitation of design. The site uses Omeka and doesn’t stray far from out of the box themes so that the database side and the textual analysis sides are not interacting. This causes the user to do more work to understand and fully explore the site.
The second digital public art history website I looked at was the online exhibition “Inventing Abstration 1910-1925” by MoMA. It is radically different from “Transatlantic Encounters,” not in subject matter, but in design and presentation. Money, technical expertise, and institutional resources have come together to create a public art history website that is a digital extension of a physical exhibit, both of which had to rely on a team to create. Much like the installation of a physical exhibit relies on personnel from a variety of departments with different skill sets, so to does the creation of a digital exhibit.
Much like Greet’s work, “Inventing Abstraction” is looking at connections between artists who were influencing each other. The MoMA site does a slightly better job at combining the text and the data. In the screenshot below we see the text covering half of the data visualization. It is a nice way of giving us a textual explanation, but also showing us what the site will offer in terms of interactive features.
Upon further exploration of both sites, I was surprised to find a similar feature expressed in each site, that because of the huge design difference I didn’t notice they were so similar. In “Transatlantic Encounters” each artist has an individual entry that features an artwork by the artist, information about the artist, and a view of a map of Paris with a location pin in it. A similar isolating of artists is found in “Inventing Abstraction” where when you click on an artists name on the diagram a panel appears featuring an example of the artists work and information about the artist. It is so similar in concept and yet miles away in design. The MoMA site also further emphasizes the relationships between the artists by keeping other artist links active in the individual artist page. If “Transatlantic Encounters” added other artists to the maps on the individual artists pages it could create a similar effect.
Overall, I think both sites are great examples of digital public art history websites and they are only a hint of some of the projects to come in the future. I think more integration of text and tools is needed. A visualization can be a fascinating way of organizing data, but it’s how you integrate the analysis of the data that makes it a work of digital art history.