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Day 5: Networks of Art History

Ryan Horne

10 September 2018

On Friday, the Institute members wrapped up an extremely productive first week. The morning was spent with each of the three groups (geography, provenance, visualization) working towards refining their thoughts on their respective areas and creating a presentation to address possible institute outcomes (like a position paper, new software, etc) from their respective areas.


After a productive morning, the groups were brought back together for presentations and discussions. The first group to present was the geographies group, of which I am a member. We argued that it is necessary to move beyond a terrestrial sense of geography and instead consider the myriad overlapping spaces and their connections in which an object is found. This includes the spaces of production, dissemination, display, observation, and even the spaces depicted on the object. We presented a list of different linked open data (LOD) vocabularies and ontologies that could be leveraged to do so, and that there is a need for us to move beyond simply using LOD to describe our objects by creating a new system that both dealt with overlapping networks of space and presented them in a meaningful way to a viewer. We proposed that the new project could be used to describe a collection of vases, and that the institute could then build off of the data structure to create a “next step” digital project.

The next group to present was focused on provenance. A very interesting point raised by this group was that provenance is not a static; window into the past; instead any treatment of provenance should also account for future changes in the status of an object, including (if not especially) that of a digital version. In short, provenance also needs to capture the “future life of things” in addition to tracing the itineraries which it has previously traveled. The provenance team also presented their vision for a new software system built on LOD standards (which even included a quite nice spider icon!). Agreeing with the geographies group, this team reinforced the notion that objects exist in a series of networks, and that these networks need to be analyzed, visualized, and traversed through their proposed software solution. This group demonstrated their ideas with SketchFab, which contains a large number of objects with poor or missing provenance information. SketchFab also contains a large number of vases, making it an attractive starting point for bringing together the geography and provenance teams.


The final group to present was the visualization group, who reinforced their arguments from the previous day that we need to consider the multi-sensory aspects of an art object and its digital manifestations. The group sparked an interesting discussion on how the conversion to digital changes the user experience of art history, especially as the space in which the interaction of an art object moves from a museum / exhibition space into the complex geographies of the online world, where different programs and platforms can fundamentally alter the relationship of the viewer to the art object. One of this group’s goals for the institute is to consider / capture such different uses and visualization of an object through time, and to consider how an object exists in different networks and in different scales.


One thing that struck me was the emphasis that each subgroup placed on the concept of networks. Despite our division, all of us discussed how objects are embedded in a series of overlapping networks and the need for any institute outcome to model, display, and analyze them. This is, I believe, a major takeaway from the institute so far: Describing and studying different levels of networks and connectivity (physical, intellectual, geographical, etc) is one of the defining concepts of digital art history.

Another interesting point of commonality was the recognition that much of the work in defining data terms has already been completed; what is needed now is an exemplar project that moves beyond metadata descriptions and 1:N data mappings. From our discussions, it seems that a desired ultimate deliverable for the institute is a software product and documentation that demonstrates how linked open data can be leveraged to effectively study the layers of networks and connections surrounding art historical objects.

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