Diane Zorich’s study, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers and Digital Scholarship surveyed art historians to clarify the perceptions on the role of digital scholarship and its future impact on the discipline of art history. Completed in 2012, this survey displays the key issues which prevent art historians from wholeheartedly embracing the digital arena, which range from perceived threats to existing research paradigms and behaviors, insufficient capacity structure and technology infrastructure, and the absence of digital art history training and funding opportunities. However, the obstacle which must be overcome to increase art historian’s participation in the digital arena are the “behavioral barriers” common to the discipline. Zorich attributes these behavioral barriers as the leading cause of the low level of digital engagement in the field. Through a series of interviews and research center site visits, Zorich examined various areas, including:

  • the role of art history research centers in supporting digital art history,
  • challenges in art history teaching, research, and scholarship in the digital realm,
  • access to digital tools, services, and resources needed by the discipline,
  • digital pedagogy in art history, the role of digital publishing in the discipline,
  • current and potential partnerships, sources of innovation in the field,
  • the role of funding agencies in supporting digital art history

Diane Zorich is the Director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, and she heads a team which digitizes the Smithsonian collection for the public. This survey was sponsored by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in conjunction with the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media survey at George Mason University and completed in 2012. The survey does a thorough job of outlining the current barriers to the increased use of digital technology in the field of art history.

Zorich identifies the first behavioral barrier to overcome is the belief that art history is a solitary endeavor. One respondent bluntly stated that, “Art historians do not want to work in a group.” This disciplinary isolation is at odds with the collaborative nature of digital art history, and convincing art historians that there are benefits to changing long-established techniques of work and scholarship is an uphill battle.

The second barrier discussed is that art history is a conservative discipline. Digital art history is viewed therefore as a threat to the established methods of the discipline, because it will require new training, new methods of research, and new modes of communication and distributing research results. Zorich attributes the conservative nature of the field to underlying fears. She underscores the territoriality that pervades the discipline, and the possibility of having one’s research stolen. From my own experience as a curatorial intern at the NCMA, I would say this is not an unfounded, or irrational fear, as I was warned to be cautious with whom I shared my research. I learned that many art historians have been disappointed and disillusioned by their peers or a person in the role of a mentor in this manner at some point in their careers.

Zorich also points to a lack of technological knowledge as the nature of art historical research tends to slow and methodical. Surveyed art historians conclude that the technology learning curve is too time-consuming, and that the benefits to themselves and their research is improbable. The result being that most art historian’s technology skill set is rather basic. Is this the case because art history attracts those who aren’t interested in technology, or, is it that historically art historians have not needed to rely on technology in order to succeed?

The belief that only print publication is valid still permeates the discipline, further frustrating any potential forays into digital publication. Zorich notes a perception that art historians who conduct digital research are not serious scholars because digital scholarship is not viewed as “top-notch” scholarship. There exists a pernicious skepticism about digital art history in the art history community. When
I asked an art historian mentor her opinion of graduate degrees in digital art history, her response was a disdainful, “They’re trendy.” She went on to elaborate that either I could spend my time doing research (a graduate degree in art history) or, I could digitize (a graduate degree in digital art history) but in the current art historical environment I could not do both, and that by choosing a degree in digital art history I may be restricting my future career options. This is not necessarily true, but it remains a pervasive perception in the art historical community.

For myself and my work, I believe it is crucial to have the technological skills to be independent in whatever setting I find myself working in. I hope to work in a museum setting in the future, and I may not have access to a team of digital experts due to the size/funding of the institution. In my past research, I spent a lot of time rooting in boxes at the North Carolina Archives. The only options available to me when I found something pertinent was to either pay to have the document photocopied, or take a picture of it with my phone, and neither solution was ideal. However, the experience of looking was one I will always remember, as well as the excitement of finding a
letter or document no one knew or remembered existed. I found what I was looking for, but I also found equally interesting information that I would not have found if someone had digitized the contents of the box, and those discoveries added new avenues for future research. I would hate to lose the possibility of a serendipitous discovery.

What is the future of digital art history? If more technology training continues to exist at the undergraduate and graduate levels, then it is likely that art historians will continue to grow more and more technologically savvy, as it applies to their work. If art historians see a value to their work in learning the technology, then the field will continue to change and evolve, and the line between art history and digital art history will become blurred, rather than a stark line of division.