‘Smarthistory’ Rethinks the Art-History Textbook Online

A handful of textbooks reigns supreme over art-history survey courses. To Beth Harris, who teaches the subject online for the Fashion Institute of Technology, these expensive, static tomes don’t do a great job of engaging students. They lack a sense of what it’s like to see paintings where they hang. And, Ms. Harris argues, they present a consensus view that doesn’t convey the messiness, passion, and disagreement of scholarship.

Ms. Harris is trying to change all that. With a colleague, Steven Zucker of the Pratt Institute, she created a “Web book” that takes advantage of multimedia technology to reimagine the art-history textbook online. The free, nonprofit project, called Smarthistory, is winning honors and gaining traction at colleges. Its model could offer a template for similar open textbooks in other disciplines.

Smarthistory’s section on Caravaggio gives you a flavor of its approach. When readers get to the part about his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel, in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome, they find an informal, conversational video that Ms. Harris and Mr. Zucker recorded in the church (see above). They learn how Caravaggio uses light, but they also hear about the smell of incense in the ornate chapel and see the crowd jockeying for position in front of the canvas. Two minutes into the video, the chapel light goes off, and viewers hear the clank of the machine as the professors insert money to turn it back on.

“We really just wanted to re-embed the objects in our world,” says Ms. Harris, who is the founder and executive editor of Smarthistory as well as the director of digital learning at a New York City museum. “We thought that that would make them more relevant and more engaging for students.”

Students often take art history to satisfy a general-education requirement, so a lot of them aren’t majoring in the subject. Aside from the videos, Smarthistory also tries to engage these students with links, maps, and Flickr photos relevant to the content.

It seems to be working. Smarthistory, begun in 2005, gets about 65,000 visits a month, up about 60 percent over last year. It won the Webby award for best education Web site in 2009. It has been used or recommended by dozens of colleges, including Princeton, the University of Texas at Austin, and Vassar.

Smarthistory’s creators are really interested in getting more text and video contributions from art historians. But don’t think of it as some kind of crowd-sourced online art-history encyclopedia. Ms. Harris and Mr. Zucker retain editorial control. The content is fact-checked.

“We’re open to contributions, but we’re not Wikipedia,” Ms. Harris says.

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