Museum Collection Databases and the Digital Lives of Objects: Part 2

In my previous blog post, I introduced my collaboration with Professor Barbara McCloskey, whose course Foundations of Art History is being taught digitally for the first time. In the past, Foundations has taken advantage of the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA)'s proximity to the Frick Fine Arts Building, home of the Department of History of Art and Architecture, allowing students to engage with a world-class art collection in person. Sustained object engagement is a core experience of Foundations, allowing students to practice close looking with individual artworks and exhibition spaces. Through time in the galleries of the CMOA, students become familiar with how museums frame objects through display mechanisms, text, and spatial relationships.

With the support of the Humanities Engage Collections-Based Curriculum Development Grant, I created a digital collection of art objects from institutions around the world to facilitate this core experience in a digital context. Students were invited to select an object from the collection that would be the focus of their personal research for the entire semester. They were also allowed to select an art object of their choosing, as long as it was represented across three digital platforms.

I was surprised and delighted to discover a few students decided to select objects independently. These students, cognizant of how much time they would spend investigating their objects over the semester, decided upon objects they had seen in person or were already comfortable with from other art history courses. Students who chose objects outside of the provided collection, while able to draw on previous experiences, had to overcome their objects having smaller digital footprints.

After working with students who worked with the collection and those who selected their own objects, I think there are benefits to both experiences being incorporated into future iterations of Foundations. By asking students work with two objects, one from an institution with rich digital resources and one without, students would be better prepared for the challenges of advanced art historical work, where our objects of study are not determined by their digital accessibility.

In addition to the collection, I produced a tutorial for students on how to navigate digital museum spaces, walking them through how to use the digital resources provided by most major museums. The second focus of my tutorial was identifying the experiential information students receive when encountering an object in person and explaining how they can leverage the digital tools and data provided by museums to overcome the knowledge gaps created by engaging objects solely in the digital sphere.

For example, one of the most challenging things about working with digital objects is the absence of an embodied encounter. Understanding how an object relates to our bodies is a crucial element of how objects operate aesthetically and conceptually, and on the screen, that experience is nearly impossible to recreate. New digital catalogs have begun to take this problem into account. For example, the Brooklyn Museum now offers scale diagrams that place objects from their collection in relation to a medium sized paper coffee cup. This clever tool allows students to think about body and scale in new ways and I can foresee it becoming a feature of my future digital teaching.

To help students become comfortable with digital research I also conducted one-on-one sessions with each class member. Professor McCloskey and I designed these sessions to be an opportunity for students to troubleshoot any issues they were having gathering information on their objects and to help students navigate the challenges posed by their object's unique digital footprint. To prepare for our individual sessions, each student completed a worksheet. I designed the worksheet to reflect my recorded tutorial, prompting students to conduct preliminary information gathering. Students arrived at our meetings prepared, ready with questions, and eager to discuss their objects, but they had minimal issues with their research due to the tutorial and worksheet.

Given the opportunity to reimagine this module, I would build in time and space for students to explore digital museum collections more freely. I regret creating a worksheet that was so prescriptive and left very little room for students to navigate digital art collections independently. Looking back, I see that, by giving students a detailed tutorial so early on in the semester, students did not have come up with their own creative approaches. In the future, I would have students do a free-form exercise, navigating digital collections first without a tutorial, and then assign a structured worksheet after the tutorial had been introduced. By changing the worksheet structure and reordering the module, we could create more space for students to experience the challenges of working with digital art collections, and therefore empower students to create their own strategies for navigating digital museum spaces.

History of Art and Architecture
December 15, 2020

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