For those still wondering what digital history is or does, Richard White sums it up nicely: “visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past” (emphasis mine) (White 36). I liked that White says that DH generates questions.
This is pertinent as we contemplate our final projects and we are trying to home in on our own research questions and agenda. I found Fletcher’s essay really helpful for thinking about shaping our final projects. For our group it has been a bit of a struggle to narrow our focus and figure out exactly what we are trying to do. This essay quotes Elijah Meeks as stating that there are three pillars of DH research which just distills all that we’ve been doing so far: text analysis, spatial analysis, and network analysis. We’ve thought about each of these, and yet I think it is also hard on the outset to understand the scope of what you are aiming to achieve (read: how complicated this will be once we get into it and are our goals too lofty?). Fletcher added to this list with the inclusion of image analysis, which of course relates directly to art. This term has a different meaning than what we usually term “visual analysis” when discussing an art work. Rather, with image analysis the researcher is not only visually analyzing the art work, but also able to examine deeply with the help of technology the microscopic details of a painting, details that you ordinarily would never be able to get that close to. This ability, to examine a painting so closely, rounds us back again, once more, to the issue access. DH gives an incredible amount of access that an ordinary research otherwise may not have, much less an everyday person. Paintings that are worth millions of dollars and kept in climate controlled settings are rarely allowed to be handled, and digitization allows us this “ability.”
Drucker creates a fantasy of the logical extention of this idea, this access, becoming a natural part of the museum experience. She imagines a museum that via virtual reality you can actually get the feeling of touching and interacting with a real object. She posits that this would allow the visitor to “force a connection across time and space” (Drucker 2.01). But can one really make a true connection in virtual reality, a phantom? I was happy to see that at the end of her essay she acknowledges the shortcomings of this fantasy, though it is tempting to contemplate.
Claire Bishop counters DH idealism applied to art history by stating, “Digital art history, as the belated tail end of the digital humanities, signals a change in the character of knowledge and learning” (Bishop 5). It would seem that a lot of tension still exists in the realm of art history as it melds with digital humanities.
Bishop, Claire. “Against Digital Art History,” International Journal for Digital Art History 3 (2018).
Drucker, Johanna. “The Museum Opens,” International Journal for Digital Art History 4 (2019).
Fletcher, Pamela. “Reflections on Digital Art History,” College Art Association Reviews, June 18, 2015.
White, Richard. “What is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, Stanford University, https://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.