Addressing the Benefits and Limitations Of Traditional and New Methods of Research

By elanascaglia

When attempting to understand the world around us, we begin by asking a simple question. Research becomes our response to answering those questions through methods and tools available. As information sources and technology have developed, access to that information has broadened. The event I attended provided me with the knowledge that our answers are not always in the places we look first.

Digital Art History: New Tools, New Methods focused on the development at the Frick of their Digital Art History Lab (DAHL). Hosted by the New York Chapter of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA/NY) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ARLIS/NA is a non-profit organization created by art librarians in 1972. The organization addressed the lack of communication with the field of art libraries. Today ARLIS connects art librarians, and those interested in the field, through “programs designed to provide members with introductions to new technologies, new cultural institutions and to current artistic activities.” Digital Art History has been the most recent development in how technology helps answer established questions.

With the recent developments at the DAHL staff members of the Frick discussed their developments in the world of Digital Art History. The talk focused on distinct software systems and methodologies that could aid our own personal research. The key points that stuck out to me were discussed by Dr. Louisa Wood Ruby aided by Samantha Deutch on new developments in photoarchives, the work of Dr. Titia Hulst and her use of innovative methodologies and finally the work by Ellen Prokop’s work with GIS. I would like to make a connection with these new methodologies to PERCS steps in “The Methods of Field Work,” and how they can relate to the technological advances outside of the social sciences [1].

Dr. Louisa Wood Ruby is the head of Photoarchive Research at the Frick. Working with a group of international photoarchivists they created PHAROS, an art research database. PHAROS is still a work in progress but the public has minimal access to what is already done. The goal of PHAROS is to make resources available to researchers and institutions to find lost copies of masterpieces, including the finding of previously unattributed work.The database will have collections from North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. The range of material will be unique to this software because of the materials from western and non-western cultures. The Frick uses PHAROS to reorganize their photo collection by consolidating misplaced copies. In relation to PERCS step 30 we as researchers ask, “Do we have a responsibility to choose a venue of publication that will speak more directly to the participant community?[2]” I believe PHAROS will create a responsibility of sharing with researchers and large institutions collections for studies never conceptualized in the past due to lack of informational resources.

Another new resource of information implemented by Dr. Ruby has been ARIES (Art Image Exploration Space) with the aid of Samantha Deutch, the Assistant Director of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick. DAHL, along with NYU’s computer science department, created ARIES as a new tool for image analysis. ARIES allows art historians to implement technology into long standing practices like comparing and contrasting attributes. Through ARIES a researcher can find previously unknown works with the ability to manipulate images to prove a connection to a masterpiece. PERCS step 21 addresses the issues of the changing conditions in research and how to maintain promises, or stated truths[3]. With new technologies available to aid in research, many of those stated truths can no longer be considered unquestionable. Debated theoretical facts of the past can now be questioned and put to the test. ARIES can aid the researcher in diving deeper into their own curiosities to prove new theories.

An interesting software system that was introduced to the digital art history world, at this event, was Cytoscape, presented by Dr. Titia Hulst. It became clear that Cytoscape was initially created for large data collecting lab science projects, like in biology, to envision their microscopic entities as a network of connections through imagery. Dr. Hulst used Cytoscape for a large amount of data gathered about art dealers and collectors in New York City during the 1960’s. With such a range of material collected on a grand scale, finding a connection would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. PERCS step 12 stated that research “often involve[s] taking knowledge from one community for the use by another,” in this case using software from biology for investigating aspects of art history[4]. The most interesting part of Dr. Hulsts’ study that I took away was realizing how art historians have evolved to use technology to help maintain being visual learners. Cytoscape allows for this way of learning by querying data tables to create connections overlooked and unimagined until displayed as an concrete digital image.

Another technology that aids in art historical visual learning is the practical use of GIS (Geographic Information System). Presented by Ellen Prokop the Associate Photoarchivist at the Frick’s Reference Library, Prokop introduces how GIS can help answer questions but also posing new questions to ask. Like PERCS states in step 11 you need to find your motivation for doing the work because we are inherently curious and want to fulfill that curiosity[5]. To focus a study through a period eye and understanding GIS can be used to recreate a space back in time. The project Prokop focused on was the influence of El Greco on artists of 19th century Paris, like Cezanne. GIS maps were overlapped with use of todays map of Paris with one from the late 19th century along with data queried to focus her search. Prokop made a connection that counteracted the idea that El Greco was the father of modern Parisian art. She noticed, through the layered maps that the works by El Greco seen by the public were forgeries and the real ones were on limited view within Paris at the time. While GIS is typically used for archeological research, art historians have found a way to use the software to develop questions and find information hidden within the maps that we now can use to understand an art form through a historical lens.

Due to art historical research done through GIS, ARIES and PHAROS, inadequate questions can be satisfied through new information resources previously unused. In modern society databases and/or software systems wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of art historians, librarians, computer scientists, and lab scientists to evolve research capabilities unimagined 20 years ago.

[1] Elon University. Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. The ethics of fieldwork module. Retrieved from percs/EthicsModuleforWeb.pdf

[2] Elon Univeristy, 12.

[3] Elon University, 9.

[4] Elon University,6.

[5] Elon University, 5.


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