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Moving Forward Digital Art History – Report from a UCLDH Workshop

By Melissa M Terras, on 8 October 2015


People in UCL Art Museum

A day of lively discussion topped off with a visit to UCL Art Museum, so see some of UCL’s own art treasures.

In June 2015, UCLDH hosted an invitation only workshop titled “Moving Forward Digital Art History” at University College London. The aim of the workshop was to explore “digital art history” – a phrase that has become a shorthand reference to the potentially transformative effect that digital technologies hold for the discipline of art history. The latest tools and techniques allow researchers to handle large volumes of digitized images and texts, trace patterns and connections formerly hidden from view, recover the past in virtual environments, and bring the complex intricacies of works of art to light as never before, to name just a few opportunities. We aimed to discuss how art historians acquire the knowledge to explore these new possibilities, explore the state of digital art history in the UK, and identify potential professional development opportunities and strategies, such as summer institutes, to help the field move forward. We’ve had permission to summarise the findings and discussions of the workshop here, to share with the wider community.

The workshop was hosted by Melissa Terras (UCLDH) with assistance from Anne Helmreich (formerly of the Getty Foundation) and had attendees from the The National Gallery; CHArt (Computer and the History of Art), Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; History of Art Department, University of Oxford; Slade School of Fine Art, UCL; Slade Archive Project, UCL; Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge; UCL Art Museum; The Tate; Department of History of Art, UCL; Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; Oxford University Museums and Collections; UCL Department of Information Studies; and the Bodleian Library. This interesting mix of practicing art historians from different institutional contexts, those working with art collections, and those using digital methods in humanistic study, made for a lively debate.

The meeting first discussed the state of digital art history in these institutions – and what it meant to be using digital methods in this space, in those institutional contexts – covering a range of useful and related initiatives, such as the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School; the London Charter for the Computer-based Visualisation of Cultural Heritage; the CHArt, Computers and the History of Art (est. 1985) conferences; the Paul Mellon Centre’s new online journal, British Art Studies, which will appear this autumn; the Slade Center for Electronic Media in Fine Art; research projects at the National Gallery which investigate digital documentation and data such as the Mellon-funded Raphael research project and IPERION CH, a large EU networking and joint research project that includes developing digital documentation and data; the National Gallery’s contribution to the Getty’s Provenance Index, British Sales, a major online database; developing a new project to make the archives and inventories of major country houses publicly accessible online; the 3D digital reconstruction of the Florentine church of Santa Chiara; and work by various institutions in the development of apps and online systems. The group also discussed persuasive projects that could help articulate the value of digital art history, such as the Cranach Digital Archive, Bosch Research and Conservation project, and Picturing the Netherlandish Canon (with the observation that while this project may seem out of date by today’s standards it was transformative for the scholars involved). Various project themes emerged, including the uniting of disparate collections and archives and facilitation of contributions to these resources; new forms of publishing; and the opening up of collections to make them available for new pathways of investigation and other forms of digital scholarly inquiry.

Is there an interest and appetite for Digital Art History?

The discussions articulated that scholars have a general interest in learning more about how digital resources and tools could advance their research, but don’t want it to come at the cost of displacing art history’s core concern with the original art object or supporting research resources such as paper archives. Art historians clearly see the benefit of using digital technologies to access collections and resource, and there is a sense of urgency regarding the younger generation who may be more prepared to use digital tools than senior colleagues who are not sufficiently trained to frame a useful/significant project.

What potential challenges or barriers are there for d\Digital Art History?

Various challenges were identified and discussed (summarized here briefly – the challenges are legion!) Image copyright issues create limitations on what scholars might be able to do with images in the online environment. Art historians may not know which tools already exist, such as III-F, and how they might use them. There was discussion on the role of computer scientists in joint projects: are art historians prepared to undertake such collaborative work and could this type of collaborative work support art historical research questions? There is a difficulty in finding art historians qualified to teach digital art history or review digital publications/projects; digital projects can be overlooked in state of the field reviews/reviews of earlier scholarship or standard bibliographies. The term digital may be off-putting to some listeners, and it might be preferable to refer to digital art history as “art history now,” or an integrated art history that brings together research inquiry with building digital resources and online publishing. There may be a perception and anxiety that the digital surrogate will replace the interest in the original object at the heart of art history. Concerns exist that resources will be diverted from supporting outstanding work related to existing research repositories, such as paper archives, that are not yet catalogued. The technological needs for digital projects may exceed what academic university departments can provide. The learning curve for mastering new technologies/systems/approaches may be perceived as too steep, particularly if outcomes are not assured. Art historians may not be able to conceive of research questions well suited to available data, and have difficulty in framing questions appropriate for that data. Because art historians don’t know where to start, don’t know what questions to ask, don’t know how to articulate their digital needs, they may not be taking advantage of already existing training opportunities and resources. Digital specialists tend to be grant-supported and migrate from project to project so that teams must be re-assembled and knowledge leaves institutions. Digital projects tend to be one-offs and not designed to be built upon; they also tend to be more expensive and harder to accomplish than “traditional” projects.

How can we move the use of digital methods in Art History forward?

Various potential solutions were mooted in a brain-storming session (it is acknowledged that some are simpler to provide than others!):

  • The community should address the increasing need for open access resource outlets, support current online publications (e.g. British Art Studies, Tate Papers, Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide) while also considering whether new homes for digital scholarship are needed;
  • To encourage more kinds of digital publications that go beyond print, it would be useful to have a sort of toolbox for art historians to demonstrate what is possible;
  • The stimulation and validation of digital scholarship can be accomplished by encouraging reviews of digital projects in the scholarly literature;
  • Digital Humanists should work collaboratively (museums and universities) with professional art history organizations;
  • If postdoctoral fellowships could be created in this area, they could be tied to digital projects such as online publications, creation of new digital resources/repositories, exhibitions;
  • Greater visibility could be brought to the work of scholars who have undertaken digital projects since they are typically powerful advocates for the transformative possibility of the digital and can also demonstrate how digital scholarship can be deeply motivated by the original object;
  • Identify “flag-bearers” willing to promote these approaches within Art History;
  • Undergraduate teaching is needed, whether a dedicated course or a module within a course, that could help students build digital literacy and incorporate these skills into art historical research inquiry;
  • Encourage leaders of digital projects to include fulsome accessible documentation to let others understand/learn how a project was developed and implemented;
  • Encourage digital resources, such as online image collections, to become more open; that is, to allow users broad search pathways so that they can find new patterns in the data or obtain large amounts of data. In short, recognize that content management systems and licensing can influence what researchers can find and use;
  • Support tools such as III-F that allow researchers to bring together images from different repositories and facilitate side by side comparison;
  • DH centers could function as brokers between computer scientists and art historians to foster the cross-pollination of ideas; could also help art historians frame new research questions using already digitized resources; bring in the resources of technologists and designers that can impact the long-term success of a project; and bring together art historians and technologists;
  • A survey of the field could identify which digital projects art historians are using, building upon, what do people like about these projects, why are they continuing to use them.
  • It is necessary, at all stages, to get academic leadership from within Art History, and Art Historical collections, involved and on board, to help establish digital methods as a bona fide approach in Art History.


This was a stimulating discussion, and as you can see we covered a lot of ground that day – although there is a lot ahead of us to be done! There is huge potential in opening up digital methods within the Art Historical context, and we hope (now we have been well met) to continue the discussion and to work together to tackle provision in this area. The day finished up with a visit to the recently refurbished UCL Art Museum – which brought us back to the things that matter most of all in our discussions on using digital methods in art history, the collections, the objects, the artists, and the art.

We’d like to thank UCL Art Museum for having us! Final thanks go to Anne Helmreich from the Getty Foundation who gave permission for her notes to be edited up and shared, and who helped shape the day, and thanks are also due to the workshop attendees for joining in such a helpful debate.

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