Symposium to Highlight Tech-Driven Art History Research

Duke is hosting a digital art history symposium that will showcase projects that use technology to explore, recreate the past

You may not think 3D digital models and the winding canals of Venice have anything in common.

But when put together, they can help scholars of architecture and present-day planners better understand how urban areas transform over time. That’s the goal of Visualizing Venice, one of Duke’s many digital humanities initiatives that bridge the worlds of computer programs and centuries-old artwork and touch on facets of art history.

“Art history, of all the disciplines in the humanities, is the best-suited to digital interventions,” said Caroline Bruzelius, Anne M. Cogan Professor of Art History. “For decades we have used maps and other graphical representations to capture the growth, change and movement of objects. This sort of thing is amazingly well-suited to digital applications.”

Bruzelius organized the symposium with John Taormina, director of the visual media center within the Art, Art History and Visual Studies department. She said the next step for Duke art historians is to meet and exchange ideas with their colleagues from around the world who are using digital technologies to teach and research.

On Feb. 22, more than 100 experts and students of art history, archaeology and visual studies will convene in the Nasher Museum of Art to discuss teaching and research projects that also incorporate technologies like GIS, mapping, modeling and databases. “Apps, Maps and Models,” the university’s first symposium on digital pedagogy and research, is co-sponsored by the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies and the Wired! Group. Attendees must register online in advance.

The symposium will feature speakers from Duke and nine other institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard and the University of Cambridge. The topics to be covered range from modeling the architecture of Renaissance Florence to bridging the gap between mathematicians and curators. Bruzelius, one of the symposium’s organizers, said the diverse technologies and areas of study are meant to provide a “cross-section” of the digital art history projects researchers are undertaking around the world.

“I think people in art history are just starting to see the potential of digital applications in our work,” Bruzelius said. “At Duke, we have been doing this kind of work since 2009 with the [Wired!] Group. This symposium gives us a way to measure up our projects against some of the coolest work happening at other institutions. The symposium will also have a cross-section of different historical eras and geographies.”

Bruzelius added that, because so many of her colleagues in other institutions have hesitated to incorporate digital tools in their research and teaching, she hopes the symposium will help demonstrate their “transformative potential” for the field.

“We hope there is something there for everybody and that people who attend will see a wide span of what kinds of questions they can start to ask with these tools [at their disposal],” Bruzelius said. “Research in a library or an archive will always remain research in a library or an archive. The ability to document your research in a database afterwards [so that] others can study it, too, is what these tools afford.”

Ultimately, said Bruzelius, our modern software will actually help researchers—and the public they aim to educate—better understand old objects.

“Digital tools for art history allow you to ask different questions of your evidence,” Bruzelius said. “I have a database on south Italy gathering World War II bombardment pictures to help us understand what buildings looked like prior to their transformation by restoration, reconstruction or even destruction. Whatever it is [you are studying], you are able to get more deeply involved in the history of the object itself, and others can then easily access your work.”

For more information about the symposium, click here.