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Matthew Battles and Michael Maizels reveal that our empirical understanding of art history is a relatively recent phenomenon. They discuss the medium of photography as inseparable from this empirical transformation within the discipline. The invention of photography allowed art historians to compare objects with others and share these comparisons with readers. Since the invention of photography, there have been increasingly more technological advances that allow for increasingly in depth opportunities for comparison. Many of these tools and technologies allow art historians to work with large amounts of data and make previously impossible comparisons across objects. Battles and Maizels acknowledge that tensions arise due to “art history’s disciplinary encounter with ‘big data.’” 

The article discusses Lightbox, a digital humanities project associated with Harvard’s metLAB, is an interactive element within the Harvard Art Museum’s galleries. This model is similar to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Art lens wall” (as discussed in this post).

The project offers an interface through which museum visitors can use the screen array to navigate and interactively manipulate, on-screen, metadata associated with the collection on display in the galleries. Lightbox seeks to enact a critical turning-around, an interrogation not so much of artworks themselves but the digital means by which we so frequently know them.

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Digital interfaces such as this one raise many questions and concerns for art history and the art object. As Walter Benjamin has famously questioned, we must reexamine the purpose of art within the age of mechanical reproduction. Now that we can view a photo of the Mona Lisa from anywhere in the world, why should (or do) so many people still make the pilgrimage to the Louvre over and over? Do physical art objects become obsolete in the digital age? 

I am curious about the positive potential for projects such as the Lightbox. I am interested in the ways these technologies could be utilized within public space outside of the gallery. Imagine you are walking through Central Park in Manhattan and you come across a large free standing screen with many images displayed. You notice someone touching the screen, zooming in on a particular image and zooming out again. This screen is a version of the “lightbox” or “art lens wall” for the objects within the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. In this scenario, you are able to explore the collection without ever entering the museum’s doors. 

Some might argue that this would discourage visitors from actually going to view the physical objects and supporting the museum. I argue that encouraging public pedestrians, who might not otherwise be interested in art institutions, to interact with these art objects would increase the amount of (and type of) people who visit the museum. Although my curiosity around this idea stems from a want for increased education and access to art, it can also be viewed as an advertisement for museums. 

I believe another positive outcome of tools that help art historians deal with big data and compare objects is the potential for more comprehensively and critically examining preexisting museum collections. With tools that can quickly sort through large sets of objects and categorize them by geography, artist, time period etc., museums might be able to more easily view the gaps in their collections. If a museum is able to see a bar graph of objects categorized by continent of origin, they might see that they have an abundance of European and South American art but much less Asian art. They might also be able to see that they have art from every European country except for Greece. These are just examples, but they demonstrate the ways in which technologies can help museums quickly make assessments about their collection as a whole.

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