Daily Archives: February 21, 2018

Illustration of the Image Investigation Tool, showing two paintings by Jan Brueghel with a detail cropped from one and made into a transparency.

Teaching Renaissance Workshop Practice as Network Analysis


In this essay I recount my own experience in transitioning to a project-based, data-driven teaching of art history within a Digital Humanities context. I focus in particular on the art-historical module of my DH class “Digital Travels,” taught in the Spring of 2017. I suggest that having students work on material about which I knew a great deal was not optimal, because it lead me to expect a level of sophistication in creating, visualizing, and especially interpreting data that could not be achieved by most non-experts in five weeks. However, I also suggest that putting students into complicated and messy learning situations is valuable and, for the students willing to engage at this level, can teach them how to think in ways that more traditional, bounded learning experiences often fail to do.


Art history has had its particular pedagogical format for nearly a century: the paired slides in the darkened room, the voice of the lecturer trying to speak with enough energy and excitement to keep the students awake. As other disciplines experienced the new adventure of PowerPoints, we merely jettisoned glass-encased slides in favor of digital images and grumbled about the smaller projection area. After decades of posting glossy photographs on bulletin boards for our students to study, we moved to digitized study collections and websites in the 1990s and congratulated ourselves that we were far ahead of the rest of the humanities in embracing technology. Then they caught up. And as both research and pedagogy moved to encompass something called the “Digital Humanities,” art historians realized that our models were poorly suited to the demands of this new age. What was our “data” and did students ever study it? How many students had ever been asked to do group work? How many professors had practiced “project-based learning”? Only a few years ago, my campus proposed to convert all the art history lecture spaces into “smart classrooms,” with screens on every wall and seating that could be grouped at stations; my department, in horror, protested that in art history, we used one screen and the students sat in rows!

For the past year, I have taught in a smart classroom. My students have gathered data and done group work. Everything has been based on projects. This has not been an easy transition. With encouragement and a teaching grant from my campus’s Digital Humanities program, I taught two courses under that rubric: a freshman seminar called “Humanists on the Move” and an advanced course for juniors and seniors with the less catchy title “Digital Travels: Images and Texts ca. 1600.” The former class involved very little art history, and while a third of the latter was devoted to an art history project, I do not feel that unit went terribly well. This is not to say that it is impossible to teach digital art history effectively. It merely suggests that my own comfort zone in the digital world as allied to the history of art was difficult to transfer to pedagogy. It also might indicate that specialization, such a help in lecturing, can be an actual handicap in this kind of work: the material about which I knew relatively little was more effective in a project-based context than that in which I was an expert. The fact that I had developed a website dedicated to the study of Jan Brueghel (1568–1625) and had written a book on the topic at once made student projects on the Brueghel workshop possible, and problematic.

Project-based pedagogy was in many ways a shock. You cannot control either process or outcomes the way you can in a lecture course. It is very challenging to plan the sequence of work carefully enough: while in theory, every project is a new and exciting adventure in which professor and students engage jointly, in practice this works better if you have taught the same project previously. Thus although I had carefully crafted my “Digital Travels” syllabus, and spent a week studying “Digital Pedagogy” at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, Canada to refine my assignment sequence, the students rightly complained that the course was disorganized and the projects were hard to understand. The only project that worked really well in that class was one I had taught in the freshman seminar the semester before—and it was not about art history. In what follows here, I will explain the DH work in art history that I had my students undertake, consider some reasons why the outcomes were not fully satisfactory, and suggest how the pitfalls I encountered might be avoided by others wishing to engage in this kind of teaching.

In the field of renaissance art history, it is well known that within workshops, the master and his assistants often repeated basic elements of pictorial imagery. Artists replicated and re-purposed textile patterns, landscape elements, figures, even entire compositions using a wide variety of ingenious techniques (for an outstanding study of these techniques see Bambach 1999). Some were notorious for excessive repetition, and contemporaries criticized them for this. Vasari reports that when an altarpiece by Pietro Perugino (ca. 1446–1523) was unveiled, “it received no little censure from all the new craftsmen, particularly because Pietro had availed himself of those figures that he had been wont to use in other pictures” (Vasari [1550; 2nd ed., 1568] 1912–14, 4: 44). Yet overall, an early modern buying public seems to have had a less rigid notion of uniqueness and originality than later generations would develop. The repetition of forms is not something I spend a lot of time on in my normal lecturing on this period because it is rather dry and technical to an undergraduate audience. However, I thought that the mobility of patterns across renaissance workshops could be rather interesting to trace through a digital and collaborative project.

One artist of this period whose work is particularly marked by repetition is Jan Brueghel, son of the more famous Pieter Bruegel (ca. 1525–1569). Sometimes on his own and sometimes with the help of studio assistants he produced multiple copies and variants of many of his own compositions. He also borrowed from and revised works by his renowned father. The replication may be quite close, but more often the works are subtly different from one another. Bits of imagery are shuffled and recombined across images: the same windmill looks out over rolling hills in one composition but over a riverside town in another; a group of cattle wander down a village street and then reappear on a rural mountain path; the same man carries his sack through a woodland here and over a bridge there; a monkey climbs a tree in paradise and then shambles through a gigantic fruit garland. Drawings and oil sketches, most now lost, enabled this mix-and-match of fragmentary elements to be drawn together into hundreds of individual works of art.

But how were these various works actually created, how did they really relate to one another, and who was doing this work—Brueghel, his studio, later copyists, or imitators? In my book on Brueghel, I wrote that ideally one would have a map that located all the pictures at a greater or lesser distance from Jan himself and indicated their relationships to one another (see Honig 2016, 23–35). But mapping is not the right digital tool for this job: network analysis is the best tool to visualize data about these webs of artistic relation. Creating and refining that data and then visualizing it through network analysis tools was the task that I set the students in “Digital Travels.”

“Digital Travels” was cross-listed in the departments of English and Art History. Officially a lecture course, the class met four times each week over fourteen weeks. Since it was a project-based class, I only really lectured once or twice a week, providing the background information that the students needed to pursue each of three projects; for the remainder of our sessions, class time was devoted to discussion and group work. The student projects centered on renaissance mobility and allowed them to practice three types of digital work: mapping, network analysis, and text analysis (“distant reading”). For each project, it was important to me that the students generate original data as well as visualizing and analyzing it. Thus in the first unit they each researched the travels of a single historical figure, geocoded all the locations, combined their data with that of the other students working on related figures (rulers, artists, scientists, etc.), and then produced a map of historical travels. In the third unit, each group created a text corpus of a single continent covered in the Voyages by Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616), and used Voyant to analyze it.[1] The second unit focused on the Brueghel material and was the only art-historical assignment. About half of the students in the class had little or no art-historical background. They had five weeks, slightly over a third of the semester, to work on this project.

The raw data that I provided for the students consisted of hundreds of paintings and drawings from the Brueghel workshop, which I had further subdivided into what we called “series” or “clusters” of related images. The students were divided into groups of 3–6 students, and each group worked on a body of between 25 and 60 related works produced by Jan Brueghel, his father Pieter, and the studios of both masters. As an example, I illustrate here works from the cluster of paintings by Pieter and Jan showing the Adoration of the Magi (Figures 1 and 2).

Two very similar paintings by or after Pieter Bruegel, showing the Adoration of the Magi.

Figure 1. Two very similar paintings by or after Pieter Bruegel, showing the Adoration of the Magi.

Two very similar paintings by Jan Brueghel or his studio, showing the Adoration of the Magi.

Figure 2. Two very similar paintings by Jan Brueghel or his studio, showing the Adoration of the Magi.

In this cluster, the works are closely related to one another within the sub-groups of “Pieter works” and “Jan works” but are never truly identical, although the earlier Pieter group is more closely interrelated than the later Jan works. It is unclear how the two sub-groups are related to one another.

To prepare the students to think about this material, I lectured on the replication of imagery through prints and studio patterns; on painting techniques and methods of copying in the early modern period; on the development of the art market in this period and the value of originals vs. replications; and on the Brueghel family as artists within this world. We read and discussed texts about workshop practice as well as conceptual material on imitation, originality, and aura. Students spent one meeting looking at prints in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and thinking about reproductive images. They also visited the De Young Museum in San Francisco, looked at trompe l’oeil paintings there, and wrote a short paper comparing the visual experience of an illusionistic painting to the visual information that a digitized version (on Google Art) provided. Since they would be working with digital images when considering issues of artistic facture and manufacture, I wanted them be conscious of what information they received, and lost, through digital viewing. This, I thought, was a very successful assignment that both art history and English majors engaged with well.

For the core unit work, the students operated both on their own and in their groups to study the cluster they had been assigned, break it down into segments of imagery, and compare that imagery among all the paintings. Once each student in the group had assumed responsibility for a specific type of imagery—the lions in Paradise, for example, or the kneeling king in a representation of the Adoration of the Magi—they began using a digital tool that I had designed, the “Image Investigation Tool” (IIT), to compare pairs of pictures and their details (Figure 3).

Illustration of the Image Investigation Tool, showing two paintings by Jan Brueghel with a detail cropped from one and made into a transparency.

Figure 3. Illustration of the Image Investigation Tool.

Some students assessed the similarity of entire compositions—i.e. had they been duplicated exactly or were small changes introduced?—but most extracted particular details repeated in some or all of the works and created overlays to see whether imagery had been exactly transferred or approximately copied. In order to describe these relationships, the groups discussed the criteria by which they could assign numerical values to types of similarity.

The students then made individual spreadsheets of linked data with a first sheet listing attributes of each individual image (scale, support, attribution) and a second describing relationships between those images (Figures 4 and 5).

Spreadsheet of node (object) properties, Adoration of the Magi paintings by the Brueghels.

Figure 4. Spreadsheet of node (object) properties.

Spreadsheet of edge (relationship) properties of the same Adoration of the Magi paintings.

Figure 5. Spreadsheet of edge (relationship) properties of the same Adoration of the Magi paintings.

They then combined these into one spreadsheet for the whole group, cleaned up the data using OpenRefine, and used the resulting spreadsheet to visualize the interconnections between the artworks in their cluster.[2] First, they used Palladio, an open-source tool set available from the Humanities & Design Research Lab at Stanford University.[3] Palladio is extremely simple to use. Although its visualizations are not elaborate and colorful, it does have a surprising number of capabilities and students who were comfortable with exploring digital tools found ways to visualize different aspects of the network of imagery (Figure 6).

Visualization of the relationships between Adoration of the Magi paintings made using Palladio

Figure 6. Visualization of the relationships between Adoration of the Magi paintings made using Palladio.

Some students had been learning in another course to use Gephi, a more complex network visualization tool, and they led the groups in uploading data to display more attributes of both nodes (paintings) and edges (relationships).[4] Edge colors could now be used to visualize what type of imagery connected two works, node colors to indicate whether works were autograph or studio versions, and the closeness of relationship (edge weight) could be shown at the same time (Figure 7).

Visualization of the same data made using Gephi.

Figure 7. Visualization of the same data made using Gephi.

When the groups presented their results to the class, it was clear that the Brueghel studio had operated very differently depending on the kind of image they were producing. For instance, paintings depicting the scene of the Adoration of the Magi were divisible into tight clusters connected in terms of overall composition although varied in details, while images of Paradise were mish-mashes of bits of imagery that moved across all the paintings rather than falling into distinct sub-groups.

This was very interesting to me, but when I read the papers each student wrote about their group’s results, I realized that many of them did not have the art-historical background to make sense of the data they had generated. Even the art history students were not always able to see the implications of their own work, and the students from the English department were, I suspect, frustrated by the entire exercise. There were too many layers to the problem: studio practice, originality, and market value were meeting data creation and analysis and the use of new digital tools. There were certainly students for whom all these pieces came together and who wrote wonderful papers, but other papers showed a level of plain confusion that I am not used to seeing in an upper-level class. This project truly separated out the students willing to put in extra time, thought, and effort from those accustomed to doing rather well just by coasting. Those students were lost.

I would argue that it is good for students to be confused sometimes. Faculty frequently complain that students today need, and receive, excessive amounts of guidance on each assignment, often resulting in prompts and grading rubrics that are longer than the assignment itself. Such assignments for which successfully ticking off each box results in an “A” grade is one cause of the grade inflation that also infuriates faculty. It is healthy for students to have to feel their own way through material, to ponder what kinds of evidence can be mobilized, how data can be interpreted, how to create an argument that synthesizes disparate threads. Beyond simply learning to deal with “messy data,” they should learn how to deal with messy problems and not expect neat paths to historical knowledge. Yet to work this way effectively and without excessive guidance, they need to have enough knowledge—or the means of acquiring it—to make informed assessments of their material. Project-based learning allows us to plunge students into more open-ended ways of learning but it also challenges us to provide them with a different kind of scaffolding for their work.

This is doubly difficult in a Digital Humanities context because in addition to providing a context for interpretation we are also guiding the students through both theoretical and practical questions pertaining to a way of working digitally that is itself probably new to most of them. Before my class embarked on their art history project, they had already done a more straightforward mapping project in the course for which they had read some key theoretical texts about DH, and they read a few others during this second unit.[5] Yet to ask them to think critically about the practice of DH at the same time as they were engaging in a digital art history project was indeed asking a lot. A handful of my students were concurrently taking other DH classes, and they had a huge advantage over the rest of the group. They already knew tools and concepts the way that the art history majors already knew about theories of the copy. Some of these DH specialists also had a very advanced grasp of how to think about linked data and how it could be visualized using different tools to reveal new insights into the material. They understood the implications of what they were doing. Because the students were working in groups, and I had been careful to distribute these students among the groups, they were able to share their expertise with their peers and most of the group spreadsheets, visualizations, and presentations were excellent. In the individual papers, however, it was very clear who had understood the digital work they had engaged in—and who had just been going along for the ride.

One important takeaway from this experience, for me, was that if you are too much of an expert on a subject, it is hard to see how complex a “project” really is. A good lecturer can organize, simplify, interpret, and explain even very advanced and subtle material. But it is much more difficult to put together a coherent project about a tough, multi-leveled subject with both historical and theoretical implications involving data-gathering and digital-tool-using in such a way that students can comprehend it and feel that they have made a contribution to knowledge, which is the ultimate goal of any project-based learning experience. The class’s other projects, in non-art-historical areas about which I knew rather little, worked better for the very reason that I was not asking, nor expecting the students to ask, very sophisticated questions about their data. To teach on your own material through projects and digital tools, you need to slow down the pace at which the students proceed; make sure they have time to digest all the facets of the project (historical content, art-historical theory, digital tools); and guide them in synthesizing their work so that they fully understand its implications.

The class’s final assignment asked each student to write a paper designing a DH project for another class they were taking, and then positioning themselves within the field of the Digital Humanities. The students seemed to enjoy this assignment and did well on it: their projects for other classes were smart and imaginative and their self-positioning was very thoughtful. I might try extending that assignment in smaller pieces over the course of the semester, allowing students to connect it more directly with their art-historical work as they are completing that project. In addition, were I to teach this material again, I would want to give the students a bit more time to process the implications of what they were doing, either by preparing more of the visual data myself, or by having fewer projects in the semester so that the art-historical one would be emphasized.

So was this class, with its digital art-historical section, a success? Measured in terms of the dreaded course evaluations, no. From my normal lecture course average of about 6.5 out of 7, I went down to about 5.5—a precipitous drop that made me glad that I already had tenure. Many students shared my dislike of the out-of-control feeling of the class, the lack of smooth trajectory, and the unfamiliar types of outcome. In the end, however, those reactions were compensated for by people who wrote, “This class really allowed for me to think—some classes show you what to learn, but this class taught and encouraged me how to learn, how to think: I loved that,” and “I did more reading, analysis, and just plain thinking than I’ve ever done in any other Berkeley course, and through it I’ve grown as a writer and as a scholar.”[6] Two students have asked me for recommendations to go on to graduate school in digital art history, and one wrote an article for a student magazine about DH and her experiences in this class (Buyukakbas 2017). Teaching at the edge of a new field, a new methodology, is incredibly challenging but it also has great rewards.


[1] http://voyant-tools.org/

[2] http://openrefine.org/

[3] http://hdlab.stanford.edu/projects/palladio/. Palladio also has a mapping functionality that we had used in Unit 1, so the students were already familiar with how its data functions worked.

[4] https://gephi.org/

[5] Texts they had read up to and during this unit included Kramer 2012; “Day of DH: Defining the Digital Humanities” 2012; Drucker 2011 and 2012; and Moretti [2003] 2005 and 2013.

[6] Quoted from course evaluations written in April 2017.

I would like to thank the Mellon Foundation, Tony Cascardi, and Claudia von Vacano for their support of Digital Humanities at U.C. Berkeley; Jess Bailey, who was my invaluable teaching assistant for this course; and all the people who advised me and gave guest lectures, particularly Scott McGinnis, Rebecca Levitan, and Justin Underhill.


Bambach, Carmen. 1999. Drawing and Painting in the Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300–1600. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Buyukakbas, Elif. 2017. “Digital Humanities: A (Relatively) New Approach to Humanities.” Caliber Magazine, October 3, 2017. https://issuu.com/calibermag/docs/preview_issu/.

“Day of DH: Defining the Digital Humanities.” 2012. Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/40.

Drucker, Johanna. 2011. “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no. 1. http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000091/000091.html.

———. 2012. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 67–71, 85–95. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Honig, Elizabeth A. 2016. Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Kramer, Michael. 2012. “What Does Digital Humanities Bring to the Table?” September 25, 2012. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.michaeljkramer.net/cr/what-does-digital-humanities-bring-to-the-table/.

Moretti, Franco. (2003) 2005. “Graphs.” Republished in Graphs, Maps, Trees, 3–33. London: Verso.

———. 2013. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” In Distant Reading, 63–89. London: Verso.

Vasari, Giorgio. (1550; 2nd ed., 1568) 1912–14. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. 4 vols. London: Macmillan & The Medici Society. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28420/28420-h/28420-h.htm#Page_31.

About the Author

Elizabeth Honig teaches the art of early modern Europe at U.C. Berkeley. She is the author most recently of Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale (2016) and manages the websites janbrueghel.net, pieterbruegel.net, and the forthcoming brueghelfamily.net.

This point cloud of the Church of the Little Flower consists of an aerial view of the sanctuary and the adjacent meeting hall.

3D Modeling in the Urban Classroom: Using Photogrammetry for the Study of Historic Architecture in Coral Gables, Florida


This article describes the methodologies and outcomes of a digital imaging project implemented at the University of Miami that analyzes and documents the historical architecture of Coral Gables, Florida. The project consists of the integration of traditional and innovative approaches to art-historical research in an activated learning environment where students determined the project’s content. Students in small groups gathered visual and documentary materials to create comprehensive dossiers for eight historical buildings in Coral Gables, structures that were built in a distinctive Mediterranean style at the time of the city’s foundation in the 1920s. Complementing the art-historical data collected are 3D models created using photogrammetry that can be viewed and manipulated on an interactive website in conjunction with the comprehensive materials collected about each structure. This project emphasizes collaboration and interdisciplinarity in the novel application of computational methods to address questions and issues within the realm of visual culture. It highlights the importance of students as active participants in the conceptualization and implementation of the project’s goals. It has also been highly successful in creating bridges between the university and the community around it, promoting awareness of cultural heritage sites and their preservation through the use of a set of advanced and innovative art-historical tools.

Project Description

This 3D modeling project of historic architecture in Coral Gables, Florida began as a module in a lower-level course on Spanish art taught at the University of Miami. The course material addressed the impact of Spanish architectural styles on the artistic production of Spain’s colonial possessions. The Spanish heritage of “La Florida,” a possession of Spain from 1513–1763 and again in 1783–1819, is evident in numerous colonial and colonial style structures, and the city of Coral Gables, where the university is located, presents particularly good examples of this type of architecture. Coral Gables was founded by George Merrick in 1925 with the vision of recreating “Castles in Spain” in its architectural style.[1] The earliest structures in the city consist of an eclectic mix of Spanish, Spanish colonial, and Italian cultural references through which Merrick and his architects created a distinctive Mediterranean ambience in the city. Coral Gables, then, presents the ideal visual laboratory to study the influence of historical European architecture on early twentieth-century urban planning in the United States.

What began as a classroom experiment in the use of new imaging technologies to visualize architectural structures has developed over the past two years into a full-fledged research project. This study of historic Coral Gables architecture now consists of eight monuments: three structures that are addressed in detail below (The Congregational Church of Christ, the Church of the Little Flower, and the Biltmore Hotel) as well as the Coco Plum Woman’s Club, the Colonnade Hotel, the Fink Studio, the Douglas Entrance, and the Coral Gables Preparatory Academy. Their documentation is recorded on an interactive website that includes textual and visual resources, historical and contemporary photographs and visualizations of the structures employing new technologies [http://historiccoralgables.ccs.miami.edu]. The website aims to be a compendium of knowledge about these buildings, searchable from a variety of perspectives that can provide information for a broad spectrum of users and viewers—the general public, tourists, city officials and administrators, academics, students, and historic preservation professionals. The project has been defined from the outset as an ongoing one given its broad scope, and additional data will be incorporated as part of successful grant applications. The article’s authors are the project team. Dr. Mathews was responsible for generating the website’s content, historical documentation, and standard digital photography. Mr. Mader and Dr. Sarafraz conducted the drone photography and digital photography and processed the data for the creation of the point clouds. Students were responsible for digital photography and art-historical research as well as the creation of the audio tour for the eight historical monuments. An initial version of the website provides general information on George Merrick’s vision for Coral Gables and the artistic and intellectual influences that inspired the city’s unique style. It currently focuses on one monument, the Congregational Church of Christ, as an example of the type of content to be incorporated into the interactive site. The authors will continue working on the project and will collaborate with groups or individual students on its research and implementation during the coming years. We envision that in future art history classes, students will gain expertise in creating 3D models, employing photogrammetry to formulate models of small-scale artworks within the structures themselves. The same approach to modeling space can be applied to modeling objects, and the students will collect data and refine 3D models on a micro scale using modeling software available at the university.

The digital imaging project for the early Mediterranean style structures in Coral Gables consists of three interconnected parts: art-historical research dossiers, 3-D models, and an interactive website. In the context of the Spanish art course, students conducted photographic surveys and art-historical research for three 1920s buildings in the city: The Church of the Little Flower, the Congregational Church of Christ, and the Biltmore Hotel (Figures 1–3).

This photograph shows the main entrance of the Church of the Little Flower, a basilica-plan church with a tall façade ornamented by an elaborate, Baroque-style portal.
Figure 1. Church of the Little Flower, Coral Gables, Florida, 1926
This exterior view of the Congregational Church of Christ highlights the intricately sculpted doorway and the tall bell tower with Baroque-style decoration.
Figure 2. The Congregational Church of Christ, Coral Gables, Florida, 1923
The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is a massive complex with a large central building and two connected wings. The central structure is surmounted by a tower based on the bell tower from the Cathedral of Seville.
Figure 3. The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, Florida, 1926

The photographs serve as documentation of the structures’ state of preservation as of 2016, almost one hundred years after the buildings were constructed. Combined with the thousands of photographs taken to construct 3D models using photogrammetry (a technique that will be described in detail below), the photographic campaign resulted in the creation of a comprehensive digital archive for each structure. Students consulted the extensive resources available on early Coral Gables history in the Special Collections Department of the University of Miami’s Richter Library in order to create detailed art-historical dossiers that chronicled each structure’s history and analyzed the visual elements that connected the buildings to Mediterranean structures across Europe. The contemporary photos can be juxtaposed with historical ones, documenting the evolution of these structures for almost a century (Figures 4 and 5).

This image depicts the Congregation Church in Coral Gables soon after the completion of construction in 1925.
Figure 4. The Congregational Church of Christ in 1925 (image courtesy of City of Coral Gables, Department of Historical Resources and Cultural Arts)
By the 1970s, the Congregational Church was surrounded by a number of additional structures and lush, mature plantings.
Figure 5. The Congregational Church of Christ in 1970 (image courtesy of City of Coral Gables, Department of Historical Resources and Cultural Arts)

The overarching goal of this project is the combination of traditional art-historical methodologies with innovative digital imaging technologies to bring these buildings to life.

The images and documents gathered by students will be presented in a web-based interactive map of the city of Coral Gables. From the map, users/viewers can select a particular structure and navigate to a page that presents comprehensive information about that specific building. The website will display both modern and historical photographs of the monument, and provide access to documentation related to the building’s construction, preservation, and history. These documents include newspaper articles, advertisement campaigns, designation reports, plans, elevations, and architectural drawings. It will also incorporate in-depth art-historical information about the structure and its relationship to historical architecture of the Mediterranean region to trace the cultural origins of the references that were so inspirational for Merrick and his architects. Complementing the digital photographs will be 3D animated models created through the use of photogrammetry techniques and modeling software. Visitors to the website can select a specific monument and gain access to a wealth of information on that building, including visual and textual materials from the 1920s to the present day. The data presented on the site is comprehensive, but can be experienced from various perspectives depending upon the interest of the viewer.

Funding has been provided by the Coral Gables Community Foundation and a City of Coral Gables Cultural Development Grant to document five additional structures, bringing the total to eight public buildings created in the first decade of the city’s existence.[2] The website will be actively curated to incorporate crowdsourced photographs and audio files that document personal experiences related to each historic structure.[3] The participatory aspect of the site helps highlight the living nature of these buildings and the role that they play in the Coral Gables community today. Crowdsourced and publicly available photographs also have the potential to serve as an extraordinary research tool; if sufficient images can be gathered from a particular time period, it is then possible to create a 3D model to document the appearance of the building in the past as a comparison to its current state of preservation.[4]

To complement the data provided on the website, students from the University of Miami’s Computer Science course “Introduction to Software Engineering” have created an Android application for a virtual tour of these Coral Gables monuments (available for download on the Google Play Store). The app allows the user to select a specific monument and then view photographs of the structure, read historical background about the building, and listen to audio files addressing different elements of the building. The use of an application on a smart device essentially activates and mobilizes the website content. Users can access the content to enrich their experience when they visit the historic building itself or they can take a virtual visit.

Implementation of Imaging Technologies

Photogrammetry revolutionized the way we study historic architecture in this project; photogrammetry is the science of extracting quantitative and qualitative information from photographs (digital imagery). The American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) defines photogrammetry as:

The art, science, and technology of obtaining reliable information about physical objects and the environment through the processes of recording, measuring, and interpreting photographic images and patterns of electromagnetic radiant energy and other phenomena. (ASPRS, 1980)

This technology embraces two broad categories of practice: qualitative and evaluative. In the first, classical category, quantitative measurements are used to compute ground positions and elevations, distances, areas, or volumes. The output of conventional photogrammetry is typically a map, drawing, or a 3D model of some real-world object or scene. The second evaluative category involves the evaluation and interpretation of photographs for practical applications in such fields as topographic mapping, architecture, engineering, archaeology, manufacturing, quality control, police traffic crash and crime scene investigations and geology, and meteorology. Modern photogrammetry overlaps extensively with Computer Vision (CV) and employs systems that acquire data through non-conventional photographic systems, for example, radar imaging, x-ray imaging, LIDAR, etc.

One particular CV concept that has become very popular and accessible over the past ten years is called Structure from Motion (SfM).[5] SfM is an approach for recreating a 3D scene from a set of 2D photographs. SfM is not an individual algorithm, but instead relies on the application of a pipeline of CV methods to produce results. As such, this approach is highly flexible and offers customized options to suit individualized and specific needs. This flexibility has brought about a rapid expansion in both open source and commercial implementations of the pipeline. The output of SfM is an unscaled (generally) 3D model called a “point cloud” (Figure 6).

This point cloud of the Church of the Little Flower consists of an aerial view of the sanctuary and the adjacent meeting hall.
Figure 6. Point Cloud of the Church of the Little Flower

Once the point cloud is created, software tools that were developed initially for processing LIDAR data can be used to construct a fully textured 3D model.

Point clouds produced by SfM are by themselves compelling and useful tools for viewing and interacting with art-historical objects and architecture.[6] Point clouds can also be processed into derivative digital products, of which the two most common are: 1) orthoprojected imagery (Figure 7); and 2) fully textured 3D models.

This orthophoto of the façade of the Church of the Little Flower highlights the precision of orthoprojected imagery, where distortion caused by the camera tilt and uneven terrain has been eliminated.
Figure 7. Orthophoto of the Church of the Little Flower

Unlike a perspectival photograph, an orthophoto has been geometrically corrected for image displacements caused by the tilting of the camera and terrain relief (topography). In an orthophoto, the perspective effect has been removed, resulting in a photograph with a uniform scale. It can thus be utilized in the same manner as a map to measure distances and angles between the features within the photograph. Orthophotos can often be created automatically as an extension of the SfM pipeline, and are easily scaled if physical measurements have been made of the physical context. A classic application of orthophotos is the creation of scaled drawings and maps. Like orthophotos, fully textured 3D models can be created from point clouds automatically, but the quality still needs to be improved and refined through the use of modeling software tools (Figures 8 and 9).

A point cloud rendering of the interior apse of the Congregational Church can be compared to an actual photograph of the same space to demonstrate the degree of accuracy and detail these types of images can achieve.
Figure 8. Point cloud rendering of the interior apse of the Congregational Church of Christ
This is a standard digital photograph of the apse of the Congregational Church, with its semicircular space divided into a grid pattern.
Figure 9. Interior apse in the Congregational Church of Christ

We also utilized small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) in conjunction with the photogrammetry. These small “drones” are mounted with an inexpensive camera (e.g., GoPro) and used to capture both aerial photos and photos of hard-to-reach elements of buildings or other large structures (Figure 10).

The use of drones (like the one pictured here) to take thousands of photographs of architectural structures provides a quick and inexpensive means of capturing photographic data to make point clouds.
Figure 10. Drone beginning its flight over the Congregational Church of Christ

During the past two to three years, these systems have become highly reliable and relatively inexpensive, with a combined cost (generally) less than $1,500 for the system, camera, spare parts, and other incidental equipment (e.g., carrying case). When used with the photogrammetry methods described above, high-resolution composite aerial photos (orthophotos) can be produced for an architectural site. Since these photos are captured at low altitude, they have much higher resolution than typical satellite imagery or traditional aerial photography. Pointclouds can be created for entire structures or can focus on individual, difficult-to-reach elements like a gargoyle, bell tower, or dome lantern (Figure 11).

Drones can fly over spaces that are difficult to access by other means, as seen in aerial view of the Church of the Little Flower’s tall dome and cross located at the pinnacle of the western façade.
Figure 11. Decorative architectural elements on the roofline of the Church of the Little Flower

There is great potential for the application of photogrammetry in the study of historic monuments given its low cost, high resolution, and great flexibility for employing the imagery generated. The use of (sUAS) or drones allows for a comprehensive photographic campaign that can provide images of architectural elements that are hard to reach or virtually impossible to view. Easily and inexpensively captured, the photographs can be used to create a complex point cloud and serve as a valuable documentary archive. The images are thus important documents unto themselves, but once meshed to form the point cloud, they can be deployed in a variety of different applications to provide significant information about a structure. The orthophoto produced from such images provides a view of the building that cannot be experienced from the ground. The orthophoto is also highly accurate, and can be used in historic preservation campaigns to provide the detailed documentation required to meet governmental standards [https://www.nps.gov/HDP/habs/index.htm]. The 3D nature of the point cloud and its interactive capability make it well suited to open source platforms like Sketchfab that enable the viewer to manipulate images to better understand and experience the modeled space. Point clouds can be created for both interior and exterior spaces and, in situations where LIDAR is prohibitively expensive or impractical, photogrammetric techniques can render all aspects of an architectural monument—interior, exterior, general, and detailed views—in an accurate but also visually compelling manner. The 3D models can also be re-rendered in physical form with 3D printers. The buildings can thus be recreated physically for study, research, and community education and outreach, providing an additional format for the viewer to explore the space, form, and details of the structure.

Our experience has shown that photogrammetric techniques provide a valuable addition to the art-historical documentation toolbox. One challenge posed by this technique, however, is that it requires a new way of thinking about taking photos—for photogrammetric techniques to be effective, there must be sufficiently redundant coverage of a structure for SfM to work well. Though the actual acquisition of the images is rapid, several hundred overlapping photos may be needed to create a satisfactory point cloud (probably a twenty-minute process) rather than the dozens one might have taken previously. Since this method can produce scaled models and images (orthophotos), it can be particularly useful in cases where time on site is limited. Under such circumstances, a sufficient number of both aerial and ground-based photos can often be obtained within a single day (depending on the size of the site) to create detailed models and site plans. These digital resources can then be used off-site to aid in creating or finalizing sketches and other types of documentation made on-site. Photos and other digital objects can also be reused when new methods become available or combined with new data collected in subsequent campaigns.[7] Other imaging systems like LIDAR, for example, may be a better option for capturing data where there is insufficient light or large interior areas to be modeled. The main disadvantage of LIDAR, however, is the cost of the system itself. The equipment can be quite expensive while SfM provides the opportunity to capture data about architectural structures and make high-quality 3D models at a much lower cost. This approach does not require special cameras, and for small datasets, there are numerous open source and commercial options available to process the imagery.

As an example, a point cloud and orthophoto for the Church of the Little Flower (Figure 6) was created using an inexpensive drone and a GoPro camera. The drone (3D robotics IRIS+) was programmed to fly a survey pattern that spanned the church and a small part of the surrounding area. This aerial survey produced several hundred overhead photographs from different perspectives. We then applied a set of CV algorithms to correct lens distortion and otherwise prepare the images for an SfM pipeline (research that will be addressed in another publication). The SfM pipeline was then run to produce the point cloud and orthophoto. We worked with open source systems including Bundler, VisualSfM and OpenDroneMap, and experimented with several commercial offerings. SfM pipeline development is a highly active area of research for both academic and commercial organizations, with available options changing frequently. We regularly review the current state of the field and often apply multiple pipelines on projects to evaluate performance and new features. As new photographic methods for creating and processing 3D images develop, we believe that the application of these techniques and use of the resultant products will become standard elements in art-historical documentation, preservation, and interpretation.

Outcomes and Implications

Classroom applications and pedagogy

The use of 3D modeling techniques to create rich interactive and immersive built environments has far-reaching implications for art-historical pedagogy and research as well as community-based historical preservation. The project outlined above employs activated learning and the flipped classroom models in defining the role played by students. The students actively engaged in the collection of data by photographically documenting the historical buildings while conducting research on other structures (those that have not been the object of in-depth study). Thus, the students were instrumental in determining the project’s content, populating the website with data that includes text, primary documents, historical and contemporary photographs, ephemera (e.g., postcards, brochures, advertising posters, newspaper articles), audio files, and a detailed bibliography. The class conducted fundamental art-historical research that has the added benefit of being accessible to the public through an interactive website. In future iterations of this classroom project, students will gain even more hands-on experience with photogrammetry as they themselves conduct the photographic survey to create interior 3D models from point clouds. They will also create models of decorative and small-scale objects within the structures, using photogrammetry on a micro scale to complement the larger-scale architectural implementation. In this way, the students will be involved in every step of the project—gathering data, creating a point cloud, and refining a model for display and study.

3D modeling techniques also allow for a compelling and immersive experience of architectural structures in the classroom. An extremely challenging aspect of teaching architectural history is the attempt to configure and analyze a 3D space with 2D media. In studying an architectural structure, one generally shows several different interior and exterior views, fragmenting the space into constituent parts that never quite add up to a whole. A 3D model of a building, however, allows viewers to experience a structure holistically, to understand how parts relate to the whole, and to get a real sense of what it means to occupy that space. Advancements in AR, MR, and VR (augmented, mixed, and virtual reality) further enhance these experiences, and the goal of this project is to make the modeled environment deeply engaging and rich in color, texture, and detail.[8] In the classroom space, students can travel to places they have never seen, visiting monuments in distant locations or experiencing reconstructions of lost structures. Employing these new approaches to understand and experience architectural space could also encourage students from other disciplines to take courses in art history. Innovative technologies, then, could serve as the “hook” that introduces students to a completely different field of study, expanding the purview of art history and promoting more cross-disciplinary interaction on campus. This modeling project also deepens the interaction of the students with the community by establishing an urban classroom. Students bring the classroom to the city by conducting research on the monuments themselves, implementing the skills of the discipline in a new environment. The interaction with and analysis of the completed interactive models furthers this connection in the opposite direction, incorporating the city into the classroom. As a result of this bi-directional movement, students may appreciate the differences in their perception of the architectural space as they alternate between real and virtual viewing modes.

Finally, introducing students to new imaging technologies teaches them skills that will be essential for their success in the professional world of art history, either in an academic or museum setting. Digital visualization provides the promise of universal access to international art treasures, and young professionals need to be familiar with imaging techniques and tools that can be used in teaching, in the creation of virtual museums and immersive exhibitions, and in the preservation of historical monuments. Knowledge of new technologies will also encourage experimentation and collaboration so that they themselves can create innovative applications for imaging techniques. For example, in this project, the computer science students working on the virtual tour app gained knowledge about art-historical practice and cultural heritage, while the art history students learned about new digital imaging technologies. This cross-disciplinary approach will lead to further collaborations and the sharing of knowledge and expertise between students at the University of Miami that they can implement when they enter the professional world.

The incorporation of technology into the art history classroom exemplified by this 3D modeling project provides tangible learning outcomes that are practical, intellectual, and theoretical. Students actively participate in the generation of knowledge, and they gain important skills to advance professional training in art history related fields. This project promotes community engagement by raising awareness of cultural issues that challenge us now and will continue to do so in the future. For example, how do communities balance an interest in historic preservation with urban development? How can cities and their inhabitants be informed and empowered concerning the safeguarding of civic structures and what role can technology play in addressing these questions? The introduction to new technologies can serve as a springboard for students to apply their skills in novel ways and can attract new students to art history. Interactive 3D models visualize space in an innovative fashion and therefore raise questions about the efficacy and implications of new visual forms. They broaden the art-historical toolkit, fostering debate about their interpretive potential. They also offer the promise of revolutionizing the field with a working method that highlights collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinarity.

Research applications

The use of digital technologies in art-historical studies also has a profound effect on the research process and its published results. Art-historical research is usually a solitary affair, where an individual researcher devises a project, its methodology, and goals. However, the mastery of advanced imaging techniques—photogrammetry, LIDAR, 3D modeling software—requires the expertise of scholars both within and outside art history. The creation of immersive and interactive built environments, then, is a collaborative project that brings together experts in software engineering, computer vision, historic preservation, and architectural history. Such interdisciplinary projects are inherently creative as new technologies and knowledge are brought to bear on traditional questions and problems, with a result that is often greater than the sum of its parts. The use of technology can and does encourage the posing of new questions about visual culture and can only enrich the field with all the possibilities that exist to enhance the experience of visual imagery and 3D spaces.

Technological advances will also change the dissemination of knowledge and pose great challenges to the manner with which the academy assesses scholarly output. Academic presses are only beginning to publish monographs in an interactive digital format [http://www.sup.org/digital/] in which a web-based interface allows readers to consult a scholarly publication while simultaneously interacting with visual materials that can be manipulated, zooming in and out of images, rotating 3D models, and entering immersive built environments. Readers/viewers thus have extraordinary autonomy to determine how they wish to navigate the publication—reading only the text, concentrating on the visual imagery, or defining their own path that integrates the two components in an individualized and non-linear way. The potential of web-based scholarship is extraordinary, but the academy needs to be open to expanding what it deems original scholarly work, particularly when scholarly publications are such an essential part of the tenure and promotion process.

Cultural heritage and preservation

Ultimately, architectural structures are grounded in a community, and the study of historical monuments in Coral Gables encourages collaborations that connect the city to the university that is located within its confines. Students have the opportunity to participate in community outreach, see the impact that these buildings have in an urban setting, and experience the importance of their research for cultural development and historical preservation. The partnership between communities and academic institutions in cultural patrimony and preservation is a potentially fruitful one as academic innovators can apply their research methods and advanced technologies to real-world situations outside the university. Municipalities are often challenged by lack of funding for cultural development and historical preservation, and projects like the one outlined above for Coral Gables can be instrumental in enhancing public knowledge about historical buildings and supporting cultural heritage initiatives. The technologies and methodologies developed here to study historical monuments in Coral Gables can be assembled easily into a toolkit of sorts, applicable to the study of historical architecture in other locales. Beyond the immediate context of Mediterranean style architecture in the city of Coral Gables, these digital imaging approaches, with their relatively low cost, high quality versatile images, and applicability for a variety of platforms and formats, offer the opportunity for other cities to highlight and promote their own rich cultural heritage and preserve it for the future.


In his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously noted “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 221). An element of Benjamin’s “aura” would be the multisensory experience of an architectural space, its tactile and olfactory elements and acoustic qualities, all absent in a 3D model that highlights the visual. However, a significant difference between a standard photographic reproduction of a building and an interactive model is the model’s incorporation of an essential spatial dimension that reintroduces the element of time. Modeled architectural spaces have the potential to deepen our understanding of the built environment, especially when they are used in tandem with the actual structures themselves. Students can visit the historical building and its reproduction, analyzing the differences inherent in the real and virtual space and considering what advantages and disadvantages each mode of presentation poses. The advent of photography and film occasioned great anxiety concerning the efficacy and implications of mechanical reproduction, but Benjamin was not universally negative about the profound effects of new media on the perception and understanding of artworks. In fact, with the loss of aura that resulted from the emancipation of art from ritual came increased public access to art and therefore greater participation in the construction of meaning (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 220–21, 224–25). Benjamin appreciated the revolutionary potential of technology and the application of these new visual tools holds similar promise. What is gained and lost by experiencing a structure virtually, and how can that experience be enhanced? Such questions could form the basis of instructive class discussions as the visual simulacra we produce in our contemporary society become increasingly sophisticated and tantalizing. Unless the teaching environment is at a museum or monument, most art-historical study is conducted through reproductions. Our reliance on simulacra, then, invites us to consider how more complex and visually compelling images can change the way that we practice the discipline and approach the essential tools for the study of art and architecture. We may indeed lose the aura of the object, but what we gain is the facility and immediacy of access to places we might never have the chance to visit and experience firsthand.

Thus, the use of photogrammetry techniques and modeling software tools provides an innovative approach to the study of architecture in a university setting. These techniques are highly effective with great potential for development and improvement. They form part of a growing body of digital documentation for art history and the humanities that will become standard in the next few years as they provide unparalleled documentation as well as instructional and interpretive tools for visual and material culture. Experimenting with these techniques now will help refine and improve them so they can play an even greater role in the study of architecture for research, teaching, and historical preservation in the future. Technology, however, is just one component in these forward-looking art-historical practices that emphasize collaboration, interdisciplinarity, activated learning, and community interaction. Digital imaging technologies hold extraordinary potential to revolutionize the way we study, interpret, and interact with the built environment in both physical and virtual modes.


[1] See the works by Parks (2006; 2015) cataloguing the early history of the city and its distinctive Mediterranean architectural style. See also the City of Coral Gables website for a brief overview of the city’s history.

[2] The documentation of these five structures is currently ongoing.

[3] The University of Miami Center for Computational Science will be hosting the project website and is committed to ongoing hosting of the project as an aspect of its Smart Cities Program.

[4] For the use of crowdsourced photos to create 3D models, see Frahm, Heinly, Zheng, Dunn, Georgel, and Pollefeys (2013). Snavely, Seitz, and Szeliski (2006) provide an early interesting example of the potential for this concept. See also the discussion below about the creation and application of point clouds.

[5] http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~snavely/bundler/ is one of the earliest and most influential examples of these recent (i.e. the past ten years) implementations of SfM.

[6] There is an increasingly large body of projects undertaken over the past five years or so that employs point clouds to reconstruct historical monuments, archaeological sites, and 3D sculpture, but this technique has yet to be integrated into the mainstream of art-historical imaging practices. For some representative projects, see: http://danigayo.info/teaching/ticharte/; http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150622-andrew-tallon-notre-dame-cathedral-laser-scan-art-history-medieval-gothic/. The National Park Service has created a set of 3D models for Ellis Island; see https://www.nps.gov/hdp/exhibits/ellis/Ellis_Index.html. The point clouds themselves have been recognized as having their own artistic merit; a book entitled The Art of the Point Cloud (forthcoming in late 2017) will feature reproductions of “the most beautiful point clouds”; see http://www.spar3d.com/news/lidar/book-wants-beautiful-point-clouds/.

[7] Data collected through photogrammetry and LIDAR can be combined: once the data is integrated into a point cloud, the means through which it was generated is not particularly significant. The two sets can be brought together either manually (with a tool like Autocad) or computationally; see the open source project “Point cloud library” that outlines this process <http://pointclouds.org/documentation/tutorials/registration_api.php>.

[8] For some examples of immersive historical environments, see Hogarty and Ferguson (2014) and Sierra, De Prado, Ruiz Soler, and Codina (2017).


Benjamin, Walter. (1935) 1968. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 217–51. New York: Schocken.

Frahm, Jan-Michael, Jared Heinly, Enliang Zheng, Enrique Dunn, Pierre Georgel, and Marc Pollefeys. 2013. “Geo-registered 3D Models from Crowdsourced Image Collections.” Geo-spatial Information Science 16, no. 1: 55–60. https://www.cs.unc.edu/~jheinly/publications/geo2013-frahm.pdf.

Hogarty, Sarah Bailey, and Brinker Ferguson. 2014. “The Immersive Period Room: Historic and Contemporary Approaches to Interactive Storytelling.” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014, January 30, 2014. http://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/the-immersive-period-room-historic-and-contemporary-approaches-to-interactive-storytelling/.

Parks, Arva. 2006. George Merrick’s Coral Gables: “Where Your ‘Castles in Spain’ Are Made Real!” Miami: Centennial Press.

———. 2015. George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Sierra, Albert, Gabriel de Prado, Isis Ruiz Soler, and Ferran Codina. 2017. “Virtual Reality and Archaeological Reconstruction: Be There, Back Then.” MW17: MW 2017. February 14, 2017. http://mw17.mwconf.org/paper/virtual-reality-and-archaeological-reconstruction-be-there-be-back-then-ullastret3d-and-vr-experience-in-htc-vive-and-immersive-room/.

Snavely, Noah, Steven M. Seitz, and Richard Szeliski. 2006. “Photo Tourism: Exploring Image Collections in 3D.” ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proceedings of SIGGRAPH 2006). http://phototour.cs.washington.edu/Photo_Tourism.pdf.

About the Authors

Karen Mathews is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami. She specializes in Spanish and Spanish Colonial Art, and has been conducting a research project employing 3D imaging to analyze the historical architecture of the city of Coral Gables since 2016. She is also employing photogrammetric techniques in a classroom setting, where students are creating 3D models (using photogrammetric techniques and 3D modeling software) of Spanish Colonial objects in the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and designing a virtual, web-based, exhibition of the artworks.

Chris Mader is the Director of Software Engineering at the University of Miami Center for Computational Science. He and his team have been working to apply new and emerging techniques in photogrammetry and image processing with a number of collaborators (including Dr. Mathews) during the past several years. These efforts include the application of low altitude aerial photography (drones) to create point clouds (3D models), orthophotos, and maps. Examples include the work in Coral Gables (described in this article) as well as photogrammetry/surveying of the Iglesia de Santa Lucia (Santiago de Cuba) and “The Residency” on Harbor Island (Bahamas).

Amin Sarafraz is currently an associate scientist at the University of Miami Center for Computational Science. He received his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Miami in 2012 and he also holds a M.Sc. in Photogrammetry from the University of Tehran. He has been working on mapping informal cities using drone images for more than two years. Prior to joining UM, he worked on several mapping and GIS projects in Iran. His Ph.D. work involved applications of computer vision in civil engineering, including underwater imaging, image enhancement in scattering media, 3D reconstruction, and non-destructive testing.


Of Software and Sepulchers: Modeling Ancient Tombs from Oaxaca, Mexico


More and more frequently, digital art history is a course on offer, or even required, in graduate and undergraduate art history programs. There are a burgeoning number of ways of “doing digital art history,” from narrative mapping with Omeka-Neatline[1] and other tools, to creating Wikis on art history topics,[2] to using or even creating virtual tours of museums or historic sites.[3] Yet one of the most valuable, although often daunting tools available to the art historian interested in working digitally, is that of 3D digital modeling. This article will discuss a long-term foray into 3D digital modeling conducted over the course of two summers by the authors—former Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell College Ellen Hoobler and three undergraduate students who worked with her, Ve’Amber Miller and Catherine Quinn (summer 2014) and Arturo Hernández, Jr. (summer 2015).

This paper offers suggestions and information for professors who seek to use 3D modeling for their own work, particularly in conjunction with undergraduate students. Overall, the paper argues that the greatest benefits of many 3D modeling projects that involve students and faculty are achieved as the pedagogical “byproducts” gleaned through the process of working through a digital humanities product rather than the actual digital artifacts or “products” of the investigation. These pedagogical “byproducts” of 3D modeling are potentially the greatest benefits particularly for those projects undertaken with modest budgets or with less technical expertise (i.e. not in institutions with highly developed digital support programs, or undertaken by professors in computer science). This is not to negate such products; this work generated several dozen 3D models of ancient objects as .stl files; a visualization of an entire section of a tomb including some of those models; an interactive visualization of a tomb with several models inside it; a video illustrating the position of objects within a different tomb; and a website to highlight some of the findings of the two summers’ work. All of those would be usable by specialists in the field of Mesoamerican art history or potentially even professors teaching a survey course on the topic. However, the skills that the participants took away from this were myriad, and very likely more important than these products themselves. Even in an imperfectly realized project in 3D modeling, digital art history (or possibly digital humanities more broadly), students learned art-historical skills, such as close looking, archival research, and in this case, particularly how recreation of context will draw upon multiple fields of investigation and methodologies, which they may choose for themselves. The project also fostered important life skills including the basics of project management, forming and fostering relationships for collaboration, and learning how to begin and drive a project when there is no clear way forward.

This idea is influenced by a seminal article by Lisa Snyder of University of California, Los Angeles’s Visualization and Modeling team “Virtual Reality [VR] for Humanities Scholarship.” She discusses the important issue, one that the team kept returning to over and over again, of understanding whether one is working on a more process-based or product-based mode. “Process-based questions are addressed through the analytical act of creating the virtual artifact or environment with little or no expectations for the longevity of the data beyond the life of the project. Product-based questions may include process-based elements during the construction of the VR environment, but are more focused on interaction with the finished product and long-term public dissemination of the research” (Snyder 2012, 396). Hoobler began the project and outlined it to her collaborators with confidence that it would yield an important product, and did not fully understand the value of working through the process of making the 3D models when, in fact, process and the opportunities for thinking through ancient spaces ultimately was equally or more important than the models themselves. It is true that all projects are to some degree a balance between these two modes, as much as there is greater emphasis on process rather than product when students (and professors) are new to the software necessary to carry out such projects. Obviously, neither of these collaborations yielded enormous products on the scale of Snyder’s own interactive VR reconstruction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (http://www.ust.ucla.edu/ustweb/Projects/columbian_expo.htm) or other well-funded large universities’ projects. However, work from the two summers’ projects did ultimately yield permanent products that will be helpful in future research.

The project that the collaborators undertook grew out of Hoobler’s dissertation research focused on tombs of the site of Monte Albán in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, built by the Zapotec peoples of the area from ca. 500 BCE–850 CE (see Figure 1, and Hoobler 2011 for more information). The tombs had never been fully published by their excavator, the archaeologist Alfonso Caso. During extensive archival research, Hoobler discovered and then digitized a trove of some 8,000 catalogue cards made by Caso and his collaborators in the 1930s and ‘40s. The cards detailed the position of all the objects Caso and his collaborators had excavated from a given tomb in centimeters from the back and side walls of the tomb (see Figure 2). (At the time Caso was working, all objects were removed from the tombs and ultimately sent to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.) Using these cards, Hoobler created two-dimensional diagrams of the tombs for her dissertation (see Figure 3). At the time when she finished graduate school at Columbia University in the Department of Art History and Archaeology in 2011, the free 3D modeling program Google Sketchup (now Trimble Sketchup) did exist, but there was no training and certainly no mandate for working on software for graduate students in art history at that time.

Fig. 1 – Large open plaza of archaeological site of Monte Albán, pyramid mounds close by and mountains visible in the distance.

Figure 1: Large open plaza of archaeological site of Monte Albán.


Fig. 2 – Large index card with typed information about an object – photograph of a bowl at top right and a watercolor of the same object below it.

Figure 2: Large index card with typed information about an object.


Fig. 3 – Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with side niches. Numbered dots on plan show location of objects.

Figure 3: Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with side niches. Numbered dots on plan show location of objects.


In summer 2013, after becoming an Assistant Professor at Cornell College in Iowa, Hoobler attended an NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice,[4] where she experimented with some of the many tools by then readily available, free or at low-cost, to those interested in 3D modeling. Based on working with the University of Arkansas’s dedicated, well-funded, and well-developed Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) lab,[5] Hoobler’s original, perhaps overly ambitious goal for the project was fully product-based: to allow users a phenomenological experience of one of these burial chambers by creating a virtual tomb, including all its contents, with which the user would be able to interact. This goal proved unattainable during the two summers of work because it required computers with much greater computing power than were available on a typical small liberal arts college campus. Furthermore, such a project would have required much greater technological skill on the part of Hoobler and probably thousands of hours of work on the part of the team. Still, a great deal of progress was made. Not only did all participants learn a great deal about working with 3D modeling software (including Maxon Cinema4D), the process was enlightening in regard to the important role that 3D scanning and modeling might play in cultural heritage in the future. From a scholarly standpoint, it was very clear to Hoobler that the process of modeling the tomb and its contents, and virtually placing them, allowed—and even forced—the modeler to engage in the art-historical technique known as close looking in dealing with the objects. Experiencing this process also made apparent many characteristics of the burial chambers that the creation of two-dimensional diagrams had not.

Based on the NEH Summer Institute training, Hoobler sought and received grants from Cornell College and the McElroy Fund/Iowa College Foundation for Ve’Amber Miller and Catherine Quinn to work with her in summer 2014.

Ve’Amber Miller (Cornell College ’15) comments:

“As an Archaeology major—and someone who already had an interest in how to engage technology with the past—there was no hesitation in wanting to join this team. At first it was daunting even as I was going into my final year of undergraduate studies because I did not have experience in 3D modeling, but over the course of our work I found the support from everyone and the story these artifacts told was more than enough to push me through. Being able to place the items that had been recreated back into a virtual tomb made the history even more real; 3D printing those same objects–some that had been destroyed decades ago–so that others could hold them in their hands made it more real for them as well. The most important thing is that I learned from this project, and will only do better in the future so that history becomes an interactive and engaging experience for everyone.”

As of this writing, Miller is working as a Park Guide at the Pullman National Monument in fall 2017. Prior to working in this position, she worked at Weir Farm Historic Site, where she put her skills and experience acquired during this project to use in creating a virtual gallery of art[6] and an ESRI StoryMap based on “Julian Alden Weir’s Student Years in Europe,” using digitized documents and artifacts from Weir Farm’s collection.

Her collaborator that summer, Catherine Quinn, Cornell College ’15, was an art history major who had been interested in technology for years, having gained experience through graphic design courses in high school and customizing a gallery website while interning at the Center on Contemporary Art. Quinn said:

“Working on this project with Dr. Hoobler was exciting for a number of reasons. It was one of the first opportunities I had as an art history major to apply what I had learned in the classroom while contributing to a real world, ongoing, body of research. In addition, I was able to combine multiple fields of interest (art history and technology) while being introduced to others (archaeology), and building extensively on my existing knowledge through hands-on learning. Finally, being able to work on this particular site was especially meaningful due to the fact that we were working with the intention of offering our research to the Community Museum in Oaxaca. As one of my first forays into ‘digital humanities,’ this project has left me inspired by all the ways I see technology providing not only new insight but also accessibility to people, and I foresee it having a beneficial influence on how we curate museum collections, design interactive exhibits, and present research.”

Quinn is currently based in Seattle and applying for graduate programs in digital cultural heritage and related disciplines.

That first summer, predictable challenges ensued. The software had been updated between 2013 and 2014 and many functions had changed. In addition, due to the vicissitudes of funding, the two students were starting at different times, with Miller beginning several weeks after Quinn. Thus, Quinn and Hoobler struggled together with the Maxon software, and Quinn largely trained herself on the finer points of working with it, using tutorials and message boards she found on the Internet. Quinn then trained Miller when she joined the team. (One counterintuitive point about working with students on summer research is that it is much easier to have two or perhaps three students working in collaboration: when there is a question on how to do something, they work through it together, usually showing their professor how to do it once they have figured it out.)

Miller, Quinn, and Hoobler then worked through the challenges of free-hand modeling of objects illustrated in profile on the catalogue cards (see Figures 4 and 5). This was exciting work, since some of the objects shown on the cards were made out of unfired clay or stucco and apparently were destroyed in transit to Mexico City. For this reason, many of the objects documented in the tombs cannot be found in the warehouse of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Thus, while virtual, these proxies, derived from catalogue cards, are the only place where these objects “exist” in the world.

Fig. 4 – Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a bowl modeled in the active window.

Figure 4: Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a bowl modeled in the active window.


Fig. 5 – Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a stone beads modeled in the active window.

Figure 5: Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a stone beads modeled in the active window.

While a broader discussion of the theorization of replicas is beyond the scope of this article, two points are worth noting. One is regarding copyright issues. Unlike a project involving modern or contemporary art or creations, the objects found in tombs were created over a thousand years ago and have no clear author whose descendants could be traced to seek permission for the replication. Even if one considers the archaeologist Alfonso Caso who led the team that conducted the excavations as the author of these objects, these were “reactivated” some 70–80 years ago. The National Museum of Anthropology and History might also assert its rights to the objects, since it is their physical repository. However, as per the College Art Association’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, the modeling of such works would be well within the furthering of “… the teacher’s substantive pedagogical objectives,” as described in Section Two, Teaching About Art (College Art Association 2015, 10).

The second point has to do with the ontological status of the replica. Many scholars have written eloquently about replication, that moment “when ideality and reality touch each other,” as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it (Kierkegaard 1983, 131). Probably the most influential text on this topic is Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin discussed in depth the concept of authenticity in copying works of art, arguing that there is a unique authority to the original that he called its “aura,” which would be dissipated in an age of mechanical reproduction (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 224). However, given the number of visitors to the Louvre yearly, it seems the elusive aura has not withered away, but is never inherent to a copy no matter how perfect its mode of replication. Scholars have generally asserted that the original work of art will not be replaced by digital facsimiles, and in fact these copies may increase the desire to experience the original (Hall 1999, 277; Cuno 2014). The topic of replication will continue to be the subject of debate and discussion in art history. However, the team was working from originals that in many cases were ceramic vessels mass-produced in workshops, minimally decorated and similarly sized and shaped for stacking and transport, and thus fit much more easily within the sphere of “visual culture” than fine art. Therefore, such questions, while fascinating, are less relevant to the argument at hand.

Moving from Process to Product: Manage Your Expectations

During the process of making the models, students and teacher alike were learning many skills. Some of these were art historical. Many art historians have described art history, like many other humanities disciplines, as having a toolkit of methods from which to choose rather than a prescribed set of steps to follow as in the sciences (Long and Schonfeld 2014, 10). In general, art historians’ methods are informed by the kind of research questions they seek to answer, which may vary depending on their project. Three methods used for this project were close looking, library and archival research, and a contextual analysis methodology. Close looking, or viewing and analyzing objects through very close and sustained study is the basis of connoisseurship and authentication as well as formal and iconographic analysis. Even with objects of the type that the team were working with (i.e., bowls and stone objects made by anonymous artisans hundreds of years ago), patterns and insights about them emerge through careful looking. Small wonder then that many art historians also execute their own illustrations, and many seasoned professors encourage their students to draw works in order to commit their contours to memory. The use of 3D modeling demands a similar quality of focused attention to replicating an object or space, although one is now “drawing” with a mouse rather than a pencil. Since the team was working largely from photographs of catalogue cards, it was very important for all concerned that the students were able to see originals of the kinds of objects being modeled, even if not necessarily the exact work, at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Santo Domingo, in Oaxaca City during the research period.

In terms of archival research, while there was no time to do additional research since so little of this material has been digitized, students had to dig through several large and unwieldy archaeological publications published in Spanish in the 1950s and ‘60s. This acquainted them with basic but less-discussed principles of archival research such as figuring out which sections of the text were essential to translate versus those that could be skimmed.

Finally, the team was certainly undertaking a contextual analysis of the tombs, trying to understand the original placement (and by extension, use) of the objects in these spaces. All the collaborators discussed how these tombs were in a sense similar to ritual caches excavated and documented by Leonardo López Luján at the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City. There, López Luján has been able to show how the intentional deposition of objects in a specific sequence in different parts of the site was the result of ritual actions undertaken in support of concrete purposes related to propitiation of the gods. Yet, the Zapotec case is less clear, given that tombs were filled some seven centuries or more before the invasion of the Spanish, and deities worshipped in one way in the sixteenth century may have been venerated in an altogether different one centuries earlier. However, reconstructing the tombs and their contents does bring us closer to understanding the lives of ancient peoples that we know comparatively little about.

While the processual byproducts related to art history were quickly realized, the products were not. The original plan was for the objects in the tomb to be modeled in Maxon Cinema4D, the tomb itself would be built in the Unity game engine software, and then, the object models would be imported into the tomb.[7] However, the version of Unity we were working with was not compatible with webGL, becoming difficult to view on most browsers shortly after the model was created, a frustrating but very common experience in digital humanities projects.

Quinn did in fact create a very satisfactory model of the tomb in Unity, but at this point, more challenges emerged. While the resulting models of the objects in the tombs were excellent, their high resolution meant that there were no on-campus computers that could handle both the tomb model as well as the virtual versions of all the objects in the tomb. Later, in summer 2015, Arturo Hernández modeled objects in the same data-heavy manner, but then realized that the models could be made workable by removing details not obvious to the naked eye. The team determined that it should have more carefully sought out a best practices statement for getting around the issue of large file sizes (see Figure 6 and online gallery[8]). Ultimately, Quinn was able to determine how many objects could be loaded into the model so that the digital reconstruction could be interacted with without crashing the program. Reaching this more process-based objective provided us with a better understanding of how the interior of tombs were illuminated. Unity allows the user to move the sun across the sky, and although previous scholars had insisted that there was almost no illumination in the tombs, and that the Zapotecs would have had to use torches (Martha Carmona Macías 2007, personal communication), the virtual model made it clear that for much of the day there was sufficient light in the tomb for mourners to conduct simple rituals. In the future, a more complete model that takes into account the height of ancient house walls might disprove this idea, but for now, it seems likely that rituals might have started during the day. The Unity model also had the benefit of offering a product, a kind of “proof-of-concept” for the whole project. Even with the thoroughly modern, overall-clad default Figure Unity offers for interacting with the scene (no stock characters fit for ca. 300 CE Mesoamerica, surprisingly!), there was invariably a great deal of interest and admiration for the video of the tomb as modeled in Unity. This shows how important it is to build in some degree a visual aid, particularly in art history.

Fig. 6 – Screengrab showing the Unity game engine, with several panes open – at the top, the interior of a structure, with several vessels visible.

Figure 6: Screengrab showing the Unity game engine, with several panes open.

Miller also completed a section of one of the tombs as a final iteration of the project during an independent study with Hoobler. When she made the original 2D tomb models, Hoobler noted that objects of particular importance were placed in niches in the side and back walls. It was particularly important to try to visualize these privileged spaces, yet the diagrams Hoobler produced in 2011 were extremely crude (see Figure 7). During the summer, Miller and Quinn modeled perhaps the most curious and unusual object that was dealt with, a hardstone “billy club” found in one of the niches of Tomb 118 that is extremely atypical of the tombs. In a later independent study, Miller continued work on shedding light on the niches. In particular, she 3D modeled an entire niche of a different tomb, Tomb 104, which held quite a few of the most elaborately decorated ceramics from the site. Some of these were plates, but others were odd pitcher-like vessels. Miller accomplished a great deal with this, even giving their surfaces the appearance of the painted glyphs that were present on these vessels. Despite the imprecise information on the catalogue cards related to this space, Miller was able to generate decent models for the bone needles likely used for ritual bloodletting that were found in conjunction with the vessels. The much more naturalistic representation of the niche that Miller was able to generate is the product from these projects that is most easily transferable to traditional scholarship about the Zapotec (see Figure 8).

Fig. 7 -- Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with overlaid diagram of niche, several line drawings crudely showing placement of contents.

Figure 7: Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with overlaid diagram of niche.


Fig. 8 – Realistic image of a niche within the tomb, showing several vessels inside of it, some brightly painted.

Figure 8: Realistic image of a niche within the tomb, showing several vessels inside of it, some brightly painted.


Both of these examples show how important it is to have realistic ideas and goals of what can be produced in a single summer, particularly by people who are new to working with the software in question. Upon reflection, it is clear that it was unrealistic to expect that the team could model a whole tomb and 30+ objects as well as make such a model interactive and functional. However, even if the original goal to have a highly detailed model containing all the objects from that tomb was not achievable, three significant products were created: models of individual objects; a mimetic model of a portion of a tomb holding iconographically rich materials; and the modeling of an interactive tomb, albeit without many objects in it. Additionally, a tremendous amount was learned with regard to the development of processes that can result in better products in the future (see Figure 9).

Fig. 9 – Screenshot of a video, marked “Before” at lower left, and showing an empty stone chamber.

Figure 9: Screenshot of a video, marked “Before” at lower left, and showing an empty stone chamber.

Projects are Iterative–But Preparation Is Crucial

In Summer 2015, Hoobler teamed up with Arturo Hernández, Jr. (Cornell College ’16), a studio art and computer science double major. Arturo commented that:

“I joined the Digital Humanities Zapotec Tomb Project because I was thrilled about learning how to use new pieces of software and hardware; additionally, I wanted to further explore and learn about my culture and heritage. This project and team allowed me to contribute ideas and learn more about the importance of digitizing artifacts.

I woke up always looking forward to creating objects and exploring different techniques during the process, as well as researching different applications. One of the rewarding feelings was seeing results from 3D printing some of the objects and analyzing their past or their functionality.”

Before starting his research with Hoobler, Arturo had taken a computer graphics class where he programmed some tools for a small 3D modeling program. Consequently, going from dealing with back-end to user-end 3D space helped him to see the bigger picture of 3D applications. Since graduation from Cornell, Hernández has continued to be involved in projects related to technology and Latin America. He worked for a year at Abriendo Mentes, a non-profit organization, teaching basic computer skills to rural and underserved populations in Costa Rica. He is currently based in Los Angeles and is getting further computer training and certification to continue in technology, ideally with a focus on international work.

Hernández learned the software extremely quickly. He was able to model asymmetrical and eccentrically shaped pieces very effectively, and ultimately was able to solve one of the most difficult problems of the previous year: the question of how to add multiple objects into a virtual tomb.

This came about partially by chance and completely on Hernández’s own initiative. In summer 2015, the funding for Hoobler and Hernández to work together came through the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI) sponsored by Cornell College, which offered newly formalized ways for students and faculty to collaborate, with students receiving various opportunities to showcase their work to participants from across all departments. In one workshop that included Professor of Physics Derin Sherman, Hernández explained the problem with the models, which could not hold the digital models of vessels and be interacted with, for the file size became unmanageable for any computer on campus. Sherman commented offhand that perhaps Hernández could just use video software to make the concept clear, as Sherman had done to make a particular physics concept more understandable for students. This sparked Hernández’s imagination, and after some research, he found Blender,[9] a free, open-source software that allows for importing models and video and integrating them together in a process known as motion tracking. This can be seen online,[10] or in Figures 10 and 11. However, even though initial use of the Blender software suggested a possible way to work with the tombs, prior planning was still necessary to use this new tool in the most productive way.

Fig. 10 – Screenshot of a video, marked “After” at lower left, showing a stone chamber with small ceramic figures and vessels inside.

Figure 10: Screenshot of a video, marked “After” at lower left, showing a stone chamber with small ceramic figures and vessels inside.


Fig. 11 – Young man with a camera kneels by a table with several plastic objects on it, taking a photograph of them.

Figure 11: Young man with a camera kneels by a table with several plastic objects on it, taking a photograph of them.

Technology and Community Engagements: 3D Modeling to Printing

It is important to note that the precise limits of the site of Monte Albán were in fact set in the 1930s by several towns surrounding the core of the site, each of which donated some of their communal landholdings to create an archaeological zone. As a result, there is an inherent conflict, even putting aside all national legislation, as to how the artifacts of Monte Albán might be shared simultaneously with all these communities. This includes villages further out from the site’s core, which in ancient times helped to make some of the vessels and other offerings found in the tombs. It is possible, as has been discussed by other scholars, that digital versions of heritage objects might offer the possibility for their sharing by different stakeholders. (This has been discussed in various articles from a 2012 issue of the Journal of Material Culture, particularly Brown and Nicholas 2012 and Newell 2012 as well as Bell et al., Hennessy et al., and the entire 2013 special issue of Museum Anthropology Review titled “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge.”)

One of the ultimate goals for work on the tombs has been to return, at least virtually, some of the material culture of Oaxaca taken from the state’s small communities after the archaeological excavations of the 1930s. It was during this period that most of the excavated objects were sent to the warehouses of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. As a response to this loss of their local culture, since the 1980s some of the towns have sought to keep this kind of material from leaving their towns by creating local community museums (Hoobler 2006). While efforts to create virtual versions of the community museums had been discussed by the team in summer 2014, it was ultimately not undertaken. However, because Hernández is fully fluent in Spanish and fully bicultural with knowledge of Mexican and even specifically Oaxacan culture, a community engagement component could be added during the 2015 portion of the project.

Interested in testing these possibilities, Hoobler decided that she could make a test case for virtual sharing with one community by working with the Community Museum of the town of San Juan Guelavía close to Oaxaca City. Knowing that a large segment of the town’s population was fluent in Zapotec languages and/or English, (the town has had a large number of migrants to the United States, see Cohen and Browning 2007), Hoobler decided to offer some materials that might help facilitate increased understanding of the ancient ancestors of the Zapotecs. Such materials included coloring sheets with line drawings of actual ancient vessels. Hernández created trilingual Zapotec-Spanish-English game boards for a version of the Lotería game that is similar to Bingo, but with images and words. Hernández also created models for and supervised the 3D printing of replicas of artifacts found in the tombs (see Figures 11 and 12), including some plastic vessels, “ear flares,” ornaments like those made of jadeite found in the tombs fitted with clip earring backs, and an incense burner. This last object was particularly satisfying because when Hernández and Hoobler visited the community museum, they found a case holding actual pre-Columbian objects found in the town. It included the handle for such an incense burner, but the bowl of the burner had been broken off. (See Figure 13 for a contrast between the ancient and modern objects.) This 3D model was an object that young people in the town could actually handle without fear of causing it damage, allowing them to understand better the purpose of a formerly innocuous object in their museum.

Figure 12 - Closer view of the table in figure 11, showing different 3D printed objects, including vessels and small figurines.

Figure 12: Closer view of the table in figure 11, showing different 3D printed objects, including vessels and small figurines.


Fig. 13 – Photograph of a display case with a glass top, and ceramic fragments inside. Inset with second image, a plastic vessel similar to one of the ones seen inside the case.

Figure 13: Photograph of a display case with a glass top, and ceramic fragments inside. Inset with second image, a plastic vessel similar to one of the ones seen inside the case.

While this was a gratifying episode, the interaction largely ended there because Hoobler had not undertaken long-term planning for a continuous relationship with the museum. There had been discussion between Hernández and Hoobler at the beginning of the summer about training young people in the community to work with digital 3D modeling themselves, but as it was unclear at that point what the capabilities of the computer at the community museum were, this idea was discarded. However, as Pohawpatchoko et al. (2017) discuss, this would likely be the richest option for receiving useful input regarding the value of reproducing ancient objects for the community. As has happened in past collaborations with indigenous groups, there were “good intentions” on the part of the North American university team but not many actual solutions (La Salle 2010). Community engagement is incredibly rewarding, but can be difficult or feel awkward when not executed within a longstanding relationship. Without an already-established personal relationship with the town and community museum committee, this attempt was limited in its success. However, this experiment provided Hernández with valuable experience working with local communities that he would use in his subsequent work in Costa Rica, a project that did prove to be more successful.

This episode brings up a final point about 3D modeling and its use in art-historical scholarship and teaching. It can be an end unto itself, and as the price of 3D printers becomes more affordable, it can be used in conjunction with 3D printing effectively. This is helpful information in many ways. First, it allows us to rethink traditional methods of studying art. Within art history, primacy has been given to the visual qualities of a work of art, yet sculpture and many objects were very much prized for their tactile qualities as well. Theoretically, 3D modeling and 3D printing would allow students to recapture some of the tactile experience of an object. There may be some exceptions—one being that the tomb modeled by Miller in 2014 was particularly hard to model with digital means since it had asymmetrical walls that curved irregularly; yet those walls also referenced the fingers that had shaped it (see Figure 4). Thus, though it was printed in plastic filament on a CubePro printer and the fine-grained texture was in no way accurate, in general terms even the plastic proxy in some way called attention to the hands that had shaped it. Unfortunately, in practice, many smaller schools are not buying the kind of high-end 3D printers that can print texture similar to that of the original and, at larger universities, there is sometimes a siloing of resources, with the result that “less technological” departments such as art history might not be able to use this sophisticated equipment, whose raw materials are similarly quite costly.

Secondly, 3D modeling and printing gives students a sense of the scale of objects when they are printed at full size. Just as viewers of the Mona Lisa are always surprised by how small the painting is, it is also helpful to understand, in a phenomenological sense, the contents of tombs at a human level. For example, in summer 2015, one of the objects given to the community museum was a “mystery vessel” found in several of the tombs. (See gray object at left of Figure 13.) Its side walls are so low that it is hard to imagine what it could have been used for—it is not an incense burner or other easily recognizable artifact. The hope in giving it to the community museum was that an older member of the community might recognize it, as has happened previously (Lind and Urcid 2010, 276–77). However, because low-end 3D printers are usually only capable of printing objects that can fit within a 10” square, it is nearly impossible to recreate the sense of scale one experiences from a huge pre-Columbian olla jugs. Low-end printers also create plastic objects that are aggressively monochromatic and very toy-like. More sophisticated, expensive printers can generate objects in materials such as ceramic, metal, or paper with very delicate tints mimicking the original object, but lower-end printers create models that look very Lego-like (Figure 13) and can even run the risk of seeming disrespectful when working with cultural heritage objects.

The Importance of Reflection in the Process

Since Hoobler originally conceived of the project as more product-based and was focused on the end result, she had not built in as much time and opportunity as she later would have wanted for self reflection on the part of the students (or herself). This is important on the one hand because it is increasingly clear how metacognition, or reflecting on the process of learning itself, is crucial to learning. Self-reflection is helpful for a number of reasons. First, as Paige Morgan notes, it allows participants to broaden the question of whether a project is “done” beyond a yes/no binary (Morgan 2014). A team can recognize and acknowledge progress even if they do not realize all that they plan to do. Second, progress can be measured in real time, perhaps weekly. Since digital work is new for many professors, they may find that they were optimistic about what the team can accomplish in the time allotted. Third, writing and documentation may help explicitly describe and justify the choices made at different points where available data may not be available.

Interestingly, although self-reflection was not structured as part of the project, all the students sought out the opportunity to reflect on the process and showcase their work. Miller created a website for the project (www.digitalzapotectombs.com) that Hernández added to and Hoobler has maintained. Professors who work with undergraduates on academic projects should provide them with this opportunity, which allows them to keep track of how they arrived at certain solutions, maintain a record of challenges they have surmounted, and chart the progress they have made. A website or other public venue also allows them to have a permanent record of their work, accessible by potential employers or graduate school admissions personnel. In general, professors should build this kind of periodic reflection into the project timeline, perhaps by encouraging blogging. This would allow the students (and the professor) to reflect more effectively on how much progress they were actually able to make in a single summer, semester, independent study period, or over the course of a longer-term project.

Despite not keeping an ongoing record of progress in a blog format, the lessons learned by both the students and the professor throughout the process are evident. Working collaboratively with peers from such diverse fields meant each team member was able to bring their own set of skills and background knowledge to the project, and that others were able to learn from them. By extension, cross-disciplinary relationships were formed with other students and staff on campus as well as at other institutions as they were brought in to consult on various issues. Hernández, Miller, and Quinn were able to take ownership of their contributions to the project, each utilizing their “very particular set of skills,” and working more as collaborators with Professor Hoobler. Hoobler would argue that it was a good and productive experience for the students to see their professor not as the “sage on the stage” but as a coworker, not infallible— sometimes not even the authority on the project. All participants saw first hand how important project management and planning skills are, and yet how one discrete portion of a project can be completed in a relatively short time.

Why Use 3D Modeling in Art History?

To conclude, there are many affordances of 3D modeling for art historians. Current modeling technologies allow for what Johanna Drucker has called digitized, rather than digital art history, the latter being defined as “analytic techniques enabled by computational technology” (Drucker 2013: 7). The use of 3D modeling is the digital equivalent of sketching the objects you are studying—it forces sustained close looking and a quality of focused attention to representing a given object or space. However, it does obligate you to be much more concrete than sketches are in representing your understanding of the physical context of objects and buildings as you think through their placement and surroundings, sometimes including terrain, neighboring structures, etc. This type of modeling is particularly helpful for considering ancient spaces where context is unclear: a 3D environment allows the scholar to reunite fragments that are lost, dispersed, or damaged. When printed, 3D models also afford the user a physical object that gives them the experience of scale and basic tactile qualities, opening up questions of use and function for mystery objects. As technology for 3D printing continues to improve, 3D printing will likely also offer a very close proxy for the object in terms of colors and textures.

However, the pedagogical benefits of 3D modeling projects may actually outweigh these digital “products.” The opportunity for students to form close working relationships with each other and faculty in a setting where their professor is not an infallible authority and they may well have to “teach the teacher” at points is important. In this particular case, students also gained valuable international experience, confronting cultural differences and communication barriers at times. In general, students learn about and then grapple with thorny problems to which there are no easy solutions. It is important that they complete at least one aspect of the project, perhaps a prototype that can act as a future “calling card” for them, and ideally it should be part of a broader process of reflection on the project. Such a “proof of concept” has broader pedagogical value too—the professor can then use it in their classes, discussing how it was made by students, and making such processes feel manageable and “relatable” for other students.

Of course, the main takeaway of this article for professors is to choose incredibly smart, positive, conscientious students who are much better than you are with software as your collaborators and then—just get out of the way. Your students will find ways to take ownership and make the project, or at least parts of it, happen in ways you never expected, but which will teach you about technological (and other) solutions you never dreamed existed.


Many thanks are due by the authors to: The Cornell College Summer Research Institute, Cornell College Student-Faculty Research Fund, the RJ McElroy Fund / Iowa College Foundation grant. At Cornell College, we would like to thank Brooke Bergantzel, Instructional Technology Librarian at Cornell College, Amy Gullen, Consulting Librarian for the Sciences and Technology, Christina Penn-Goetsch, Professor of Art History, Joe Dieker, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Ben Greenstein, Professor of Geology and Associate Dean of the College, and Derin Sherman, Professor of Physics. We would also like to thank the committee of the Museo Comunitario San Juan Guelavía, and particularly Juan Manuel Martínez García.

Ellen Hoobler would also like to thank Mandar Sharad Banavadikar for his patience and understanding during these two summers of work, as well as Angel David Nieves, Ph.D. Associate Professor at Hamilton College for his wise counsel and support during this process.


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Snyder, Lisa M. 2012. “Virtual Reality for Humanities Scholarship.” New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3: 396.

About the Authors

Since February 2017, Ellen Hoobler is the William B. Ziff, Jr. Associate Curator of the Art of the Americas at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. Prior to becoming a curator, she was from 2012–2017 an Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA. A specialist in art of ancient Oaxaca, she is interested in the possibilities of digital technologies to further understanding of ancient cultures and cultural heritage monuments. She can be reached by email at emh2104@gmail.com.

Catherine Quinn graduated from Cornell College in 2015 with honors in Art History. A native of Seattle, she currently works in corporate America while serving as a docent for the Seattle Art Museum’s SAMbassador program, where she enjoys interacting with visitors, discussing art, and keeping her art history skills sharp. She is planning to attend graduate school in fall 2018 to continue learning about digital humanities, with the goal of pursuing a career in digital humanities and cultural heritage. Catherine can be reached by email for comments or questions at Catherine.j.quinn@gmail.com.

Ve’Amber Miller graduated from Cornell College in 2015 with a degree in both Archaeology and English and Creative Writing. As of early 2018, she works as a Park Guide at Pullman National Monument, and enjoys telling history through tours and educational outreach programs of a historic neighborhood in Chicago, IL. She is hoping to attend graduate school in fall 2018 to learn more about how technology and cultural institutions are part of the future of public history. To know more about Ve’Amber and her qualifications, please visit her LinkedIn profile at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ve-amber- miller-b37b2255/

Arturo Hernández, Jr. is a freelance designer, technologist, and visual artist living in Los Angeles. He graduated from Cornell College in 2016 with majors in Computer Science and Studio Art, and was from 2016–2017 a teacher with the non-profit organization Abriendo Mentes in Costa Rica. There, he taught basic technology skills to rural Costa Ricans. For comments and opportunities, Arturo can be reached via his website: http://www.arturohernandezjr.com/. Samples of his technology work related to this project can be seen at https://github.com/ahernandez16/Monte-Alban-Zapotec-Tombs.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw

Doing Digital Art History in a Pre-Columbian Art Survey Class: Creating an Omeka Exhibition Around the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall


This article describes the development of an Omeka student project in a Pre-Columbian art history survey class that also acquaints students with digital art history (DAH). The course incorporates daily activities intended to help students create a collaborative Omeka exhibition focused on the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN). These activities, which include annotating images, creating metadata for images, discussions of image copyrights and fair use, sourcing images, and assessing online resources, introduce some of the important tools, skills, and methodologies of DAH to students largely unfamiliar with the digital humanities. They also prepare students to create an Omeka exhibition framed around the CZN and comparative images. Both the classroom activities and Omeka project help students to think about digital visual culture, non-linear storytelling, and public art history as well as the opportunities afforded by DAH to shape new narratives about the history of art in the ancient Americas.

Many in the humanities—whether they consider themselves digital humanists or not—employ digital technology to engage students within and outside the classroom. One of my colleagues in the English Program at Pepperdine University, where I teach, asks students to create a blog to share reading responses, but considers herself “tech-averse.” She simply uses the blogging platform because she feels it appeals to students who are more familiar with digital environments. Another English colleague asks students to use WordSmith (a textual analysis program that examines word patterns and frequency) to analyze primary source documents located in our Special Collections as part of a process of producing a website on George Pepperdine’s writings; she considers her pedagogical approach as one that bridges machine learning with humanistic inquiry. These two approaches represent a general spectrum of digitally mindful pedagogy, from the digitally inflected to the digitally centered; in this essay, I am more interested in the latter. A vast literature exists on how such digitally centered pedagogy can benefit (or not) students in English, History, Classics, Philosophy, and Information Literacy/Library Studies (or some combination thereof) by helping them to ask discipline-specific questions using digital tools. For instance, Chris Johanson and Elaine Sullivan (2015) have discussed creating a class focused on digital cultural mapping as a way to “develop students’ critical thinking skills and visual sophistication” (123). T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) considers how digital tools and methods encourage students to “produce either new knowledge about the past, or old knowledge presented in new ways.” Kelly also offers guidance and narratives intended to promote reflection on how historians can use digital media in the classroom to “create active learning opportunities.” In other words, he makes suggestions about how historians can embrace digitally inflected technologies to create new methods of historical inquiry (“Introduction”; see also Iantorno 2014, and the various essays within the issue; Mourer 2017; Silva 2016).

Discussions of digitally inflected or digitally centered art history pedagogy are more recent, as are attempts to define digital art history (DAH) and its unique practices.[1] However, a steadily growing literature attests to the interest in such pedagogical strategies, such as the use of data visualization to explore artists’ relationships to one another to reveal gender bias within the field (Ross 2013). What is DAH pedagogy? This question is at the heart of recent discussions, among them an insightful Smarthistory.org blog entry by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker (founders of Smarthistory) titled “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” (2017).[2] Noting that articles focused on DAH pedagogy are often valued less than those focused on research (e.g., Fletcher 2015), they argue that DAH can be used in the classroom and beyond “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills.”[3] Among their recommendations: inform students about the importance of speaking to a broad, public audience; teach them about copyrights, licensing, and fair use; collaborate; and open up the classroom and teaching strategies. In a similar vein, Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology organized a panel at the 2016 College Art Association meeting that addressed how new technologies have potentially transformed the art history classroom, moving beyond the now deeply ingrained digitized slide lecture. At a time when the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) has become a topic of greater interest among art historians, in part due to the rapid changes in technology that have impacted learning as well as the looming threats to the humanities at large, considerations of pedagogy and DAH seem apt and timely (e.g., Spivey and McGarry 2016).[4]

What these discussions reveal is that DAH pedagogy builds on the broader applications and investigations of DH pedagogy yet differs in several key ways. For instance, DAH pedagogy stresses how visual culture (or “art”) is uniquely suited to ask different types of questions from written texts, revealed in processes like how we create data about imagery that cannot be tagged or annotated using the same methods or tools as that produced for alphabetic texts. Art historians (and our students) are also positioned to think critically about digital visuality and analyze how digital visual environments encode ideas. Discussions about “visuality and the digital,” or simply digital visuality, form an important cornerstone within these considerations about DAH pedagogy. The Nordic Network for Digital Visuality defines digital visuality as “the production and consumption of digitally mediated expressions of selfhood and society through visual and audio-visual interfaces (images, photos, video, TV, etc.).” With all these discussions in mind, how then can we explore digital visuality with students in the art history survey classroom?

This essay describes the development of a joint DAH and Pre-Columbian art survey class that will run in Fall 2017.[5] Specifically, through the semester-long activities and Omeka course project students complete to explore digital visuality, I discuss how DAH can transform the practice of traditional art history and the production of knowledge in this digital age. At Pepperdine, a new digital humanities minor was approved for Fall 2017. One of the first classes to be offered as an elective is my Pre-Columbian art history class, an ambitious survey that explores some of the cultures of what is today Latin America prior to the arrival of Europeans [for an overview, see Appendix A]. Most students enter with little to no background in the subject matter, so it functions as a general survey course. I have taught this class for many years (not at Pepperdine), but never as one that also introduces students specifically to DAH. Knowing that it fulfills the digital humanities minor elective means I have had the opportunity to reconceptualize the class to both introduce some DAH methods and tools and focus on pre-Columbian art and history. What does DAH look like in the survey classroom? More specifically, how do I introduce the methodologies and tools of DAH to undergraduates of all levels in an art history survey class, or even what do I choose to introduce within a single semester? How do I reconfigure a class I typically teach in a slide-style lecture format to incorporate DAH as I have done with some of my other art history classes?

In my Renaissance and Spanish Colonial art history classes, I have found that an effective way of introducing students to some core DAH methods and tools is asking them to produce an Omeka exhibition. The creation of this type of project relates to broader issues in art history and digital humanities, including classifications or labels, digital versus print sources, reading and interpreting images, access, collaboration, and visuality.[6] It also introduces students to “digitization, organization, presentation, exhibition, [and] metadata creation,” as Jeffrey McClurken (2010) notes in his article on teaching with Omeka. Omeka is a content management system (CMS) available on the web that allows users to curate digital archives and exhibitions, providing students with opportunities to think like a curator or archivist. I prefer Omeka to other CMSs, such as Drupal, because it allows my class to create both an archive of items and a narrative exhibition even if students have no programming skills. In addition, I agree with teachinghistory.org regarding Omeka’s potential to help students gain certain skills transferable to many careers (Roy Rosenzweig Center 2010–2018). In some of the classes in which I have introduced Omeka (or something similar to it), students often felt unease with a DAH project rather than the traditional research paper of approximately 8–10 pages. This unease largely stemmed from their unfamiliarity with using Omeka and presenting art-historical arguments in a non-linear fashion, but it also sometimes resulted from my own missteps: not introducing Omeka early enough in the semester, forming ineffective teams, or not scaffolding activities to help them understand how and why Omeka is an important manner in which to present knowledge.[7]

Learning from these earlier experiences, I decided that in my Pre-Columbian art survey class, students would work in teams to create an Omeka exhibition centered on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN), a Mixtec (or Ñudzavui) codex dating to ca. 1450 that partly relates to the epic narrative of the hero Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw” (Figure 1). While the specific content of this codex is largely unfamiliar to students, it generally appeals to them because it focuses on genealogical history and an epic hero story—concepts that are familiar in relation to other cultures and eras. Each student will choose one folio from the CZN related to Lord 8 Deer to complete an individual component of the project before choosing a larger theme around which to frame their chosen folios within their teams. Teams will decide on the theme that each member will explore using his or her folio and compare it to a few additional images and objects to expand on the thematic focus. For instance, a team might explore pigments used to color the CZN or how women are depicted. Teams will write a collaborative introduction to their exhibition, but will also write individual pages as part of the exhibition that elaborate on the theme with their chosen folio. The goal of the class is to introduce students to important DAH ideas, skills, and methods such as creating clear metadata, annotating digital images, evaluating digital art history projects, and understanding what content management systems can do. This must be accomplished early in the semester so that they will use this knowledge to construct the Omeka CZN exhibition, creating repeated opportunities “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills,” as Harris and Zucker (2015) urge.

Codex Zouche-Nuttall Open
Figure 1. Codex Zouche-Nuttall (source: Michel Wal, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons).

In earlier iterations of this class, to develop students’ visual literacy skills and historical knowledge, I often assigned students a local museum object from Mesoamerica or the Andes around which they developed a project. The first component of this more traditional project was a formal analysis paper (approximately 2–3 pages) that asked students to study the object in person and analyze its composition, lines, color, texture, and shapes. They then researched a broader topic (such as gender, mythology, or rulership) with this object as their primary focus. Until I became more interested in DAH as a scholar and teacher in 2013, these assignments were the cornerstones of my classroom. Since early 2014, I have continued to transform my pedagogy and course assignments for several of my classes, but have not yet had the opportunity to do so for my Pre-Columbian course. Given my success with creating Omeka exhibitions in other classes—although none that fulfilled any major or minor requirement in DH—I will make this project and the requisite skills and tools needed to construct it a key thread for my new pre-Columbian art course. While I am replacing the traditional formal analysis/research paper model, the Omeka project still asks students to look closely at images and to interpret them asking new types of questions.

In my experience, students are often intrigued but overwhelmed learning about Mesoamerican pictorial codices, including the CZN. The very idea that the codex has no written text, only visual imagery to tell a story, can present a real challenge, as can the non-linear visual storytelling. Apart from the Maya, Mesoamerican peoples did not have fully developed writing systems akin to our own system of writing. However, complex forms of visual writing are found throughout Mesoamerican history. The Mixtec are but one group who produced complex pictographic codices that relayed genealogies and dynastic histories, calendrical information, or ritualistic details.[8] By their very nature, the codices are read differently than a book with written text, and anyone unfamiliar with the visual signs or pictographic symbols will find these codices challenging and possibly impenetrable. This is also true when the manner (or style) in which the imagery appears is unfamiliar to most students. They have to develop new visual literacy skills and become more familiar with Mesoamerican sign systems to decode what they see. Feedback from student evaluations and in-class discussions suggests that students enjoy learning about Mixtec codices because once they know how to read them they recognize how similar they are to more contemporary visual storytelling modes, such as comic books.

DAH—and Omeka in particular—provides a new way of engaging with the CZN that allows my class to broach a variety of topics: collaboration, writing without words in Mesoamerica, storytelling within the codex and in digital formats, metadata and classification, and engaging with a public audience (not just the professor). It also presents an opportunity for students to think in a non-linear fashion about how to present their ideas, arguments, and evidence using a CMS like Omeka, in the process becoming more aware of DAH and digital visuality in general. The non-linear construction of Omeka also mimics, to some degree, the non-linear pictorial writing of the CZN.

Introducing DAH in a Pre-Columbian Art History Survey Class

Before describing the Omeka project in greater detail, I will outline some of the activities students will complete during class time to introduce them to DAH methods and tools—those that they will need to complete their project. Because some students will take other DH classes to fulfill the minor requirement, I want this class to highlight what makes DAH potentially different from DH. I have selected a few methods and tools that build on one another and allow students to learn about pre-Columbian art and DAH simultaneously. They include image analysis and annotation, locating and analyzing online resources, creating metadata, collaboration, understanding fair use and image copyright permissions, and finding ways to engage with a broader audience (“public art history”). All of these tools and methods we will initially explore together in class, either with me introducing them or as a team activity related to the day’s material. The opportunity to use the classroom as a lab for experimentation permits students to gain some level of mastery over the skills and tools they will be expected to use in their final Omeka project.

Collaboration will be stressed from the beginning of the semester. On the first day of class students will be arranged into permanent teams; to hold them accountable to their team, students will provide peer evaluations at the midterm and end of the semester, both of which factor into their final grade.[9] All students at Pepperdine have access to Google Apps, providing an easy way for teams to collaborate and organize their assignments and research. Each team will create a folder in Google Drive that is accessible to all of the team members and me. Any assignment they complete as an individual or team will be located here. To familiarize students with the collaborative writing process, I will also ask them to create a document in their folder labeled “lecture notes” that the team can use simultaneously during lecture to produce one set of cohesive notes to help them review material. For students unfamiliar with this process, it can be disorienting, so we will brainstorm ways to organize the notes or divide the work fairly between team members. I have used crowd-sourced lecture notes in my large lecture humanities class (200+ students) with great success, and I imagine similar success in this smaller class of 20. Also on day one, a collaborative icebreaker activity will act as an entry point to the topic of pre-Columbian art and its significance as a field of study. Each team will complete a poll/scavenger hunt that includes locating a definition and map of Mesoamerica and an image of the Maya calendar, tagging a few images that I provide and listing associations they have with certain terms, including “Aztec,” “Inka,” “Moche,” and “Pre-Columbian.” This activity will allow teams to bond while adjusting to working collaboratively as well as raise important issues about perceptions or misperceptions of pre-Columbian cultures, art, and history.

On the second day of class (or during the first full lecture), each student will receive the same black-and-white photocopied image showing the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice in the early colonial Codex Magliabechiano (fol. 70) (Figure 2). They will be asked to annotate it (with a pen) in any manner they see fit, using information from the previous night’s reading (e.g., Boone 1980, 1–5; Taube 1993, 18–30) about the validity of using early colonial ethno-historical manuscripts and codices to understand pre-Columbian cultures.[10] Having done this exercise in the past, I know that student-generated annotations range from pure formal description (e.g., a heart, a person, a knife) to cultural biases about Aztec sacrifice (e.g., murderous peoples, bloodlust). After students share and describe their annotations, we will discuss what these annotations exclude—in other words, how does the very act of annotating an image potentially skew an individual’s engagement with what is displayed?

Cropped image of Aztec Heart Sacrifice on temple platform from sixteenth-century Codex Magliabechiano 70r
Figure 2. Folio 70r of the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The same image will then be displayed on the screen using Thinglink, a tool that allows digital annotation (or tagging) of images. My annotated Codex Magliabechiano image will include links to other sources, maps, and videos to demonstrate for students the possibilities afforded by this manner of framing images. Students are asked to compare this manner of annotating images with the paper version they completed. This activity motivates students to look closely as well as think about how annotations affect our reception and interpretation of images on paper or in the digital environment. It also allows us to address the issue of the physical context of the image, cropped and disassociated from the manuscript’s other images and text—in other words, the process of decontextualization that occurs when images are printed in books or placed on the web. This is especially important to consider in the digital environment, and the ways in which we can work to provide better contextualization.

Students are often unprepared or unfamiliar with how to assess digital resources, which is a crucial skill as more students turn to information online. In a following lecture, each team will assess information online about a topic with which they now have some familiarity: Aztec human sacrifice. The sources include webpages like Wikipedia’s entry and Aztec-history.com. Each team will receive a rubric [Appendix B] to use in assessing the resource. The critical reading activity opens a conversation about how we know what we know about Aztec sacrificial rituals—a topic that receives a disproportionate amount of attention in the past and present, not all of it valuable or accurate. Assessing digital resources permits students to think about knowledge and information, digital sources, and digital narratives (visual and textual). It also raises the importance of accountability, especially when publishing material accessible to the general public via a web search. This activity prepares students for the research they will complete about the CZN, and for which they will be asked to draw on print and digital sources.

Introducing students to metadata early in the semester is important because for their Omeka project they will need to input metadata for each item as it relates to the Dublin Core (used by Omeka). Initial conversations with students about metadata often reveal their unfamiliarity with the concept, even if in practice they do know something about it. In a few class periods, we consider metadata specifically: What is it? How is it created? How is it used? Why does it matter?[11] “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata” by Jeff Good (2002) serves as the launching point for our discussion about creating metadata for objects and images versus written texts. Students today are familiar with tagging, especially on social media, which serves as a useful starting point for creating metadata. After our initial discussion, and during a lecture on Aztec art, I will project for students the famous Coyolxauhqui monolith and ask them to create metadata, specifically as it relates to the Dublin Core. They will complete this activity in a team Google Doc so they can see the metadata generated by other students—and how this might differ greatly from their own choices. Time pending, I will also introduce students to the Getty’s Cultural Objects Name Authority® Online, or CONA (still in development), which provides metadata about visual culture specifically. In other classes where I have used Omeka, one of the biggest hurdles for students has been learning the language of Dublin Core. My intention with this assignment is to introduce it before students even begin to interact with Omeka so they develop familiarity with metadata and how to create it.

For the Omeka site, students will also need to locate images that have a Creative Commons license or are not protected by certain copyrights. To prepare them for this need, in a lecture about the Aztecs, students will complete a team scavenger hunt, an activity adapted from the 2014 DAH institute “Rebuilding the Portfolio.”[12] The scavenger hunt includes finding three copyright-free images from the Templo Mayor, finding an object from the Templo Mayor in a U.S. museum, locating a high quality image of an object associated with the Templo Mayor, and sourcing a video about some aspect of the Aztecs that seems accurate. This activity provides a low-stakes opportunity for them to think about where to find images or multimedia content for their Omeka exhibition. It also begins a longer conversation about who owns images and objects, why copyrights exist, and the need to identify how best to use copyrighted materials. Students will be introduced, for instance, to the College Art Association’s “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts.” Students rarely consider fair use or image copyrights, but it is important information for them to have in our digital era.

While none of these activities focuses on the CZN or Omeka specifically, each one introduces students to key aspects of the project from the class’s beginning. Scaffolding these low-stakes activities helps students digest new tools and skills before learning about Omeka and the CZN in more detail. My goal is to help students feel more confident about using Omeka because they will recognize the similarities with earlier activities completed during class. They will also understand that experimenting with a new tool or skill does not always mean mastery of it, and that struggling or even “failing” is an important part of the learning experience.

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall Project

Up to this point, students have not engaged explicitly with the Codex Zouche-Nutall. Over the next several lectures, they will have the opportunity to use DAH methods and tools in relation to Mixtec codices, helping them begin to think about their project in greater detail. Prior to the first class on Mixtec codices, students will receive a folio from the CZN (e.g., Figure 3) that they will narrate in written form and read to the class. Students will certainly have some creative readings because they have no deep familiarity with the CZN. This activity is intended to spark their visual interest in the CZN and to demonstrate the complexity of putting pictographic writing into words. It is a basic activity that embodies the post-structuralist notion of the incommensurability of language and images (or even vision), summed up by the philosopher-historian Michel Foucault (1973, 9): “the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”

Once students have shared their written narratives, we will discuss how to “read” and understand the complex imagery in the CZN. A main resource is John Pohl’s detailed discussion of the CZN available on FAMSI, or the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Institute. With the folio projected on the screen, students will begin to read day and year signs, place signs, the people displayed, specific gestures, and other visual signs after engaging with some of these resources. I will also provide them with another annotated image on Thinglink for future reference (in addition to a Google Doc that includes useful information). Students will then break into their teams and browse through the CZN to select their individual folios and begin brainstorming the team theme for their Omeka project. They will record their ideas on a Google Doc as well as paste images of their chosen folios into the same document for the team’s easy reference. At this point, they will begin to conduct research on the CZN, and more specifically their chosen theme. A librarian will visit one class to discuss available resources on campus and beyond (e.g., Interlibrary Loan, online resources, databases, local resources like UCLA and the Getty) as well as to discuss information literacy more broadly.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw
Figure 3. Codex Zouche-Nuttall folio. By Anonymous (British Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An entire day is devoted to a tour and overview of Omeka, with us working through two posts from The Programming Historian (“Up and running with Omeka.net” [Posner 2016] and “Creating an Omeka Exhibit” [Posner and Brett 2016]). After introducing them to Omeka specifically, they will have the opportunity to upload their chosen folio as an item. At this point, students are aware that Omeka uses the Dublin Core metadata element for its records. Earlier class conversations and activities about metadata will help students recognize how Omeka is structured to create an item. Students will be prompted to add their chosen folio from the CZN to Omeka as an item, allowing them to practice inputting metadata using Dublin Core. Omeka also allows for specific Item Type Metadata, adding files (like images), and tags. Adding this one item is the first step on Omeka toward completing their larger team exhibition.

Paired with the earlier exercises, the creation of the Omeka items encourages students to think further about how images and objects are categorized, including the potential challenges and problems that arise in the process of categorization. This issue of categorization is one I often wrestle with in teaching and practicing art history, and one that many of my courses and research address. In my Renaissance art class, for instance, we often return to the question of what falls under the category of “Renaissance” and why. What chronological or geographical boundaries do we use to describe something as “Renaissance art”? Does a sixteenth-century colonial Mexican featherwork modeled on a Flemish print belong to the Renaissance? What stylistic label(s) do we use to describe something as “Renaissance,” and is it even important that we do so? Why is an Italian maniera artist like Bernardo Bitti, who moved to colonial Peru, often excluded from discussions of the reach of the Italian Renaissance outside of those focused on colonial Latin America? Inputting this one folio image from the CZN into Omeka, students are further exposed to the challenges that art historians face, and the subjectivity that arises when ascribing labels to artworks—or anything for that matter. This stage of the project not only helps students to look more closely at one single folio but also presses them to think about the potential impact digital resources can have on our understanding of a single image.

Students will be given the freedom to explore their team theme in any way they see fit, provided they locate comparative images and complete documented research to support their ideas. Once teams have developed a thematic focus for their larger exhibition, each individual student will decide how to analyze their chosen folio with this theme in mind. Students will be asked to find comparative images, objects, or architecture that connects to their folio and theme. For instance, one team might decide to focus on places depicted in the CZN, with each individual team member then focusing on a place depicted in a single folio. One student might realize the images associated with Tilantongo (Ñuu Tnoo) appear similar to architectural frieze remains of Mitla that we discussed. She could decide to include a photograph of the palace of Mitla as an item to Omeka and develop this comparison in her individual exhibition page. Another student in the same team might have an interest in topography of the Oaxaca region of Mexico and find photographs of some of the large, prominent hills (like Black Hill, or Yucu Tnoo) that are sometimes associated with specific places in the CZN. Yet another student might show interest in mapping, deciding to compare the representation of places in a specific folio of the CZN with another Mesoamerican codex that shows the same place or perhaps a different manner of mapping geography. This comparative component asks students to place the imagery and narrative of the CZN in a broader context, thereby making connections to other material discussed in class.

The exhibition is where teams will be able to offer more analytic discussions and ideas about specific items, guiding anyone who visits the site through a curated narrative. Teams will write an introduction (approximately 250–400 words) about their theme in a Google Doc initially before adding it to their exhibition’s first page. In other words, this introduction helps to connect each of their individual items and pages that expand on the items. For their individual pages (approximately 800–1200 words, including notes), the narrative is both textual and visual, pairing their CZN folio with their comparative images as well as the student’s research on and interpretation of the theme. Each student will be asked to link to an annotated Thinglink image of their chosen folio. In addition, similar to the earlier Templo Mayor scavenger hunt, students will need to locate high quality images in the public domain for their comparative images. A specific Google Doc in their team folder will include this information, and any necessary links, to ensure they are working with images that can be publicly posted on their Omeka site.

The ultimate goal is to produce a dynamic exhibition that emphasizes the complexity of the pictorial narrative in the CZN and its relationship to broader visual and material realms in Mesoamerica. Moreover, the final product is intended to demonstrate for students how users can successfully navigate through a non-linear narrative about the CZN—not unlike the process of “reading” the CZN itself. Unlike the traditional research paper, this project encourages students to think about creating an argument both visually and textually in a digital environment. They will have to consider how navigating their narrative online via a screen is different from reading a typed paper, and the different creative and analytic choices that are involved in this form of knowledge production.[13]

The Impact of DAH on the Practice of Art History In and Out of the Classroom

Ideally, each team will create beautiful, well-thought-out, detailed exhibitions. In my experience, however, having students create Omeka exhibitions can be messy, complicated, and frustrating for them. This is because the assignment not only requires them to use a new platform with which they are unfamiliar but also demands that they see the responsibility placed on them: the metadata they create, including tags, affects how people find their images or even understand them. Similarly, the exhibition they create—the images they select, how they interpret them, what they choose to include or exclude, how they discuss their research for a public audience—forms a new narrative similar to other digital resources they are familiar with navigating, but about which they may never have thought about critically.

Yet here is the catch: I see the messy or less cohesive Omeka exhibition as a success, provided students recognize the complexity of digital visuality, information available on the web, and the responsibility they have interpreting the CZN on a public CMS like Omeka. There is inherent value in making mistakes or recognizing where there is need for improvement. If students become anxious that there are errors in information on the website, then we can discuss how we can alter or address them (now or in a future semester). This process also highlights the ongoing nature of historical research, that it is not some finite, clear, linear “thing” that exists in a vacuum—in other words, the process highlights the notion that history is produced, not simply recovered. Furthermore, students learn that the classification systems used by art historians are not objective, and they often find this idea illuminating yet unsettling. It disrupts what they are often taught earlier in their education, but I believe that this process of slow dismantling of preconceived notions is useful, thoughtful, and integral to their development as thinkers. Finally, showcasing student work in a public digital environment demonstrates to the students the responsibility we have as historians to share our research and ideas with people in general, not just other academics.

The Omeka projects I have assigned (and will assign) also provide students with other important skills and ideas, most notably collaborating with peers, being able to communicate with a wide audience, and thinking about how digital images tell stories, all of which are important within any work environment today. As with all collaborative projects, some individuals will find the process frustrating, associating it with the dreaded “group work.” Yet if conflicts arise, they will be coached on how to resolve them in a professional manner, a useful skill on the job market as well. They will also quickly grasp how collaboration allows for a richer, more complex, expansive project that would be impossible to plan and construct as a lone individual—in other words, the potential of crowd-sourcing data and interpretations to revolutionize knowledge production. Even in more traditional art history classes that do not use DAH tools or methodologies, students can use the skills and approaches they have developed to engage with visual culture more deeply. Lastly, students will recognize the power of digital images to construct new narratives and to alter perceptions depending on how this imagery is framed. In the digital world in which we live, students spend a great deal of their time on various social media platforms and encounter digital images in increasingly high numbers. Yet they do not often spend time reflecting on the constructed nature of these digital visual environments. I hope that they will leave the class realizing the significant impact the digital can have on the practice of art history using non-traditional methods and tools, and on the very ways we produce visual and textual knowledge.


[1] Digital art history, like the broader digital humanities, is challenging to define. Recent attempts by Johanna Drucker (2013), Pamela Fletcher (2015), Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich (2017), Diana Zorich (2012), and others highlight what a thorny term it is. Fletcher notes that “Defining digital art history and its relationship to the larger fields of digital humanities and art history is . . . a collaborative work in progress.” I prefer to keep the term as broad as possible, so perhaps it is summed up as the use of new media technologies and computational methods to study and practice art history. For more on what DAH is or how we might define it, see Baca and Helmreich’s special issue on DAH for Visual Resources (2013) as well as Drucker, Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose’s essay on DAH and the American scene (2017).

[2] Smarthistory offers a dynamic resource for students, scholars, and the general public to learn about the history of art. I disclose here that I am a board member, content editor, and author for Smarthistory.

[3] Fletcher, for instance, offers an insightful overview of digital art history research methods and practices, but does not discuss the SoTL or pedagogy (2015). There are also clearer methods of evaluating digital scholarship, but little has been published or discussed about methods of evaluating digital art history pedagogy. For the former, see Fisher 2016. For more on pedagogy and the digital humanities more generally, see Brier 2012.

[4] Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) is an example of greater interest in art history pedagogy resources, with the AHTR weekly journal sometimes addressing specifically digital art history pedagogy concerns. Art History Pedagogy and Practice (AHPP) is affiliated with AHTR.

[5] This essay was written prior to the Fall 2017 semester.

[6] Omeka has three main categories to curate: items, collections, and exhibitions. Items are created and then arranged into collections. Exhibitions are formed around items paired with text and possibly even other visualizations (such as maps).

[7] For a wonderful essay discussing some of the challenges of using Omeka in the classroom, see Allred 2017. For more on students’ possible resistance to new technologies introduced in the classroom, see Keramidas 2012.

[8] For more on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, see Williams 2013 and the general introduction and tutorial resources on mesolore.org.

[9] This strategy is one related to Team-Based Learning (TBL). See Ball and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014; and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014.

[10] Students will also read short excerpts from several of these ethno-historic sources during class.

[11] For a thoughtful discussion of the importance of introducing students to why metadata matters, see Colburn 2017.

[12] I was a participant of this institute, hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and sponsored by the Getty Foundation.

[13] For more on pedagogy, exhibitions, digital media, and interactive design, see Keramidas and Sharratt 2013.


Allred, Jeffrey. 2017. “A Professor Goes Overboard with Omeka and DH Box.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, March 13. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/a-professor-goes-overboard-with-omeka-and-dh-box/.

Baca, Murtha, and Anne Helmreich. 2013. “Introduction.” Visual Resources 29, nos. 1–2 (March–June): 1–4.

———. 2017. “Introducing Three Digital Art History Case Studies.” The Getty Iris, February 15. http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/dah_baca_helmreich/.

Ball, Jennifer, and Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. 2014. “Team-based Learning for Art Historians.” Art History Teaching Resources. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/2014/04/team-based-learning-for-art-historians/.

Boone, Elizabeth. 1980. “How Efficient Are Early Colonial Manuscripts as Iconographic Tools?” Research Center for the Arts Review 2: 1–5.

Brier, Stephen. 2012. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/8.

Colburn, Alston. 2016. “Spreading Awareness of Digital Preservation and Copyright via Omeka-based Projects.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Assignments, March 28. Accessed April 29, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/spreading-awareness-of-digital-preservation-and-copyright-via-omeka-based-projects/.

Drucker, Johanna. 2013. “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?” Visual Resources, special issue on Digital Art History, edited by Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich, 29, nos. 1–2 (Spring): 5–13.

Drucker, Johanna, Anne Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose. 2015. “Digital Art History: The American Scene.” Perspective 2, December 7. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://perspective.revues.org/6021.

Fisher, Michelle Millar. 2016. “Case Studies and Examples for Evaluating Digital Scholarship.” CAA News Today, February 23. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.collegeart.org/news/2016/02/23/case-studies-and-examples-for-evaluating-digital-scholarship/.

Fletcher, Pamela. 2015. “Reflections on Digital Art History.” caa.reviews, June 18. Accessed April 15, 2017. doi: 10.3202/caa.reviews/2015/73.

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York: Vintage. OCLC 234203336.

Good, Jeff. 2002. “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata.” Accessed April 17, 2017. http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~jcgood/bifocal/GentleMetadata.html.

Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. 2015. “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” Smarthistory Blog, July 13. Accessed 20 April 2017. https://smarthistoryblog.org/2015/07/13/where-is-the-pedagogy-in-digital-art-history/.

Iantorno, Luke A. 2014. “Introducing Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” CEA Critic 76, no. 2 (July): 140–146. https://doi.org/10.1353/cea.2014.0015.

Johanson, Chris, and Elaine Sullivan, with Janice Reiff, Diane Favro, Todd Presner, and Willeke Wendrich. 2012. “Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch, 121–150. Open Books Publishers. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/reader/161#page/1/mode/2up.

Kelly, T. Mills. 2013. Teaching History in the Digital Age, Digital Humanities Series. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/dh.12146032.0001.001.

Keramidas, Kimon. 2012. “WikiFAIL: Students and the Orthodoxy of Practice in the Classroom.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, May 7. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/wikifail-students-and-the-orthodoxy-of-practice-in-the-classroom/.

Keramidas, Kimon, and Nicola Sharratt. 2013. “Weaving Stories Between the Material, Immaterial and Ephemeral: Designing Digital Interactives for Socially Complex Objects in an exhibition Setting.” Mediacommons, The New Everyday, September 29. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/weaving-stories-between-material-immaterial-and-ephemeral

Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren. 2014. “Team-Based Learning in Art History: Pros and Cons.” lkilroyewbank.com. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://lkilroyewbank.org/lke-blog/team-based-learning-in-art-history-pros-and-cons/.

McClurken, Jeffrey W. 2010. “Teaching with Omeka.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 9. Accessed April 20, 2017. http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-with-omeka/26078.

Mourer, Marissa. 2017. “A Subject Librarian’s Pedagogical Path in the Digital Humanities.” College and Undergraduate Libraries: 1–15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1336506.

Nordic Network for Digital Visuality (NNDV). [2014?] Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.nordforsk.org/en/programmes-and-projects/projects/nordic-network-for-digital-visuality-nndv.

Posner, Miriam. 2016. “Up and Running with Omeka.net.” The Programming Historian. February 17. Last modified August 6, 2017. https://programminghistorian.org/lessons/up-and-running-with-omeka.

Posner, Miriam and Megan R. Brett. 2016. “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.” The Programming Historian. February 24. Last modified May 25, 2017. https://programminghistorian.org/lessons/creating-an-omeka-exhibit.

Ross, Nancy. 2013. “Teaching Twentieth Century Art History with Gender and Data Visualizations.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Issue 4, December. Accessed October 12, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-twentieth-century-art-history-with-gender-and-data-visualizations/.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. [2017?] “Omeka.” Accessed April 17, 2017. http://teachinghistory.org/digital-classroom/tech-for-teachers/25115.

Silva, Andie. 2016. “Digital Literacies and Visual Rhetoric: Scaffolding a Meme-Based Assignment Sequence for Introductory Composition Classes.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Assignments, December 19. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/digital-literacies-and-visual-rhetoric-scaffolding-a-meme-based-assignment-sequence-for-introductory-composition-classes/.

Spivey, Virginia B., and Renee McGarry. 2016. “Editor’s Introduction: Advancing SoTL-AH.” Art History Pedagogy and Practice 1, no. 1. Accessed February 28, 2017. http://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol1/iss1/1.

Taube, Karl. 1993. Aztec and Maya Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 693779222.

Williams, Robert Lloyd. 2013. The Complete Codex Zouche-Nuttall: Mixtec Lineage Histories and Political Biographies. Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 811591352.

Zorich, Diane M. 2012. “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.” A Report to The Samuel H. Kress Foundation and The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. May. http://www.kressfoundation.org/research/transitioning_to_a_digital_world/.

Appendix A: Brief Overview of Pre-Columbian Survey for Fall 2017

The idea to teach the class like an archaeological dig (in other words, backwards, beginning with the cultures we know most about that are closest to us in time) was borrowed and adapted from Dr. Cecelia F. Klein, Professor Emerita of Pre-Columbian Art History at UCLA.


Basic class info: The class meets for 110 minutes twice a week. It is capped at 20 students. There is no designated computer lab for the class, so students will bring their own laptops to complete activities.


Week 1: Introduction, General Cultural Overviews, the Spanish Conquests and the Problems with Using Mesoamerican Ethno-historical (Early Colonial) Sources


  • Formation of Teams and Google Drive folders
  • Introduction to Crowdsourcing
  • Icebreaker/scavenger hunt activity on Pre-Columbian Art
  • Aztec human sacrifice annotation activity
  • Introduction of Thinglink


Week 2: Origins of the Aztecs and Their Capital City, Tenochtitlan


  • Evaluation of online sources (example: websites on Aztec human sacrifice)


Week 3: The Aztec Templo Mayor and Imperial Ideologies


  • Introduction to Metadata
  • Creating metadata for the Coyolxauhqui monolith
  • Templo Mayor scavenger hunt and discussion of copyrights and fair use


Week 4: The Post-Classic International Style and the Epiclassic; introduction to Omeka; trip to the Getty Center to View “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” on view 16 Sep 2017–28 January 2018.


  • Introduction to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall
  • Introduction to Omeka
  • Creating metadata for single folio of the CZN


Week 5: Teotihuacan; Maya Divine Kingship


  • Teotihuacan scavenger hunt and second discussion of copyrights and fair use
  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Stela 16 at Tikal


Week 6: Maya Courtly Arts; the Olmecs


  • Creating metadata for a Maya painted vessel
  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide


Week 7: Midterm; Problems with Using Andean Ethno-historical (early colonial) Sources



Week 8: Origins of the Inka and Their Capital City, Cusco; Inka Stonework and Textiles


  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Inka Textile/Stonework
  • Librarian Visits Classroom


Week 9: Tiwanaku and Chimu; the Moche; Trip to LACMA to view Ancient Americas Collection


  • Scavenger Hunt at LACMA
  • Project Planning/Creation


Week 10: Moche Cont.; Paracas and Nazca.


  • Creating metadata for a Moche portrait vessel
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom


Week 11: Chavín; Indigenous Peoples After the Spanish Conquests


  • Project Planning/Creation
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom


Week 12: Pre-Columbian Cultures in Modern Times


  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide


Week 13: Work on Omeka Project


  • Work on Omeka Project in class with team and individually


Week 14: Presentations


  • Team and individual presentations

Appendix B. Rubric for Assessing the Usefulness and Validity of Online Sources


Dr. L. Kilroy-Ewbank


Adapted from several online sources, including http://library.unk.edu/assistance/rubric.pdf; http://libguides.snhu.edu/c.php?g=92303&p=2104295.
3 2 1
What is the purpose of the site? To inform and educate its audience. Bias free. To persuade the audience to think a certain way. Reveals a bias. To sell a product or idea for the author’s personal gain.
Who is the author? Author’s name is easy to locate. Author is clearly an authority on the subject (i.e. his or her credentials are sufficient). Author’s name is there, but s/he may or may not be an authority on the subject. Unclear credentials. Unknown author.
What organization is it affiliated with (if any)? A well-known respectable organization (e.g., NEH) is clearly identified as a sponsor of the site. Sponsoring organization identifiable, but its association or reputation with topic is questionable/unclear. No sponsoring organization identified.
Who is the intended audience of the site? Clearly scholars or experts in a specific field (e.g., pre-Columbian archaeology, Renaissance art history). Appears to be the general public, ranging from experts to novices. Unclear who the intended audience is.
Is the website factual? Many facts provided. Website free from opinions or bias. Appears to be factual, but the author’s opinions are frequently revealed. Seems potentially propagandistic. Facts are questionable, based mostly on the author’s opinions. Explicitly propagandistic.
Is the evidence clearly cited, and drawn from a variety of sources? Are captions provided for images, with source information? Evidence is clearly cited, and draws from both primary and secondary sources (or a mixture of relevant sources). Clear where most information came from. The sources are from credible places (reputable journals, libraries, digital platforms). Direct links to original information/sources. Images are captioned, with their source identifiable. Evidence is somewhat clear, and the author draws from variety of sources. The sources seem to be from credible places, but it is not entirely clear. Does not provide direct links to original information/sources. Images have captions, but it is not clear what their source is. Evidence is unclear, and the sources are unclear, if cited at all. No explanation or identification of the sources of evidence. Images have no clear captions of sources.
How would you describe the writing style and organization of the site? Written with clarity and simplicity. Organized effectively. Uses professional language. No advertisements. Written mostly with clarity and simplicity. Organization is effective in most areas. 1-2 advertisements. Writing style is embarrassing, with many errors. Many typos. Haphazard organization. Lots of advertisements.
When was it created? Is it current? Date of creation included.

Current Event: updated within the last month.

Historical Topic: updated within the last year.

Date of creation maybe included.

Current Event: updated 1–6 months ago.

Historical Topic: updated 1–2 years ago.

No date is shown or information is outdated.

Current Event: more than 6 months old.

Historical Topic: more than 2 years old.


21–24 pts: Excellent source for your project. 16–20 pts: Good source for your project, but might need further verification with other sources (in print). 11–15 pts: OK source that could help you generate ideas, but not good enough to cite for your project or to use as a reputable source. 0–10 pts: Questionable source, do not use for your project.

First and foremost, I would like to thank my students over the years who have offered valuable feedback on either my Pre-Columbian art history class or my use of and experimentation with digital art history tools and methods. Special thanks are also offered to Jennifer Smith, Kristen Chiem, Lisa Boutin, and Elena Fitzpatrick Sifford, all of whom read and commented on drafts of this article.

About the Author

Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank is an Associate Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University. She teaches a wide range of subjects, including Pre-Columbian, Latin American, Medieval, Early Modern, and Native American art history. Her research focuses on devotional imagery and portraiture in the Spanish Americas, digital art history pedagogy, and successful strategies for teaching large-lecture courses. She is also a contributing editor for Mesoamerican, Spanish Colonial, and Native American art and board member for Smarthistory.org.

One Day This Kid… is an image of the artist as a young boy is surrounded by text. The prose is a moving and poignant description of the oblique feeling of difference he felt as an innocent child coming to terms with how the world perceives homosexuals and him. The feeling of otherness is quickly transformed into discrimination, fear, and violence.

Digital Developments in the 2010s for an Art History Student and David Wojnarowicz


This article is both a personal response to and review of the digital resources created by Fales Library and Special Collection, New York University (NYU), for the David Wojnarowicz Papers, MSS.092 during the 2010s. It discusses the digitization of Wojnarowicz’s journals and the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base, which is the first digital resource to come out of the Artist Archives Initiative at New York University. The author details his experience learning to use new technologies to undertake art-historical research as an undergraduate and graduate student as well as his relationship to the artist’s work. He concludes that although the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base is an excellent resource for research and a model for digital art history, nothing can replace primary research in an artist’s archive.

Seven years ago, while reading the powerful and beautiful memoir Close to the Knives, I saw the author’s name pop up in the news. I was not sure how to pronounce it, but I definitely recognized it: Wojnarowicz. I was familiar only with his written work at the time, but I knew enough to understand the issues at play in the headlines accruing with each new Google News search: controversy, censorship, religion. Little did I know when I decided that this would be the topic of my senior seminar research in art history as an undergraduate that this was an echo of the Culture Wars twenty-some years earlier.

David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) was a man of many talents. In addition to being a writer, Wojnarowicz was a visual artist, filmmaker, and musician who was active in New York City’s Lower East Side during the 1980s (McCormick 1984, 18–19). With the AIDS crisis escalating in the city, and many of his own friends, loved ones, and peers falling ill and dying, Wojnarowicz received his own diagnosis in spring of 1988, just six months after losing his friend and mentor Peter Hujar (Carr 2012, 391). After seeing his lover suffer from the disease—and ultimately die of AIDS-related complications—Wojnarowicz began exploring the pains and anxieties tied to loss and his own diagnosis through his art. He eventually stated, “Everything I made, I made for Peter” (Carr 2012, 179). The last few years of his life, Wojnarowicz was able to synthesize aspects of his private and public life to produce some of the most poignant work of his career amidst the Culture Wars. Before Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, he was challenged by a number of conservative groups that attempted to silence or distort his voice and art. I learned all of this as I followed the events unfolding in 2010 surrounding the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1986–87) from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and read more on the artist himself.[1]

The process of researching and writing for this undergraduate capstone project was unlike any other academic work I had done previously. Instead of going to the library and checking out books and searching JSTOR as I had learned to do, I was Googling different keyword combinations and reading online comment sections. In some ways it felt very rudimentary, yet that was where the story was unfolding. I have since returned to these resources and looked at Twitter posts starting on November 30, 2010 containing the name “Wojnarowicz.” I knew that these events would later be looked at by art historians, cultural theorists, and politicians since the controversies that developed around Wojnarowicz’s work in 1989 and 1990 were touchstones for his career and the Culture Wars during the AIDS crisis.[2]

Yet one can glean only so much from mass media outlets, the blogosphere, and social media during a time of social and cultural upheaval. Knowing that I wanted to learn more about Wojnarowicz’s work and life beyond the published materials available and the shouting match of publicized controversies, I decided to head to New York City. Leaving my quiet, rural, liberal arts bubble, I found myself in Manhattan for the first time trying to navigate Chelsea in order to find an exhibition called Spirituality: Works by David Wojnarowicz, 1979-1990 at P∙P∙O∙W Gallery, which manages the David Wojnarowicz Estate. For me, this exhibition was a revelation and an affirmation that I was on the correct path with my research and writing. I was able to speak with a few people at the opening who had known the artist, experienced the world he lived in, and survived. These scattered conversations were glimpses into the past as well as an insight into the worldview of artists from the period. Everything I had been reading online hinted at the depth of Wojnarowicz’s work but failed to explore it fully before moving on to important but tangential issues. Moreover, from talking to people at the opening, I sensed the chaos of the 1980s in New York City and realized how poignant and concise Wojnarowicz’s work was back then—and remains today.

I lingered in New York for a few days attempting to soak up the atmosphere of the city that had helped shape who Wojnarowicz was. Eventually, I stumbled into the Whitney Museum of American Art and encountered Untitled (One Day, This Kid…) (1990). This powerful self-portrait depicts Wojnarowicz as a child surrounded by text describing difference, discrimination, fear, and the violence directed toward the young homosexual boy. Leaving the city, I returned to school full of passion to finish my project. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU held The David Wojnarowicz Papers, an unbelievably rich and complex collection of the artist’s journals, photographs, and objects.

One Day This Kid… is an image of the artist as a young boy is surrounded by text. The prose is a moving and poignant description of the oblique feeling of difference he felt as an innocent child coming to terms with how the world perceives homosexuals and him. The feeling of otherness is quickly transformed into discrimination, fear, and violence.

Figure 1. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One Day This Kid…), 1990. Photostat, 30 ¾ x 41 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York. ©Estate of David Wojnarowicz

A year later, in 2012, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to read Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr. Thinking that I had written a thorough and carefully researched paper on Wojnarowicz for my senior seminar project, I was skeptical that I would learn anything I did not already know. I had fancied myself a writer and expert on Wojnarowicz, but after about twenty pages, I realized I was wrong. Carr’s biography is stunningly beautiful. Not only is it supported by astoundingly thorough research, Carr shared the world in which Wojnarowicz lived and knew things I could never have dreamed of discovering through research alone. The richness of this book cannot be understated, and ultimately I knew I needed to visit Fales Library to explore the David Wojnarowicz Papers.

It would be another year before I returned to New York, but in 2013, Fales Library completed digitally scanning Wojnarowicz’s journals and made them available online. As I perused the documentation, I realized once again that I had no idea who Wojnarowicz really was as a person. I certainly knew things about him and could talk for extended lengths of time about his work, but I started considering new aspects of the artist’s life beyond where and when Wojnarowicz dated his journal entries. For example, where in Berlin and at what time of day on January 8, 1984 did he complete the entry “I leave down the road feeling slightly sad but good at last—removed from the handcuffs of taste and dictation of critics—free to make anything or nothing”?[3] Did he close the notebook emphatically and take a large sip of coffee thinking of his career as an artist? Alternatively, did he roll back over and go to sleep? With Wojnarowicz’s journals, I could piece together some of Carr’s insights more clearly than when I first read her account of Wojnarowicz’s life and career, but there was even more life present in these journals than even she could condense into a 600+ page biography.

A scanned journal page from David Wojnarowicz’s notebooks which are held at Fales Library and Special Collections in the David Wojnarowicz Papers.

Figure 2. Scan #7 from Box: 1 Folder: 17, “1984: Berlin, journal fragment” (1984), The David Wojnarowicz Papers; MSS 092; Box 1, Folder 17; Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University

Although I had been thinking about graduate school since completing my undergraduate studies, it was not until that summer that I began applying. I knew that I wanted to continue my education in art history, but I also felt that it would be beneficial to pair that knowledge with some technical skills. Library school was the most attractive option, and I received an acceptance letter from Pratt Institute in New York to enter their dual-master’s program in the History of Art and Design and Library and Information Science.

When I began the program in the fall of 2014, I did not intend to continue my academic research on Wojnarowicz, but I made plans to visit Fales Library to see the David Wojnarowicz Papers in person since I had been following their endeavors for the past three years. I eventually visited the collection and was able to study objects and documents I had only encountered in photographs or descriptions of Wojnarowicz’s work. The decision to come to Pratt was based on both a desire to study in a big city and the notion that art history and the rapidly developing digital world were bound to intersect in profound ways.

By the spring of 2016, I was taking a course titled “Installation Art: Design and Change” that would lead me to my thesis research on the installation and ephemeral art created by Wojnarowicz. The primary function of my thesis was to describe and collect documentation on this aspect of the artist’s creative output since many of these projects and works no longer exist. Believing that Wojnarowicz’s installations were emblematic of his biography, corpus, and culture, I began organizing my research. In an attempt to catalog and quantify Wojnarowicz’s intricate installations from photographs, exhibition checklists, and journal entries, I created an Omeka website that acted as a hierarchical collection management system (CMS) for the installations (Collection Level) and the objects therein (Item Level) assembled by Wojnarowicz throughout several periods in his career as an artist (Exhibit Level). Using an online platform was a way for me not only to organize my research but also to share it with others. This was by no means a “digital art history” project, but rather a digital tool that would help facilitate my analysis and interpretation of this aspect of Wojnarowicz’s work.

An installation shot of the Untitled (Burning Child) Installation from Gracie Mansion Gallery. This elaborate installation included a mannequin of a child covered in maps with paper flames coming off its arms as it runs on a sandy floor amid aquatic plants made of paper. Above the child is a taxidermied shark, also covered in maps. The windows are blacked out with heavy curtains and a large painting, Dad’s Ship, hangs on the wall behind the child. There was also an audio element in this multimedia installation.

Figure 3. Untitled (Burning Child) Installation (1984), The David Wojnarowicz Papers; MSS 092; Box 80, Slide Box 48; Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University

I soon became aware that a project related to my thesis work was developing at NYU. The NYU project, known as the Artist Archives Initiative (AAI), shared some similarities to my own work, but was being executed on a far grander scale. Using the fabulously rich collection in the David Wojnarowicz Papers, a team led by Deena Engel, Marvin Taylor, and Glenn Wharton was undertaking the task of creating an interdisciplinary digital resource for scholars, curators, and conservators of Wojnarowicz’s work (Wharton, Engel, and Taylor 2016, 241–47). Having a finding aid is essential for a large collection like The David Wojnarowicz Papers and creating an HTML and single-webpage version allows for easier searching. However, this project went far beyond simple digitization. By populating this Wiki-based platform with data, text, images, audio, and newly created content, Fales was not only creating a tool that facilitated scholarly research but also providing a space for dialogue and contributions from the community. This was an ambitious project in digital art history that provided new pathways and models for academic research. After reaching out to the organizers, I joined the project as a researcher/student worker and was granted access to the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base prior to its launch in April 2017.

While consulting the finding aid for the David Wojnarowicz Papers, I requested materials for my thesis research, carefully taking detailed notes to make recommendations to the AAI team. I knew as well as anyone in today’s increasingly digital world that the user experience (UX) was almost as important as the content. In addition to subject research and content organization, I provided the AAI team feedback on the functionality and intuitiveness of the Knowledge Base. Not only would this resource be scalable and grow the more scholars used it, it could also provide a model for other organizations seeking to develop similar projects.

Although the notion that digital art history might replace the old ways of researching and learning about art and artists through direct experience and time spent in libraries persists, I would argue that we can rule out that possibility. Digital art history will never be a solution to all of the problems inherent in researching and speculating about the artist’s intent, meaning, and purpose in creating their art. Nor will it replace the individual achievements of scholars producing original interpretations. Rather, digital art history is one tool among many that we must use with respect, always acknowledging its limitations. With the technology and resources available to us today, we enjoy ever more opportunities to access material instantly regardless of geographic borders or traditional academic hierarchies. The necessity to sit quietly with a work of art in addition to careful consultation of related documents and resources is still paramount. We as art historians, curators, and conservators do not want to fall into the illusion that because we saw something online, or gathered new evidence from a digital algorithm, we know the “truth.” That being said, there are new opportunities and methodologies we can develop alongside these digitized resources. The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base and the Artist Archives Initiative at NYU are more than datasets, yet they are not traditional art-historical interpretations of an artist or their work. This is an endeavor in digital art history that grants access to digitized information and images while providing pathways for research and outlines frameworks for education. Computational tools and analytic techniques can be leveraged to our advantage. Collaboration and information sharing on a public yet vetted platform reflects the strengths and appeal of the internet. These are the first steps into digital art history, but it is up to us where we take our research and resources in the field of digital art history and what innovations we produce therein.

When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones. I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving a gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly resolves until it becomes dust. I am consumed in the sense of your weight the way your flesh occupies momentary space the fullness of it beneath my palms. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curves of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.

When I Put My Hands on Your Body is a photograph of exposed skeletons in a Native American burial ground with a silkscreen text layer on top of the image. The text reflects the artist’s struggle with finding an honest and true connection in the world and realizing how precious life is during the AIDS crisis.

Figure 4. David Wojnarowicz, When I Put My Hands On Your Body, 1990. Gelatin silver print and silk screened text on museum board, 26 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P∙P∙O∙W, New York ©Estate of David Wojnarowicz


[1] The version presented in HIDE/SEEK was a four-minute excerpted version from the original “work in progress.”
[2] See the 1989 fiasco at Artists Space when the National Endowment for the Arts pulled its funding from the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing and then reinstated the funds, and the 1990 court case with the American Family Association—that Wojnarowicz won—over the misuse of the artist’s images.
[3] David Wojnarowicz, “1984: Berlin, journal fragment” 1984; The David Wojnarowicz Papers; MSS 092; Box 1, Folder 17; Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.


Carr, Cynthia. 2012. Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. New York: Bloomsbury.

McCormick, Carlo. 1984. “David Wojnarowicz: A Man of Many Talents.” East Village Eye, July 1984.

Wharton, Glenn, Deena Engel, and Marvin J. Taylor. 2016. “The Artist Archives Project—David Wojnarowicz.” Studies in Conservation, London: International Institute for Conservation 61.

About the Author

John B. Henry is a writer, editor, and archivist working with art and literary texts. He is interested in museum archives, art-historical research, art librarianship, curatorial practice, collections and information management, and art education. John holds an MS in History of Art and Design and an MSLIS from Pratt Institute and a BA in Art History from Hiram College.

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