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NEWSLETTER: VOL II, # 10, APRIL 24, 1998

Professor Nick Cahill
Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Interactive Technology and Image Databases in Teaching Art History

In 1994, the Department of Art History at the Madison campus received a technology grant to establish an image database of slides from its teaching collection. Around 1,800 slides of paintings, sculpture, and architecture, some of them unique, unpublished images, were digitized and stored on a Madison server to be accessed through a web interface by students. (For a description of the Instructional Technology Project as written in 1994 see http://www.wisc.edu/arth/newsmajor.html, specifically "NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR SEEING AND LEARNING: PERSEUS AND A WORLD WIDE WEB SERVER").  Two important courses for the department, Art History 201—Ancient to Medieval Art, and Art History 202—Renaissance to Modern art, comprise over 375 students each semester.  Instead of fighting for books in the library to photocopy images, students can now access digitized images through any on-campus computer or a home dial-up system.

In addition, there are other advantages to this database.  Its versatility allows each professor to create his or her own on-line syllabus and establish links to particular images used in their courses. Students can search the database by artistic period, artist’s name, location, or date. A student can also call up two or three images in multiple Netscape screens and place them side by side for viewing. The latter is especially important for the discipline of art history, which has traditionally relied on a comparative method for instruction ever since the invention of the slide projector almost 100 years ago; the implication is that viewing two images at the same time provides insights that viewing images separately does not. Also, in connection with a professor’s syllabus, links to other internet sources from museums, universities, and research institutions provide some of the latest uses of technology in art history, from a virtual tour of a cathedral sponsored by Columbia University to reading of Pliny’s travels through Greece at Tufts University.

Professor Nick Cahill has been at the forefront in exploiting these technological innovations. He has devised online assignments for discussion sections in which students can discuss some of the artistic and technical features of, for example, a Greek vase from the British Museum in London to another vase from a museum in Berlin (see example assignment at:  http://www.wisc.edu/arth/ah201/section03.html). Other links to literary sources enhance the course material; students can study the architecture of the Roman baths and then click on a link to one Roman’s description of the sounds and sights of daily bathing in ancient Rome.

Perhaps the most significant advantage to the Madison image database, in conjunction with other scholarly materials available on the internet, is the professor's ability to provide information in new ways or ways not yet evident in standard art history textbooks. The personalization of a professor’s course, through the freedom to choose which material to present, allows for that professor’s unique talent to surface. We have already seen in former TTT articles that professors are motivated to design "virtual textbooks" which replace or supplement standardized texts; this direction is certain to continue.

For more information, see the UW-Madison’s art history home page at http://www.wisc.edu/arth (please note that it is not possible to view full-sized images from the art history database unless you are located with the UW-Madison’s domain server). For Professor Cahill’s Art History 201 home page, see http://www.wisc.edu/arth/ah201.