More on Ancient Itineraries

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Image derived from Gerrit Dou, Astronomer by Candlelight, late 1650s. Oil on panel. The J. Paul Getty Museum

I have recently re-posted here the call for members for the new Institute programme, “Ancient Itineraries”, funded by the Getty Foundation as part of its Digital Art History initiative and led by DDH and collaborating with KCL’s Classics department and Humlab at Umea, which seeks to map out some possible futures for digital art history. We will do this by convening two meetings of international experts, one in London and one in Athens. The posting has generated some discussion, both on the listservs to which we’ve posted and privately.  “What’s the relationship”, asked one member of the community, “between this and the Getty Provenance Index and other initiatives in this area, such as Linked Pasts?”. Another asks if we are seeking professors, ECRs, faculty, or curators? These are good questions, and I seek to answer them, in general terms, here.

In practical terms, he project is funded by the Getty Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Getty Trust. The Getty Provenance Index is a resource developed and managed by the Getty Research Institute (GRI).  (Briefly, there are four programs that rest under the umbrella of the Getty Trust: the GRI, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Museum. Each program works independently and has a particular mandate under the broader mission of the Getty Trust.)

A word should be devoted to the Proof of Concept (PoC). A key strand of the project will be a collaboration with King’s Digital Lab to develop an exemplum of the kind of service or resource that the art history community might find useful. The programme gives us unprecedented space to explore the methodological utility of digital methods to art history, so it is not only logical, but incumbent upon us, to try and operationalize those methods in a practical manner. The PoC will therefore be one of the main outputs of the project.  However, it must be stressed that the emphasis of the project, and the bulk of its efforts, will go into defining the question(s) which make it important. What are the most significant challenges which art history (without the “digital” prefix) currently faces and which can be tackled using digital tools and services?

There are many excellent examples of tools, services and infrastructure which already address a variety of scholarly challenges in this space – Pelagios, which enables the semantic annotation of text, aggregates data from different sources, and provides a platform for linking them together is an obvious example. As is the Pleiades gazetteer, which provides stable URIs for individual places in the ancient world, and frames much current thinking about representing the idea of (ancient) place on the WWW. Arachne, an initiative of the DAI, is another one, which links art/archaeological objects and their descriptions using catalogue metadata. These infrastructures, and the communities behind them, actually *do* things with datasets. They combine datasets and put them together; inspiring new questions, and answering old ones. from a technical point of view, our project will not be remotely of the scale or ambition of these. Rather, our motivation is to survey and reflect on key initiatives and technologies in this space, discuss their impact, and explore their relationship – or possible relationships – with methods and theories long practiced by art historians who have little or no connection with such tools.

What of the chronological scope? As we intimate in the call, digital gazetteers, visualization, the use of Semantic Web technologies to link datasets such as catalogue records, have a long pedigree of being applied within the sphere of the Classical world, very broadly conceived as the orbit of Greece and Rome between the fifth century BCE and the fourth century CE. At least in part, this can be traced back to the deep impact of Greco-Roman traditions on Western culture and society, and its manifestation in the present day – a topic explored by the current exhibition at KCL, “Modern Classicisms and The Classical Now”. Because of this, those traditions came in to early contact with scientific cartography (Ortelius first mapped the Roman empire in the 1580s) and the formal information structures of (Western) museum catalogues.  The great interest in the art and culture of this period continues to the present day, and helps explain its intensive intellectual interest to scholars of the digital humanities – resulting in a rich seam of projects and infrastructures fleetingly outlined above.

Our motivation in Ancient Itineraries is to ask what the wider field of art history can learn from this, and vice versa. Many of the questions of space, trajectory and reception that we might apply to the work of Phidias, for example, might apply to the work of other sculptors, and later traditions. Ancient Itineraries will seek to take to the myriad digital tools that we have for exploring Phidias’s world and work, and take them into theirs. The programme will give us space to review what the art-historical strands of digital classics are, and what they have already contributed to the wider area. However we will also ask what technology can and cannot achieve, and explore its wider application. Therefore, while art-historical Classicists are certainly welcome and may stand to gain most; those with interests in the art of other periods can certainly contribute – so long as they are sure they could benefit from deepening their historical and/or critical understanding of that tradition using digital praxes.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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