Diogenes’ Lamp

Searching for a way to teach and communicate traditional art history in the digital world

This blog is about fear, regret, longing, and satisfaction. It is written in the hope that it may help others better understand colleagues who are hesitant about embracing new technologies.  This is a narrative about my reluctance to embrace commonplace digital tools to teach art history, even though I’ve spent the better part of my career working with new technologies in museums.  It is a story of how I learned to leverage tools for use in courses that are meant to enchant and engage students in a life-long relationship with works of art. Creating opportunities for students to associate content with works of art provides a means for them to discover areas of convergence in their own lives, and sets up opportunities for collaboration and creativity.

As an art historian, content—the object and the contextual information around the object—is the bedrock for everything I do.  My field of specialization is 14th and 15th century Italian fresco painting. Whether working in a museum, or as an art historian, my passion is discovering connections.  When I teach my goal is to introduce students to art objects and ideas in a way that allows them to discover their own connections with works of art and contextual information.  These connections can occur on any number of levels ranging from the purely aesthetic—a response to particularly beautiful or engaging composition—to the intellectual—a better understanding of subject matter represented, the lives of the lives of the people who created or commissioned works of art, and the societies and lives of the people who came into contact with or experienced works after they had been created.

Finding the Right Question: How Do I Teach Art History in the Digital Age?

One of my first art history professors always explained to his students that there are two types of art historians—story art historians and style art historians.  Story art historians are concerned with the narratives and meta-narratives that relate to an object, its subject, the culture, a time period, an artist or a patron.  Style art historians are primarily concerned with aesthetic details and/or the role of an object or objects in a trajectory of style. Although all art historians have to deal with narratives and stylistic details, I am interested in narrative and meta-narrative.

In late 2011 TELDAP Conference Program Committee invited me to speak at a conference in Taiwan and requested that I share “a fresh view of the digital era” from the perspective of an art historian, that was in keeping with the theme of the 2012 conference “Convergence, Collaboration, and Creative.”  My comments were focused upon the question “How do I teach art history in the digital age?”  The reason this question had been much on my mind was because in Spring 2012 I was teaching a traditional Renaissance art history lecture course to undergraduates for the first time in more than twenty years.

In the final weeks leading up to the beginning of the Spring 2012 semester I found myself increasingly nervous about the prospect.  I was, quite frankly, afraid.   Afraid that I had forgotten how to teach art history.  Afraid of the time I would need to spend to get up-to-speed on the tools and new technologies used in the Higher Education classrooms in the 21st century.  Afraid that time spent learning new technologies would negatively impact course content.  Afraid that I might end up embarrassing myself in front of my tech-savvy students.

How Art History Was Taught in the Classroom Before the Digital Age

I attended college in the early 1980s.  In the Art History classroom at Kalamazoo College, Professor Billie Fischer used a pair of opto-mechanical devices called carousel slide projectors to introduce her students to the wonders of Italian Renaissance art.  As a work-study student in the art history department, I grew adept at filing the slides that she pulled to fill the carousels, little dreaming as a freshman and sophomore that I would do the same some day.  After college, in 1983, I spent a semester at The University of Münster and, sitting in on an art history lecture, was amazed to discover that not only was the professor teaching using elderly lantern slide projectors for his lectures but he was purposefully showing students only black and white images because he felt colored lantern slides were unreliable.

I have vivid memories of attending a fascinating lecture about the proto-renaissance painter, Giotto di Bondone.   Giotto, perhaps best known for his fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel (commonly referred to as the “Arena Chapel”) in Padua—a tour de force of the buon fresco technique, Giotto is and was known for his dramatic use of brilliant blues, delicate rose-pink, green, and gold images. I can still remember how bitterly I complained to my fellow students of my frustration with this professor’s inability to embrace even a somewhat newer technology and at least show us images in color.

Back in the United States, I began my own teaching career while finishing my doctorate. I watched and learned from my professors. I’d like to take a few moments and describe for you the process used to teach art history, when I was learning the profession, 20 years ago. With my books around me, seated in the museum library at a large table, I would write out my lecture notes—generally in longhand. When I felt my lecture was complete I would head into the adjacent slide library with two empty carousels to hold the slides I would eventually choose.

Now let me tell you what I loved about the process.  Putting together a slide lecture is satisfying because of the tactility and the tangibility of the process. I would go into the slide library, greet my academic colleagues—who were working on their own presentations—and then I would begin to search the slide cabinets, drawer by drawer, for just the right images.  Sometimes, in working through a drawer, I would find images I didn’t even know I needed but that, once discovered, would add a new or unexpected dimension to the ideas I was hoping to communicate to my students.

As I pulled slides I would walk back and forth between the slide files and my light table—a table, illuminated from behind.  The light table had a translucent surface with raised ridges, a little over two inches apart, running horizontally across the table for the purposes or arranging slides.  I would organize and reorganize.   Two lines of slides would begin to form—slides intended for the left carousel on the top, those for the right on the bottom. I watched my presentation build and, with just a glance across the room from the slide cabinets, could tell me if I needed more or fewer slides—inevitably art historians have too many slides.

Once my presentation was complete on the slide table, I would carefully transfer the slides to the carousels. This meant double-checking the orientation of each slide—was it meant to be displayed horizontally or vertically—and before inserting them into the carousel upside down. When finished, I left the slide library with carousels that were noticeably heavier than when I entered—tangible proof of my day’s work—I would head off to introduce students to the works of Giotto, or Simone Martini, or Nanni di Banco.

Learning To Teach Art History in the Digital Age

That was process twenty years ago.  In September 2011 with a roster of undergraduate students signed up to learn about Renaissance art in the spring, I was anxiously asking myself—how does it work teaching art history in the digital age?  The slide libraries, the slides, the carousels, and the slide projectors are all gone.  Do art historians communicate differently with their students?  When do digital tools help, and when do they hurt?  What have we lost and what have we gained?

Fourth Century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, also called Diogenes the Cynic, was one of the founders of Cynic Philosophy.  Diogiones rejected material goods in search of the simple life.  Diogenes himself is supposed to have wandered the streets, played pranks on people, and was generally made a nuisance of himself pointing out the flaws in others.  One of the anecdotes told about him was that Diogenes was that he wandered the streets of Athens, with a lamp, during broad daylight, in search of an honest man.[i] As I have said, when I decided to couch my remarks in the context of this story of Diogenes I was feeling anxious, grumpy, and even somewhat afraid of tackling teaching in the Digital Age.

The irony here is I felt this way even though I’ve spent the last decade working with new technologies even though I am a collaborator, editor and co-principal investigator of the NMC Horizon Report>Museum Edition, somehow, when it came to Renaissance art, just like my old friend the professor in Germany with his black and white slides, I felt uncertain that the new tools would do the job. I truly believed, when it came to teaching art history, the new tools and technologies I would have to learn were doomed to be troublesome and not as useful as the tools I had used in the past.  As the new semester drew ever closer, I was painfully aware that it had been a long while since I’d taught art history.  However, at the same time, I hadn’t been hiding under a rock for the past fifteen years and I looked at other parts of my life and career.

An unexpected invitation to deliver a six-minute Ignite presentation at a Smithsonian charrette, Museum Education in the 21st Century, provided some much-needed inspiration for a change in attitude. At the Smithsonian event I referenced a 1998 book entitled The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. This book explores the lessons learned from a survey of 1500 Americans about how they “use” history in their daily life.  The authors Ray Rozensweig & David Thelen’s concluded, [People] “…assemble their experiences into patterns, narratives that allow them to make sense of the past, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and continuity, they chart the course of their lives.”[ii] It seemed to me that this was exactly what I was struggling with in adopting new tools.  I needed to be able to assemble, or reassemble, my personal narrative so I could successfully teach art history in the 21st century.

As I slowly began to abandon the idea of myself as a grumpy Diogenes faced with too many unnecessary tools and technologies, I found yet another source of inspiration for my shift in attitude in a Pollyanna anecdote from my brief stint as a Girl Scout, or to be more precise, as a Brownie.  All first year Brownies are introduced to a teaching legend about two motherless children, Mary and Tommy, who live with their father and a grandmother, who is too old and infirm to do the housework.  The grandmother tells the children a story about industrious brownies who, in her youth, used to take care of the home while the family slept. Mary slowly comes to the realization that she and her brother are the “real” brownies and it is ultimately up to them to make a difference in their home.  I began to see a parallel and wonder how the teaching and learning experience might change—for myself and my students—if I embraced new ways and stopped lamenting the loss of old ways.[iii]

Spring 2012 found me in transition. Training myself to be new school instead of old school, trying to teach myself to do new tricks using new tools.   The slide library, the slides, the projectors and all the carousels are gone and in their place I have my laptop, a projector, a cable that connects the two, and the Internet.  And for what I have lost in tangibility—in the heft of my carousels testifying to the work of the day—I have the world at my fingertips.  Let me just give you a few examples of how teaching art history has changed for the better in the digital age.

Image Identification

Each week my students have an image identification quiz.  They are given 10 minutes to write down the important details (artist, title, technique, date, and location) for 10 works from a list of images that increases weekly.  When I was in school, my art history professors would put filled carousels of slides on closed review at the library.  Students could check the carousels out for two hours at a time, walk across the street to the art history department, view the slides using the projectors in the art history classroom, and, at the appropriate time return them to the library.

Today, my students use a combination of BlackBoard course management software and Google documents to access the images and spreadsheets, anytime anywhere they want or need to (except during the quiz).  This makes a huge difference in the learning experience.  Less time is spent preparing to learn, and perhaps more importantly a student’s time is spent–in theory, if not I practice—simply looking and learning to love objects.

A Kinder, Gentler Form of Correction

My second example, though it may seem trivial, illustrates how the multiplication of images on the internet allow instructors to gently correct behaviors in a somewhat kinder way than a scrawled red mark on a paper, and, to inject an element of humor into the process. Students of Renaissance art are learning a whole new vocabulary much of it in Italian, and there are some common errors that instructors see in the early weeks of the semester.  I used Google Images and BlackBoard to create a quick and easy mechanism for remembering correct answer for one such problem—the problem of “tempura” vs. “tempera.”  Rather than emphasizing the spelling differences, I put together a little illustration with juxtaposing images of seafood and vegetables, dipped in batter, and cooked using a Japanese cooking technique (“tempura”) and an image of an egg, surrounded by examples of colored pigment to illustrate the kind of paint used in most fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian paintings (“tempera”).

Serendipity in Online Primary Research

I have also discovered, to my delight, that while I have lost the serendipity of finding just the slide I need in the slide drawer, the loss is more compensated for by the ease of locating images online.  This means that preliminary primary research is easier to do than ever and happens unexpectedly.  Early in the semester I was looking for a specific image of a fourteenth century fresco of the Virgin Mary from a small museum, the Bigallo Museum, in Florence Italy.  During the Renaissance the Bigallo was an open loggia, located conveniently near the Cathedral, a place where families could deposit unwanted infants. The children would be taken, raised, and educated by a group, a confraternity, dedicated to that task.

The image I was seeking, an image of the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy).  The Bigallo fresco is not a terribly important painting in the history of Italian art, however at the bottom of the fresco is the earliest known depiction of the city of Florence and that small detail of the work, as opposed to the full image, is what often appears in histories of Florence.[iv] This detail is all I went searching when I went out to Google images and searched.

In type the Bigallo fresco is called a Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy).  A Misericordia is a specific type of composition in late medieval/Renaissance art. The more I looked at the full painting, the more interested I became. The main characteristic of a Misericordia is that the Virgin Mary (Madonna) encloses a group of people or a town she wishes to protect by opening her arms wide and enclosing them within the contours of her robe.

The more I looked at the image of the painting the more questions I had. The Bigallo Misericordia, is dated, by some scholars, circa 1342—and therefore just a few years before the Black Death in 1348—others date the work circa1352—just after the Black Death.  Despite the fact that the Madonna della Misericordia in the Bigallo is referred to as a Misericordia she is definitely not enclosing the citizens of Florence nor the city in her robes.  In fact the citizens and city alike are shut out from Mary’s all encompassing protection.  To me, this visual inconsistency is a compelling argument for the later date for this painting, a post-Black Death date. As Florentines watched in horror an estimated 50% of the population of the city fell to the plague.  The citizens must have wondered if and why the Madonna, a key intercessory figure, had abandoned them.  The one thing that still troubled me was an inscription underneath the painting that indicates a 1342 completion date for the fresco.  In photographs it didn’t appear to me as if the inscription dated from the same time as the fresco but I needed something more than Google images at this point in my research.


Collaboration & Creativity

I opened Skype on my computer and found that a friend and colleague of mine, Maurizio Seracini, a scientist and art diagnostician, with whom I have collaborated in the past.  I asked Seracini about the inscription, and while he was familiar with the painting, he’d never had a reason to look closely at the inscription.   He agreed to walk across town with his equipment, and find me the answer.  Thus new research which might have taken me weeks or months or even years—in the past, was accomplished in a mere moment—not just because of the tools mind you, but because of the tools and the people involved.   So, in effect, it is not just the tools that are important but equally as important in terms of new research are the circumstances that make each of us uniquely different from every other individual.  Individuality coupled with collaboration makes new research not only possible, but also probable and it is important that we not lose sight of the role of the individual, or human, in digital humanism.

In 2011 my perspective on teaching art history in the 21st century had been that of Diogenes the Cynic.  I regarded the available tools and technologies with something like hostility.  I didn’t want to learn new skills; I wanted to teach art history as I had been traditionally taught.  It took just a few short weeks for me to do a complete turn-about in my thinking.  Suspicion was set aside and I rejoiced in tools that enabled me to engage my students in a more direct manner, and personalize the lessons to meet their needs.  What determined the success or failure, I should not have been surprised to discover, turned out to be what I brought to the table.

To any of you who have stayed with me this far I am sure my discoveries must seem like the smallest of baby-steps.  My point in publishing these remarks is as a reminder that we all learn in our own way.  The faculty member or administrator who seems ambivalent or antagonistic to the opportunities offered by new tools and technologies—like any student—is easier to convince with a carrot than a stick.  Administrators can mandate the use of new tools and technologies, but only we as individuals we make the choice to embrace new ways of teaching and learning.  We accept change eagerly and willingly only when we experience for ourselves how these new tools help us pursue our passions.


[i] I.G. Kidd, “Diogenes of Sinope,” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan Publishing CO., 1967, Vol. 1, p.410.

[ii] Rozenzweig, Ray & Thelen, David.  The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York, Columbia University Press. 1998, p. 12.

[iii] “The Brownie Story,” from an undated Brownie Troop Start-up Kit pp. 12-16.

[iv] Gene Brucker, Florence: The Golden Age, 1138-1737. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.  p. 22.

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