Through their work with the world’s most-visited art history resource — the free, collaborative digital platform known as Smarthistory — two members of the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts faculty are helping to dramatically expand the audience for their discipline while contributing to changes in the way it’s taught.
Accessibility is Key
Smarthistory draws from the contributions of more than 500 art historians, curators, archaeologists and artists who support the mission of making art history widely accessible and engaging. The organization’s website (smarthistory.org), which features vetted and peer-reviewed essays, videos, and other content, garnered 57 million views in 2020, solidifying its place as a staple in college and high school AP art history courses while reaching people outside of academic settings who otherwise might never have the chance to learn about the featured works.
Melody Rod-ari and Amanda Herring, professors in LMU’s Art and Art History Department, note that their volunteer efforts on behalf of Smarthistory align with LMU’s social justice mission. “Art history textbooks are extraordinarily expensive,” Rod-ari says. “When you consider all of the production factors, including printing high-quality images and paying for copyrights, they tend to start at around $150 and can go much higher.”
Taking a Global Perspective
Beyond using Smarthistory content in their courses, Rod-ari and Herring are among the art historians contributing to the development of a new Smarthistory online textbook, Reframing Art History. Herring explains that the project leverages Smarthistory’s inherently collaborative nature. “A lot of textbooks are written by one or two people, requiring them to go outside their specialization, which often doesn’t do justice to much of the art,” Herring says. “By bringing in many voices, we can cover a wide variety of material.” As part of their contributions to the book’s development, Herring, who specializes in ancient Greece, and Rod-ari, who focuses on Southeast Asia, will contribute chapters on their areas of expertise.
More than that, Reframing Art History will reconsider the way art history is presented within educational curricula. “We’re asking new questions about the types of artworks we look at and how we study them, taking a global perspective rather than a Western European and American perspective,” Herring says. “We want students and scholars to look at these works in ways that reexamine how they’ve been treated in the past.”
Decolonizing Through Multiple Voices
Rod-ari says her participation in the project is motivated by her desire to “decolonize” art history education. “Decolonizing art history means having multiple voices, not just European or American scholars writing about other people’s histories,” she explains. “And because on a digital platform we’re not limited in what we can reproduce, we can write about art from cultures that we normally don’t examine, making this expansive in scope as well as inclusive in voices.”
Rod-ari and Herring point out that the digital platform for Reframing Art History comes with multiple advantages, from the ability to easily add to and edit the content to the lack of word-count constraints, which will enable authors to cover works with a depth that wouldn’t be possible in a printed textbook. The book is aimed at high school and college audiences, as well as anyone outside of academic settings seeking a better understanding of the art produced by past cultures and its relevance to the present and future.
“If we can inspire more people to go into art history because this information is now available and they don’t have to spend $200 on a book, that will bring more and different voices into the field,” Rod-ari says. “The opportunity to do that through Smarthistory’s expansive platform is exciting.”