By Jon Frey
Today featured two different types of activities.
In the morning, the group visited the home of Sir Frederick Leighton, the painter, sculptor, and leading figure in the artistic world of 19th century London.
For me at least, this studio-house with its eclectic collection of art in an equally diverse architectural setting served as a perfect example of the complex cluster of objects, spaces, people, and histories that we have been discussing at this Institute. As I wandered from room to room, I found myself mentally sketching out the various “alternate itineraries” that could be constructed to re-present this fascinating spatial and temporal nexus of activity. For example:
Itineraries of Materials: In the enormous second floor studio with its large north-facing windows, we were shown a thin doorway of uncanny height through which canvasses were brought into and out of the space. This encouraged me to think of the ways in which one might generate a visual representation of materials. Canvas, pigments, brushes, and other construction materials came from various places around the world to be cut, shaped and combined into new forms, only to be exported to museums and collections of art in equally diverse locations. In this way Leighton House might be viewed as a central node in some type of a center-periphery model.
Itinerary of Leighton House: The same might be said of all the materials used in the construction of the house itself. From Syrian glazed tiles to lapis lazuli and Belgian black marble, supplies of materials came to Leighton House from various places in the world. But the house underwent several phases of construction and enlargement, which continue to today with a series of proposed renovations. This suggests that a spatial flow chart that is also able to illustrate change over time might help us to imagine the ways in which this place served as a nexus for the supply of materials.
Itineraries of Art Objects: At the start of the tour, we were informed that nearly all of the artwork that Leighton acquired and arranged in his house had been sold upon his death, but that the museum was in the process of slowly recollecting it to this location. I began to imagine the circular trajectories of these works which might be displayed in a way that geographically links Leighton house to the various locations where they were temporarily located before returning to Holland Park. This model might easily be expanded to include other works in these subsequent collections. In what ways might we gain new insights from the representation of “social networks” of objects in different collections over time?
Itineraries of Sir Frederick: We also learned that Leighton traveled often, typically spending the winters in the Mediterranean. Thus I started to consider how we might we map the span of his life spatially, and perhaps in relation to the changes in his painting style and choice of subject over time. While a timeline would accomplish this task, how might we illustrate the cyclic nature of his seasonal travels?
Itineraries of Guests: Leighton hosted many individuals at social / artistic gatherings, musical performances and even public art shows. This could be mapped out as a network of relationships to illustrate the impact that Leighton had on contemporaries around the world and vice versa.
I am certain that there are many other Itineraries to be explored in connection with this fascinating space. In the end, what the options listed above demonstrate most clearly is that there is no one way to represent the entangled and complex sets of relationships that all share this man and his architectural / artistic creation as their main point of commonality.
In the afternoon, the group was joined by Dr. Helen Slaney from the University of Roehampton to talk about her current research for a monograph entitled The Materialization of Classical Antiquity 1750-1820. While the discussion was wide ranging and touched on many of the themes in digital art history that the group has been discussing throughout their time at the Institute, I was most intrigued by Dr. Slaney’s comments concerning the change in the manner in which individuals interacted with art objects during the 18th century. According to her study, this period saw the end of a practice in which travelers on the “Grand Tour” would often spend weeks at a specific location such as Rome. During their stay they often visited a collection on several different occasions and for longer durations than is common for museum visitors today. Much of this time would be taken up with more “active” viewing behaviors like sketching and, even on occasion, touching objects of interest. Yet by the start of the 19th century, and especially with the growth in the number of (increasingly middle class) visitors to large encyclopedic collections, the museum experience was often limited to a set of less interactive behaviors and for much shorter periods of time.
What strikes me as interesting about this development is the way in which it mirrors (albeit, in reverse) the experiences that many of us wish our viewers would have when interacting with the electronic objects and spaces we are creating with the digital tools we now use. Today, many users of 3D models or interactive datasets online seem to have rather superficial (and generally, rather constrained) interactions with the digital information we seek to provide them. They search for a digital artifact or query a dataset, perhaps interact briefly with what they have discovered, then move on. Yet, I think it fair to say that we are interested in these users having much longer, more engaged and more meaningful interactions with our digital creations. Just as in web design, we want our digital products to be more “sticky.” Thus it stands to reason that we might benefit from exploring what brought about this change in 18th century museum behavior.
When asked this question, Dr. Slaney made two observations. First, she noted that one significant difference in attitudes toward museum collections in the 18th century concerned the fact that the earlier type of visitor had played some important role in acquiring the objects they studied. As a result, they enjoyed a sense of ownership that encouraged more interaction (I suspect either through a sense of entitlement or responsibility). Second, she suggested that it became less acceptable for the later type of visitor to engage in active interactions with objects in collections. Certainly, concerns over the preservation of objects was a motivating factor, but it might be worth speculating why we do not expect to be able to sketch or paint in a museum gallery anymore.
Assuming I’ve represented her correctly, I suggest that Dr. Slaney’s observations offer two areas for improvement in the digital realm for those wishing to create more engaging and meaningful experiences in the realm of digital art history. First, we may wish to seek out new and different ways of enabling our audiences to take ownership of the digital artifacts / data they might use. Can we develop new forms of citizen science / crowdsourcing that are more engaging, rewarding, and ethical than practices that are currently in use? Second, we could try to recapture in the digital realm the type of playful, creative and unconstrained interactivity with art objects and spaces. How can we empower our users (researchers, students and enthusiasts) to move beyond simply rotating a model or traversing a room in digital space?
Perhaps in finding the answers to these questions, we might begin to recapture in digital space those aspects that were once important parts of the experience of a traveler on the Grand Tour.