Smarthistory.org is a free, not-for-profit, multi-media web-book designed as a dynamic enhancement (or even substitute) for the traditional art history textbook. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker began smARThistory in 2005 by creating a blog featuring free audio guides in the form of podcasts for use in The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Soon after, we embedded the audio files in our online survey courses. The response from our students was so positive that we decided to create a multi-media survey of art history web-book. We created audios and videos about works of art found in standard art history survey texts, organized the files stylistically and chronologically, and added text and still images.
We are interested in delivering the narratives of art history using the read-write web’s interactivity and capacity for authoring and remixing. Publishers are adding multimedia to their textbooks, but unfortunately they are doing so in proprietary, password-protected adjunct websites. These are weak because they maintain an old model of closed and protected content, eliminating Web 2.0 possibilities for the open collaboration and open communities that our students now use and expect.
In Smarthistory, we have aimed for reliable content and a delivery model that is entertaining and occasionally even playful. Our podcasts and screen-casts are spontaneous conversations about works of art where we are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy. We have found that the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling to students, museum visitors and other informal learners than a monologue. When students listen to shifts of meaning as we seek to understand each other, we model the experience we want our visitors to have—a willingness to encounter the unfamiliar and transform it in ways that make it meaningful to them. We believe that Smarthistory is broadly applicable to our discipline and is a first step toward understanding how art history can fit into the new collaborative culture created by web 2.0 technologies.