Day 8: Dirty Laundry and the Potential for Public Art History

Is public art history possible? What does it look like? How can we convey the political nature of art better to people (anyone)? How do we overcome certain perceptions people have about art history? How do we translate our personal interests and disciplinary ideas and trends for a broader audience? Do we need to do this at all?

These were a few of the challenging questions we discussed today, and ones that are critically important to address. None of them are easy to answer. Some of them make me uncomfortable, if only because they force me to recognize and accept some of my own biases, problems, and issues.

I’ve continued to think about the conversations of today, and imagine I will continue to do so long after #doingdah14 ends. What is public art history? And how can I do it? I am deeply committed to the idea of engaging with relevant publics (thanks, Nancy) outside of academia. I am intrigued by the notion of nerd sourcing/crowd sourcing/community sourcing, even if I am still unnerved by it to some degree. For those of us who like to be in complete control–and let’s face it, that’s most of us art historians–this might be a challenge (the ultimate challenge perhaps?).

This brings me to another point of discussion today: who are the relevant publics of our work? How do we engage them? And if we are not engaging with them, what tools/activities/structures/collaborations/etc. do we need to do so? In my group, an interesting idea was raised by Nancy Micklewright who noted that the Freer and Sackler Galleries have been developing programming around IPOP, or the idea that people fall into 1 of 4 categories of engagement: ideas, peoples (stories), objects, and physical. This resonated with me not only because I found this idea interesting for the museum space(s), but also because I see this as a useful way to think about my project(s) engaging with relevant publics.

Over the past week and a half I’ve circled around these ideas, occasionally attacking them head on. How do I engage with people about the arts of death and dying in Mexico? Why should I create this project? What’s in it for me, but more importantly what’s in it for anyone else? Is the project worthwhile? Where can I improve it? I keep wondering if perhaps it is too narrowly focused. After all, I want to write a book about this material, but that doesn’t mean the digital project has to follow that idea exactly. Perhaps it would be better as a project about the arts of death and dying more broadly. Or about the arts of death and dying between a narrow time span (e.g., 1600-1800).

I’ve also thought a lot (more than I care to admit) about whether I should create a project about the Sacred Heart. As the subject of my forthcoming book, I’m ready move on to another topic. Really ready. However, I think there are still some unanswered questions I have about the material that digital art history can help answer. Moreover, I think some of the tools allow me to make connections I was confident existed, but could never “prove” they did; some tools we’ve learned this week have helped me to do so. Lastly, with the Sacred Heart I can really see the collaborative nature of the project develop in interesting ways. Imagine in an ideal world if other art historians, historians, religious experts, pop culture consumers, and others across the globe all participated in a project on the Sacred Heart as cult, devotion, object, image, and icon. I’m kind of loving the idea, even though I am loathe to admit it.

I’m going to return to this issue of public art history in a future post. I’m looking forward to discussing the issue with colleagues, friends, and family back home.

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