logo-smarthistory.gifAs an Art History major in college I find this very exciting.

A handful of textbooks reigns supreme over art-history survey courses. To Beth Harris, who teaches the subject online for the Fashion Institute of Technology, these expensive, static tomes don’t do a great job of engaging students. They lack a sense of what it’s like to see paintings where they hang. And, Ms. Harris argues, they present a consensus view that doesn’t convey the messiness, passion, and disagreement of scholarship.

Ms. Harris is trying to change all that. With a colleague, Steven Zucker of the Pratt Institute, she created a “Web book” that takes advantage of multimedia technology to reimagine the art-history textbook online. The free, nonprofit project, called Smarthistory, is winning honors and gaining traction at colleges. Its model could offer a template for similar open textbooks in other disciplines.

Smarthistory’s section on Caravaggio gives you a flavor of its approach. When readers get to the part about his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel, in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome, they find an informal, conversational video that Ms. Harris and Mr. Zucker recorded in the church (see above). They learn how Caravaggio uses light, but they also hear about the smell of incense in the ornate chapel and see the crowd jockeying for position in front of the canvas. Two minutes into the video, the chapel light goes off, and viewers hear the clank of the machine as the professors insert money to turn it back on.

More in The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find the Smarthistory website here.


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