“The Imaginary Museum”: A Digital Approach to the Art History Classroom

Martha Hollander (Hofstra University)

This is a proposal for a brief presentation or lightning talk about ways in which digital technology has transformed my art history students from passive note-takers into collaborators, with one another and with me.

Teachers of art have the challenge of educating students about physical objects that generally aren’t accessible except in reproduced form. Digital technology has made this work much easier and more far-reaching than ever before. On their personal screens, whether laptops, tablets or phones, students have access to the entire history of art––what André Malraux, many years ago, called “the imaginary museum.” I not only allow, but encourage them, to use their personal technologies for individual and group work, unleashing them on a variety of online image sources– our ArtSTOR databases, museums, auction houses, and the free range of the internet.

Instead of the lecture-hall setup, the student work in small groups. Offering them a core group of objects to start– often the traditional canon used in art history surveys – I present them as a sampling, rather than the sole material for the class. The students can contextualize these core objects by doing assigned searches , and answer questions, over time and space: the various formulas for Renaissance portraits over a 50-year period; or the real and imaginary elements in 17th-century Dutch landscapes. The groups report on their findings, essentially learning on their own what I could have shown them with a Powerpoint, but in a presentation they have created for themselves. Engaging with “big data”, the students can integrate these objects into a much larger understanding of how art functions in society.