Revisualizing Visual Culture

Margot Note (World Monuments Fund)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 27 September 2011




Note, M. (2011), "Revisualizing Visual Culture", Online Information Review, Vol. 35 No. 5, pp. 836-838.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In Revisualizing Visual Culture, editors Chris Bailey (Leeds Metropolitan University) and Hazel Gardiner (King's College London) survey the contemporary landscape of digital arts and humanities scholarship and visual culture research practices. The book is the sixth volume of the Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities series created by the Arts and Humanities Research Council's (AHRC) Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Methods Network editorial board. The goals of the network are to “promote, support and develop the use of advanced ICT methods in arts and humanities research and to support the cross‐disciplinary network of practitioners from institutions around the UK”.

With contributions by historians, archivists, cultural theorists, curators, technological experts and scientists, the book studies the use of information and communication technologies in art history and visual culture pedagogy and scholarship. In the preface the editors write, “The wide‐ranging impact of the new technology on visual culture has been greeted in almost equal measure with wild enthusiasm and horrified reaction”. No matter people's response, though, technology is becoming commonplace, and, as the editors adduce in the preface, “Digital is set to be (if it is not already) the defining visual medium of the twenty‐first century”. The book, like others in the series, dispels the traditional notion that the arts and sciences are separate research concerns. In fact, when efficacious computationally based methods are applied, the disciplines complement and augment each other.

Exploring topics such as the semantic web, image banks, and 3D representations of architecture, the overwhelming theme of the essays is that ICT practitioners of art and humanities research can relay a tremendous amount of data through the web, yet the bigger question remains as to how users search for these items. Since the usage of technology is not fully understood, and human‐computer interaction is still a relatively new field, information professionals have to make sure that end users are finding information efficiently and effectively.

Mike Pringle, Director of the Swindon Cultural Partnership, in “Do a thousand words paint a picture?”, comments on this dilemma by writing:

In the visual arts, practice, education and research are, not surprisingly, based on, led by and/or executed through a dominantly visual approach. Yet in the digital age, and particularly on the Internet, facilities and approaches for sharing or finding visual information are sporadic, inefficient and often highly unsatisfactory.

Pringle continues:

The answer, then, is not to focus on arts people becoming computer experts, nor computer experts becoming artists, but to focus on understanding how people interact with images.

In “The semantic web approach to increasing access to cultural heritage” Kirk Martinez, a senior lecturer in electronics and computer science, University of Southampton, and Leif Isaksen, former Senior IT Development Officer at Oxford Archaeology, write:

A major contributing factor to [the internet's] success is the simplicity of publishing almost any type of data. Discovery, however, is much more inefficient, generally using a term‐based paradigm that requires entering keywords into a search engine and browsing through results, refining the terms to improve the accuracy of the returns. The ranking algorithms used frequently show the most significant sites in terms of links but at the expense of obscuring the “long tail” which may also contain valuable information.

In “Resource discovery and curation of complex and interactive digital datasets” Stuart Jeffrey, User Services Manager with the Archaeology Data Service, adds:

The question that library or archive‐based data providers might find themselves asking is why they have built sophisticated catalogue systems, relying on finely tuned categorization schema and delivered by a bespoke database interface, when a standard generic search engine will simply discard all that richness in favour of a simple text search?

As the excerpts from Revisualizing Visual Culture illustrate, digital data delivery for the arts and humanities is a fledgling field with a host of problems, yet with many possibilities. As the editors note:

We are very much in the process of this change and sense that there is much more to come, but that does not mean that we should not stop at times to think about what is happening, what we are doing, what is advantageous and what is problematical.

The book certainly does so by providing “an illuminating map of the current terrain” as the authors assess modern visual culture research practices. As with the other volumes in the AHRC ICT's Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities series, Revisualizing Visual Culture is recommended for information professionals who are currently navigating the challenges of arts and humanities analysis and display.

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