2014 Speaker: Liz McDermott, Getty Research Institute

Liz McDermott is Managing Editor, Web and Communications, at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles. She oversees the development, production, and publication of all content on the GRI website and related social media platforms. At THATCamp CAA 2014, she’ll be presenting a lightening talk titled, “Bridging the Gap: Presenting Scholarly Content on Social Media Platforms.” She describes the outline thus: “Recently we pinned a collection of the first photographs of Mayan sites to our Pinterest board and posted an album of pages from German artist Otto Mühl’s sketchbook on our Facebook page. Both resources come from the GRI’s vast Special Collections. Cultivating a social media presence is an opportunity for cultural institutions to disseminate resources and share information on a scale that was unheard of even 10 years ago. We know that outlets like Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest are powerful communication tools; our challenge is to develop ways to take traditional, scholarly art-historical content and present it in a way that is professional and rigorously accurate, yet also takes into account the casual, conversational tone that is inherent in social media.”


1.   What is your current involvement with “digital art history”?

Most of my work relates to digital access and dissemination of resources. Except for a handful of print pieces, everything I do at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) has a digital destination, whether it’s our website or a specific social media application such as YouTube or Facebook. The website contains nearly 8,000 HTML pages that provide access to, or share information about the GRI’s research resources. There are sections about scholarly events (including video documentation of lectures and symposiums) and exhibitions, pages that connect readers to a dozen specialized research databases, sections that provide information on what is contained in our vast Special Collections of archives and rare materials, and digitized books, images, podcasts, and other media. Similarly, we use social media to expand our reach to art historians.

2.   What is the most pressing issue in the field of “digital art history” today?

There are many complicated and pressing issues, but two of the most fundamental ones are access and training.

Access: A 1937 essay by H.G. Wells, “World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia,” imagined a world in which a “Permanent World Encyclopaedia” might “pull the mind of the world together.” Of course, in many ways this has come true through the Internet, with images, photographs, films, and writing available across more than 644 million active websites (as of 2012, according to Business Insider.) Such easy access to human knowledge would seem to be a natural fit for art historians, especially since art history scholarship has traditionally been complicated by the inaccessibility of research materials and especially images. And yet, only a small fraction of art-historical materials are currently available online. Complications with image rights, the need for institutional infrastructure, and the deep resources needed to get material up and online, are huge challenges.

Training: “Teens are (over) confident in their web abilities, but they perform worse than adults. Lower reading levels, impatience, and undeveloped research skills reduce teens’ task success and require simple, relatable sites.” (Hoa Loranger and Jakob Nielson, 2013 reporting on website usability tests conducted with teenagers) Contrary to popular belief, young people are not more facile with technology, and yet somehow this myth persists. Scholars need easy and ongoing access to quality training on using and developing digital tools, and cultural institutions need the resources to properly test and develop these tools.

3.   Where do you see innovations happening?

OSCI, the Online Scholarly Cataloging Initiative, went a long way toward helping museums make the transition from printed volumes to multimedia, web-based publications. Launched by the Getty Foundation in 2009, the initiative supported eight other institutions in the creation of a suite of tools to facilitate the publishing and dissemination of online scholarly catalogues for art history.

4.   What’s the panel or issue you’d most like to see proposed for THATCamp CAA in Chicago?

Increasingly, scholarly work is being done on the web, but is largely unrecognized and undiscovered by undergraduate and graduate students and fellow researchers in the discipline. How can a process be developed for deciding how quality scholarship should be defined (or redefined) in the digital age? Is it possible to develop a scholarly publishing model that applies the best in traditional academic rigor to the digital world?


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