Digital Humanities, Art History, and Object Authenticity

As an art historian, I often think about how my research has evolved alongside developments in digital humanities. When I was a PhD student in 2009, I received permission from the New York Public Library to photograph the fourteenth-century French picture Bible that is the central focus of my dissertation, Spencer Collection ms. 22, in its entirety. Prior to this visit, I knew of the manuscript only through written descriptions and a few published images, most in black and white. I was given one day to photograph the manuscript in the Rare Book Division reading room, with just a simple handheld digital camera and a laptop to process images. I needed these images for a comparative study I was completing with two other manuscripts, one of which existed physically in Augsburg, Germany (I possessed it digitally on a CD of images kindly shared with me by a colleague at the IRHT in Paris) and the other in Amiens, France (a digitized version of the complete manuscript was available even then through the French database Enluminures).

My Spencer 22 photographs would complete the digital surrogate triad I needed to finish writing the dissertation back home. However, once I had the images of all three illuminated manuscripts in my possession, a strange thing happened. I re-materialized them, made them physical again, by printing over three hundred pages of a detailed comparative table, each page showing the three manuscripts side-by-side-by-side. I did not yet feel like a digital humanist; I reverted to a more comfortable technology. I still felt it necessary to travel to see each manuscript in person. Yet without these surrogates, the visual comparisons at the heart of my dissertation would not have been physically possible. Today, not even a decade later, all three of the manuscripts, including Spencer ms. 22, are available online, and given the chance to start anew, I would likely conduct the majority of my comparative research in a digital database. Maybe I wouldn’t have had that wonderful day in the NYPL, feeling the parchment between my fingers, hearing the pages crackle softly as I turned them, smelling that old book smell.

Art history is a discipline that values authenticity and originality even as we spend most of our time considering art and architecture in reproduction. Its relationship with the copy has evolved along with technology: From prints to slides to digital images and objects, art historians require reproductions for teaching and research. We make do with slides or digital images projected on a screen in a darkened classroom. But digital humanities are changing this relationship with the reproduction, creating authentic experiences in digital environments. Take the Rome Reborn project, a digital model of ancient Rome. A demo video gives students a virtual tour flying in and out and above the great monuments of the ancient city. Students will perhaps come to know ancient Rome better from this virtual version than as tourists encountering the ruins amongst the twenty-first century city.

I revisit Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” often, lately wondering how digital humanities add value to the original work of art if the process of reproduction inherently depletes the aura of the original.[1] Reproductions create real and perceived distance between the original material object’s physical location and its copy, often fragmenting the original in some way through the process. Digital humanities, however, offer the means of creating a unique thing, a new digital object, each time a medieval manuscript is viewed online or an ancient Roman building is explored in a virtual space.

Though we cannot, perhaps, detect a work’s authenticity reproduced as thousands of pixels on a screen, I think art historians are in a good position in the present moment to rethink, perhaps even let go of, the notion of aura in the Benjaminian sense. Yes, we understand the need to visit the archive or museum and view, touch, smell, and sense the art object whenever possible. We can still do good work with photographic reproductions from the comfort of our own offices. Digital humanities projects, however, often aim to transfer something of the materiality of the object through digital means. In my own field of manuscript studies, this means that we can view the work in a completely different way than its creators and original users as we zoom in to high-res images on our laptops and tablets to examine details of the page; details that we might, in an encounter with the original, understand better through a different sensory experience. For example, we touch the original manuscript’s pages to feel hair follicles that remained during the production of the parchment; in a digital reproduction, we zoom in to examine the animal’s pores and hair follicles on the surface of the page, mentally transferring our visual experience back to tactile. If we are able to check our residual anxiety over the authenticity of a digital reproduction, we will advance the history of art and architecture in innovative and multisensory research endeavors.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 217–252.

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