Reviewed April 2014
Open access, art history, and teaching tools come together in Smarthistory, a self-described online art history textbook presented by the not-for-profit online education resource Khan Academy. Organized by artist, theme, or time period, it currently hosts over 300 essays and almost 600 unscripted video conversations, provided on a volunteer basis by scholars and professionals in art history and archaeology, and vetted by Smarthistory’s editorial board. New content is added regularly, and all content is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.
Smarthistory provides introductory yet authoritative content that often raises questions in place of didactic text. The essays vary in quality, style, and length, although most are informal and conversational in tone. There are few footnotes; instead, essays link to other online resources such as museum websites. Overall the entry formatting marks a departure from a traditional textbook that is generally more uniform in its presentation of concepts and content.
Like the essays, the videos provide context for specific pieces. Conversations between academics and/or museum professionals are recorded in front of works of art in their gallery locations, or in view of particular architectural structures. The genuine interest and curiosity of the speakers are evident in many of these videos.
It should be noted that the content has an overwhelmingly Western focus. (The editors have expressed interest in expanding this coverage by partnering with scholars of non-Western subjects.) The works included are nothing particularly new to the standard canon, although because of the digital format’s flexibility, more pieces are given close readings than in a traditional textbook.
The online platform allows for potential interaction with others; comments are encouraged on entries, and videos in particular attract many comments. Khan Academy staff are quick to answer logistical questions although they generally refrain from involvement in conversations that build around the content. Users are encouraged to record their own conversational videos about art works and are given software hints and directions to accomplish this.
The most radical aspect of Smarthistory is its approach to images, which are crowd-sourced and collected on Smarthistory’s Flickr group. Contributors are requested to gather multiple images from many angles, with bystanders and other contextual elements in the shots. This approach is a welcome disruption of the “one authoritative image per object” format that has hitherto dominated traditional art history narratives and print constraints.
All the conversations and text are in English, but the Khan Academy interface invites users to provide subtitles in multiple languages. Entries without user-generated subtitles may be viewed with the closed captioning that YouTube provides, though this service is not necessarily the most accurate.
Although it is labeled a textbook, the variation in coverage suggests that Smarthistory is more a supplemental resource, albeit an engaging one. There is overlap with other resources; some of the entries are also published in Oxford Art Online. However, the open platform is certainly appealing, especially for institutions with small budgets.
Smarthistory is useful for a number of educational and recreational audiences. Information professionals might recommend this resource to users who seek an accessible introduction to certain artists, works, time periods or themes. The interactive elements could suit flipped classroom techniques, online courses, or independent scholarship as well. Museum curators, educators, and librarians may appreciate how entries contextualize works of art in their museum settings. Its popularity indicates that art history, open access, and digital learning are indeed compatible concepts. This is likely just the beginning for pedagogical models that are less dependent on traditional formats and publishing structures.