Art History professor finds a lab in the digital humanities

“Madonna and Christ Child with Two Saints,” Late 13th century
April 14, 2015

Art History professor Gretchen McKay may focus her scholarship on thousand-year-old Byzantine art, but when it comes to her teaching techniques, she’s always looking to the future for new, better ways to engage her students.

McKay is well known nationally for her early enthusiasm for Reacting to the Past role-playing, and later for “flipping” her classrooms. Now she’s busy figuring out all the ways digital humanities scholarship, methods and tools can provide opportunities to involve her students in her research as a scholar.

“The digital humanities are not about digitizing material, but more about humanistic inquiry with digital tools to ask new types of questions,” says McKay, who was among 20 art historians selected from a national pool to attend a two-week Digital Humanities workshop at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media last summer at George Mason University.

During the workshop, McKay created a website featuring her research into Byzantine influence on Italian panel paintings of the virgin and child. The digital humanities project was inspired by a painting she fell in love with five years ago while at a Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) seminar on pre-modern European art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. The painting, “Madonna and Christ Child with Two Saints,” part of the Kress Collection at the museum, had since become a focus of her research — and McKay had been looking for a sustainable project centered in some way on the painting. 

She found and launched that project at the Digital Humanities workshop. The resulting, in-progress website is what she says humanities scholars have long needed — a lab, in this case McKay’s lab, and the center for her research as a scholar.

As her lab, the website serves multiple purposes and audiences. It is a platform for student-faculty research collaboration, for students to contribute to the discipline of art history, for bringing art history content to the public and for McKay’s students to present and publish their research findings.

Back on campus after the workshop, McKay wasted no time including digital humanities in her lesson plans. She found a perfect venue in “Ways of Seeing Byzantium,” the online course she’s teaching this semester.

“I don’t want fact-based classes because my students can get the facts anywhere. I want them to do something in my classes that they can’t do anywhere else,” she says.

After learning about the Byzantines and what they believed, the class examines both Byzantine and Italian Eleousa-type of panel paintings in which the Virgin and Child touch cheeks. The students use their own eyes to look for differences in the paintings before doing an online provenance search from origin to where the painting is today. As a culminating project, they’ll use digital humanities to analyze how the images change over the centuries as the Italians interpreted the Byzantine paintings. And they will post their work.  

“One of my goals in creating this project is to have a platform for undergraduates to have their work published on this site,” says McKay. “But this is also important because the digital humanities platform is a way for my students to actually see their research and to share it with the public.

“It’s an opportunity for extending cultural understanding to more people and for us to show what a small liberal arts college can do."