CIHA London 2000.
Thirtieth International Congress of the History of Art
Art History for the Millenium: Time.
Section 23
Digital Art History Time
London, 3-8 September 2000

 Robert LAFFINEUR <>, Professor of Greek and Roman Archaeology and Art History, University of Liège.

Teaching and Learning Art History with Digital Media at the University of Liège (Belgium)


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The experience on which I would like to report has been conducted for now about ten years at the University of Liège in relation to my classes of Greek and Roman Art History and Archaeology (Department of Art History and Archaeology). It aims at the integration of digital illustration and has been made possible thanks to the LIMA, the Laboratory for infography and multimedia applied to art history and archaeology , a laboratory that I have created and developed as an extension of my University service.

Material to be presented and discussed here has been thought of from the beginning with the purpose to provide a complete system, since it includes image databases used during the classes and multimedia presentations as well as software for auto-evaluation to be used by the students at various stages in the academic year. It helps teaching as well as learning and I'll try to emphasize the benefits of digital media as opposed to traditional media in both cases. One of the most important results of the experience is a contribution to a definition of the basic requirements of such a decisive evolution in the illustration of oral presentation in the field of art history.

I propose to comment on the various applications, listing them in the chronological order in which they are used during the academic year.

For illustration of the talk during the class, the easiest and most convenient application is an image viewer, and that is what I'm using most frequently. Image viewers are mostly distributed as sharewares, with zooming capacities, thumbnail view and slide show display, some of them in addition with basic search possibilities. These are especially useful when making comparisons that are improvised and could consequently not be prepared -a situation that is impossible to answer with traditional slides-, or when deciding just a simple flashback (the example that follows is built with iView Multimedia software and concerns Roman imperial art of the Antonine period).

More sophisticated search capacities, however, are offered by real databases, in particular by databases intended for graphic information, i.e. databases that handle both usual alphanumerical descriptions and media such as images, sounds, videos and the like. One of the best and most versatile softwares of this category is the French Phraséa III, used by many press agencies for archiving and distributing photographs, and that I've been using for some years to archive digitized slides as well as new direct digital pictures taken with a digital camera (a database on the monuments in the site of Delphi is shown, listing both monuments attested by archaeological remains and others that are documented only by epigraphical material, with the main possibilities it offers : full text search, searrch in a single field, sorting, slide show, resizing the images, …).

Isolated images can also be used as illustrations for specific purposes, such as emphasizing details of a work of art, making its structure or composition clearer, or displaying its chronological development, offering an easier understanding of those aspects.

The first two examples offer the advantage to display on a single image both a general view and various detail views, and allow in addition browsing through the image, provided that the image has been scanned in such large dimensions as to allow significant zooming possibilities (the Arch of Constantine). The benefit is particularly obvious for very long and very narrow works of art, such as my second example, the relief on the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman document of Late Republican times.

Isolated images can also be given a dynamic character, when using successively different layers in Adobe PhotoShop, in order to emphasize elements of successive periods included in a single monument, e.g. for the Arch of Constantine in Rome, especially for identifying the reliefs from earlier buildings included in its ornamentation (see fig. below).


Clicking on this image will open another window and give access to five differents layers of the same image. Just close this new window to come back to this text.

The layers of PhotoShop are also quite appropriate to illustrate the successive chronological phases of an archaeological site or a building in it, as emphasized by the other example, that has been built on the plan of a specific area of the Belgian excavations at Thorikos in Attica, Greece (the West necropolis on the Velatouri hill).

The best example of animation for an isolated image, however, is provided by QuickTime VR (virtual reality) movies, a medium with especially high efficiency as illustration of three dimensions reality, since the object that is illustrated can be virtually handled with the mouse and looked at from all angles (the example of an Apulian vase of the fourth century B.C.).

The next application is intended especially for students. It is built on Macromedia Director, the standard software for the edition of multimedia presentations. It provides the students with the possibility to browse through the illustrations that have been presented, whenever they feel it necessary, usually at the end of the classes, when preparing their exams. It begins with an animation that gives the user the possibility to check his/her knowledge of chronology. Images can then be displayed in a normal sequence that corresponds to the structure and chronological order of the class, by clicking on the single arrow, either forward of backward. The most interesting, however, is that the application allows a personalized navigation, according to the user's own needs, beginning at the chapter's home pages, and that it allows flashbacks as well, by clicking once on the double arrow, to get back to the first image of a work of art illustrated by several images, or a second time to get to the chapter's home page and to the structure of the heading. Displaying a summary of the text is also possible from there, by clicking on a specific icon.

The last application that I'd like to show, again, is intended for students. It is based on Macromedia Authorware and consists of a series of multiple choice questions that offers a tool for auto-evaluation of the user's knowledge of the course, particularly welcome when the exam is approaching. Wrong answers are corrected by suggesting a comment and a comparison between two images, offering real interactivity. Individual results are rated on the screen at the end of each session. The application records in addition the user's performances in a separate file, a feature that is highly useful for the teacher, letting him/her know of eventually recurring mistakes or just difficulties (when a longer delay is needed for providing the answer), and allowing him/her to improve the class by laying particular emphasis on that difficulty in the next class.

When it comes to a general appraisal of the experience, it may appear that there is a lot of technical restraints and that they are rather compelling … and they certainly are. The above mentioned applications imply the availability of hardware for digitalization (digital cameras for images of buildings or archaeological excavations [I'm using the new Nikon D1], scanners [Agfa T2500 for both printed images and transparencies of various sizes]), the availability of software for the edition of digital images (Adobe PhotoShop), the availability of an image database (Phraséa III, Extensis Portfolio) and software for multimedia presentations (Macromedia Director), the availability of hardware for archiving the images (CD-Rom writer), the availability of a device for displaying the image files on a large screen (a LCD tablet or, better, a data projector), not to mention the necessity to to have first class hardware (processor, Ram memory, display) and to follow the quick evolution of hardware and software (frequent upgrades of softwares and conversions of applications).

The advantages of applications based on digital images, however, are quite obvious, as opposed to traditional illustration, mainly colour slides: stability of colours, possibility of changing brightness, contrast, balance of colours, size, no mechanical drive, no physical archiving, easy and quick retrieval when the images are included in databases, easy navigation backwards and forwards, no cost for duplication of images (except disk space), possibility of zooming on the images and highlighting them with annotations or colouring, free navigation vs sequential navigation with traditional media (active use vs passive use), possibility to add interactivity, easy distribution, on CD-Rom or on the Web (or Intranet for internal use only), and this positive picture can still be increased with the addition of video movies and 3D images, categories of media that we are now working on.

A compelling necessity -and this will be my conclusion- is to aim at standardization of the applications, in order to make their circulation possible. We are still rather far, unfortunately, from such a standardization, or at least from a definition of the basic requirements for the use of digital media. It is to be hoped that a meeting like the present one, with a whole section devoted to the topic, will contribute to a better compatibility of the various projects and experiments.

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The paper proposes to review the various applications of digital media used in teaching ancient Greek and Roman art at the University of Liège (Department of Art History and Archaeology).

Material to be discussed includes image databases used during the classes and multimedia presentations as well as software for auto-evaluation to be used by the students at various stages in the academic year.

The main purpose of the paper is to discuss the benefits of digital media as opposed to trtaditional media and to suggest basic requirements for the use of those new media, according to the experience conducted so far at the University of Liège.

The paper relates directly to the theme "web-sites and other digital sources in the teaching, learning, researching and publishing of art history."



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