Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Camera Lucida: AMICO in an Art History Classroom

Colleen Skidmore and Sandra Dowie, University of Alberta, Canada

AMICO in an Art History Classroom

Figure 1. AMICO in an Art History Classroom

Historical Precedents and Contemporary Classrooms

In 1915 in Principles of Art History, Heinrich Wölfflin introduced the basic pedagogical form that prevails in art history classrooms to this day: the side-by-side display of images for the purpose of comparison. Wölfflin's practice was born of necessity; "the need," he wrote, "of establishing on a firmer basis the classifications of art history: not the judgment of value…but the classifications of style" (p. vii). The tool he used to perceive distinctions was comparative analysis: "Nothing is more illuminating than to compare the similar curve of the arm in the two pictures" [Lorenzo's and Botticelli's Venuses] (p. 2). Despite generational shifts and cycles in methodology, content, and even the concept of what the discipline of art history encompasses, this method continues to be favoured. Whereas Wölfflin invoked the comparative method to develop visual literacy in the formal or compositional grammar of the image, art historians teaching today expect their students to learn not only the formal elements and semiotics of the image but also cultural and social issues attending imagery. The terms "representation" and "visual culture" which argue for an enlarged scope of inquiry signal this approach. Moreover, just as emphasis has shifted from masterpieces and lives of the artists, so too has recent technology transformed the ways in which material is delivered and received in the classroom.

While the method Wölfflin bequeathed the discipline served him well, like so many who have followed he lamented the quality of the images that accompanied his text: "Our little reproductions can, of course, only make the fact of the matter very imperfectly clear" (p. 44). Early 20th-century monochromatic print reproductions, followed by glass slides, were superceded by colour transparencies for classroom use in the early 1970's. Today at the University of Alberta, we are experimenting with digital reproductions for teaching and study purposes, an approach made viable by the launch of the Art Museums Image Consortium (AMICO) image database in July 1998. This paper discusses our aims, design strategies, teaching methods, and early results based on student assessments of the use of AMICO's digital images in the classroom and on a course Web site.


The Art Museums Image Consortium (AMICO) is a non-profit enterprise whose founding members are twenty-three of North America's largest museums. Membership is open to institutions with art collections. AMICO's purpose is to make members' collections available digitally to educational institutions ( In 1998, the Research Library Group (RLG) ( constructed an initial image database of 20,000 items, a number expected to reach 250,000 within three years. AMICO's site licence allows traditional scholarly uses and needs, including reproduction in non-published form (such as in theses or as part of a gallery installation). For galleries, academic requests for reproductions and reproduction rights in institutional venues will ease while both well known and seldom displayed or reproduced images and objects will be readily available for study in a very high quality reproduction.

At the University of Alberta, we are working with the database in its test bed year to explore its adoption as a teaching and reference tool. Part of the purpose of the overall AMICO test bed project, which includes 20 universities in North America, is to explore the mechanisms in place or required for collaboration between academic users and museum staff. The project at the University of Alberta supports the educational evaluation of AMICO in two areas: to identify who uses AMICO and why, and to increase understanding of user needs for teaching and research and for systems architecture to support these users. We are conducting this evaluation within art history courses in which the AMICO database is being adapted for teaching and research purposes. The courses to which we refer here are a pair of junior undergraduate surveys of the history of art in Canada. The first term course offered in Fall 1998 deals with practices prior to 1895; the second term course in Winter 1999 focuses on the 20th century.

Instructor's Goals

Central to instructional development is a strong analysis and design phase at the beginning of any project. (Kemp et al., 1997, Dick et al., 1996) This especially is the case when new technologies are used. Kearsley (1998) argues that technology has become the great "siren song" of education. Too often, educators focus on the tools rather than the learning achieved by students. To avoid this type of problem, we worked with a production team which included people from the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, our campus Technical Resource Group, and the Faculty of Arts Technologies for Learning Centre. We discussed which teaching strategies that would be most effective for student learning. With the team's combined expertise, we then determined how we would use technology to achieve those instructional objectives. In this way, we hoped to seek technological solutions that we could shape to our ends rather than being constrained early in the development process by the solutions at hand.

As instructor, I had a number of goals for my course. First were the traditional learning objectives related to junior students acquiring the ability to analyze works of art in terms of formal compositional and material elements. Equally as important, I wanted to foster meta-cognitive skills-that is, effective strategies for working with content such as the ability to locate, synthesize, and analyze information-these skills are essential to students who will be working in a technological era. More so than ever before, instructors in higher education must facilitate strong process-oriented skills that will enable our graduates to be successful life-long learners (Dolence, et al., 1995). One such skill is the ability to use databases to advantage.

My primary teaching requirements were:

  • easy access to high quality images for both my students and myself

  • the ability to display images side-by-side

  • a learning environment which fosters the active participation of learners

  • support for students as they learn to manipulate a database

  • collaborative learning activities

  • an environment of respect for the student as an adult learner


Easy access to high-quality images

In the past, this course was delivered in a lecture-style format that integrated regular discussion periods based on a series of articles, chapters and images gathered together in a courseware package. Copyright fees were paid for use of all materials. Photocopied images are of only minimal use as reference information. Needed to supplement this package was a source of high-quality colour reproductions, more extensive and diverse than those found in the usual but now outdated textbooks on the history of painting in Canada, as well as more accessible, in physical and financial terms, for students. In the meantime, computer technology was becoming a viable means for exploring a broad range of imagery in a lateral rather than linear manner, much as in on-line bibliographic research. Such an approach to research supports exploring concepts across a range of methods or disciplines and diverse ways of thinking. The AMICO image database offered the opportunity to work in this manner and has proved to be an excellent source for superior images.

Single Image Display

Figure 2. Single Image Display of Lawren Harris, Above Lake Superior, c.1922, in Canadian Art History Reserve Catalogue, University of Alberta, 1999

Finally, I wanted to be able to display these images, both singly and in side-by-side display, during lectures at the front of the class and have students use these images during both their in-class discussions and private study periods. To accommodate these needs, we made two moves: one to a computer learning center, the second to a Web-based course site.

In the computer learning centre, the instructor's workstation includes a computer, CRT data projector, and two slide projectors. As the AMICO collection is new, not all of the images required for the course are available at this time and so slides from the university's collection are used in addition to the digital AMICO images. As the number of images available through AMICO grows, the need for slides will decline dramatically.

There are also 20 student computer stations in the learning centre comfortably spaced to allow for two or three students at each. During my lecture, I display large digital images and slides at the front of the class. Students also access and view the digital images at their respective workstations. Not only are AMICO's digital images vibrant and full of detail, unlike slide reproductions they may be viewed in four sizes and at close range by students on their computer screen.

To facilitate access to course information and images both in and outside of class, a course Web site was established. This secured site, created with WebCT, supplies course materials such as the syllabus, image lists, hyperlinks to gallery and museum sites, and most significantly, a link to a custom-made reserve catalogue of the AMICO images used in the course. The development and use of this catalogue was an element of our initial proposal and has AMICO's sanction. It fully respects AMICO Conditions of Use, (appended to this paper), such as ensuring copyright notices are no more than one "click" away from an image, while taking advantage of opportunities that the consortium offers.

Side-by-side display of images

It makes intuitive sense to compare and contrast concepts, objects, processes, and people. Metaphors and similes are ingrained in our language. Instructional theorists advocate the comparison of examples and non-examples of entities as a powerful way to enhance learning, especially of complex content (Merrill et al., 1992). Wölfflin's teaching methodology is a powerful one that is flexible and appropriate today despite theoretical changes in the discipline of art history (Stinespring et al., 1993). Art historians and art education theorists have found that many of the styles and trends in imagery may be examined as polarities and "as both works are analyzed together, point by point, their contrasting qualities become easier to explain, hence easier to grasp" (Calabrese, 1993, p. 14). Thus, the practice of presenting images side-by-side is both intuitively and theoretically sound. Yet, as art history professors consider the potential of the new technologies, they can feel frustrated by practical constraints. This is the case with presenting side-by-side images from image collections.

While the traditional slide-based lecture requires only two projectors and a large screen, the computer equivalent appears overwhelming as it seems necessary to arrange for two computers, two digital projectors, two CD-ROMs, and projection screens. This seems to make the feasibility of comparing images a costly option. Indeed, it has been concluded that "standard multimedia software more or less eliminates the possibility of showing two frames simultaneously: this is not one of the many things multimedia is designed to do" (DeBenedictis, 1995, p. 59).

Despite what seemed like rather daunting logistical issues, the production team proceeded to tackle the problem of how to display the AMICO images side-by-side for the purpose of comparison. A number of alternatives were investigated. We chose to focus on a software solution but one that avoided using commercially available software such as "plug-ins" because of direct costs to students wishing to use their home computers. Instead, we custom designed our own image presentation catalogue.

Three important features of the custom catalogue are its nature as a reserve file of images easily available to registered students for study purposes, the choice of a thumbnail with identifying label, and a label-only catalogue with title, artist and/or date search capabilities. Most significantly, the catalogue also provides a flexible means by which the user can shift between single full-screen images and side-by-side displays of the images for comparison.

Side-by-Side Display

Figure 3. Side-by-Side Display of Lawren Harris, Above Lake Superior, c.1922, and Emily Carr, Cumshewa, c.1912, in Canadian Art History Reserve Catalogue, University of Alberta, 1999

By creating our own catalogue of selected images from AMICO, we also avoid access delays to the master AMICO catalogue, which we find slows down significantly as the day progresses. Our students have immediate connection to the relevant images.

The active participation of students during class

Researchers have commented on the numerous problems associated with traditional methods of instruction that primarily support lower levels of learning in which transfer of knowledge is limited. This type of learning is referred to as "inert knowledge" and is of marginal use to students. Superior learning environments exist when
good teachers pose questions requiring comparisons and informed speculation…they focus on activities that cause students to process information in unique ways that deepen understanding. Effective teaching rarely embodies simple telling and is rarely limited to the transmission of formal knowledge (Hannifin, 1992, p. 52).

In his classic book, Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Wlodkowski (1993) stresses the importance of stimulation to enhance learner motivation. One of the keys to creating a stimulating learning environment is interactivity, that is, "make learner reaction and participation an essential part of the learning process" (p 170). To enhance learning and a student's positive motivation towards class, I look for ways to engage students beyond listening during lectures. The course Web site and related custom catalogue of images are powerful vehicles for involvement. Students' level of interaction with the course materials and images is high as they work in pairs actively navigating the course site as well as accessing and displaying various sizes and combinations of images.

The development of students' skills in manipulating a database

The current technology-based deluge of information has led to increasing prominence of knowledge workers, those professionals who use knowledge and information to create more knowledge. It is essential that post-secondary students, including those aspiring to work in arts and cultural fields, develop the appropriate skills to be effective in a technological environment. Romiszowski states that "already evident in modern highly computerized organizations, is the need to continually learn to use new tools for the accessing, processing, and transformation of information into knowledge" (1997, p. 829).

Many of the students registered for this class arrived with minimal on-line computer skills. We designed the reserve catalogue to allow these students to learn to work dynamically within it without being overwhelmed by a plethora of possibilities. The current version provides a reduced set of images organized according to class image lists. For those who choose, there is also the advanced search feature that enables them to retrieve images according to their date, artist, or title. In this structured environment, students are able to refine their abilities to navigate a database enabling them to successfully move on to larger, more complex databases with confidence.

Collaborative learning activities

Large, lecture-based courses are valued as a cost-effective way to provide instruction to junior undergraduate students on our campus just as it is with many other campuses. Students evaluating the Canadian Art History courses in the past had strongly favoured the discussion components. With this in mind, we took advantage of the opportunity to adapt technology in the lecture environment to enhance further the level of student engagement. Pence (1996) proposes that "cooperative learning can be used, even in very large lectures, to improve subject mastery and encourage students to be active learners" (p. 94). He goes on to write that interpersonal skills and the ability to work with others have become essential skills in today's team-based decision making work environments. As well, student motivation is enhanced through the positive emotional climate engendered through collaborative activities (Wlodkowski, 1993).

In this classroom, students are seated two to a workstation at which they access the course Web site for use during the classroom presentation and for reference material during small group discussions. (See Figure 1.) Students chat with each other as they work and there is an undercurrent of intellectual excitement and pleasure as they explore and analyze the images.

My teaching strategies build on the best that human contact offers. I seek to enhance face-to-face interaction in a classroom environment, not to replace it with technology. Nevertheless, for those with distance learning needs and objectives, the course Web site and reserve catalogue based on the AMICO database could be adapted easily and effectively.

Respect for the student as an adult learner

During the initial planning stages, it was suggested that we 'slave' the students' computers to the instructor's. That way any image that the instructor accessed would automatically appear on the students' monitors. While the class would be strongly controlled, students would continue to sit passively and be totally dependent on the instructor. One of the core assumptions of teaching adult learners is that they have, or are developing, a strong personal concept of being self-directed and responsible for their own lives. The most constructive learning environments for such students are those that foster their evolution into self-directed learners. (Knowles et al., 1998)

In keeping with principles of adult learning, we chose to have students control their use of the course Web site and the reserve catalogue. Students access the database in a self-sufficient manner. In the classroom, the students follow the instructor's lead during the lecture period, calling up images under discussion on their own monitors. Many also open a second window to follow the list of images being covered that day, and some open a window to take notes that they save on disk. During class, students control their presentation of the images and organize their computer desktops to suit their needs best.

Student Response

Forty students were admitted to the first course offered using AMICO images. A formal assessment of student response to the computer-based technology components was conducted by Stanley Varnhagen, an evaluation researcher with Academic Technologies for Learning at the University of Alberta. His research included the following results:

  1. 83.3% of the students had a positive impression of the use of computer technology in the course; 13.3% were neutral; and 3.3% felt somewhat negative about its use.
  2. 70% found computer-based technology enhanced their learning; 23.3% felt neutral about its effect; 3.3% found their learning diminished.
  3. 46.7% found working with a partner at the computer station enhanced learning while 43.3% reported that it had no effect on their learning. 10% found sharing a computer with a partner to be a detriment to learning.
  4. 93% found the number of AMICO images to be inadequate.
  5. Nevertheless, 80% found it helpful to have the custom-made reserve catalogue available on-line outside of class time. 96.3% agreed that the reserve catalogue would be a useful exam preparation tool if most or all of the required images were available.
In response to student evaluation and suggestions for the custom catalogue, the version for the second term course has been refined as it has been expanded. The initial response of those students this term who had taken the course in the Fall term was general enthusiasm for such changes as: offering access to the images based on the image lists rather than the full catalogue alone, and the advanced search features. They also find it easier to call up side-by-side displays. Dr. Varnhagen will formally survey the current group's response later in the term and then compare results with the initial assessment.

Future Plans

At the University of Alberta, AMICO project coordinator Michael May is working to increase awareness and use of the database by other art historians, studio instructors, and faculty in other disciplines, such as classics, philosophy, sociology, religious studies and art education, as well as by students for term paper projects. I plan to continue to use the AMICO and reserve catalogue databases, along with computer learning centres and WebCT course sites, expanding the use of appropriate computer-based teaching tools, as more images become available. Assignments and examination methods will change too, whenever technology components offer methods that are more effective than those traditionally used.

As has happened this first year, we would suggest that AMICO and its museums continue to seek input from users on image needs. For example, at AMICO's invitation we have requested specific canonical historical works be added to the database in addition to currently under-represented contemporary works by First Nations and women artists. We would like to see the database expand with both well-known and lesser-known historical and contemporary works in diverse media and genre. In this context, museums would do well to surprise, delight, and challenge the database users with works worthy of study or recognition. To make this an effective strategy, AMICO or RLG would need to alert subscribers on a regular basis to "new images" that have been added, perhaps providing thumbnail images with text files about the additions. In terms of the AMICO database architecture, the interface needs fine tuning to become more intuitive for the user; the name-search ("creator") function is inconsistent and unreliable, often leading to no results when in fact images by that artist are in the database; and French language characters should be automatically and consistently included. (Users of images from other language groups may have similar concerns.)

Finally, museum staff must educate academic users about copyright needs and concerns in Canada and the United States. Academic users should discuss and demonstrate post-secondary uses of the database with museum staff to help them understand user needs and expectations. Museums, in turn, should educate university users about museum needs and challenges with the database. In universities, professors need to receive financial support for hardware, software, and course preparation time as well as acknowledgement that such pedagogical contributions are of value to students and the institution. Above all, a sense of adventure and a sense of humor must prevail as we jointly explore new ways of sharing information, building knowledge, and teaching and learning with new technological tools.


Computer-based technology is often criticized because of the sociological phenomenon of users' isolation or because of the perception that the ultimate goal of its use in educational environments is to eliminate instructors and provide a cheaper method of instruction. We have found that the opposite can also be true. The development of computer-based materials is human and time intensive, as is the use of this material and technology in classroom instruction and students' private study. We have mobilized the technology effectively to improve and assist student interaction with each other, the instructor, and course materials. As Robert Kozma has stated, "whether or not a medium's capabilities make a difference in learning depends on how they correspond to the particular learning situation-the tasks and learners involved-and the way the medium's capabilities are used by the instruction design" (1991, p.182). Wölfflin would no doubt agree. Computer-based technology can facilitate interaction and integration, as is the case with certain uses of the AMICO image database, bringing together not only diverse and unexpected images, but also ideas and people, as demonstrated in the classroom and among the AMICO test bed participants. Staffs of both museums and education institutions have a rare opportunity to capitalize on the collaborative potential that this extraordinary initiative offers.

List of Digital Illustrations

Lawren S. Harris (Canadian 1885-1970)
Above Lake Superior, c. 1922
oil on canvas
121.9 x 152.4 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Gift from the Reuben and Kate Leonard Canadian Fund, 1929
Copyright 1999: Art Gallery of Ontario

Emily Carr (Canadian 1871-1945)
Cumshewa, c. 1912
watercolour over graphite on wove paper, mounted on cardboard
52.0 x 75.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Purchased, 1953
Copyright 1997: National Gallery of Canada


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DeBenedictis, E. (1995). Teaching Multimedia in the Art History Undergraduate Classroom. Computers and the History of Art 5(1), 53-64.

Dick, W. and Carey, L. (1996). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Dolence, M. G. and Norris, D. M. (1995). Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

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AMICO Conditions of Use

The following is adapted from the University of Alberta's AMICO site license. Questions may be directed to: Michael May, Humanities and Social Sciences Library (780-492-1411;

1. General

Use of the AMICO Library is restricted to authorized users of the database, which includes faculty members, enrolled students, university employees, and researchers officially affiliated with the University of Alberta. The following may not use the database: alumni, independent contractors, subscribers who pay fees to use university facilities or services, university tenants, and the members of the household of authorized users.

Access to and use of the AMICO Library is exclusively for education, research and scholarship. More specifically, in addition to and notwithstanding any privileged use set forth in copyright law, the AMICO Library may be used for: (1) classroom instruction and related activities, (2) student assignments, (3) public display or public performance in a university museum, gallery or similar facility, including use in exhibit labels and other components of the exhibit, (4) public display or public performance as part of a professional presentation at a seminar, conference, or workshop, or other such similar professional activity; (5) use in a student or faculty portfolio, including non-public, display thereof, if such use conforms to the customary and usual practice in the field; and (6) use in a dissertation, including reproductions of the dissertation for personal use and library deposit, if such use conforms to the customary and usual practice in the field.

Access to and use of the AMICO Library under this Agreement for any and all purposes other than education, research and scholarship is prohibited. More specifically, the following are strictly prohibited: (1) publishing any AMICO Work in any medium or format, (2) redistributing any AMICO Work by any means beyond the authorized user community, and (3) storing any AMICO Work, in whole or in part, beyond the term of this Agreement, unless expressly permitted. In no event may any AMICO Work, or any adaptation thereof, be used in a commercial or business related manner, or for fund-raising, marketing promotion, or public relations.

2. Required Notices

Any and all publicly displayed AMICO Works must include minimum Amico Library catalogue information. Please contact Michael May (780-492-1411; for details.

3. Adaptations

Any adaptation, alteration, addition to, deletion from, manipulation, or modification (together "adaptations") of an AMICO Work, in whole or in part, must be undertaken exclusively for the education, research or scholarship. As the University Library must maintain complete and accurate records of all institutionally created (that is, created by university employees for official university programs) or systematic adaptations of AMICO Works created under this Agreement, including a record of the specific educational, research, or scholarly purpose served by the adaptation, these adaptations and their uses must be reported to the University of Alberta Library. (Note that this does not include adaptations for private study, research, or course assignments.) Contact Michael May (780-492-1411;

In no event may an authorized user: (1) reproduce or distribute any adaptation of an AMICO Work, in whole or in part; (2) publish any adaptation of an AMICO Work, in whole or in part, in any medium or by any means, or (3) redistribute any adaptation of an AMICO work, outside the group of authorized University of Alberta users, in whole or in part, by any means.

Upon termination of this Agreement, with the exception of adaptations for student assignments and for faculty or student portfolios, authorized users may not retain any adaptation of an AMICO Work, in whole or in part. The University Library will notify authorized users if and when the license is terminated. Any adaptation of AMICO Works, in whole or in part, must: (1) clearly identify all changes in the image and/or related documentation, and (2) provide citations or direct links to the unadapted AMICO Work.

Last update: 12/21/98

Consulted 15 January 1999.