By Dr Sarah Griffin (DPhil History of Art 2018), Research Assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and Junior Teaching Fellow at the Ashmolean Museum.
As art historians, we don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of visual culture to the study of the past. The pedagogical value of interacting with and reading objects and images is central to the ways in which we teach and research. In recent years, other Humanities subjects have become increasingly interested in material culture, moving away from traditional text-based teaching to incorporate more object handling and museum visits, demanding more resources be made for object-based learning.
Since joining the art history department, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two initiatives that encourage and deliver object-based teaching in Oxford: Krasis, a seminar series that uses the Ashmolean’s collections to teach; and Cabinet, a digital tool designed to support this method of teaching. Both speak directly to the experience and interests of art historians and are available for students and staff across the University.
Cabinet: Digital Tools for Object-Based Learning
In 2015, my then doctoral supervisor, Gervase Rosser, introduced me to a project at the Oxford Internet Institute that was in the early stages of design. This new online platform, I was told, would display the significant and diverse collections of Oxford’s museums together to create a digital Cabinet of Curiosities. Although immediately captivated by this idea, I did not yet know that Cabinet would come to play a defining role in my research and in the development of my teaching practice.
Cabinet is an online platform pioneered by Oxford researchers (led by Kathryn Eccles, formerly the University’s Digital Humanities Champion) to facilitate the use of objects and images in teaching. Its ultimate aim is to make Oxford’s collections as accessible for use in learning as text-based resources and so is particularly pertinent to art historical approaches. Cabinet won an OxTalent award for innovation in 2017 and has since been adopted as a University service to support digital object-based teaching.
As a research assistant, my first task was to create an online component to complement Gervase’s ‘Early Renaissance Italy’ course using the Ashmolean’s collections. One of my favourite outcomes was a 3D model of the Embriachi Casket, a fifteenth-century octagonal marriage casket made in Venice, now publicly available online. Cabinet RA Jamie Cameron makes these models through a process called photogrammetry. Photos are taken of every angle of the object and inserted into software (we use AgiSoft Photoscan) that calculates the distance between the photos taken to generate the model. In the Cabinet viewer (pictured below), the model can be turned, toggled and zoomed in upon, allowing the user to digitally handle the object.
Source page for the Embriachi Casket, hosted by Cabinet
Although Cabinet is well known for its 3D models, this is just one of many features it has that help the viewer to engage with the source material as closely as possible. As well as annotating the 2D image or 3D model (as seen in the coloured numbers in the casket above), one can present the object with interactive multimedia interpretation, including textual commentaries, links to external websites, and embedded videos and audio.
Another significant feature of the platform is the ability to arrange objects in a carefully curated learning pathway within a Cabinet ‘paper’. Many of our papers that are tailored to a specific undergraduate course currently require a login from Weblearn or Canvas to view, but a selection are freely available on Cabinet’s discovery page.
A large part of my role is to help Oxford staff to create and upload their courses onto Cabinet. Seeing how digitised images could be so easily imported using IIIF, I was inspired to create a paper based around my own specialism in medieval science and manuscripts: ‘Corpus: Representing the Body in Medieval Manuscripts‘. Building the paper, I came to realise that the ways in which one can organise visual materials is essentially an extension of art historical methodologies, encouraging the paper’s viewers to compare, contrast and contextualise the images within their distinct visual culture. In ‘Corpus’, I grouped manuscripts illustrations together according to provenance and iconographic similarity, such as these medieval depictions of the zodiac man. You can read more about how I designed ‘Corpus’ to teach students about the history of medicine and medieval manuscripts on the OII blog.
Classification of medieval images of the ‘Zodiac Man’ by provenance on Cabinet
Krasis: Teaching with the Ashmolean’s Collections
Created by Jim Harris and Samuel Gartland, Krasis brings together eight students (Krasis Scholars) and four DPhil or postdoctoral researchers (Junior Teaching Fellows) in the Ashmolean for four interdisciplinary seminars that utilise the awesome potential of the museum’s diverse collections. Born out of the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement Programme, it builds on the success and high demand for Eloquent Things, a four-day course that teaches cross-divisional DPhils and ECRs how to teach with objects.
From the Ancient Greek word κρᾶσις – a good mix, compound or union – Krasis does exactly what it says on the tin. The seminars are broadly related by a theme (absence, presence, movement, sound, the body, trust, to name just a few), yet each session is led through the specialism of the junior teaching fellow. Students are encouraged to bring their own rigorous disciplinary interpretation to discuss with others, and together unpack how one object can be read in a multiplicity of ways.
Krasis teaching with Jim Harris and myself (left) and DPhil student, Helena Guzik, leading a session (right)
Each two to three-hour session is dynamic, including object-handling sessions, gallery presentations, and creative tasks. So far we’ve seen historical plays re-enacted and podcasts recorded in the gallery space, museum tours constructed, ideas for the re-organisation of a display pitched to a (brave) Ashmolean curator, and costumes designed upon objects in the collection. No two seminars are alike, but we do have one ongoing tradition: a cup of tea in the rooftop cafe. The time and caffeine to polish off a task is always welcome, but more crucially it gives scholars the chance to chat with the fellows about life as a graduate researcher.
After three runs of being a teaching fellow, I now co-convene the seminar with Jim, functioning as both an advisor to the teaching fellows and the organiser of the seminar’s digital component.
Krasis on Cabinet: A Teaching Tool and Digital Legacy
That these two initiatives speak directly to one another has not gone unnoticed. From 2019, Krasis has partnered with Cabinet to create an online component of the seminar in the form of a Cabinet paper. Each unit of the paper is designed by a teaching fellow, giving them a space to curate the objects handled and discussed during the session and the ability to create a digital pathway of resources through which the students can further research the seminar topics.
Not only will this send students away with, in Jim’s words, a “bibliography of objects” to consult later, it will soon be made public – showcasing the creativity of the seminars, giving a wider audience access to objects often not on display, and offering a digital portfolio to the teaching fellows.
Krasis on Cabinet – Hilary 2019
Both projects have been challenging. They have demanded that I bring together my experience as an art historian, teacher, researcher of the Middle Ages and digital humanist, and put them into practice. Looking back, I cannot imagine a better way, nor with a more exceptional group of people, that I could have honed these skills for my next post-DPhil step.
How do I get involved?
If you would like to use Cabinet, for research, teaching or another purpose, please contact the Digital Education learning technologists at IT Services for information on how to gain access and create content.
If you’re interested in being a part of Krasis, either as a Scholar or a Junior Teaching Fellow, read more about the application process on the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement site.