Friday, February 4, 2011

Access to Roman Art: Observations by Peter Stewart

The last few times I've gone to speak about issues of scholarly communication/digital humanities/digital archaeology/etc, I've opened up with a quote from Peter Stewart's 2008 book The Social History of Roman Art [Worldcat]. That's a great little book, and I was particularly pleased when reading it that Stewart is explicit about the effects of access to evidence and images on his selection and narrative. And I was further pleased that he talks about his personal efforts to solve those problems. I'll illustrate this by a series of passages given in their order of appearance:
Unfortunately, my comments in the Introduction about the problems of acquiring images were born out in the book's preparation, and I had very considerable difficulties and delays in acquiring most of the images reproduced here. I therefore owe a special debt to those who helped me to obtain pictures, and to those image-providers who waived or reduced reproduction fees. (p. xv)
Then from that introduction:

To an extent, however, these are all obvious problems of evidence and interpretation which are familiar in any branch of historical study. Other problems are insidious and lie unremarked in the methodological hinterland of books like this one. I have said that the use of examples must be highly selective. But behind any book on Roman art, there are processes of selection that are largely beyond the author’s control. Most Roman art historians will never, in their lifetime, see more than a tiny percentage even of the more significant works that survive. This is not simply because of the magnitude of this great body of material. It is also because most pieces are inaccessible. Many of the finest and most interesting Roman antiquities are in private collections, and many of these are unpublished, sometimes because of scholars’ anxieties about the legality of their origins. However works preserved in museums can be at least as difficult to access. Few museums are able to exhibit more than a small minority of the objects they hold. It is not infrequent (or surprising) for some of the objects in storage to be, effectively, lost, and for other reasons it may be hard for specialists to see material, particularly if it has been excavated recently. New discoveries may take many years to become familiar within the field, and even longer to filter into general, synoptic studies of Roman art.

So, for a variety of reason, authors depend heavily on other people's publications of Roman art, where they exist, and on their illustrations. The photographs themselves are usually supplied by the museums that own the work concerned, or simetimes by commercial agencies. In many cases no photograph exists, and new photography may not be permitted. In other cases, the acquisition of photographs proves lengthy or impossible. Moreover, the photographs (especially colour images) and the permission to reproduce them in print can be extremely costly both for individual authors and for their publishers. (p. 8)

The passages need to be read in context. It's not an angry book, and these introductory are comments are followed by interesting and challenging extended essay on the topic indicated by the title. I can highly recommend it. But back to the issue of access, here's a passage from the ending Bibliographical essay:
Finally, the photo-sharing website contains thousands of images relevant to Roman art, many of them with 'Creative Commons' copyright licenses that make them easy to use legitimately for, e.g. educational purposes. Within that site the 'Chiron' group especially is dedicated to making images available for classical teaching and research. This site carries many of my own photographs (under the screen name 'Tintern'), including colour images of the House of the Vettii and other sites mentioned in this book. (p. 174)
So mad props to Dr. Stewart for raising the issue of access and then doing something about it. A book from CUP in which the author cites his account? That's progress.

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