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From a Design Perspective

When engaging new media for educational uses, we rarely reflect upon the effects traditional technologies have had on the development of our disciplines. It is of course impossible to assume a kind of institutional tabula rasa, so the evaluation of our tried and true means of representation and pedagogical habits is always a key element in creating the new tools. In some cases this may constitute a radical erasure of the past, but more often than not the elements that define digital media— modularity, layering, random access, interactivity, etc.—recast traditional modes of communication and representation rather than overwrite our disciplinary memories (Manovich, 20001).

Art history is a case in point, where the combination of the comparative method and side-by-side slide projection has shaped our pedagogical landscape for many decades (Lee, 2004). Many instructors have instinctively reproduced this teaching method in digital format through PowerPoint, Keynote, the ArtStor offline viewer, and other applications. These off-the-shelf programs often facilitate business as usual, but what of traditions and media that do not readily lend themselves to this methodology? Stephen Murray, co-founder of the Visual Media Center, first posed this question. Dissatisfied with the means of interpreting and teaching the great Gothic Cathedrals, his focus on the field of architectural representation opened our inquiry.

The works of the cultural centers of Asia are, in many cases, equally challenging. Chinese scrolls are usually physically long objects, with complex iconographic and narrative elements.  The range of Japanese painting formats includes folding screens, sliding doors and horizontal hand scrolls, all of which are awkwardly examined through slides.  The horizontal picture scroll represents a contiguous pictorial surface that unfurls leftward, combining word and image to recreate long narratives. Wall paintings and narratives inscribed in stone are common in the great traditions of South Asia, while Persian miniaturist meant for their works to illustrate texts, not to be hung on a wall, severed from the written word. There is then a growing interest among faculty to help students understand the totality of these complex works, but also to train them to observe details of style, technique and content in an effort to develop a comprehensive appreciation of the artist’s work and its cultural context. We have not abandoned the comparative approach; rather, we are building on the proven methods of our discipline while exploring the range of possibilities available through new media applications.

We have focused on four areas of concentration for this project based on the cultual and historical centers of the continent as well as needs of the faculty and curriculum of Columbia University. The teaching modules presented on this site are by no means exhaustive—we will continue to add content and new teaching modules every year as we continue to work with our partners on campus and in other institutions.

Please contact James Conlon, Project Manager with your comments, observations, and ideas for additional projects. We are eager to hear what you think and how you use these sites. Please encourage your students to send us their comments as well.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has provided generous funding for this project. We would like to thank Barbara Ashbrook, Senior Program Officer, Division of Education Programs, for her advice and encouragement.



Pamela M. Lee. "Split Decision: Pamela M. Lee on the Demise of the Slide Projector." ArtForum, November 2004.

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001.