How two New York professors transformed the teaching of art history

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – Beth Harris and Steven Zucker were in Siena, Italy, in the city’s famous cathedral, when a funny thing happened. They were recording a short video about Donatello’s relief sculpture The Feast of Herod for their website, Smarthistory, a once modest resource for art history students that has since become a phenomenal, worldwide success.

The Donatello appears in textbooks, usually as a black-and-white photograph surrounded by words. There are a lot of reasons it’s considered important, but never mind that, for now.

Harris and Zucker can be heard explaining why the 15th-Century bronze relief was so innovative, why it is attached to a baptismal font and why Donatello showed the shocking moment when Herod is presented with the head of John the Baptist.

At that moment, a baby cries in the background. Unfazed, Zucker improvises in his warm, gently conspiratorial voice, “We see actually a family coming in now with a baby, and this is clearly a joyous moment. It’s such a strong contrast with the image we’re seeing here.”

The baby wailed again, as if taking issue with the assertion that it’s a joyous occasion for all concerned. And Zucker, realising their time is up, makes haste to round off the commentary, “Oh,” he said. “We’re actually being asked to leave.”

Beth Harris and a statue of Marcus Aurelius. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Art and life, pain and joy, past and present, profound and prosaic. All, in an instant, folded into one.

What could have been boring and didactic instead hits a kind of pedagogical sweet spot – that priceless moment when a lesson becomes an event. Even if its author had wanted it to, an art history textbook could never produce such a moment.

Zucker and Harris made that video eight years ago. These days, their visuals are of a much higher quality. But their brisk, low-tech approach (“we essentially walk into a museum and record on the spot”) remains fundamentally the same. It’s one of the main ingredients in a secret sauce that has made Smarthistory one of the most visited art history resources in the world.

Smarthistory is a tiny non-profit. It’s free, you don’t have to register or sign up, and there are no ads. Every year its impact increases. In 2019, its 880 videos and about 2,000 essays about art, all available at smarthistory.org and khanacademy.org, had 48 million page views. The videos are available on YouTube, where Smarthistory has more than 160,000 subscribers.

After the coronavirus pandemic closed art museums and cultural sites around the world, engagement with Smarthistory on YouTube increased 70 per cent over the same period last year. And with schools closed, teachers have been tweeting and emailing Zucker and Harris to say that, although Smarthistory has long been a valuable classroom addition, it has become a necessity overnight.

Smarthistory, which aspires to be a resource for global art history, includes videos made at the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City, the Acropolis in Athens and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, among hundreds of other locations. And it isn’t just for students, “We want everyone to fall in love with looking at art,” Zucker said.

Preparation is key. But so are style and editing. Zucker and Harris have an easy, conversational manner that conveys information efficiently but allows for interruptions, disagreements and expressions of emotion.

Viewers, Harris hopes, will feel “like they are eavesdropping on a conversation between experts”. “We try to take that little isolated photograph in a textbook and put it back in the world,” said Zucker, who met Harris in 1991 while they were adjunct professors at the State University of New York.

Founded in 2005 – the same year YouTube was launched – Smarthistory began as audio recordings intended as a resource for their students. Harris and Zucker used a USD30 microphone plugged into an iPod.

Soon they were making videos as well. Their students asked for more content, so they started to organise the material chronologically. A 2008 grant from the Samuel H Kress Foundation helped them build what would become a Webby Award-winning website. In 2011, they sent a tweet that led to a collaboration with the Khan Academy, now a giant in the field of online education but at the time a Silicon Valley start-up in a tiny office above a teahouse.

Harris was Director of Digital Learning at the Museum of Modern Art – a “dream job” – and Zucker was chairman of the History of Art and Design Department at the Pratt Institute. So it was with some apprehension that they left those positions.

“All of a sudden,” Harris said, “Smarthistory was our full-time job.” They got better at making the videos as they made more. They also developed a community of collaborators that is continually expanding. Although they split off from Khan Academy after several years, Smarthistory remains that site’s official provider of art history content.

“Beth and Steven have not just democratised art history education in profound ways, they’ve helped democratise art itself,” said Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy.

“Their conversational tone and humour backed by their depth of knowledge has allowed millions – including myself – feel like they, too, can be part of the conversation in the art world.”

The 2,000 or so essays on Smarthistory are clear and accessible, written by dozens of experts – professors, curators, authors – many of whom have long relied on the site as a teaching tool and were keen to give back. All are subjected to peer review.

Harris, 59, and Zucker, 58, are modest, collegial and quick to laugh, which conforms with the impression you get from their videos. Neither of them appears in those videos, except occasionally from behind.

On some trips, Zucker and Harris separate and pair off with other experts. A typical video (in fact a montage of still photography rather than moving footage) might begin, “So we’re standing inside of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque here in Istanbul …” or: “We’ve walked through a warren of back alleys to find the entrance way to what was once a private garden in the city of Suzhou. “

Such descriptive scene-setting is complemented by ambient sounds. “The low, even hum of a crowded gallery is wonderful, since it transports the viewer,” Zucker said. “The echo of a vaulted church, the birds overhead at an archaeological site really help.”

Some sounds threaten to become too intrusive, they said: The gravel on the acropolis in Athens “that children love to drag their feet through”; a floor-waxing machine in St Peter’s Basilica; or “amazingly loud crickets” at the Roman Forum.

To record in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Harris and Zucker went to the museum on a Sunday morning. They made sure they were at the front of the line, then raced upstairs to work before the crowds arrived. Harris and Zucker were both born in Brooklyn, to what they describe as “middle- and working-class” parents. Growing up, “it felt like (art) wasn’t for me,” Harris said.

“I felt like I needed to pretend I had a British accent and hide my Brooklyn accent when I went into an art gallery.”

Zucker and Harris understand that there are barriers to making art accessible to everyone: the cost of museum tickets and textbooks; the lack of art education in schools; and the common belief that talking about art requires its own special language.There is an easy grace to the way Zucker and Harris combat all this on their videos.

Their answer, however, has not been to dumb down the field.

On the contrary, they believe passionately in the value of expertise. “Steven and I both believe that the tools of our discipline are really valuable for helping people understand the power of images in our lives,” Harris said.

They are convinced that the humanities – “the stories that make us human” – are needed to counter “the algorithms that increasingly define the ways we interact,” Harris said.

“We don’t want engineers writing code who have never studied literature, art, history, or philosophy.” For Harris, art is vital if we are to learn how to process “all the things we are going through today with the (coronavirus) pandemic – all the fear and anxiety it’s engendering.” Art, she said, “gives us a sense of sympathy with one another and with those in the past”.

“But here’s the critical part: I think that going to a museum doesn’t in and of itself do that, and I think there’s too much of an assumption that it does – that all you have to do is go and look, and that through osmosis or something, looking at a Rembrandt, a deeper sense of humanity will unfold and you’ll have this sympathy with people of the past.”