Back to Project Overview

Ordinary People; Everyday Lives
What Was It Like to Live in the Netherlands in the 17th Century?

An Interactive Multimedia Prototype
Based on Dutch Genre Art
Designed for Use in an Museum Environment

Tracey Linton Craig

Art museums have traditionally offered very little "interpretation" of the works that hang on their gallery walls. A small sign hanging adjacent to the work indicates title, medium, accession date, and sometimes includes a bit of additional information about the artist or specific work. For special shows, the catalogue usually goes further, offering information about technique and style, content analysis, and usually some level of historical perspective. But the information is too often couched only in terms of art history and aesthetics.

Many representational art works, after all, can also serve as the gateway to a broader understanding of history, of what it was like to live in a particular time.

I first became interested in the idea that paintings--in addition to being visually pleasing and emotionally stimulating--could also serve as a source of historical information back in the early 1980s. I was then assistant editor of History News magazine (a publication designed for the folks who run the history museums in this country) and wrote a short feature on the subject: "Aesthetics Aside: How to Find Historical Information in Works of Art." (See attached.) It specifically encouraged local historical museums to dust off the so-so portraits languishing in a back room, drag out the less-than-Great-Masterpieces that had been donated and to look at them with a fresh eye. In the article, I suggested a broad range of questions that might be asked, as curators and educators began to examine how the art works might spur new interest and illuminate historical understanding. (The piece was well-received; I was even asked to speak at a couple of professional meetings as an "expert" on the topic! Since I lacked the requisite expertise, I gracefully declined.)

Over the intervening years, I have grown increasingly interested in the kinds of connections one can make to create a composite picture of what the past was really like. With advances in technology, it is becoming increasingly easier to tie together information that crosses discipline boundaries. History is not just a series of dates, after all; art is more than pretty pictures on a wall. If we open our vision to arenas of human experience that we never thought of as "history," we may well enrich our understanding of the whole human past--and ourselves. To do so means understanding that history is not simply a sequence of events--history is experience.

If one accepts the argument that there is some value in understanding the past, then the best way to do that is through multiple sources of input: to understand the 1600s in Holland, for example, it is useful to have access to a timeline of some sort that allows you to put into place history and politics, literature and theater, religion, philosophy, learning, music and visual arts, science and technology, and daily life. The concept is well illustrated--if not well executed--in a book called The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. (Grun, 1975; see sample years attached)


Providing this information allows one to make interesting new connections: 1776 (in a fine example Daniel Boorstin cites in the book's introduction), the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was also the year of publication of the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, the year of the death of Scottish philosopher David Hume, the year Fragonard made one of his best-known paintings and when English landscape painted John Constable was born, the year Mozart wrote his "Haffner" Serenade, Cook made his third voyage to the Pacific, and Norway began holding military ski competitions. As for 1927, the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, it was also when Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party, when Show Boat opened in York, when Sigmund Freud and Thornton Wilder published seminal works, when Pavlov did his work on conditioned reflects, the German economic system collapsed, and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team was organized.

I am fascinated by the new thoughts making such juxtapositions can lead to. I am particularly interested in the interrelationship of music and art and history, and for this project attempted to create a project that would intertwine the three in a multimedia format that encouraged the learner to explore connections. It is not designed to be a "knowledge test" but instead an interactive educational experience that provokes thought, one in which any assessment of what is learned is left in the hands of the learner.

The Project

Ordinary People, Everyday Lives is designed to run in a museum-based installation, perhaps adjacent to but not in the galleries in which Old Masters art is displayed. (It may also be easily adapted to run in a hands-on activity room in other museums that do not have any Dutch/Flemish art; it may also run on the internet.)

At least one computer kiosk station is required (multiple units are also possible, though consideration must be given to the audio component--headphones would be required if the kiosks were located close to one another), and ideally the program would be touch-screen sensitive rather than requiring mouse-clicks to activate. (The reason: ease of use in a stand-up gallery situation.)

The program is designed to run so that a brief "slide show" (consisting of approximately six different images) displays continuously, concluding with an invitation to begin the exploration. The sequence repeats indefinitely, holding on each image 5 seconds, with appropriate period music, until the viewer, intrigued, clicks on the screen to begin.

An explanation screen describes what is possible; if the viewer is indeed interested in "looking at old paintings in new light," he/she clicks on the funky lamp icon to continue and then makes a selection of one painting to begin exploring. (In the prototype only the tavern scene is activated.)

Having chosen an image, the viewer gets an expanded view, together with a brief paragraph about historical implications that poses (but does not answer) a couple of "thought questions." The viewer is invited to click on any area of the image that might be of interest. In the real version, brief questions--"Who do you think is...?" "What is that object...?" "When is the man going to...?" "Why do you think the artist...?" etc.--could float across the screen via animation, encouraging the learner to select an area of the painting to explore. Or, better yet, they could be included as a narration voice-over.

In the prototype, the portion of the painting with the fiddler is hotspotted. Clicking on the picture portion of interest brings up specific information, in this case about music and its place in society, and more choices. There is a sound sample from a period instrument and links to additional pages on instruments, pieces of the time, and dance. (This page might also eventually link to other art featuring musical subjects.)

The prototype briefly covers other possible hotspot links, including a page on cards and entertainment (that features an animation built in for entertainment!), on food and drink, the role of women, and domestic pets.

Other pictures were (or would be) chosen because they would enable creation of pages on everything from class structure and economics to clothing, education, religion, medicine, sports, and celebrations. This prototype focuses on genre art because it is so rich with historical information. It might include (but not be limited to) artists such as Breughel, Gerrit Dou, Jan Van Eyck, Frans Hals, Adrian Ostade, Jan Steen, Gerard Terborch, and Vermeer, as well as lesser Dutch and Flemish artists working in the 1600s. But it could easily be adapted for many other specific time frames; it could also be structured to provide information about many countries in a particular window of time by choosing artists from six different areas of the world. It might also be more art-focused, less history-based, so that if a learner was particularly interested in, say, Vermeer, the info pages would link to other works, a biography, even a map of the other locations of all Vermeer works in the world.

If the program were to be used in a more formal educational setting, it would be possible to incorporate a "test" after each painting, examining what information the viewer had retained. Given that the design allows each viewer to navigate through only the portions that he/she is interested in, however, it would be difficult to design a test that went into more depth than the information given on the first page of each painting.

For each of the six paintings, there would be approximately 6 hotspots; some of the information might overlap so that, for example, several paintings included a hot spot linking to a page that addressed "the role of women." (Ideally, the program would be "smart" enough to catch folks who worked their way methodically through and when a hotspot leading to a screen with already accessed info was touched, it would generate a message "You've already learned something about the food--would you like to see that information again?" or some such.)

The hotspot pages would in some cases link directly to the internet, including information on early instruments and many wonderful presentations already in existence on these topics. Some information would be presented in audio and video format.

Navigation buttons from each hotspot information page would allow the learner the option to return to the painting selected to choose another portion to examine or return to main menu to choose another picture. (The lamp icon returns to menu; picture fragment to whole picture.)

Text would be written at an eighth-grade level, enabling participation from learners ranging from as young as 10 to adult.

Color and font are once again chosen with appropriateness in mind; Kino is designed to be readable on screen and the warm red provides a visually stimulating and suitable backdrop for images selected. As with my earlier prototype, pages are designed to be consistent (each hotspot page should have similar background and font size, though images and amount of content may vary widely. Prototype image quality is not consistently good, since images have been "captured" and manipulated (in some cases, tortured!); in the real program graphic quality would be significantly higher. The same is true of the sound--the introductory lute music and viola de gamba quotation is just a sample of what could be done. Likewise, the Vermeer AVI is not of any particular content interest: rather, it shows the potential for offering substantive information via video.

Learners will be able to explore paintings in a new way and make connections between art and history as well as music and other fields. They might choose to explore one painting or all six, depending on their time and interest. Additional links would allow them to follow up on special interests and it might be possible to even have them take part of the information with them by either printing out selected pages or sending them to a personal e-mail address. (Because of the potential licensing problems and technical difficulties this area would need to be investigated thoroughly.)

The current prototype is in Authorware, though another authoring tool may be better suited to this type of program.

The final program would have a total of about 250 screens, heavily graphic intensive. More than a third (or about 90) would include audio or video clips. Research time at the front end is estimated to be significant, at least 160 hours. Audio and video production required will add at least 80 hours to the production schedule, assuming less than one-fourth is to be produced from scratch (and existing materials require adapting). Since everything is new, I have factored in additional time for development. Depending on the approval levels the project would need to go through, number of individuals working on the project, and how many people had input into each step along the way (from selection of art to information included), I estimate the project would take 10-14 weeks (based on a team of writer/editor, designer, programmer; no other projects in hand; and simplified review steps).

The cost could run anywhere from $50,000-$75,000 depending on hardware selected, salaries, etc. The program should be designed with future market in mind, since it has applications beyond a single museum and could be sold as a stand-alone as a way to recoup some of the investment costs. Also, it's worth noting that the design could serve as a template for additional similar projects, and their cost would subsequently be much less.

Though the prototype may not reflect it, I spent countless hours on research, not only on genre art but also seeking images and related information. Many elements are not yet included in the prototype: a timeline, for example, making some of the links I mentioned that I find so interesting in the introductory section of this paper. (There is, for example, a nicely designed timeline posted on the web from somewhere in Italy that allows the reader to work in a frames environment to manipulate time/history/art/literature and see all four on screen at once; this program should definitely link to that site, among others.)

A note on the process: I have encountered severe frustration in working with Authorware, especially since I chose not to work from a pre-existing template. However, I have tried to explore some "far-out" ideas on creating a new tool for education through the project. In particular, I wanted to create a learner-directed program where the individual is able to tailor the "curriculum" and is ultimately responsible for evaluating his or her own learning.

I would also share my opinion that perhaps a team-approach might make more sense to a project of this nature, since I find it difficult to quickly change hats as content writer, designer, and programmer. Content and design, yes, fine, but programming requires a whole set of skills I find difficult to put into simultaneous play. The frustrations of dealing with a recalcitrant computer--or computer crash, for example--completely take your mind away from the process of creating the next page on pewter tankards, or what-have-you. For what it's worth, I remain unconvinced that one person can excel in all three arenas.

I also have realized I really want to be involved in doing just this kind of thing. The question, now, is how the heck to do that from Ithaca.

Back to Project Overview