An Art Historian’s Expedition: Visual Archives and Open Access

Following is the second of a series of posts by participants in the Spring 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship.

Maura McCreight (she/her) is a third-year Ph.D. student in Art History with a focus on the History of Photography at the Graduate Center and teaches Art History at Brooklyn College. Her research explores the circulation of images within political and artistic networks of exchange between North Africa and Europe, with a focus on women combatants and political prisoners from the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). She has an ardent interest in photographic forms that uphold ontologies of storytelling, and non-traditional art mediums that mobilize aesthetics as a tactic of insurgency against state repression.

The history of art is, in a way, the history of meaningful images. Before we use words to recognize a leaf as a leaf, or a shoe as a shoe, we look at the world and make meaning of its visual treasures. In the simplest of terms, art can be a way for artists to visually mark and recall memorable events. These moments and memories can be personal, historic, banal, and even non-pictorial and abstract. As an art historian and instructor of art history, I look at hundreds of artworks on a weekly basis, but in a contemporary world increasingly mediated by images, nearly all of us come across pictures of some kind everyday. Yet, rarely do we understand where these images come from, who owns them, who has access to them, and if they can be used and shared freely. 

This is where online teaching and an art historian’s open access (OA) expedition begins: first by finding and implementing OA images to a wide audience of learners, and then sharing the resources and tools that make it all possible. Admittedly, before the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, I hardly knew anything about open access and openly licensed images. I thought, Wait, there are more options besides Wikipedia? And they’re free?! The idea that I could be using several different resources of free and accessible images for teaching was both liberating and overwhelming. 

On the one hand, I was relieved to receive training and advice from experienced research librarians and open access gurus at the Graduate Center (who, by the way, can answer just about every research question or lead you to someone who can) but on the other hand, my mind pictured a tangled web of teaching powerpoints and slide presentations that contained hundreds of non openly licensed images that I had to revise. Uh oh. However, I decided that rather than spending hours upon hours searching for artwork images I was already using with potential open access matches, I would use this as an opportunity to revamp parts of my survey course. I decided to embrace the process, and started to enjoy the exploration of what the world of OA had to offer.

Taking a step back for a moment, it might be useful to describe what exactly OA means and why it is important for art historians and the field of art history. Open access, by definition, denotes barrier-free online materials that are available to all. It also limits roadblocks to restructure copyright and licensing barriers. This means that the materials I use for teaching on my course site do not rely on my position in terms of my institutional access to scholarship and other educational content, but are available for my students to freely use and share as well. The exploratory exercise of searching and finding images with unrestricted access (I share my favorite resources below) helped me get ‘unstuck’ in my ways from previous semesters of teaching the same course, and opened up a variety of new themes that I am now excited to share with students. 

Femme Touareg, 1898” by Hourst (1864-1940), Plon (Paris), Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. The image is in the public domain.

With that said, I would be remiss to leave out a concluding cautionary measure, especially for those who may also decide to tread these OA waters. As much as I want my courses and students to benefit from the ease and accessibility of OA images, I also want to emphasize the importance of understanding and providing knowledge of their origins. For example, the photograph of a Tuareg woman I feature during the week on “Tuareg and the African Sahara” comes from a collection that belongs to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The image is free to use without any restriction and doesn’t legally require a thorough attribution or caption. However, a proper citation, even with the advantage of barrier and copyright free image sharing, might inspire a student to look further into the Schomburg Center collections, a potentially significant addition to their arts education. Therefore, open access and availability should not hinder the role of an educator to teach students about the lives of these images before they become digitized and openly sourced. Showing students the richness of art history via pedagogy is necessary, but giving them the tools to further excavate their own visual education is even more meaningful.

My course website is linked here.

My favorite resources for open access images*: 

Umbra Search

NYPL Digital Collections


Smithsonian Open Access Media

Wikipedia Commons 

Flickr Commons

*some resources require an ‘advanced search’ for open access media

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.