There is a lot of talk in technology and internet circles about ‘open-source’: software for which the source code is freely available so that users can develop it and create new products. But perhaps we should be applying the same collaborative philosophy to the field of art history as well.
Traditionally art history has been inherently elitist and exclusive, both socially and intellectually. Art tended to be commissioned by the upper classes. Connoisseurship was seen as a superior, refined skill and the products of art-historical scholarship were guarded almost as fiercely as the art itself.
This attitude has been replicated in the realm of contemporary art, which is often wilfully obscure. Both contemporary artists and critics revel in using opaque language and theory, enhancing the cult of art as something only to be understood by the happy few.
On the one hand this is all perfectly understandable, of course: scarcity increases value and obscurity stimulates the imagination. On the other hand accessibility and intellectual openness can lead to unforseen benefits, as Steven Johnson has demonstrated in talking about ‘liquid networks’.
One encouraging example of open-source art history is the willingness of the British Museum to allow the use of digital images of highlights from its collections for non-commercial purposes that benefit the public.
The National Trust is also becoming more open-source, both in the accessibility of its collections, the way it welcomes visitors and in its style of communication generally, but more needs to be done. In the next few months, for instance, we hope to make our collections database publicly accessible, so watch this space.