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Smarthistory takes viewer on a grand tour of the art world, for free

Egisto Sani-CC

John Burger - published on 05/09/18

Website's unscripted character seems to bring art history to life

As Rihanna strolled onto the red carpet wearing a papal tiara Monday evening, and celebs outdid one another with giant angel wings and Christian cross designs at the annual Met Gala in New York, four marble busts continued to rest quietly on their pedestals in a different part of the sprawling Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in a video on the website Smarthistory, the four Roman busts come alive, through a conversation between Jeffrey Becker and Beth Harris.

Harris, one of the founders of Smarthistory, and Becker, a contributing editor, explain how the four busts, from different time periods of Roman history, together tell the story of Rome—its rise, its glory, and its downfall—all in a matter of nine minutes.

It’s just one way Smarthistory tries to lure people into what can be a fascinating study: the history of the world through art. Smarthistory, which is completely free, can give the beginner a great overview, and can also provide more depth and insight for the student who wants to go further.

“At Smarthistory, we’re on a mission to open museums and cultural sites up to the world, one video at a time,” the website explains. “Our conversational videos and essays cover art and cultural objects that range from the paleolithic to the present.”

Art connects us to the world, the site continues. “It allows us to imagine, to create, to build and to inspire, and it shouldn’t be locked up in a textbook. Smarthistory takes you inside museums and outside to ancient temples and engages in conversations about how to interpret and understand the images you’re seeing.”

What seems to help keep the site’s presentations lively are the unscripted conversations experts have in videos, while displaying the art in question. “At Smarthistory, we believe in the power and importance of dialog,” the site says. “We don’t prescribe or dictate: we use unscripted conversations to show the subjective, interpretive and experiential nature of art. Human brains are wired to follow real conversation and we find that engages the processes of learning.”

Try it out, here. And while you’re at it, this video might help put Monday evening’s Met Gala extravaganza in context.

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