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Reclaiming Art History: Dr Ana-Maria Herman's Apps Highlight Women Artists
Dr Ana-Maria Herman
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We caught up with Dr Ana-Maria Herman, a researcher working at the intersection of sociology, digital media and critical heritage studies who uses apps to bring the works of women artists, such as Gwen John and Dorothy Mead, to wider audiences.
What inspired you to make apps on women artists?
It is widely known in the museum, heritage, and art worlds that women artists have been historically overlooked, underrepresented in art galleries and museum exhibitions, and subsequently undervalued and underpaid compared to their male counterparts. This has continued despite a long lineage of artists, academics and activists having written about and protested such past injustices. To name only a few, there is Judy Chicago’s autobiography Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? and the impactful protest art by the Guerrilla Girls.
Today, museums, art galleries and other heritage institutions are attempting to correct this historical imbalance – from small increments, like purchasing more works by women artists and developing exhibitions that feature their works, to bigger manoeuvres like rehanging permanent collections. We saw the National Gallery in London buy one of Artemisia Gentileschi’s important paintings, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, in 2018 and then subsequently organise an exhibition on the artist in 2020 titled Artemesia. More recently, bolder steps have been taken by Tate Britain, which decided to rehang its permanent collection with more women artists and the National Portrait Gallery which is looking to ‘enhance female representation in its collection’, among other projects.
Within such times of change, my own apps act as tiny digital interventions: meant to help bring attention to institutionally overlooked and less-exhibited women artists. You will find that some of the works shown in my apps (especially in my first two apps – the WAL App and the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app) are held in archives that are not publicly accessible nor usually on public display. So I am providing one more access point to incredible artworks by women artists which would otherwise be inaccessible and unseen.
Tell us about the apps that you have released.
I should qualify that I am a sociologist by training, and I research archives and experiment with digital media. I am not an art historian or a developer, but rather a researcher working with teams of curators, designers, and developers to create experimental apps that seek to promote women artists and the archives or institutions that hold their artworks. To that effect, I have released three apps that present short biographies and a selection of artworks by women artists. My first app, named the WAL App, was a ‘prototype’ (released in 2017) that featured seven artists from the Women’s Art Library, an archive housed at Goldsmiths Library. More recently, I created two more apps: one on artist Dorothy Mead (released in 2020) and another on Gwen John (released this year). The +Archive: Dorothy Mead app presents works by mid-20th century artist Dorothy Mead held in the Borough Road Gallery Archive (which is part of A David Bomberg Legacy: The Sarah Rose Collection at London South Bank University).
This year, I released the +Archive: Gwen John app which brings together a small exhibition of works by Gwen John from a range of institutions – including the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery and Sheffield Museums. This latest project was a more ambitious one – attempting to also recreate the feeling of ‘walking through an exhibition space’ within the app whereby one can ‘move from room to room’, so to speak, while learning about Gwen John and viewing her works.
Unlike the Dorothy Mead app which focuses on works held in archives, the Gwen John app displays artworks from a wider range of institutions, some of which might be on display – in galleries or online – but now benefit from being brought together and explained as part of a wider body of work. Here the thinking was to also bring attention to those institutions that make John’s art publicly available both in their gallery spaces and by sharing digital images without restriction.
Why did you choose apps as your platform for bringing attention to women artists?
My interest in apps dates back to when I undertook my PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. Late into my PhD, I happened to come across the Women’s Art Library archive held in the Special Collections and Archives at Goldsmiths Library. The Women’s Art Library was a response to the lack of attention experienced by women artists in the late 20th century. It was founded as the Women Artists Slide Library, an artist-led initiative that turned into an arts organization publishing books, catalogues and a magazine from early 1983 to 2002. It was a treasure trove, yet I knew little of it – I remember being very disappointed to not have learned about it sooner. The archive was physically located at the back of the library and had no publicly-accessible exhibition space, which made it both practically invisible to the public (and students) and inaccessible without an appointment.
At the time, I was examining the making, use and management of apps at museums. An idea came to me to make an app that promoted the archive to widen access to this collection. I pitched the idea to the archive’s curator, and that’s how my first app, the WAL App, came about. Since then, I have continued to experiment with apps as a way to present works by women artists, while also promoting and widening access to the archives and institutions that hold women’s art.
What can you share from your experience of making apps with museum professionals working with digitised collections?
There is a great sense of accomplishment when an app is completed and released on a platform – but that feeling is particularly pronounced given the many challenges faced when making apps! Let me share three. Firstly, finding funds to develop apps is a challenge, especially when the aim is to create apps that are ‘free’ to download, like mine. A result of limited funds is that I have only released apps on one platform, the App Store. A second challenge is that apps lend themselves to mainly bite-sized exhibitions (pun intended) – so the +Archive: Dorothy Mead and +Archive: Gwen John apps offer only brief histories and a few examples of the artists’ works. Lastly, while apps may be built with simple functionality, they still ‘take a village’ to make. Mine have had many contributors, from artists, curators, designers, and developers to university grant writers and grant-awarding research agencies.
What are your future research plans? Is there another app in store for us?
I started my first art app project in the autumn of 2016 and, since 2017, I have released one app every three years, the latest being the +Archive: Gwen John app. Whether I will create another app depends on if such interventions, however small, are effective (I am now collecting new data and examining the results of my recent apps). It also depends on whether such interventions continue to be necessary. The last 5-10 years seem to have already brought a noteworthy shift in many museum and art galleries which have attempted to correct gender imbalances in art collections and exhibitions. For example, aside from the Pallant House Gallery’s fantastic shows on Gwen John and Kaye Donachie, there is an exhibit on Berthe Morisot at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small show on Evelyn DeMorgan and another on Shahrzad Ghaffari contemporary works at the Leighton House – and a blockbuster exhibit on Lavinia Fontana at the National Gallery of Ireland (to name only a few). But, while past injustices are slowly being addressed, history indicates that there is always more to be done. And, on that front, I was recently awarded a BA/Leverhulme Small Grant to continue researching questions related to women artists.
Download the +Archive apps from the Apple App Store
Dr Ana-Maria Herman is Associate Professor at the University of Greenwich. She is the author of Reconfiguring the Museum: The Politics of Digital Display in which she explores digital heritage-related politics through a deep case study of one app and offers a set of practical considerations for museum and heritage professionals responsible for digital projects. To learn more about her research visit www.anamariaherman.com