Ordinary Lives, Everyday People
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 a museum environment

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." 

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.

 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.

Click HERE for a shockwave version of the prototype. Or see below for a description with selected screen shots from the Authorware application.

Ordinary Lives, Everyday People 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 and ideally the program would be touch-screen sensitive rather than requiring mouse-clicks to activate.

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.
Having chosen an image (see selection screen shown at top of this page),  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 be included as a narration voice-over.
(The portion of the painting with the fiddler is hotspotted in the prototype.)

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.)

Other parts of the prototype, all using the tavern scene as jumping-off point, demonstrate how art can provide a way of learning about what it was like to live in the Netherlands in the 17th century.
There is one movie clip (the real thing would include many); it uses a Vermeer image to discuss the role of women, briefly addressing the jobs they performed and their position in society.
Another portion of the tavern image links to a section on food and drink, and includes information about specific common foods as well as the social implication of where people ate and the utensils they used.
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. 

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 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.

If you're interested in a more complete discussion of the prototype, please see the full Dutch paper.


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Unauthorized use or reposting of photos or graphics prohibited.