Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2018
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art online, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/, 2017.
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Few college instructors or students of art history today are likely to be unfamiliar with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s expansive Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. With over one thousand thematic essays written by experts in the field, as well as more than 7,600 pages featuring artworks from the Met’s collection, the timeline is a formidable and immensely popular online resource.[i] Parallel to its larger rebranding efforts in 2016, the Met launched its new edition of the timeline, featuring a brand-new, ultra-clean interface designed by the New York–based firm CHIPS. The timeline now offers a user experience that is easily navigable, attractive, and enjoyable, while providing access to the same impressive set of scholarly resources that have made the site one of the most popular destinations for art-historical research on the web.

The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History was always more than just a timeline, and indeed the word timeline itself is now a bit of an anachronism; in this new reboot, what were formerly called “timelines” are now “chronologies.” After its initial launch in 2000, the site’s early iterations featured thematic essays alongside the timelines, which were also closely linked to maps, all interconnected through a complex set of navigational menus.

The experience of using the Heilbrunn Timeline feels much cleaner and more cohesive now. Imagine you are an undergraduate student working on the quintessential art history course assignment: the museum paper. You have wandered through the Met’s contemporary galleries and chosen Anselm Kiefer’s Bohemia Lies by the Sea as your object of study. You go home and do a quick Google search, and the first result is the Heilbrunn Timeline’s object page for the work. It displays images of the work on the left; the object’s metadata (artist, title, date, and so on) in the center column (or, on a phone or tablet, below the images); and beneath that a short essay contextualizing the work within Kiefer’s biography and oeuvre. Below the text is a link to the painting’s entry in the Met’s online catalogue. On the right-hand side of the Heilbrunn Timeline page, unobtrusive, expandable menus provide links to an essay (on Kiefer more generally), a chronology (“Germany and Switzerland, 1900 A.D.–present”), keywords (which are essentially tags that link to lists of other timeline resources with related themes, motifs, materials, styles, periods, regions, and so forth), a link to the timeline’s page on the artist, and a link (“Connections”) to additional Met-produced online content (in this case, a talk with a curator about her favorite textures in the collection). Though there is a huge amount of content here, the clean visual organization of the page, especially its hidden multiple links under expandable right-hand menus, makes it clear and digestible.

If a user comes to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History without a particular work in mind, the site’s home page presents a simple and organized interface, though it is so simple that a newer user may not immediately understand how its elements link together or even what they are. However, the interface is so inviting that it feels fun just to click through and discover what lies below this minimalist surface. The secondary levels of the site—“Essays,” “Works of Art,” “Chronology,” “Artists/Makers,” and “Keywords”—are also elegant, with cleanly styled menus that allow users to easily browse and discover resources.

For teachers, one of the best new features of the site is the “Works of Art” page, which displays all 7,600-plus works of art in an attractive, tiled thumbnail format of the type made popular by websites such as Pinterest. Items here are randomized on each page visit, and different works are brought to the top of the list each time the page is loaded. Through this close visual juxtaposition of works, one can see themes and styles emerge not only in particular times and places but also across multiple media. For instance, selecting the European Renaissance thematic category brings up not just painting and sculpture but also examples of armor, musical instruments, furniture, textiles, and decorative arts. The visual proximity of these objects presents a potent visual argument for expanding the canon of art history, and it could be a wonderful source of inspiration for instructors, especially, to think differently about what objects they teach and assign.

Seeing the Met’s collection displayed this way is impressive. However, herein is also one of the Heilbrunn Timeline’s limitations: with very few exceptions, the works of art featured throughout the site are solely ones in the Met’s collection. On the one hand, this restriction is beneficial, in that users have the chance to discover works in the museum’s collection that are noncanonical for art history in general; on the other hand, a student studying for a typical art history survey exam or writing a paper on a canonical piece from another institution must search elsewhere for detailed information on those works. Because one of the timeline’s clear strengths is its linking together of a huge number of resources, the adding of links to other key institutions and online resources might be a fruitful area for growth and would make the website more powerful as a learning resource.

Of the many resources on the Heilbrunn Timeline site, the essays and the works of art pages are likely the most useful for the majority of users, as they contain clear, organized, well-written, and well-researched information that can be easily used and cited by students and scholars. The inclusion of bibliographies on many of the pages is one of the site’s more important features, and this is an area where the timeline could do even more, as parallel entries in the Met’s online catalogue (which are different from the Heilbrunn Timeline’s own artwork pages) tend to have more extensive bibliographies.

Other reviewers of the Heilbrunn Timeline have noted that it has limited utility for younger learners, as its content is mainly textual and the tone is distinctly scholarly.[ii] For the informal adult learner, the organization of the content, though quite impressive in this redesign, offers little in terms of curated paths through the resources; one could imagine the addition of online curricula that would give beginning users a more guided experience.

The popularity of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History points not only to its quality but also to the high level of demand for open-access scholarly art history resources on the web. With the exception of Smarthistory,[iii] which also comprises a large number of learning resources and attracts a comparable number of users, the Heilbrunn Timeline is unparalleled on the web in terms of its sheer wealth of textual and visual material. Counterintuitively, for most traditional museums, sharing and linking across institutional boundaries in the digital world and providing free content for learners are positive and necessary ways to drive visitors to both their websites and their physical galleries.[iv] In these ways, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example to other museums of how providing digital open access increases, rather than detracts from, the public value of its collection.

[i] The timeline receives up to 1.5 million visits per month during the academic year. “The Met Launches New Edition of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,” Enfilade, June 14, 2016, https://enfilade18thc.com/2016/06/14/the-met-launches-new-edition-of-the-heilbrunn-timeline-of-art-history/.

[ii] “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,” Common Sense Education, May 7, 2013, https://www.commonsense.org/education/website/heilbrunn-timeline-of-art-history.

[iii] Full disclosure: I am currently the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Smarthistory.

[iv] The Met’s new open-access policy is a significant step in this direction. It makes the museum’s 375,000 images and their metadata available under a Creative Commons Zero, or CC0 (public domain), license. The museum’s digital department also recently announced partnerships with Wikipedia/Wikimedia, Artstor, Digital Public Library of America, and Pinterest. Loic Tallen, “Introducing Open Access at the Met,” Metropolitan Museum of Art online, February 7, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/digital-underground/2017/open-access-at-the-met.

Naraelle Hohensee
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Smarthistory.org

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.