Reflecting on interdiscplinarity in Eyetracking and Spanish Art



During Museums and the Web 2013 I attended a session about Capturing Visitors’ Gazes: Three Eye Tracking Studies in Museums it was a great session which focused on the lessons learnt from three different eye-tracking studies conducted at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Deutsches Museum in Munich, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. I became fascinated by eyetracking and really wanted to have a go myself but at the time I was in the middle of my PhD and didn’t really have very much brain capacity left for anything else.  Fast forward a couple of years and I’m now working on a fascinating project looking at Eyetracking and Spanish Art.

We are at the early stages of a project that plays a part in Durham’s Centre for Art and Visual Cultures ongoing collaborative project Spanish Art in County Durham.  Turns out County Durham has a rather surprising collection of Spanish art including works by El Greco, Zurbarán, and Goya. Working alongside Andy Beresford and Dan Smith, we are exploring how Spanish Art, museum studies, experimental psychology and digital humanities can work together to ask new questions about how visitors respond to a collection of artworks.

We are interested in a range of questions around how people look at and experience art. The experience of art is a complex one, and undoubtedly is incredibly subjective.  It involves issues of perception, attention, memory, decision-making, affect, and emotion.  So we have a difficult task ahead of us trying to understand the aesthetic and cognitive appreciation of 17th Century Spanish artworks.  Where do people look? What are the areas of interest? The face, the hands, the background, the frame? How long to they look for? Do they like it?

We’ve just finished the data collection of a small pilot project in which we did some lab based tests using a fixed eye tracking system on a series of digital reproductions of artworks.  We will know more once we have fully analysed the data.  There is a lot of numbers and spreadsheets, and more enjoyable heatmaps to be looked at. Reflecting on the experience so far, it struck me how much of my personal thoughts about the process revolved not about the project and results, but the interdiscplinarity across disciplines.

What I have found so far is that my research ideas align much more strongly with experimental psychology than I realised. I always find it fascinating to see where else I could potentially sit in the academic spectrum.  Since I started my academic career I have been situated within four different departments at three different universities: Departments of Archaeology, History, Information Studies and now English Studies.  Perhaps a psychology department beckons in my future? Yet I keep doing the same thing, which I now label as digital humanities, but will perhaps be called something else in ten years’ time.

This project may well be about Eyetracking and Spanish Art but it is also about readjusting disciplinary boundaries and assumptions to accommodate new forms of research which have not been adequately recognised previously.  I have found ever since I was an undergraduate that what I want to study simply does not fit comfortably in pre-existing disciplinary structures, because those structures simply disregarded the kind of engagement with the digital and cultural heritage materials in which I was interested. Working on the Eyetracking and Spanish Art project which crosses a range of traditional disciplinary boundaries is promising and demonstrates the strength in the research that can be undertaken when applying techniques from very different disciplines to a humanities research problem, although concrete research outcomes with any impact are yet to be produced.  I look forward to exploring the data soon.

Of course, it is true that interdisciplinary scholarship exists in many areas of research, in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Why interdisciplinary research is particularly pertinent to me, though, is the fact that, to a certain extent, all digital humanities research is by definition operating on this scholarly divide between computational method and humanities investigation.  In order to do my research, like many digital humanists, there is a pragmatic need to assemble a team of people with wide range of skills to fully investigate a digital humanities research question.  Potentially that means I am a jack of all trades and a master of none.  But, I think it is important to think more about the nature of connections between disciplines, and what we can learn from each other.  I am incredibly lucky that I have the freedom to roam between disciplines and faculties at Durham to seek out interesting people and projects.  This project has not only taught me a lot about psychology, attention and visual cognition, but I have also learnt a lot about Spanish Art.  I am a massive museum nerd, and proud, but normally, I prefer to look at objects, sculpture and graphic prints rather than paintings but working on a project focused on 17th century paintings has really upped my appreciation of the artform. So not only am I exploring new research, I am learning to love paintings. winner.