University of Maryland College Park: Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture – Where Are We Now?

(Quint Gregory, Acting Director, Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture; Lecturer, Honors College)

What difference has this extraordinary technology-enhanced physical learning environment made?

The Collaboratory has now been in operation for six years, a time in which our community has been learning about how to take best advantage of the curved projection wall that is the principal focus of the space. On this surface, whose geometry by design produces a slightly immersive viewing experience, all manner of projects have come to exhilarating life. Our community has been able to explore virtual models of spaces (think Maya or Sketchup models of buildings and churches from the past), maps and visualized data overlaid on Google Earth views of the planet and its many locales, video projections and digital art pieces that dissolve the wall into an endlessly changing artform. 

The projection surface need not always amaze while serving as a unique tool for enhancing straightforward use of the space. It has enhanced the use of the space as classroom, lecture hall, meeting space, and even as a professional defense chamber (dissertation or project critiques). The space—as well as the curved projection wall—is endlessly flexible: it even embraced a pop-up art exhibition for one night!). Perhaps the best way to express the difference that this space has made is to report that it has become the hearth of the community of learners in the department of Art History and Archaeology. 

That quality of being the inviting center of academic department life is by design. The space possesses a warmth absent most spaces of comparable technological edge. Three factors contribute to this warmth. Inbuilt bookcases occupy the wall opposite the projection wall and are filled with volumes on art and art history from the personal library of the donor, Robert H. Smith, after whose daughter the space is named. Both the warm colors of the wood shelves and the books, and their regular use by graduate students in the Department, activate one’s awareness of the room’s uses beyond the screen. 

Artworks, both two- and three-dimensional, from the University of Maryland Art Gallery’s permanent collection, occupy a central niche in the bookcase or hang on a side wall accented in a hue of subtle avocado. These objects are visually stimulating and pleasing, a reaffirmation of our Department’s overriding focus on the art object. 

Finally, a bank of windows overlooking the campus (the Collaboratory is on the fourth floor of a building – Art/Sociology – at the edge of campus) allows one contemplative vistas (when the blackout shades are not drawn, that is) that make the space a compelling place for workshops and breakout space where participants can ideate and create at their own pace.

Mention must be made of the flexibility inherent in the furnishing of the space. Chairs and tables, wheeled or lightweight, quickly can be moved to new configurations (or even made to disappear), depending on changing needs within the space.

Since the Collaboratory has come online, its presence has made a significant and meaningful impact on scholarly life and professional development in the Department and beyond in the College of Arts and Humanities. A PhD candidate defended her dissertation in the Collaboratory, taking advantage of its inherent visual strengths to prove through a virtual model how her proposed reconstruction of suite of art objects (tapestries) in a still extant space had to be right-based on how those works, whose measurements are known, all fit together in the modeled space. For decades art historians had relied only on the visual logic of the artist’s designs; in the Collaboratory the proper scale also could be interrogated to find the truth. 

Departmental graduate students now have opportunity to serve as Collaboratory graduate assistants, meeting weekly as members of the D.I.G. (Digital Innovation Group) to explore new methods and tools as they develop projects of significant use to the Department. Some of their work has attracted national attention. Most recently, many of these same graduate assistants shared their expertise with the campus community in a first-ever workshop week in the Collaboratory on digital art history methods and tools. In all instances, the Collaboratory has incubated or inspired tremendous growth in our graduate students’ professional growth. As they enter the job market, their experiences in the Collaboratory should give them a competitive edge.