Home Free Tools & Resources Smarthistory and Khan Academy Bring Art History to Life

Smarthistory and Khan Academy Bring Art History to Life


This leading open educational resource for art history makes high-quality introductory art history content freely available to anyone, anywhere.

Art history is a difficult subject to teach and to learn. While the purpose of art is to appreciate the piece in the context of its creation and in its role today, museum goers often diligently read the placard, glance at the piece and then move on to the next work. Textbooks are even worse, presenting a single work of an artist and discussing the entire body of work based on that piece. While both methods of art appreciation are the traditional ways to enjoy art, neither provides the adequate context for true appreciation and reflection.

Smarthistory was formed with a specific idea in mind. Rather than presenting art in the traditional style, it aims instead to incorporate audio to allow appreciation and contemplation of the piece while an art historian or museum curator guides the audience through the significance and history. This tactic allows the viewer the luxury of viewing the piece uninhibited by text and distraction. Smarthistory draws on the knowledge and experience of curators and professors around the world, compiling an impressive array of guided art piece tours.

Smarthistory image and url

Much like a Wikipedia for art history, Smarthistory uses peer-reviewed pieces created by art experts and provides them to the public for free. Used at universities nationwide, Bryan Zygmont, an art history professor at Clarke University, describes the benefit of Smarthistory as the difference between students reading 500 words of dry text or watching a free video in which an enthusiastic art lover explains the nuances of the piece. Even engaged students would prefer the latter.

Changing How Art Students Engage With Art, Through Technology

Part of the appeal of Smarthistory comes from the creator's suggestion of producing unscripted or minimally scripted lessons. This allows the art historian or curator to have a conversation with the audience rather than providing a lecture. The casualness of this approach also allows the audience to feel more at ease in the art conversation. Stuffy, formal textbooks simply don't allow the audience to connect with the material. Experts providing an off-the-cuff interpretation of the piece create a casual environment for the audience to enjoy the art piece.

Smarthistory is being utilized in classrooms worldwide. The list of universities contributing and employing Smarthistory's use in classrooms is growing, as is the collection of videos and essays. From Oberlin College to the University of Hong Kong, colleges employ the use of the free videos as supplemental information for students and contribute videos researched and prepared by graduate students as well as professors.

Bridging the gap between art professors and museum curators is also a project being undertaken by Smarthistory. For too long these two professions have existed without a meaningful dialogue. The Smarthistory project began as a podcast that walked listeners through museums, but as the project evolved, it moved toward individual pieces and artists. The project's beginnings helped bring more conversation between museum curators and art professors. This relationship has been further enhanced by the Smarthistory workshop, which brings together both professions and empowers them to create videos that engage and captivate audiences, furthering the love of art history among the general public.

In October of 2011, Smarthistory joined Khan Academy. At their core, both had the same mission: bring quality content to the public. Smarthistory became the art history hub of the Khan Academy and this partnership opened up new possibilities to the art history powerhouse. Following the Khan Academy's goal of providing free education to everyone anywhere, the submissions to Smarthistory exploded. The site currently has over 500 videos and nearly 300 essays that are provided free to anyone with an interest in art history.

Smarthistory's goal of replacing the expensive and impersonal art textbooks is a lofty goal, but is one that is achievable. Thanks to the enthusiasm and willingness to teach by professionals within the art community, Smarthistory is providing a compelling way to engage the casual museum-goer in higher art appreciation.



  1. Dear Ken,

    As one of the writers for SmartHistory, I wanted to say thanks for the love; it really is a wonderful site, and I’m honored and pleased as punch to be a part of it. But that written, it would be amiss of me not to point out that I don’t teach at Duke (as a Maryland alum, I shudder at the thought!). Instead, I teach at Clarke University, a small and noble liberal arts college in Dubuque, IA.

    My best regards, of course,


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