Iconology of Historiography: On the Pictorial Formation of Historical Thought in Modernity

The project explores how the history education media produced for a mass-market – schoolbooks, handbooks and textbooks, but also collectible picture cards – use images to articulate their narratives. Our central concern is the strikingly stable continuity exhibited by the various kinds of images used, and furthermore the pronounced national differences in how even shared history is visualized. On the one hand, software was developed to automate the evaluation of the very extensive historical image database (Paul Warner). On the other hand, the mass image corpus comprising serial image sources was subjected to qualitative evaluation (Judith Blume).
Constantly reproduced images or pictorial themes play a major role in shaping collective identities and the historical narratives through which they are justified and developed. Illustrations structure the narratives and dominate memory. Thus, the conditions of emergence of these pictorial narratives and the canonization processes they undergo feature prominently in almost all societies for which one can make a comparative examination of the formation and persistence of justifying narratives throughout the modern period. One of the unique features of this ubiquitous, everyday phenomenon is that it remains largely bound to national frameworks.
Primary responsibility for the project was assumed by the doctoral candidate Judith Blume who, together with student assistants, processed an image inventory of approx. 100,000 illustrations and prepared them for a web-based database that is accessible to the public. Her monograph “Wissen und Konsum. Eine Geschichte des Sammelbildalbums 1860-1952” (Knowledge and Consumption: A History of the Collectible Card Album 1860-1952) offers the first comprehensive presentation of this material, which is of prime importance for cultural studies. Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches, she demonstrates research procedures for studying collective pictorial knowledge. Several master’s theses have been devoted to the theme of the project, one of which led to a further doctoral project (Bramann) dealing with the image programs of school books (carried out at the University of Salzburg).
Keen interest on the part of students led to regular course offerings (Blume, Gorzolla, and Jussen) and to a close collaboration with the Georg Eckert Institute for International Schoolbook Research. We are currently working with the latter and with the Max Planck Institute for Art History (Bibliotheca Hertziana) on the systematic internationalization of the material base. Major findings were published by the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin and were presented in public appearances at the German Historical Institute (DHI) Washington, the DHI Paris, at Brandeis University and at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Cooperation with authors and with teacher training programs is being actively promoted for the qualitative side of the project.
The technical implementation of the software was undertaking by Paul Warner in cooperation with IT specialists at Goethe University. Upon completion of the project, the software will be published in its current state of development.
The qualitative results of the research on image corpora, specifically on illustrated “national histories” and on collectible card albums and schoolbooks, has shown that even the current “European” narratives (as presented, for example, in transnational textbook projects between France and Germany) still convey predominantly national perspectives. Visual narratives remain amazingly stable even across dramatic political breaks. This can be shown by the ways in which the Carolingian period is illustrated in history books and school textbooks, which exhibit striking differences between Germany and France, for example.
When it came to software development, a number of problems could be solved – for example, the compression of images without loss of searching efficiency, the automated separation of images and texts also in the case of unconventional image formats and heavily stained originals of middling quality, the use of OCR with unconventional typefaces, the combination of different algorithms for automated image comparison, and the systematization of different types of images. Currently, we are still working on final solutions for integrating machine-learning elements into the image comparison routines, for automating facial comparisons in portraits, and – as a long-term goal – for crossing the “semantic barrier” at least on a selective basis.

The most important publications of this project:

Blume, Judith: Wissen und Konsum. Eine Geschichte des Sammelbildalbums 1860–1952, (doctoral dissertation), Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 2016.

Jussen, Bernhard: “Toward an Iconology of Historical Research. Approaches to Visual Narratives in Modern Scholarship”, in: C. Caraffa/T. Serene (eds.): The Photographic Archive and the Idea of Nation, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015, pp. 141–166.

Jussen, Bernhard: “Plädoyer für eine Ikonologie der Geschichtswissenschaft. Zur bildlichen Formierung historischen Denkens“, in: H. Locher (ed.): Reinhart Koselleck. Politische Ikonologie. Perspektiven interdisziplinärer Bildforschung (Transformationen des Visuellen, Schriftenreihe des Deutschen Dokumentationszentrums für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, vol. 1), Munich/Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2013, pp. 260–279.

Fahrmeir, Andreas and Annette Imhausen (eds.): Die Vielfalt normativer Ordnungen. Konflikte und Dynamik in historischer und ethnologischer Perspektive (Normative Orders, Vol. 8), Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2013.

Fahrmeir, Andreas: “Zwischen Bronzestatue und Aktionskunst: Bildhafte Inszenierungen adeliger Lebenswelten in England im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert“, in: P. Scholz/J. Süßmann (eds.): Adelsbilder von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Historische Zeitschrift, Beiheft 58), München/Oldenbourg, 2013, pp. 99–115.



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