Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Stephen Clancy

Q. What intrigues you about being an art historian?

A. Delving into what works of art and architecture reveal about past societies is such a fascinating pursuit. Art is like an open window into almost every facet of human experience through it we see into the minds of artists and their audiences, and make sense of social, political, and economic systems long past. Art history bridges different cultures we may not understand something written in a foreign language, but when we look at a picture from that culture we viscerally “get” the message. And I am fascinated by the living history of buildings and things how and why they survive to the present day, and what this can reveal about our own understanding of the visual world that surrounds us. “Old stuff” is like a palimpsest of the past: mosques are turned into churches, castles are transformed into lavish palaces, and the entire process of change reveals so much about the ways human societies interact and evolve.

Q. What kinds of insights do you hope to convey to our travelers?

A. Art history has the reputation of being a kaleidoscopic and seemingly endless procession of “styles,” techniques, and dates. But works of art and architecture are the liveliest, most compelling, and often most revealing ways of gaining insight into a culture’s history, values, political struggles, and class structures – they are literally a living, immersive history “text.” Europe gave birth to political, cultural, and philosophical institutions that still shape our society today, and is also home to some of the world’s most innovative pathways into the future. This rich interplay between past and present makes Europe an exciting place to explore, and I always look forward to sharing this excitement.

Q. What sorts of topics do you cover in your presentations?

A. My presentations explore the broad arcs of art and architectural history that shaped Europe, while at the same time connecting works we see on our travels to these larger developments. The ways in which works manifest or fail to follow these broader trends of history can provide enormous insight into how and why a particular culture evolved, or how contact between cultures developed strikingly new forms of expression, as happened in Spain and Portugal. I also love to explore important topics that are sometimes overlooked—how and why castles developed, for example, or how medieval and Renaissance cities such as Bruges shaped modern urban life. And whenever possible I find compelling stories from the past that illustrate the human interests, ideals, and emotions that shaped the creation, use, and legacy of what we see on our itinerary.

Q. Tell us about your interest in how modern technology can bring new insight to the past.

A. Technology can never serve as a substitute for direct experience, whether it’s peering closely at a painting in a museum and seeing the way light shimmers off the brushstrokes or touching the walls of a medieval church and feeling the rough chill of naked stone.00 But what technology can do is help the imagination bridge the seemingly uncrossable gap between present and past by providing images, contexts, and suggestive visualizations that might otherwise be impossible to get. This ability to connect evidence in an interactive way can immerse viewers in the visual worlds of the past, and encourage them to “read” works as someone in the past might have done. These possibilities drew me to develop a digital project entitled “The Virtual Chartres Cathedral,” which sought to let students interact with images, texts, maps, and hypothetical reconstructions, in order to understand the cathedral through the lenses of varied 13th-century cultural attitudes.

Q. What do you enjoy most about accompanying Smithsonian Journeys travelers?

A. Smithsonian Journeys travelers embrace new experiences, and their liveliness and enthusiasm make them a pleasure to travel with. They are also exceptionally inquisitive, and I’ve learned a great deal by thinking through the different perspectives they bring to the things we see on our trips. And they are such seasoned travelers that I always look forward to getting some practical travel tips along the way!

While The Virtual Chartres Cathedral Project has been archived since the publication of this blog, you can still explore Chartres Cathedral virtually here.