Using Open Educational Resources in Art History Courses: Asian and Islamic Arts

Students, parents, and politicians complain that rising costs have resulted in staggering student debt and the inaccessibility of higher education for many students who otherwise would pursue college degrees.  Commercial textbook prices contribute to the problem: According to the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, students enrolled in a four-year public university will spend approximately $1,250 in 2017-2018 on books alone.[i]

Illustration heavy and frequently updated, Art History survey textbooks and their online supplements can be particularly expensive. AHTR assembled an excellent, hyper-linked guide to resources for teaching survey courses, which you can access below.[ii] OERs for the arts of China, Japan, India, Arts of the Silk Road and arts of Islamic cultures may be less familiar to AHTR members, however; hopefully this very limited introduction may be useful to our members.

Unlike Western or global survey textbooks, books used in the courses named above are infrequently released in new editions.  Out of date and disproportionately expensive, often with black and white images, these textbooks do little to serve my students—who often decide to not purchase them.[iii]  To address these needs and to take advantage of the incredible amount of high resolution images and quality texts online and available to everyone, I developed materials around OERs I’d already sporadically and also to encourage students to begin research early in the semester.  Switching to fully OER supported course material is very time consuming, but I believe well-worth the effort.  Most of us already rely on Khan Academy’s SmartHistory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, Fordham’s Internet History Sourcebook, and numerous quality museum and library sites.  If you are new to OERs, I recommend you visit OER Commons and sites that aggregate art history related web links.[iv]

Asia and the Silk Road:

Columbia University’s Asia for Educators; for secondary and tertiary teachers. This site comprises timelines, maps, English language translations of primary sources, images and links to museums, lesson plans, and printable and video sources.

International Dunhuang Project, British Library hosted database and research center; primarily for university level, this site compiles links to archives and hundreds of thousands of art images.  Here you can also download PDFs of manuscripts on topics ranging from acupuncture to specific sutras, and lesson plans and excellent materials such as the “Buddhism Education Pack.”  You may already be familiar with other Silk Road OERs, but if not, consider the Silk Road Foundation and the fully open  Silk Road Journal, edited by David Waugh.

Major, Barnatt, and Bertles’ Silk Road Encounters, Asia Society and Silk Road Project, 2001; this is a free multimedia textbook (PDF or ePub) that can be adapted for all levels. In addition to art history relevant materials, this rich source includes a glossary with audio clips of musical instruments.  There is also an educators kit.

Silk Road Curriculum Materials by David Waugh, part of the larger Silk Road projects sponsored by the University of Washington and his organization and journal.  This annotated survey with hyperlinks includes an annotated collection of donated sample syllabi as well.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has released scores (502 as of today, 11/12/2017) of titles for online reading or download on myriad subjects, including the Silk Road, China, Japan, and Islamic art.  Please visit this page to browse their free offerings.  The Getty also has released many of its texts for free on its website.


Patricia Ebrey’s  A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, University of Washington.  Ebrey’s expertise is often only available in her excellent, but costly, print formats; here is an open resource for teachers and students arranged both chronologically and topically, focused on images and material culture.

The Digital Scrolling Paintings Project by the University of Chicago features several handscrolls, (mostly Chinese, but some Japanese) digitized in high resolution and interactive.  One can see scrolls as they would in person: scrolling from right to left, revealing new material as one scrolls.  These can also be magnified and some feature optional pop-up annotations.   Done in cooperation with museums, some of these are found on those sites, but compiled here, the project provides an exciting entry into picture scrolls.

The Huntington Archive of materials created by David and Susan Huntington.  While most famous perhaps for Buddhist art and South Asian art, the China offerings are also important.  Maps and original high-quality photographs are supplemented by teaching materials, publications, and online exhibitions.  Note: there is an online glossary of Buddhism on this site as well.

Patrick Siu’s Calligraphy and Landscape Painting page is a must-visit site for anyone teaching 300 level and above courses, though it has much to offer at all levels.  Patrick Siu is a practicing artist and high school teacher in Australia, who maintains a bilingual website covering painting technique and also art history.  His explanations of how hanging scrolls and handscrolls work as panoramas makes teaching this material very easy.  What is most remarkable about his blogs is the incredible depth of knowledge presented, annotations of paintings that identify material culture unfamiliar to us, and translations of all seals and inscriptions. For an example, see his post on the Night Revels of Han Xizai.


e-Museum (e-Kokuho) is the bilingual site featuring Japan’s National Treasures and important cultural properties maintained by the four national museums and the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage.  Interactive, high resolution images taken from seldom-published multiple vantage points make this site excellent for teaching and research.  English language entries contextualize the materials.  There is also a mobile application for e-Museum.

The Library of Congress Digitization Project  provides access to reproductions of primary source materials including popular ukiyoe prints: it has released more than 2,500 digitized images of Japanese Woodblock prints.  These are searchable by artist and subject matter. Similarly,

The Smithsonian just has released over 1,000 Japanese books from the collections of Charles Lang Freer and Robert O. Muller collections. These are Edo and Meiji period books, many of which are illustrated.

JAANUS: the Online Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art Historical Terms, by Dr. Mary Neighbour Parent.   Bi-lingual and explanatory entries for over 8,000 terms, this site and Smith’s site are probably most useful to instructors preparing classes and upper level and graduate students. Dr. Henry Smith’s Page, Columbia University makes available syllabi, select publications, bibliographies and research tutorials, and an introduction to the National Diet Libraries online Meiji book project—an essential OER resource for specialists in 19th century Japan.

Islamic Art:

ARCHnet: MIT and the Aga Khan foundation run OER repository and archive is the most comprehensive source for teaching about the architecture of Islam.  Featuring a timeline, thousands of original photographs donated by scholars, downloadable journal articles by participating scholars, plans and elevations, lesson plans, and online exhibitions.  I tell my students this is their number one textbook.

While the MET is discussed above, I want to point out the incredible free, open use content they provide, including lesson plans and teaching materials.  Examples include Al Andalus, or an example of interest to art students taking art history might be Islamic Art and Geometric Design which introduces geometric patterns and illustrates them with objects in the holdings of the Met.

The Islamic Art Network provides a comprehensive archive of open photographs of artworks and monuments, online articles and books, a glossary, and links to important archives.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Bridging Cultures project features a number of subjects in multiple formats.  Of interest to those teaching art from Islamic cultures, their Muslim Journeys Bookshelf is extremely useful.

Teach Mideast is not focused solely on art, but has many resources for both teachers and students.  “Ten Things to Know About Islam” , by John Esposito (on Teach Mideast) is an accessible introduction to Islam as a diverse faith.

While this short sampling of OERs for Asian art classes is woefully short and leaving out many excellent resources, I hope it is a start.  Feel free to contact me for help or leave suggestions in the comments.  If people are interested, I am happy to share syllabi with links, sample modules, or more information for advanced or Asian language applications available for mobile devices.


[i] “Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2017-2018”.  Trends in Higher Education. College Board, accessed 11/12/17 ,


[iii] An exception is this important contribution to the field, published by Pearson, Asian Art, Neave, Blanchard, and Sardar, 2015.  This excellent textbook will replace Sherman Lee’s Arts of Asia in many classrooms.

[iv] For more links to the many (too many to list here) OERs and websites see, for example, Dr. Witcomb’s Art History Resources on the Web (now on Facebook), The Mother of All Art History Pages (which includes information about graduate programs, too), and my (abbreviated) accumulation research portals for students, please see my (developing) WordPress page, Art History Resources.  This page is in its early stages, but organizes East Asian and Islamic resources by subject area.


2 responses to “Using Open Educational Resources in Art History Courses: Asian and Islamic Arts”

  1. David Lewis says:

    Thank you. This will keep me up all night.

  2. A Glaze says:

    This is so helpful. You mention that you have some sample syllabi and I would love to see some of these that cover Asian art as well as Chinese art.

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