On the history of decorative art, design, and film. Doing Digital Art History

Author: Taylor Hunkins (Page 1 of 2)

Not your Grandma’s Art History course

Over the past few months, I have explored how many different digital tools could work towards art historical research, education, and communication. I’ve tried to dive into the methodology of digital humanities and hope that, moving forward, I can apply some of these skills and tools to my own research.

But if I’m honest, I think what I am more excited about with digital humanities is the capability to integrate it into teaching practices. In a class on DAH, we recently read the article by Caroline Bruzelius and Hannah Jacobs– two art historians at Duke University– about an introductory course they taught that utilized digital software to reinvent the ‘traditional’ survey course. For this class, the professors created a ‘living’ syllabus– a narrative that “linked the syllabus’ practical information with spatial and temporal visualizations, embedded media and links to supplementary content.” (Bruzelius and Jacobs) This syllabus also compressed historical time with living/contemporary time as current events were interwoven into the course structure, linked to relevant topics or works of art within the survey. For those interested, you can access the syllabus here.

This reinvention of the ‘traditional’ syllabus is honestly super cool. Sure, the design a little cumbersome, but I think Bruzelius and Jacobs did a great job at executing their original goals. I also think that a digital syllabus like this really sets the tone for the overall class– introducing to the students that this isn’t your grandma’s art history course. So where can you go from here?

In her Twentieth Century Art at Dixie State University, Professor Nancy Ross with collaboration from her class, organized a data visualization project to map the relationships and interrelationships between famous women artists. This project grew out of students’ interest in expounding on the common narrative of Twentieth Century Art– a field dominated by men– and resulted into a new way of conceptualizing interrelationships among artists. Ross identifies the inconsistencies and shortcomings of this project, but concludes that overall it was a successful attempt to intervene on the traditional art historical course using digital methods.

Gretchen McKay created and implemented a game for her art history class. Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 was a semester-long, fully immersive role-playing game in which students took on key figures on the Paris art scene of the late 19th century. The game centered around the debates around the changing style, function, and appreciation of art at the time as students controlled discussions as their respected characters. The game cumulated in an art sale with one secret buyer. The students were challenged to successfully advocate for the art associated with their character to persuade the secret buyer’s choice. Though McKay’s game doesn’t employ technology directly, the idea of immersion into an alternate reality (virtual reality) is akin to some DH initiatives.

There are many more examples that I could list on Digital Art History in the classroom, suggesting that many scholars and educators are seriously thinking about how methodology can significantly change pedagogy. These projects are extremely useful as I begin to think about how to construct a course in African Art. In my first blog post, I mention that both DAH (as a method) and African Art (as a concentration) are located on the periphery of Art History. The ways in which both are being integrated into the field are still being negotiated. While this is frustrating, I find that there is an opportunity to marry the two into something very significantly new.

There is a debate among scholars and educators about the most effective format for an introductory course on African Art. This is to be expected of course, trying to teach the history of art from an entire continent (with 54 countries and even more ethnic groups) is a challenge. Should it be structured chronologically? Geographically? By theme? A mixture of all three? How might digital tools and methods help address this debate?

I don’t know, but I think its worth pursuing. There is a lot left to improve with African Art History pedagogy (and arguably, the discipline at large) and it seems foolish to not consider digital art history as a way to redefine the field.

Crowdsourcing– Too many cooks?

We live in an age of social engagement. Online and off, there is a growing interest to include as many voices within a conversation as possible. As an application of postcolonial theory, organizations and institutions (like museums, universities, cultural centers) are working to broaden their audiences and elevate marginalized voices with the hopes to rewrite history and deconstruct some of the systematic injustices that exist in the cultural and information sector.

Laura Carletti et al. present the different types of crowdsourcing models: correction and transcription contextualization (transcriptions, revisions, editing); complementing collection classification (adding tags or metadata to records); co-curation (actually curating, or writing, web exhibitions/publications); and crowdfunding (money). We can see many museums, art projects, and exhibitions utilizing one or more of these models. (See NYPL Public ProjectsAnno TateSmithsonian Digital Volunteers, and the Smithsonian Social Media Policy, just to name a few)

I recently had a discussion with some colleagues about the purpose of crowdsourcing and the benefits (or not) of museums applying crowdsourcing models to their exhibitions, programs, and educational initiatives. it seemed that collectively we were hesitant to fully support crowdsourcing as an effective way to provide scholarly, accessible, and diverse information. I should note that we weren’t skeptical about the purpose of crowdsourcing, in fact we celebrate the museum’s effort to decentralize its scholarship. Yet, some of us began to worry about the integrity of art exhibitions/scholarship with the inclusion of non-experts or amateur critics. Is it practical to bring in as many voices as possible to curate an exhibition? In an effort to make art accessible to diverse communities, would anything be drowned out by all the voices?

Embarrassingly, I don’t know where I stand in this debate. In part, I am reminded of an earlier blog post “Decolonizing Digital Humanities,” in which I argue for crowdsourcing projects– to collect many different stories about one object to record a more complete understanding of its historical and social value. I still stand behind this goal, truly, and definitely recognize the value in plurality. But yet, when it comes to exhibitions– co-curated shows by the public– I remain skeptical. Would an exhibition that valued the voices of many be as intellectually rigorous than one created by a few experts? I don’t know. Could an exhibition do both– framed by the expert and amended by the public? Yes, of course. But what would that look like? Would the art be lost in the crowd?

My hesitation with crowdsourcing ultimately leaves me frustrated. I have preached decolonization and the value in uniting multiple voices, interpretations, and ways of seeing into one conversation. So why should I hesitate with the idea of a crowdsourced exhibition? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But it is through my skepticism and frustration that I realize I should take a step back and recognize my preconceptions of museums, exhibitions, and art historical ‘scholarship.’ I was trained to think of the museum as the pinnacle of the academy– a presentation space for rigorous scholarship that challenged our understandings of art and society. But what does scholarship look like? Or rather, what could it look like? I am learning that perhaps arguments that live in complex and sometimes ambiguous zones are just as valid as definitive “2+2=4” arguments. That knowledge does not exist in the space of certainty, but rather in uncertainty as this space allows for growth and transformation. If museums (and the exhibitions they house) are supposed to be a space for knowledge (and, I should mention, a space accessible to all) then it wouldn’t make sense to expect a cut-and-dry approach to art– the empirical ‘truth.’ Instead the museum should be a space for dialogue— a participatory and open space in which ideas are exchanged, shared, and negotiated.

So should museums be crowdsourced? I still am not sure, but am excited at the possibility. Why? Because the participatory museums demands a new way of understanding the function of an institution as well as how knowledge is communicated, revised, amended, and transformed among multiple voices.

Keeping Three-Dimensional Recreations Pretty.

What are the limitations to looking at a sculpture, historical object, or even a building on a computer screen? Can we truly understand the essence of an object– its materiality and weight– through a two-dimensional reproduction? Furthermore, what is lost when we cannot move around the object– when we cannot examine it, sense it, from all sides? These types of questions have plagued art historians and art educators since the early days of printed reproductions and slide projectors. Images of objects of course have a use in art education, but to what extent? Is looking at objects rendered two dimensional “as good as we can get” or is it rather a detriment to our ability to connect, relate, and experience art?

Digital software such as Agisoft Photoscan provide the technology to move past the 2D into the 3D. 3D visualizations address many of the questions I’ve posed above: a rendering allows us to better understand the materiality of the object and how it affects form; the software develops a rendering in 360 degrees which allows us to move it around and see it from all angles. Renderings can be exported as pdf files which make it easy to embed them on websites or within power-points for educational purposes.

Seems like the problem’s solved, right? We’ve mastered 3D rendering in a 2D space! But with new technologies comes a series reflection on how they should be properly integrated into research– with new technology comes new theoretical models. What are the strengths of 3D modeling as part of research? How should it be utilized? And on the flip side, what are the limitations? What is improper integration?

There seems to be many scholars exploring these questions and critically analyzing current 3D modeling projects, which includes Virtual Reality recreations. Diane Favro explores some of these issues in relationship to VR models of Ancient Rome– the (re)imagined city in the digital space. Having an ancient city as the source for 3D modeling presents a few problems. Through historical texts (and with texts I do include visual texts), we can understand key architectural features of Rome. We can even understand basic infrastructure and urban plans. But Favro rightly notes that there are aspects of Ancient Rome that we don’t know, and that we perhaps will never know. Any 3D modeling of Rome, then, will always be speculative, at least in part. Does this weaken the integrity of a digital project overall? Some say yes while others say no.

Favro provides her insights on another theoretical debate with 3D/VR re-creations: how much attention should be given to aesthetics when trying to produce a factual visualization of the past? She states:

The Virtual Reality models of Ancient Rome admittedly have an aesthetic content, but the raison d’etre is not to create pretty pictures: the proposed strategies for minimizing aesthetic considerations of the re-creation models were selected for their potential to stimulate new avenues of research about both the digital models and the ancient city. With these goals in mind, it must be underscored that attractiveness is not a sin.

Favro, 332

Creating an aesthetic enriched experience is not, and perhaps should not be the main purpose for scholarly re-creations, but yet Favro emphasizes that aesthetics do not negate the integrity of the project. I appreciate her consideration, but find that it stills propagates a hierarchy among aesthetics and fact within 3D visualization theory. For me, as an Art Historian, the aesthetics are just as important as factual accuracy– and in a way, even more important in creating an embodied and immersive VR experience. Sure, any scholar would want their re-creation of an ancient city to be as accurate as possible (limited only by a lack of primary source material), but aesthetic consideration should be part of that accuracy. Cities, especially ones like Ancient Rome, weren’t sterilized from beauty or harmony. The intrinsic qualities of a building (line, texture, form) cannot be divorced from their physiological or transcendental capabilities. In other words, any recreation of a city will be inherently aestheticized because any physical city is aestheticized. Thus, the job of the scholar-designer is not to minimize or negate these aesthetics, but rather ensure that the aesthetics of a 3D recreation match (as best they can) the aesthetics of the original.

Diane Favro. “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia.” In Imaging Ancient Rome, edited by Haselberger, Lothar Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture and John H Humphrey, 321–34. Supplementary Series 61. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2006.

Working with Networks

Scott Weingart’s “Demystifying Networks” serves as a great, easy-to-read introduction to Network Theory and Network graphing. Network theory, as Weingart notes, is a growing interest for many scholars– especially art historians! He defines Network Theory/Studies as such:

Generally, network studies are made under the assumption that neither the stuff nor the relationships are the whole story on their own. If you’re studying something with networks, odds are you’re doing so because you think the objects of your study are interdependent rather than independent. Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.

Scott Weingart

I find his last point to be key– that relations between people, objects, places, concepts, etc are necessary to understand a complete context (story). For art history, I think this makes sense– in fact you could argue that network theory is woven into the foundation of the discipline (art, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in many networks– private and public, local and global, etc. My point is not to argue that Art History is a form of network studies, but rather use this idea to say that Network Theory is definitely a viable and at times lucrative tool to art historical scholarship.

So how does this translate into Digital Art History? The rest of Weingart’s article describes and explains the ways one can graph networks– that is, turn the idea of a network into a visual. He outlines the many parts of a network and how they can split into different forms (ig. nodes can have two parts, bimodal). He gives some (very basic) examples of what a graphed network might look like, which I think help to reinforce his description. But when looking at these graphs, I think back to his explanation of Network Theory– “Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.” Nodes can be connected with lines, symbolizing an interaction. But do these lines necessarily communicate the necessity of that interaction? Take his example:

This network graphs the relationships between Authors and Books, with the lines indicating that the Book (teal) was written by the Author (red). Again, this is a basic graph to serve as an educational model, but the question still applies– is it necessary? Do we need Network Theory to understand the relationship between an author and his books? Not really. Furthermore, is this a network in which we must understand the connections (the lines) to understand the author and or the book? Of course, books wouldn’t exist without authors, but I think the point here is that the network is not producing anything new about the book, the author, or the relationship between the two. We don’t need a visualization like this to know that a book was written by an author.

In fact, Weingart warns us of blindly applying network theory and visualizations to our research, what he calls methodology appropriation. He cautions us to be mindful about when it is best to apply network methodology to our work and critical in evaluating its usefulness. A fancy graph might look cool in your publication, but could be superfluous.

This leaves me with some questions: How can art historians train their critical eye to know when and when not to graph a network? With a strong push for data visualization, it might seem oh-so-appealing to supplement your text with a network graph, but how can we learn when this is actually the wrong move? Furthermore, how can we begin to reimagine network visualizations to communicate the dependency of networks– not just that relationships exist, but that they are necessary to understand the two (or more) parts/nodes. Lines just don’t seem to work, in my opinion. But what will? All in all, I am for network theory and graphing as a method to art historical scholarship, but believe that there is still room for improvement.

Scott Weingart, “Demystifying Networks”, http://scottbot.net/lets-talk-about-networks/

Where is the “Art” in Digital Art History?

With so many resources, software, and applications at our disposal, the possibilities for digital projects seems infinite. Moreover, the integration of technology in almost every factor of our lives can easily turn any novice to a computer wiz (at least self-proclaimed). Yet, as Diane Zorich states, a Digital Humanist or Digital Art historian is not one who can effectively use Google or who knows their way around the Met’s online collection. A Digital scholar is one who “adopt(s) the computational methodologies and analytical techniques that are enabled by new technologies” to their own research. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts the utilitarianism of digital art history/humanities– that it is one method within the scholars tool belt. But Zorich poses a question–and its a big one– where is the Art in Digital Art History?

It’s a good question, right? Something to really keep in mind. As I’ve been researching different projects and initiatives, I’ve asked myself it a few times– where is the art? I want to spend this post unpacking this question because ultimately art historical research does not always have to focus on an artwork(s), yet art should be at its center, if only indirectly. Let me elaborate….

I was taught that art history should always focus on the object– that the art guides your scholarly discussion. Any questions or insights should come from within the object as it is the portal to new ways of understanding realities. With this, any method employed should serve the art. It should provide a frame in which the art takes on new understanding. If digital art history is an alternative method, then it should work the same way and for the same purpose (that is to provide a new understanding of works of art).

I should note that my skepticism is in response to digital projects that deal with large data sets– data visualization, cultural and network analytics, and text mining . At the foundation of the many types of data visualization projects is the transformation of data (which can include numerical data to even text documents) into visual forms that may provide new ways of engaging with the information. It seems that these projects help us comprehend trends over time and place and popularity of terms, styles, artists, schools, etc. Of course, there are so many other insights that these projects could present, but i am basing my understanding from the examples I’ve explored.

Zorich presents a few examples of Art Historical projects that deal with large data sets. Lev Manovich at the City University of New York employed a statistical technique called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) to analyze 60 visual features (or ‘image features’ such as color, texture, lines, shapes, etc.) In one project, Manovich applied this model to 128 paintings by Mondrian, creating a scatter plot organized by visual similarity among the works. From this cultural analysis, he explains how this visualization allows you to see, “the parts of the space of visual possibilities (that the artist) explored, the relative distributions of their works– the dense areas, the sparser areas, the presence or absence of clusters, etc.” (Zorich)

As we can see, the presentation of data provides new insights that allow for further inquiry. It prompts a scholarly discussion that centers on works of art. Even with this comparative image of Mondrian and Rothko, we can begin to recognize similarities and ask questions— all of which originate from the paintings themselves. In my opinion, this is a strong Digital Art History project because it applies a new way to engage with works of art that allow for new avenues of research. I doubt that one could notice the comparisons between Mondrian and Rothko through analog methods. We can page and page through catalogues, but even this might not spark such big insights! Manovich’s Cultural Analytics seems to be an effective way to center works of art within a digital project.

Zorich also includes a topic or textual mining project in which large corpuses of texts are mined and visualized for popularity of words and themes. She includes Dr. Robert Nelson’s project “Mining the Dispatch,” as an example. “Mining the Dispatch” examines the print run of the Richmond Daily Paper from 1860-1865. A number of topics were mined from over 112,000 papers, including Negro, years, reward, boy, man, jail, delivery, black, ran, and color. Like Manovich’s “Cultural Analytics”, the results from this project allowing for new questions– specifically in thinking why these terms might be so popular. Text mining projects like this are extremely interesting, no doubt, but its place of origin– its site of creation– has shifted from image to word. Zorich suggests ways in which Art Historians could use text mining for their work (such as scanning over Academic Journals or even the oeuvres of some of the leading theorists in the field) and I agree these would be extremely insightful and useful contextualizations to any research project. Still, though, I am not totally convinced this would result in an art historical scholarship. Sure, it would be illuminating to topic-mine African Art journals and major publications from the past 70 years to see which countries or ethnic groups are most popular (though I think most Africanists would already have some good guesses), but this seems like a historiography inquiry of the field. Historiography is important and often can be a much-needed addition to an art historical study, but should it be the foundation for said study? Should an art historical project come out of a mining of textual data from the field? Should it be the site of creation?

I suppose I will end with this thought– an Art Historian should practice visual primacy. Our discipline utilizes images and objects to understand our world and its histories. And so, I have some trouble approaching art history without a focus on the visual. Am I discrediting textual evidence, historical documents, and theoretical writings? Obviously not! But to ground a discussion on these is not art historical. With this, data visualization projects should follow this hierarchy. If a project, like Cultural Analytics, examines image sets, then we could use this as a foundation for inquiry. If a project does not, such as text mining, then it should be used as supplement. Text mining could definitely unearth new avenues of discussion, but I think should be used selectively and to assist the image. It is one digital method that I can see being employed during the process and not at its beginning. Most of these projects should be situated in a sequence of research (and some might be able to exist at multiple points). But regardless of method, digital or not, the beginning of any sequence must be an image or object. It must be the art.

Nelson, Robert K. “Mining the Dispatch.” Digital Research Lab, the University of Richmond. http://dsl.richmond.edu/dispatch/
Software Studies Initiative. “Mondrian vs Rothko: footprints and evolution in style space.” 2011. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2011/06/mondrian-vs-rothko-footprints-and.html
Zorich, Diane M. “The ‘Art’ of Digital Art History” (presented at The Digital World of Art History, Princeton University, June 26, 2013), https://ima.princeton.edu/pubs/2013Zorich.pdf

Finding a Place in Digital Spatial History

Henry Lefebvre’s seminal work “The Production of Space,” introduced a new way to conceptualize the idea of space that has influenced many scholars across disciplines. Rooted within Postmodern discourse, Lefebvre’s texts seeks to identify the essence of space through three subsections: spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Furthermore, Lefebvre argues that spatial relationships change and take new form over time– that space itself has a history.

And, in fact, this history of space has been documented throughout time. Jo Guldi argues that throughout the course of art history, the landscape genre has been intentionally employed to communicate man’s relationship to his surroundings. To prove this argument, Guldi discusses 19th century landscape paintings as an overt political move towards nationalist ideals. We can see this development taking form in the 18th century as well, specifically with the growing popularity of landscape paintings and drawings in England at this time (see A British Sentiment, an exhibition at the Trout Gallery Art Museum, Carlisle PA). It was through political ambitions that artists, patrons, and even spectators began to imagine new ways to see themselves in relationship to their environment. Artists at this time were, as Walter Benjamin states, politicizing the aesthetics of the landscape genre to emphasize power and control over the natural world.

Of course, the 18th and 19th century is not the only time when landscapes were used to communicate political and aesthetic ambitions, but I emphasize this period to introduce what I find to be an important responsibility for Digital Art Historians. The interest in space goes beyond landscape paintings and has become a popular theoretical focus for many different art forms over the span of history (and across geographic boundaries). It seems that any Art Historian interested in ideas of space, spatial theory, and spatial history, should find motivation in the digital. With the growing capabilities of mapping software, the potential to reimagine spatial Art History is extradoniary. First, the types of projects are numerous and far-reaching; Space can (and does) play a crucial role in many facets of art production, exhibition, consumption, and reception. Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s mappings of 19th century London’s art market is but one of many examples. I also think of Oliver Marcel’s article on the representation of African artists in global art fairs (which I reference in my first blog). Not only are the types of mapping projects numerous, but the mapping capabilities are sophisticated, complex, and illuminating. Digital mapping allows for new ways to understand data, to conceptualize information, and ultimately to imagine our pasts. I am overwhelmed with excitement at all the possibilities digital mapping has to offer art historical scholarship.

But, and to be honest, I am also overwhelmed with confusion. As I have mentioned in many of my previous blogs, I am a novice to digital art history and unfamiliar with most of the software and applications at my disposal. Whereas I can envision captivating projects that map out new ways to engage with art and art history, I am at a lost with how to do most of it. Yikes! I realize that this type of knowledge comes with research and experience– not all hope is lost! But still, at this point I feel somewhat helpless with the disconnect between exciting digital mapping projects and the current state of my digital mapping abilities. These are skills I do hope to improve upon as I move forward in my academic career. I think it is also worth mentioning that this impasse reminds me of the benefit of collaboration in digital projects. More minds are definitely better than just one and I think its important to remember that digital projects can only be more successful through the partnership and collaboration with others.

As I embark in digital mapping, I just started a project through Google Maps in which I aim to pin the various sites of Modernist architecture in Africa inspired by the International Style. As part of colonial expansion, European metropoles imagined their “new” colonies as architectural and aesthetic playgrounds in which they could experiment with new forms and styles that became popular in Europe. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is landscaped with many Modernist buildings inspired directly by the Italian Futurist style. Quite interestingly, some countries continued constructing Modernist architecture after independence, but with the purpose to communicate nationalism and skilled artisanship (such as the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa). My project seeks to map theses buildings to visualize the prevalence of Modernist architecture in the continent, about which has been scarcely written. As mentioned, I have just begun this project, but I will be sure to provide a link when finished.

My interest in theories of space and spatial history has shaped some of my scholarly inquiries and so digital mapping projects continual peak my curiosity. As my scholarship strengthens I do hope that I can include digital projects to further my findings and arguments. I am fascinated with a new motivation to reimagine how we, as scholars, educators, and life-long learners, can engage with information. Digital mapping proves to be a unique and dynamic way to visualize the past, forming new connections over time and space.

African Art Connoisseurship 2.0

When I was an intern at the National Museum of African Art in D.C., I had many conversations with chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer about the importance of connoisseurship within the discipline of African art history. She lamented that there has yet to be effective pedagogy to the study of connoisseurship which, in turn, has limited the amount of scholarship dedicated to identifying African artists and understanding the individual aesthetic choices that often challenge established Styles. Our discussions took place within the museum’s collection storage rooms and Dr. Kreamer walked me through aisle after aisle highlight unique forms, unusual details, and creative choices that individualized each work of art. I was instantly overwhelmed with all the artistic nuances she was so easily able to identify. I left these conversations frustrated that I did not have any of the skills she clearly possessed, but complacently determined that these are skills that I’ll acquire ‘at some point over time.’

The Connoisseur’s eye is definitely a wise eye. Of course, it takes years of engaging with certain types of art to really get a sense for stylistic differences. Yet it is impossible to leave this skill up to temporal chance– the passive “at some point.” Dr. Kreamer’s pleas for a reformation in educational connoisseurship is apt. What can institutions do to train young scholars to be connoisseurs? What tools do we have at hand to help?

This week I spent some time reading about and engaging with different methodologies and digital resources that Digital Humanists are using to enhance and progress their research. The Archives for American Art has an amazing collection of recorded oral histories by artists and educators affiliated with Federal and State Art projects. John Resig has published an article outlining his experience using MatchEngine to analyze images of anonymous Italian art at the Frick Art Reference Library. The Software Studies Initiative’s “Cultural Analytics” program allows for large sets of data (images) to be analyzed in relation to one another, illuminating visual similarities and differences (see this video on Rothko). In addition to all of the specific arguments each project introduces, these examples prove just the diversity in resources available for Art Historians/Humanists to engage with their research in new ways. For example, Linda Shopes, in her online essay “Making Sense of Oral History,” states that oral histories complicate and even inspire new understandings of our past.

Oral history is not simply another source, to be evaluated unproblematically like any other historical source…An interview is inevitably an act of memory, and while individual memories can be more or less accurate, complete, or truthful, in fact interviews routinely include inaccurate and imprecise information, if not outright falsehoods…Although oral historians do attempt to get the story straight through careful background research and informed questioning, they are ultimately less concerned with the vagaries of individual memories than with the larger context within which individual acts of remembering occur, or with what might be termed social memory.

As we can see, an oral history is just as useful for its discrepancies and nuances than it is for its ‘historical fact’ (in fact, perhaps even more so). New questions and avenues of analysis arise through examining oral histories which emphasizes its resourcefulness to scholars.

Upon reflection, I would argue that all tools used in the three examples listed above would revitalize the pedagogy of connoisseurship. Think about it. A visual way to process large sets of data would facilitate comparative visual analysis. Furthermore, if these visualization projects also include computation vision, meaning the code to identify similarities and difference among images digitally, then students and scholars can critically examine computational matches for their accuracy. As Resig notes, these matching softwares expedite the time it would take to manually sift through large collections of images. The softwares can also identify new matches that we might not have made because of its detailed search criteria. And finally, oral histories could be extremely useful for connoisseurship. If there were recorded interviews from artists and craftsmen within ethnic communities detailing the history of objects, forms, and styles, we might be able to glean new information on individual styles, aesthetic taste, and the oeuvre of specific artists. As oral history is still a predominant way to record the past for some African ethnic groups, having access to these might in fact be the most useful resource for scholars, students, and connoisseurs.

As I wrap up this post, I want to include yet another tool that could help train the connoisseur’s eye. I played around with the website Thinglink which allows you to annotate images, videos, and other media. As an educational resource, it’d be easy to upload an image of an African sculpture, like the Fante figures below, and identify the formal qualities that match collective styles but also note stylistic differences.

There is so much potential to expand the pedagogy of connoisseurship to the digital realm. By implementing new tools of image analysis, data synthesis, and oral histories, a student of African art has a work-belt of unique resources that emphasize the formal qualities of African Art while framing them within new discussions on authorship, style, and creativity.

And, for something extra, I am including media that I annotated with ThingLink. Using the site was a new experience for me and I was very much just playing with the features so I apologize that the media is not African Art related. All work is my own (shoutout to senior year of undergrad!)

And here is a link to a video with annotations: https://www.thinglink.com/video/1231630625308409861

Archives of American Art Oral History Collections. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews
Resig, John, “Using Computer Vision to Increase the Research Potential of Photo Archives.” http://ejohn.org/research/computer-vision-photo-archives/
Software Studies Initiative, “Cultural Analytics.” http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/cultural-analytics.html
Shopes, Linda, “Making Sense of Oral History,” Oral History in the Digital Age. http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/making-sense-of-oral-history/

Your Digital Humanities project, the big picture.

This week I dug deep into the publishing platforms Omeka and Scalar to begin to understand the potential for a digital art history project. As much as I don’t want to admit it, this presented a huge learning curve (I now understand that I might not be as tech-savvy as I once thought). Both platforms allow a user to upload, organize, and exhibit digital images and videos in context with larger themes. Both allow for detailed metadata entry which communicates even more information (and helps prevent and liability issues with copyright, if such an issue arises). I am truly awed by what these platforms can do and look forward to using them, despite my apparent lack of computer skills.

And in fact, it is because of my ineptness that I very much appreciate Paige Morgan’s article “How to get a Digital Humanities project off the ground.” Her blog post provides advice for conceptualizing a digital project (and less on the technical problems), but still she raises some great points that help me frame any project idea I might have. I greatly appreciate her point searching the web for similar projects. She describes three theoretical possibilities when doing this: 1) No one is doing it so go for it, 2) Someone is doing a similar project but with a fundamentally different approach, and 3) Someone is using a similar method but on a different set of texts. She encourages us to think critically and evaluate fo what end are similar projects striving. How can our projects enhance or expand upon theirs? Does it provide an alternate look? Her advice really stuck with me. Any digital humanities project is a type of argument, perhaps one that focuses on the capabilities of engaging with material digitally or even one that provides and intervention to previous scholarship. It is an argument just like an academic paper is an argument. It is a form of communication with the purpose to provide a new way of looking and thinking about the subject matter. Perhaps I was just too naive, but this was a key revelation for me. It suggests the fluidity of digital humanities projects– that arguments can take new shapes and different forms. If I find that there is already a similar project to my idea, that doesn’t necessarily mean I need to throw mine out, but rather reevaluate its purpose and imagine new avenues to pursue.

I also appreciated Morgan’s point to start small– identify the smallest component of your project and build that. She advises this to begin to understand how much work your project might need. If the smallest component of your project ends up taking too much work or presents new complications you weren’t anticipating, you have the opportunity to stop there and reassess your development strategy. As someone who likes to think big to the point where my grasp of details is loose, I think this is a very helpful way to begin working on a project. For one thing, I don’t necessarily know the steps required in the grand schemes and thus need to spend the time thinking about and working through these details. I also have a tendency to be a bit over-zealous and uninterested int e practicalities of my ideas, so I sympathize with the need to put in that time and think small.

As I sit here and write these reflections, the big takeaway is that I am venturing into a new territory of communicating my thoughts, but one that is still grounded in a familiar praxis. On the one hand, I am beginning to realize that this new mode(s) of communication are not entirely different than what I know (that is the ‘pure’ academic writing). It centers on arguments, evidence, and analysis while providing unique ways to engage with content. Elli Doulkaridou situates Digital Humanities within frame theory, as yet another and specific way to frame objects. Just like a DH project is similar to an academic paper, the frame of a DH project is similar to the many other ways we have framed content throughout history. For me, understanding DH as a continuation and adaptation of more ‘traditional’ modes of communication (within academia at least) suggests the similarities in approach. How do we begin any project? How do our ideas grow and taper, take shape and take weight? How do we build upon ideas? Formulate arguments? These questions are abstract, of course, but this implies that they resonate to any form of communication. We should be asking the same questions whether we write a paper, design an online catalog, create a work of art, etc. Obviously each method will illuminate new questions, specific to the method itself, but I hope that thinking about Digital Humanities in this way emphasizes the relationship it has with any and all forms of communication. And so, when it comes to cracking down and building that online project, our approach and considerations should not be totally separate from what we know. Instead lets use this as a foundation, solid enough to build upon a structure that engages with our world(s) in new ways.

Doulkaridou, Elli. “Reframing Art History.” In International Journal for Digital Art History, Issue #1, June 2015, pp. 66-83.
Morgan, Paige. “How to Get your Digital Humanities Project off the Ground.” http://www.paigemorgan.net/how-to-get-a-digital-humanities-project-off-the-ground/

Generous Interfaces

The Digital Humanities practitioner and theorist Mitchell Whitelaw exposes the disconnect between the embodied experience of visiting a museum and the digital experience navigating a museum’s online collection. Museums are designed to encourage browsing and perusing their many galleries. Their layout often illicit a more casual engagement with art, focusing on the actual experience of viewing. Online collections, as Whitelaw notes, have historically been inquiry-driven– guarded by the search box. Users are expected to have a specific interest (keywords) to begin their search online, creating a very controlled and lateral experience. Whitelaw argues for a change in museum online interfaces that mimics the experience of visiting a museum:

“As an interface, search fails to match the ample abundance of our digital collections and the generous ethos of the institutions that hold them. A more generous interface would do more to represent the scale and richness of its collection…instead of demanding a query it would offer multiple ways in, and support exploration as well as the focused enquiry where search excels.”

The size of collections, both physical and digital, call for a more generous approach of engagement– one that allows for browsing and discovery. And it seems that the generous interface would be advantageous not only for users, but for institutions. Digitizing collections can be (is) a long and meticulous process and it would be unfortunate to have all of that material hidden behind a restricted interface of search boxes and predetermined categories. Why wouldn’t a museum want to show the breadth of their collection– to really show it through their digitized images rather than a list of categories?

Through a brief search of museum’s online collections, one can see that institutions are experimenting with their interfaces and some, though not all, are try to create a more generous experience. Take, for example the collections page for the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The webpage for the Cleveland Museum is stark, with only an advanced search menu crammed to the left-side. There are images of objects from the collection set as a banner on the top and bottom of the screen, but their small sizes almost makes them entirely superfluous. The Victoria and Albert Museum makes a stronger attempt to display images of their collection as an immediate entry-point to their collections webpage. This page serves more as a “sneak-peak” rather than an expansive sweep of their collection, but I appreciate the assortment of images as they don’t appear to be grouped by certain themes, time periods, etc. And, every time you refresh the page, new images appear, which allows for more browsing.

These are but two examples of the types of interfaces museums and archives are utilizing to digitally catalog their collections. And whereas the catalog for the V&A Museum is more generous than the Cleveland Museum, it is by no means the the zenith of generous interface. Drawing back on Whitelaw, he includes both Manly Images and the Prints and Printmaking Collection of the National Gallery of Australia as two examples of generous interfaces. Both provide certain categories or themes that lead to an open view of images or terms for discovery. They are interfaces that have been curated to a point, providing a selection of ways to enter into the collection, but after an initial category is selected they open to less-restricted exploration.

In reviewing all of these interfaces, I am left with the question: is there such thing as an over-generous interface? To me, it seems like the ‘pure’ generous interface would be one that provides access to all objects at one time– one page that showcases an entire collection. On the one hand, this ideal interface seems the most democratic in that in gives full control to the user. But yet, I also see how such an interface would be overwhelming and potentially counterproductive for browsing. With such an expansive amount of information, a user could easily become disillusioned and even frustrated by the lack of structure. Museums do not hang their entire collection on the wall with no rhyme or reason (and in fact consciously moved beyond a time when galleries did this) and their online catalogs should maintain the same integrity, right? There should be a combination of curation and open access at some level. But then, have museums found that balance? Are the generous interfaces that already exist the best solution to this dichotomy? Is there a limit to how generous these interfaces should be?

Whitelaw. Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1 (2015).

Decolonizing Digital Humanties

In their online publication Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig pose the question: who should digitize the past? They address the practical concerns with digitization, specifically cost and preservation of material, but I want to tease out this question as I believe it speaks to a larger and more philosophical discussion.

Who should digitize the past?

Cohen and Rosenzweig later pose the question, who owns the past? And I think both inquires work together. Who does own the past? Is this the same person that should digitize the past? Whose past?

I cannot deny the advantages for digitizing images, objects, or documents–especially within the humanities. Collections of materials that once were stored away in vaults are now accesible through the click of a webpage. Objects that haven’t been displayed in decades are now on view on your very own computer screen. I’m romanticizing this to emphasis the accessibility of resources through digitization (of course the image of an object is not the same as the object– ceci n’est pas une pipe). History is able to reach new audiences through digitization and digital-imaging. Image databases are becoming a vital resource for students. But as many of these images come from museum and archival collections, questions linger. Where are the objects digitized coming from? In what context did the museum or archive acquire them? And perhaps the most pressing for this discussion, who decided that they should be digitized?

These questions present many avenues for discussion and some, like object provenance, are not quite the focus for this post. What I find more concerning with digitization is the self-elected authorities that decide what does and does not get digitized and distributed. Art museums ideally want to digitize their entire collection with online databases ranging in size (mostly due to budgetary limitations). As more archival and historical documents are becoming digitized, I am left wondering who decides what makes the cut? Are historical and cultural institutions like art museums in that they want everything they own up online? Is it driven by research interests, either by the institution or outside scholars? If I went to the Wilson Library and asked them to digitize a photograph of my great-great grandfather, would they? If the ultimate goal was to preserve history, then why wouldn’t they? But something tells me that there are other criteria involved.

Recently, a colleague of mine communicated similar concerns and declared it was time to decolonize digital humanities. I couldn’t agree more. In order to decolonize, there must be a decentralization of established power structures. The decision whether or not to digitize, and by extension preserve history, should not be left in the hands if a few. It is time to pluralize digital humanities. Its time to digitize multiple voices and multiple histories and not limit it to the selection of a few.

One move towards pluralizing digital humanities is to spread the wealth, so to speak. Institutions and organizations with digitizing technology should share their resources to diverse groups, creating opportunities for more people to share their own material collections and histories. We need to cast a wider net. I am currently taking a digital humanities course at UNC and have appreciated the opportunity to digitize historical documents that I personally own. I have been provided the space and resources to digitize material that I think is important (see images below, the covers of a 1949 brochure I hope to completely digitize). How can we provide the same type of space to local communities, historic centers, and even the public at large? Of course, projects like this will require a lot of man-power (and probably even more money), but it is through open-access projects that expand our digital collections, allow for multiple narratives, and ultimately decolonize digitized history.

With the same motive, there should be an effort to make current digital collections accessible to a greater public, and more significantly, to marginalized communities whose histories (both analog and digital) have been recorded by others. The Central Australian project, Ara Irititja provides a clear example to my point. Ara Irititja works to reclassify and identify a substantial digital archive comprised of photographs of indigenous Anangu (taken by foreigners). Digital centers are built all around central Australia, to act as community spaces in which local Anangu can come and look through the archives. The initiators of this project, Sabra Thorner and John Dallwitz, write that these digital centers quickly became a site for storytelling:

“Aunties view film clips of ceremonies and move their hands and feet in time with their filmic selves; young people surf photos and call out to those within earshot to come see; elders tell stories about the country they are responsible for– recounting where parents and grandparents were born, identifying a Dreaming narrative or sacred site.” (Thorner, 57)

It is through the spaces created by Ara Irititja that local communities are engaging with digital material in different ways, echoing their own ways of communicating knowledge and preserving history rather than mirroring the established systems imposed upon them. How can the digital humanities continue to reach more people and cultivate new ways of engaging with their resources? How can we create more spaces that allow for multiple voices to share their own histories?

I’ve asked a lot of questions in this post and admittedly have only provide a few suggestions. Decolonizing digital humanities is, of course, a large undertaking and my suggestions only touch at potential solutions. Nonetheless, digitizing our past(s) is crucial to historical preservation and there is so much potential to represent lost histories, marginalized voices, and differing viewpoints. The call for current and rising digital humanists is to listen to those voices, unearth those histories, and create spaces that celebrate multiple viewpoints.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, 2006. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/
Thorner, Sabra and John Dallwitz. “Storytelling Photographs, Animating Anangu: How Ara Irititja and Indigenous Digital Archive in Central Australia– Facilitates Cultural Reproduction.” In Technology and Digital Initiatives: Innovative Approaches for Museums, edited by Juilee Decker. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. 53-61.

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