The role of crowdsourced material in museums has always been a difficult theme for me to navigate. As someone pursuing an advanced degree in art history in the hopes of working in museums, it often puts me in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, I totally acknowledge that museums are inherently elitist institutions that are not accessible to large groups of the population, which is a huge issue. On the other, I have put a lot of time and resources into getting a degree that I hope will help me land a job in one of these institutions. I think museums and cultural institutions do need to fundamentally change the way they engage with their audiences and the public at large, but I’m not always sure that crowdsourcing information is the best way to achieve that goal. Obviously it is harder to change the overarching issues: how museums are funded, who has access to art history courses and certain disciplines from an early age, who has access to higher education, the entire unpaid internship system that so much of the art world relies on, entrance cost barriers, the list can go on. In many ways it’s easier to have visitors submit a selfie of them with a work in the collection and print those or highlight them on the museum’s Instagram story than to address those larger systemic issues, but those posts still neglect the fundamental issue we as a society have with these institutions. It often seems to me to be more of a way for museums to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world than a way to really alter their relationship with their audiences.
There are definitely instances where digitally crowdsourcing information is beneficial. I find that it tends to work better in smaller institutions that are already more tightly interwoven into their communities than huge ones such as the Metropolitan. Crowdsourcing is a way for these smaller spaces to connect with and and learn from their publics in a symbiotic way. In class we talked about how local historical societies or preservation groups can rely heavily on crowdsourced information because some people do have inherently have more knowledge (perhaps local elders, or folks who have been in an area for generations have old letters, simply remember buildings that have been torn down, or have kept old family photographs). In bringing up this example I hope I can highlight that I am not against crowdsourcing knowledge, but that I am wary of incorporating it into museum programs without regard for the expertise that certain individuals do already have. Museum education and public programming departments exist for a reason in order to facilitate this type of engagement already. I also think it is necessary to distinguish when it is used with the true aim of achieving greater accessibility versus when it is a catchy marketing tool to appeal to the “digital masses.” If the goal is to increase accessibility then I think we as a field need to have the much harder and more complicated discussion of how the entire structure of the discipline needs to change rather than just how works of art are chosen for an exhibition or what the label says (although I agree these do show inherent power). This has been a ramble, and for that I apologize. Let’s turn to an example of where I think crowdsourcing of information does have a lot of pros, Wikipedia.
Wikipedia as an example…
Wikipedia is an online source that everyone has probably used at some point before. It’s great for quickly learning about a topic or finding other “more reputable” sources. This week we looked at it as our “digital tool” and discussed the pros and cons of working with the platform. I haven’t edited anything on the site before or participated in an edit-a-thon, but it is something that I’ve been interested in. I’ve heard a lot about Art+Feminism edit-a-thons which strive to improve Wikipedia’s content and coverage of gender, feminism, and art related topics. They host events and dialogues to train and facilitate editing and the creation of new pages.
An interesting thing I learned about Wikipedia this week was the way you have to build your presence as a contributor on the site. Although it is tempting to dive right in and create a new page for someone/something, a classmate recommended that to begin you should simply add citations to or edit the writing of existing pages. In this way, the editors of Wikipedia (volunteers who have a bit more authority than us lowly contributors) will start to know your contributions and will be less likely to delete your work. One way you can add in information is using Citation Hunt to address gaps in what information needs to be supported by citations.
I thought I’d make a few attempts at editing this week. I had initially wanted to create a whole page for a wonderful artist I recently spoke with, Mikael Owunna, but after my peer’s comments I thought I’d start with a few minor edits. I ended up adding a bit of information to South African artist Zanele Muholi’s page. I added one recent exhibition and one more collection their work is in.
You can see here that I added that they have work in the Tate Modern museum in London. This is a major collection to be in so I wanted to make sure it was present. I linked their artist page on the online collection as a citation. I took a screenshot to show how easy the process was: basically you paste in a link and it generates the citation for you.
Overall, the experience was remarkably easy. The new “visual editor” tool makes editing on Wikipedia very similar to the editing process on WordPress. Wikipedia also already has a lot of the tools you need embedded into the page so that you can just cut and paste a lot of information. I’m sure starting a page from the ground up would be much harder, but simply adding in citations was surprisingly easy and quick! I’m excited to keep working with the platform.
This week has been all about 3D modeling. We looked at a lot of examples from scholars recreating ancient or medieval architecture and objects. There are so many benefits to 3D modeling in those realms, but I want to focus in my post on how I have used the tools and how I can envision using them in my own work as I continue to get better at them.
I want to begin this post with the only experience I’ve had prior to this class with 3D-modeling, which is working with Google SketchUp. I’ve worked with it during a variety of internships at multiple museums as part of exhibition planning. In those internship contexts I didn’t appreciate how much goes into using the program. It is easy to “hang” works in the galleries on SketchUp and to populate the architecture with works of art (you can adjust proportions and manipulate placement very easily). Because the museums already had exact models of their gallery spaces, what I didn’t realize was how much background works goes into building the physical space that I was then putting art into. That part is the real work. Since I don’t have access to most of the SketchUp files I created in those contexts, I’ll show another example that I’ve made using SketchUp for a class.
For a project in a seminar in undergrad, I was tasked to reimagine a way in which to engage with Confederate monuments. I looked at New Orleans as a case study because of how many news stories were coming out of the city regarding the topic at the time. I looked at previous examples of museum exhibitions that looked at colonial and military histories that I felt were relevant in looking at strategies to incorporate in this example.
After trying in vain to build a museum space myself, I ended up borrowing the architectural rendering from one of the museums I had worked at. In the gallery space shown you can see the empty pedestals of the Beauregard Equestrian Statue and the statue to Confederate President Jefferson Davis are on view. Behind both are photographs of either the vandalized original statues, or edited photographs of what the monument could be. For example, behind the Jefferson Davis pedestal is an artist reimagining of the statue as a monument to Angela Davis. The literal absence of the physical statues emphasizes the possibility of reimagining them, as well as decentralizes the figures from the narratives and instead underscores the response from the community.
Back to the point of this example though, you can see that my use of SketchUp is pretty limited. It is easy to incorporate flat images (see the images on the walls), but I had difficultly demonstrating that objects were three-dimensional. I wanted to show that I was including the actual pedestals (not the sculptures, just the pedestals with graffiti), but since I couldn’t include an actual 3D model I simply added a box with the same image on all four sides. I consider this a low-tech solution. Remember, that when you’re in the actual program, you can drag yourself through the space so when you’re “walking” around the center pedestal for example, you do get some sense of what you’re seeing even with just the pictures.
Let’s turn to objects…
I’d like to pivot now to a discussion of 3D scanning and the modeling of objects rather than spaces. In their article, “3D Scanning and Replication for Museum and Cultural Heritage Applications,” Melvin J. Wachowiak and Basiliki Vicky Karas write that “3D scanning neither replaces nor is fully comparable to photography, structural imaging such as radiography, computed tomography (CT scan), colorimetry, and other measurement techniques.” There are already so many tools at museum’s disposals that are used to catalog and record information regarding their collections. It is a simple next step to begin to incorporate 3D modeling into this data collection.
Beyond keeping thorough records, I think there are a number of ways in which models and replicas that are scanned and 3D-printed can be used and incorporated into museum collections. Just one example of how replicas have been used in museums to improve visitor experience is their use in allowing visually-impaired visitors to interact with the art by actually touching the recreation. The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on this. In that article, David Hewitt writes, “The solution, the curators concluded, was not simply offering audio or braille guides, but to create elaborate 3-D replicas of key works, which visitors could touch.” 3D modeling allows curators to go beyond what can be conceived of as traditional solutions to allow for greater accessibility to collections by visitors who would otherwise be left out of traditional art museum contexts.
In addition, 3D modeling and scanning can be used in object repatriation cases and the study of indigenous art and artifacts. Again, the Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on how the tool can be used in this way. The article discusses a collaboration between the museum and the Tlingit tribe of southeastern Alaska. As a fun shout out to my university, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student and photogrammetry specialist Abigail Gancz was a part of this project. During a conference on the topic of 3D modeling, multiple clan artifacts were digitally scanned and replicated as “insurance” for the clan against future loss. They cited instances where important objects were lost or damaged and had to be recreated by memory. Now, with the help of this new technology, there will be thorough records that can be used to recreate these important objects.
I’d be interested to look more into how many museums have used 3D modeling as a solution for repatriation issues. By making replicas from the original object, museums that have acquired items in less than admirable ways could keep the information in their collections while still sending the originals back to their country/peoples of origin. I’d be interested to see how 3D scanning and modeling would work on classical African artifacts. Many masks or sculptures are made of multiple materials and have had multiple substances applied to them over the years so I wonder if scans could adequately capture those specificities.
I want to start with a basic example of a network that may be a helpful jumping off point. I presume most of you have seen a subway map. If you have, you’ve seen and worked with a network before! A network seems like it should be confusing, but really it is just a way to show relationships between different “nodes” or pieces of information. One professor I had in undergrad used this analogy to introduce network theory and, interestingly enough, my professor at UNC used the subway analogy as well to demonstrate her point. Obviously, it works!
Let’s take a look at this image of the NYC subway map. Each station represents a node on the network, and each line in between the stations is an edge. Depending on your discipline, the terms node and edge may vary, but for clarity’s sake I’ll stick with these. An important concept that is related to nodes is their centrality. Centrality very simply measures the importance of a node. One way of thinking about this is how many connections are being made to a certain node, those with more connections are more “central.” Let’s look back at the subway map as an example of this concept. In Figure 2 I’ve adjusted some nodes; I’ve made two station’s nodes larger to represent that more lines converge there. Times Square in Manhattan and Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn both are meeting points of multiple lines so I’ve enlarged their nodes to note their centrality. This makes the network graphic more useful. Without the adjustment, it seems as though the east 23rd street station on the 6 line and the Times Square station are the same size, which if you’ve ever been on the NYC subway you know is definitely not the case. Another way that changing nodes would be helpful in this case would be to show at which stops the local and express trains overlap. Let’s look at the two green lines, the 4/5 express trains and the local. They are depicted side by side and in places where all three stop there are simply 2 nodes. It could be easier, or at least a more simple graphic, if you had one green line representing all three train lines and smaller nodes would represent local stops by larger nodes would represent where both the local and express trains stop (since there are no stops that are only express and not local this would work). But enough about subways…
If you’re still not comfortable with the basics of networks, see Scott Weingart’s post on “Demystifying Networks.” Weingart does a great job of explaining the basic terminology, different types of networks (bimodal or multimodal for example), and how to read them. Something that Weingart mentions that I want to highlight is that a lot of context is stripped away in order to achieve readable network. I highlight this because the subway example doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the risks of reducing information well.
Let’s take a look at more examples
I want to preface this section with my usual cynicism. While I definitely think networks are useful, I think they are best used as presentational tools rather than research tools because of how much information is stripped from them. While they are helpful to include in presentations or to inspire research questions, applying research questions to them risks oversimplifying the issue. With this caveat in mind, let’s look at some of the examples that were brought up in class.
Let’s look briefly at how Scott Weingart introduced networks and an example he provided. In the example he provides a bimodal network. If we remember from earlier, this means there are 2 types of nodes, they can be either books (in blue) or authors (in red). In this example, he also has two types of edges. The black lines represent the relationship between author and book, i.e. who wrote what. The pink edge shows authors who collaborated with one and other. This is a relatively clear example of a network. There is not much overlap between concepts and relationships are obvious. It is almost clear to the point that you may ask: why bother with a network graphic? That’s exactly what I asked when I first read his post at least. The configuration of the different lines as swooping around and the apparently hierarchy of the nodes in the image makes it appear as if I should be getting more out of the image than I really need to. It seems just as easy that Weingart could have written “Edith Hamilton –> Mythology” on a horizontal plane rather than swooping the line dramatically to connect two floating bubbles. Again for me this represents an instance where it is definitely possible to make basic facts visual, but why. Obviously he merely intended this as a simplified example, but I think my point can be applied more broadly.
ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World
Let’s talk about a finished example for a second. Take ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. This project is a massive undertaking. Poke around on it for a few minutes and you’ll realize not only how much labor went into making it, but how much data and research went into making it accurate. When I first interacted with the site I skipped the introduction and tutorial, and let me tell you that was a mistake. This is a fabulous tool, but there are so many moving parts it is difficult to use intuitively. At first glance it definitely doesn’t look like a network in the sense of the subway map or author/book examples I’ve discussed up until now. However, we can see that it is demonstrating a system of relationships in a visual way. Different places act as nodes and travel routes as edges that show the complex interaction of trade goods and distribution in the Roman World.
I looked at the fastest route you could take with a porter (on roads) from Constantinopolis (in modern Turkey) to Corduba (in modern Spain). The fact that the menu on the left has so many ways to specify the travel is already amazing– you can specify you want to take an ox cart or a donkey rather than walking! We talked a lot in class about how all of us felt like we were using GoogleMaps when we were choosing the routes on the website. It was truly fun to play around with. But back to the point, this is still a network analysis! You can see the nodes on the map as the little circles that represent locations and the edges as the travel route. Thinking through networks in this way as not only a conceptually simple map, but also as something that is so malleable and manipulatable is really important. You can have the same base map (here of the Roman World) and demonstrate multiple networks on it using different nodes and edges in it. A cheaper route to Corduba from Constantinopolis may take me a completely different way via different roads (or edges) and stopping at different cities to restock (so at different nodes).
My own example
Using that public Tate collection data I’ve used before, I created a network showing where artists were born. I used Palladio, which is an online tool. I found it quite easy to use. Honestly, once you upload or copy and paste your data into it it does pretty much all the work for you; really all you need to do is organize an Excel sheet with your data. Although the screenshot is small, you can see that there are nodes that denote artist names, and nodes that are locations of where they were born. I’ve sized the location nodes so that nodes with more centrality, which if we remember means more edges connect to it, will appear bigger. In this screenshot we see that London is a much larger node than Beijing because many more artists were born in London. I have a similar critique to Weingart’s example where the random placement of the nodes seems to imply something even though it really doesn’t. It doesn’t bother me as much in this example, but I still can’t figure out a rhyme or reason to the placement of the nodes on the graphic. It would be interesting to overlay this example onto a map perhaps, since it seems silly to have London, Venezuela, and Beijing right next to each other here when the network doesn’t seek to show any relationship between the places.
This network is simplistic and I’m not sure exactly how I’d use it in my art historical research, but I can see a multiplicity of uses for museum administration and acquisition meetings (sensing a theme anyone?). It is very easy to visually see which locations are represented more strongly in the collection. For a general public this could also be helpful as an introduction to the museum collections. I can envision this type of network being implemented into a larger interactive digital collection initiative like the Artlens Wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art which we’ve discussed in class.
I want to quickly mention we also played around with Gephi, but I wasn’t crazy about it. It did give you a few more options, but I didn’t think it was as intuitive to use as Palladio so at my level I’d likely stick to Palladio.