Graduate Work

    Ph.D. Candidate Rae Di Cicco discusses Tlingit visual culture in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

     

    Bringing Tlingit Stories to Troy Hill

    Author: Rae Di Cicco

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Adding to the department’s many collaborations with local cultural institutions, I have been working with Stephen J. Tonsor, Director of Science and Research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Stewart Urist, Managing Director at Quantum Theatre, to connect programming at the theater on Troy Hill to local collections.

    In December, I led a tour of the Carnegie’s Tlingit collection to the production and design team of Quantum Theater’s upcoming show, Inside Passage (March 2-25). Based on playwright Gab’s Cody’s true experiences, Inside Passage meshes Gab’s patchy memories of her early childhood in Alaska spent with her parents, step-siblings, and Tlingit foster-siblings with family lore and her true quest for reunification 35 years later. I will lead an additional tour of the Carnegie, open to the public, on Saturday, March 24th at 3:30pm.

    During the tour, visitors will have the rare opportunity to see objects outside vitrines, and learn about the importance of art and ceremony to Tlingit storytelling, adding important cultural context to the narrative of Inside Passage. The following is a text I was invited to contribute to the program for Inside Passage:

    “The push and pull of the ocean’s waves around the islands of the Alaskan panhandle are mimicked by the rise and fall of the tides, the pendulum of the seasons, and the growth of red cedar and its eventual disintegration back into the soil. The Tlingit (Klin-kit) people have called this landscape home for thousands of years, passing down stories of their origins in Southeast Alaska to younger generations. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Tlingit did not have a written language, but instead relied on oral storytelling to chronicle their own history. However, the foundational narratives of the entire Tlingit nation, in which the mythical creature Raven takes center stage, are the only broadly shared body of oral literature in traditional Tlingit culture. Other stories are viewed as clan histories. Dating to a time when animals could transform into humans, the origin of clans often entails an ancestor’s overcoming a supernatural foe, partnering with a mythical figure, or transforming themselves from an animal into a human, thereby establishing a new clan. Because they represent familial histories, only clan members have the right to tell such stories.

    Indeed, the Tlingit conceive of stories as important immaterial sources of wealth shared among clan members. This type of ownership is manifested within the narrative content and structure, means of transmission, and visual record of stories. Ownership is usually indicated within the story itself; characters represent important ancestors or mythological creatures representative of the clan in stories with morals about familial duty, respect for natural resources and the changing landscape, or the duality inherent in all creatures. Most overt announcements of clan ownership have been removed in textual publications of Tlingit stories, but within the culture, ownership of oral texts is recognized and respected by audience and storyteller alike.

    Tlingit oral tradition extends beyond verbal communication of narratives to incorporate artistic and ceremonial tradition as well. The stories are not meant to stand alone, and clan chiefs often commission totem poles to represent a chosen narrative to be shared at a potlatch ceremony. For a people with no written documentation, the potlatch ceremony gathered together members of the community at the host’s clan house to publicly share a piece of clan history. The totem pole would often be carved in secret, with only the commissioner and the artist knowing what story the imagery represents. At the potlatch, the totem pole – seen for the first time – is raised in stages. The pole rests on a log crutch intermittently to accommodate breaks for dancing and the explication of the story in successive acts. When the story and ceremony end, the sculpted poles stand as material reminders of the narrative they represent, while confirming the identity, rank, and social standing of the clan. The ceremonial act of storytelling thus canonizes events to a collective history while reaffirming the strict social structure of Tlingit society.

    Removing native children from this context divorces them from their clan histories, making them resource-poor members of the tribe, if they have access to indigenous culture after removal. Inside Passage balances the serious, and often heart-breaking, realities of Indian child welfare with a comedy that mirrors the tension and release seen in Tlingit oral tradition and artistic design. Much like the push and pull of the waves on Alaska’s coast, Inside Passage chronicles one woman’s separation from her indigenous foster siblings and her return, decades later, to the landscape of her earliest family memories. This is Gab Cody’s story."

    For more information about the tour, Inside Passage, and to purchase tickets, click here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Debuting Channel Silver Eye

    Author: Emi Finkelstein

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    As a first year graduate student in the History of Art and Architecture department at Pitt, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to explore the many museums and galleries that make up Pittsburgh’s art scene. During the “Unblurred” gallery crawl night on Penn Ave, I walked into Silver Eye Center for Photography, a non-profit gallery that focuses on contemporary photography. I was immediately impressed with the space; the large glass windows and adjoining bookstore reminded me of the kind of galleries you see in New York and London. The artwork I saw, from local and international artists, was new, engaging, and beautifully displayed. 

    As I worked through my first semester, I got to know the talented team behind the gallery: Executive Director David Oresick and the wonderful Communications Coordinator, Kate Kelley. It was Kate who first approached me with a new idea: wanting to get the HAA department more involved with the gallery exhibitions, she thought of introducing a micro-cinema programme, where graduate students could curate a night of short films for the community. I immediately agreed, and Channel Silver Eye, a series that aims to exchange knowledge and open lines of communication between the university and the art gallery, was born. 

    My screening, to be held on March 29th, will debut the Channel Silver Eye series to the public. As such, I have chosen to combine some of the themes most dear to my heart (and my research): feminism, materiality, experiment, and affect theory. In the process, Kate introduced me to the Video Data Bank, a media archive for moving-image art founded by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

    Using the organization’s database, I found the first two films in my screening: Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988) and Shigeko Kubota’s My Father (1973-75). I liked that both of the films dealt with the idea of family and loss through the lens of media. Kubota’s film is a mourning diary, where the artist comes to terms with the loss of her father through television and pop music. Meanwhile, Hatoum’s film deals with displacement and exile, questions of translation and distance (both physical and linguistic), through a series of letters written between the artist in London and her mother, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon. 

    While the first two films were easy to settle on, I struggled to find a third film to balance out the evening; I wanted to find something more contemporary, with more humor, that reached beyond the idea of personal loss, and was made by an artist working in Germany, the country that my research centers on. Initially, I suggested Tacita Dean’s beautiful 16mm film Kodak, which explores machinery and workers in the soon-to-be-closed Kodak film factory in France; Kate reached out to Dean’s gallery, but the costs of printing and projecting a 16mm film far exceeded the modest budget Silver Eye had provided me. 

    Although we were disappointed, the staff at Silver Eye were patient and I was flexible. I spent a couple days exploring the recesses of UbuWeb, an online archive of avant-garde film, art, and writing, and eventually came across Hito Steyerl’s film Lovely Andrea, which ticked all the boxes on my wish list: it was made in 2007 by a German filmmaker/visual artist, included moments of humor, and, most importantly, located loss in a photograph rather than a person. The film follows the artist through a search for a bondage picture featuring Steyerl herself, taken 20 years prior in Tokyo, and uses restriction, archives, terrorism, and the idea of images to think about loss, censorship, and how pictures can act on their viewer.

    With the final lineup chosen, I named the screening “Imag(in)ing Loss: Media and Melancholy in Feminist Experimental Film” and began to write a short series of essays for the mini-catalogue that Silver Eye will publish alongside the event. I am so excited and honored to be kicking off this series, and to be able to introduce other graduate students and the Pittsburgh community to these amazing artists. 

    As a graduate student, it is important to me to get involved with the local arts community, and to share both my knowledge and work. Silver Eye has given me the opportunity and freedom to do so, and will continue to work with other graduate students in upcoming events for this series. On March 29th, I will be introducing my screening with a short talk, as well as hosting a question-and-answer session after the screening to open up a discussion of how material and loss, feminism and experiment, are portrayed in these three films. 

    I hope to see you there!

    Channel Silver Eye presents “Imag(in)ing Loss: Media and Melancholy in Feminist Experimental Film,” curated by Emi Finkelstein, PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh.
    Silver Eye Center for Photography 4808 Penn Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15224
    Thursday, March 29, 2018 / 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
    More details and registration here

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Toward a Critical yet Empathetic Eye for Exhibition Design in the Anthropocene

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Late October, Alex Taylor and Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh gave me the opportunity to attend a conference concerning exhibition in the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. This opportunity enabled me to sit in on talks and discussions on exhibiting climate change, postnatural histories, and geologic time scales in contemporary ways. The University of Pittsburgh’s Colleen O'Reilly and Aisling Quigley's historical and digital work on Botany Hall in the museum and Richard Pell's keynote, The Missing Museum: Excavating Wonder and Curiosity, are exemplars in illuminating hidden histories through digital supplements and attention to provenance. 

    O'Reilly and Quigley presented their work on historically and digitally preserving and interpreting the pedagogical and artistic integrity of the museum’s Botany Hall. They illustrated the history of the dioramas as well as their provenance. Making a point to complicate that history, they discussed how the dioramas in their current state still argue for the dominion of man over nature. Reframing this modernist fallacy under the current conditions of the Anthropocene, O'Reilly and Quigley argue for the forefronting of prerequisite historical interpretation. They interrogated the assertion in the previous panel, that "dioramas are useful teaching tools," and maintained that objects in themselves, even with the aid of wall and brochure information, do not provide their own interpretation. Rather, as demonstrated in the preceding panel concerning the visually stimulating and interactive exhibits a the Natural History Museum of Utah, supporters of geologic, botanical, or biological knowledge must supplement the material in a historically oriented way. Within these questions of visual and historical representation, they offer a compromise: Botany Hall: Dioramas in Context is a work in progress that offers entrances to disciplinary knowledge in a pedagogical capacity. This compromise was echoed by audience members afterward, proposing the possibilities of social media, audio-visual, and Virtual Reality supplements to exhibition design. You can read more about their Botany Hall project here.

    Rich Pell's keynote began with complicating the seemingly evergreen dichotomy between natural and culture. He positioned his Center for Postnatural History as an intervention in this divide, a descendant of the first museum in the United States, Peale’s Museum in Baltimore,  Maryland. Peale's museum was dedicated to science, art, nature, and technology, a mission expressing the unity of cultural industries in the early history of the United States. “Sincere science,” as it were, put on display: conundrums, wonderful and curious things in the arts and natural world, wild and domesticated animals, and the awesome like. The postnatural, as an approach to the natural and unnatural world, posits that biological life has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. The postnatural stems from this exhibition lineage and provides the foundation for the Center. His exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History debuted at the conference: We are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, is a manifestation of innovative exhibition design and historical positioning.

    With the postnatural as the un/natural force behind his thinking, he argued that the Anthropocene is always in the background of our collections, that "we have always been collecting the Anthropocene.” He provided his artifact of the Common Grackle that was stoned to death by schoolchildren from a Pennsylvania school district. He forefronted this provenance of this artifact, a specimen intentionally altered by schoolchildren. Naming it an "ambassador of that moment," he pairs it with another artifact, a bald eagle shot to death during the Battle of Gettysburg. The bald eagle was witness to the Civil War, war being a notable arbiter of the Anthropocene. These artifacts are interlocutors between moments long passed and today. In his work at the Smithsonian, he uncovered and reconstructed a history of genetically modified organisms while documenting the people that brought specimens, recently killed by newly cleaned windows or quick-at-hand brooms, to the attention of the on-site collector. Security guards and secretaries then became arbiters of the museum’s displays of knowledge; they became wrapped up in the species’ and institutional history. It is in this ways that Pell validated provenance and attribution as critical historical markers in exhibit display in the Anthropocene.

    Pell defended his study and exhibition practice (though I do not think he had to!) when he said, “you might think what you’re looking at is boring,” that if you look closely enough something awe-inspiring happens. He invited us into the inspiring, frustrating, and wonderful dignity of “boring” research. Though he admitted that the spectacle will often supersede sincerity, an indebtedness to sincere inquiry will preserve the integrity of knowledge and the integrity of sincere exhibition practices. Same with O’Reilly and Quigley: updating our exhibition methods continuously within the shifting conditions of the Anthropocene will maintain the integrity of these spaces as mediators of systems of knowledge, especially today when those systems are under increased scrutiny, questioning, and in some cases, attack. These stories take intention and effort to unfold, as Pell states in Land, Animal, and Nonanimal (K Verlag 2015). I would like to add to the discussion that though a historically critical eye will help viewing these deceivingly complicated objects, I argue that intentional, tender attention to these objects—and an understanding that artifacts are not as simple as they appear—will engender a empathetic yet critically thinking audience, newly motivated to preserve the life and lives on this planet.

     

    Thanks to Colleen O'Reilly, Aisling Quigley, Deborah Danuser, and Rich Pell for the winding conversations supporting many of these observations.

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    José Díaz talking about the jar series Faghat Eshgh-Only Love, 2007

     

    On Farhad Moshiri’s Solo Exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum

    Author: Golnar Touski

    Graduate student. History of Art and Architecture

    Farhad Moshiri: Go West, an exhibition curated by Jose Carlos Diaz, The Andy Warhol Museum’s chief curator, is currently on view at The Andy Warhol Museum. This is the Iranian artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, surveying two decades of Moshiri’s career.

    Moshiri rose to fame with his embellished, jeweled paintings adorned with calligraphic inscriptions of Iranian pop poetry. Over two decades, his works referenced the Iranian pop culture, calligraphy and decorative arts in dialogue with the prevalent American culture of entertainment and consumerism, ubiquitous in Iran of 1980s and 1990s. Often profiled as a Pop artist, his art defies categories of art commonly associated with the Middle East. He uses icons of the Iranian and ancient Persian art, but unlike his Iranian modern predecessors of the 1960 and 70s, he is not much interested in abstraction. Rather he employs visual markers of Middle Eastern art to comment on consuming an imagined Persia.

    In the context of The Andy Warhol Museum, Farhad Moshiri’s works find a situated-ness that otherwise would not be as visible to the Iranian and non-Iranian audiences alike. Seen in this context Moshiri initiates a dialogue with the Western imported pop culture, Western movies, Disney cartoons and French postcards on the one hand; and iterations of the Iranian consumerism on the other. Seen next to Warhol’s interest in and referencing of the American pop culture, Moshiri’s labor-intensive, elaborate remaking of popular everyday objects juxtapose infinite reproducibility with an obsessive hand-making of images; a way of making reproducible objects of one’s own by dense, rich textural adornment and adoration.  

    Moshiri’s art could be thought of as a playful manipulation of mechanisms of desire, labor and language. By flattening ancient objects in his famous jar series (Faghat Eshgh-Only Love, 2007) he generates a metonymy of the Ancient Persia, an imagined identity referring to everyday lives of Iranians who were exposed to the globalized capitalism especially during the years after the 1979 revolution and who found it necessary to define Iranian-ness in the face of an increasing political isolation of the country.

    Such artistic strategy also redefines objects linguistically, linking the Persian calligraphy, a form of “sublime” artistic production to consumerism. Moshiri notices how calligraphy, an art of Persian royal courts and a revered form of art practice became a commodity of the world of art and a marker of identity.

    But perhaps the most striking about his recent works, such as the Frosting Stories series, is their uniquely sensory quality. Viewing Moshiri’s art closely is a completely different experience. The glittery, ornate details strike a chord with the viewer's sense of nostalgia and desire; and it would be fair to say that the Iranian and American audiences both experience such an affective, visceral response. The rich textures and subtle details recreate the Persian 17th century architectural elements, Persian manuscript illumination and calligraphy, but in the shape of cake frosting and cheap jewelry; something thet one wants to touch, and taste. Something that is commodifiable Yet the commodities Moshiri offers us always entail an uncomfortable encounter that is either sexually charged or implicitly violent.

    Moshiri’s use of domestic labor is also worth noting. He employs local craftswomen whose specialty is making wedding dresses to create garish, glittery beaded surfaces and embroidered paintings; a form of low-brow, domestic art which was never taken seriously vis-à-vis sublimity of the Iranian Modern art movement of mid-1960s and 1970s. While the imagery is playful and cartoonish, the rich texture is indicative of hours and hours of labor, hence implying a subtle sense of discomfort in the contradictory co-existence of labor and consumerism.

    Moshiri was born in 1963 in the early years of the Iranian modern art movement; he is well aware of the legacy of the Iranian modern art as a form of 'committed art' which at the same time drew heavily on the EuroAmerican tradition of modernism. It so seems that Moshiri’s glittery, elaborate surfaces respond to a culmination of events before and after the Iranian revolution of 1979, when revolutionary aspirations of the modern art were replaced by a fervor to accumulate objects and consumption of identity.

    ___

    Golnar Yarmohammad Touski presented her response to a tour of the Fahrad Moshiri: Go West exhibition by Jose Carlos Diaz on October 20 at The Andy Warhol Museum. The above blog post records her comments and reflections on this occasion.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Life Magazine, 1950

     

    Between Figuration and Abstraction: Rediscovering Stephen Greene

    Author: Alan London

    PHD Student, HAA

    I spent time this past summer researching some mostly forgotten twentieth century American painters who negotiated, in assorted individual ways, the treacherous mid-century intersections of figuration and abstraction. One of the most interesting of them is Stephen Greene (1917-1999) who, after an extended crisis of artistic confidence, was inspired by a 1958 series of six lectures by Clement Greenberg to change, abruptly, his painting style from Renaissance-inspired realism to a kind of refashioned color-field approach.  

    What luck for me to discover that the best before-and-after illustration of Greene’s turnabout is right here at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which owns an excellent example of each of Greene’s two major periods, Mourning (Five Figures with Candles) (oil on canvas, 1947) and Violet Light (oil on canvas, 1969). And what a boon to have the cooperation of Elizabeth Tufts Brown, CMOA Associate Registrar, and Hannah Turpin, Curatorial Assistant for Photography and Modern and Contemporary Art, in arranging for me to see these two paintings.

    Stephen Greene’s work is virtually unknown today, and most museums that own his paintings, including the CMOA, do not have them on display. But it was not always so. In the March 20, 1950, issue of Life, Greene was featured as one of the magazine’s nineteen best artists in the United States under the age of 36. And seven months later, in its October 23, 1950, issue, Life gave Greene his own two-page spread, citing him as a highly successful painter whose work was bought up quickly by important museums and collectors. The CMOA picture, Mourning, while not reproduced in the article, is clearly in the same formal and emotional mode as his works about Holocaust themes that Life did reproduce, with the same dry, chalky tonality and the same bald, manikin-like figures, sharing space and sorrow but not communicating. Indeed, several of the figures in Mourning are variations on the candle-holding mourner in The Burial.

    It’s rare to find examples of Greene’s figural work on the market, but there are plenty of opportunities to see his abstract paintings. In 2016, the Jason McCoy Gallery in New York had an exhibition of Greene’s large abstract paintings from the 1960s, curated by the artist’s daughter, Alison de Lima Greene, the Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Although the color worlds of the paintings in the 2016 exhibition are different from that of the CMOA’s example of Greene’s abstract work, Violet Light, the general formal impression the viewer gets is similar. As Ms. de Lima Greene explained in an exhibition presentation accessible at the above website: “As gesture and hue gained in importance, [Greene] brought a new quality of light to his paintings, working through subtle layers of oil washes, and bringing a quiet drama to his nuanced orchestrations of primary and secondary colors. At the same time, he allowed certain shapes to resonate, and fragments of ladders, props, and the human anatomy persist like latent memories.”  In my encounter with the later Greene picture in the CMOA collection, I see a boomerang (or a wishbone), a disposable razor, and maybe a kidney, all disbursed among the soft mauves and greys and brighter orange flashes of Violet Light.

    If I consider Stephen Greene as a case study in my dissertation, one theme through which his work could be explored could be that proposed by Michael Fried (who in the 1950s was Greene’s student at Princeton, as was Frank Stella) in a May, 1963, Arts Magazine article titled The Goals of Stephen Greene. “The crucial problem raised by Stephen Greene’s work is this: can a painter today make paintings which are meant to express a particular mood or attitude toward reality and which yet manage to satisfy the imperious and rather restricting demands of a sensibility trained on the abstract painting of the past twenty-five years?”

    This remains an important question for the history of midcentury American art. The museum records that Elizabeth and Hannah were kind enough to share with me suggest that Mourning was a museum purchase in 1982 using the A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and that Violet Light was donated to the museum in 1983 by the art dealer from whom Mourning had been purchased.  There appears to be no record of either painting ever being exhibited in the Museum’s galleries, a fascinating reflection of Greene’s own position within the shifting sensibilities of American painting during and since the 1950s.

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Ferdinand Bauer engraving

     

    What is the real, "real" object?

    PhD Student in the School of Computing and Information and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    As an information scientist striving to define and describe online exhibitions, I am constantly reflecting on what constitutes a “real object” versus one that is acknowledged only through its absence. The status of the object has historically correlated to changes in museology, and in this regard it seems we are in the midst of a particularly challenging moment. With the proliferation of museum apps, for example, museum visitors are simultaneously engaging with site-specific media while also being pulled away from their actual physical or “real” surroundings.

    In her writing, Andrea Witcomb suggests that objects in the material world carry “weight...authority, knowledge and privilege” whereas “multimedia,” or virtual objects, are characterized by their superficiality or otherness: their immediacy, temporariness, and popularity. (1) Traveling through and among the various institutions and collections that were included on the Consuming Nature workshop itinerary, I was constantly thinking about perceived distinctions between real and digital objects. Particularly as we hopped from the Hunt Library, with its exquisite engravings and ink drawings of botanical specimens, to the overgrown vacant lot of Carrie Furnaces, I thought about what distinguishes the real and the real object. This is a confusing and unhelpful qualification, but I have been trying to grapple with the levels of human intervention that are represented by or within any particular object, and how these levels contribute to notions of authoritativeness and authenticity.

    Of course, these ruminations largely revolved around the figure of the “curator,” the individual traditionally endowed with the power to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one. At the core of curation likes the act of selection or “the crucial idea” that “turns a part of the natural world into an object and a museum piece.” (2) As an “object,” where does Ferdinand Bauer’s engraving of Pinus cembra (1803-1824) stand in relation to the wild grass growing in the garden next to an abandoned Pennsylvania steel mill Throughout the workshop, I found myself pondering the distinction between reality and fiction, or between data and capta. With regard to this latter element, I was thinking about data in the eighteenth century sense, as something that is given or assumed rather than something that is captured, or taken. At its conclusion, I think my brain had accepted that everything we saw during the workshop was the result of human intervention: from the alcohol-soaked beetles in the CMNH’s section of entomology to the errant trees growing atop a former furnace.

    Should I be anxious about the way that museums incorporate real and fake representations of things? Probably not. Is it important to signpost these things, such as what parts of the dinosaur’s skeleton are actual fossils versus man-made plaster reproductions? For me, yes. Brenda Laurel, author of the book Computers as Theatre (1991), describes the artificiality of the computer interface as follows: “...in the world of interfaces, the graphic designer renders the objects (like zoom-boxes and pop-up menus)” and represents “both concrete and ephemeral aspects of context through the use of such elements as line, shadow, color, intensity, texture, and style.” (p. 10) In depicting nature, broadly, so many representations (2D and 3D, alike) provide a similarly mediated version of “reality.” As Colleen O’Reilly and I endeavor to describe and even re-contextualize the dioramas in CMNH’s Hall of Botany through our online exhibition project, these are some of the questions I continue to ask.

    (1) Andrea Witcomb, “A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), 35.
    (2) Susan Pearce, “Museum Objects,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2003) 10.  

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
    • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
    • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
    • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
    Schenley Park Entrance 1922

    Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

     

    Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, of the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

    I also had learned from the research of Peter Clericuzio (Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) into the architecture of Forbes Field that early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together. At the same time, I was aware that the philanthropic funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment.

    At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in the culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

    At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks. As Lulu explained, these works can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the links between art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as both driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Another Year, Another K'zoo

    For the second year in a row, I had the distinct privilege of attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. According to the Medieval Congress' Twitter feed (@KzooICMS), this unique conference attracted almost 3,000 attendees this year. 

    In 2016, our brave team of researchers arrived at Western Michigan University equipped with iPads and University of Pittsburgh lanyards with the aim of conducting usability surveys (you can read more about that in my October 2016 update). Last week, Dr. Langmead and I presented at a session sponsored by the Material Collective and shared the results of these surveys and talked about personal vs. collective image collections. Here is our Swipe.to presentation, for your enjoyment. I will not repeat our survey findings here, as I've written about them before. However, I will note that our Swipe.to polls revealed the following information about the attendees at our conference session:

    First, we asked of the attendees (mostly art historians): "How long do you want your research images to last?" 

    • ~32% selected "Forever"
    • ~41% selected "Until the end of my career"
    • ~14% selected "Until the end of the research project (approx. 2-3 yrs)"
    • 0 selected "Until the end of the week"
    • <1% selected "It doesn't matter to me"
    • ~10% selected "Another option"

    Following this question, we asked: "How long do you expect your research images to last?"

    • ~18% selected "Forever"
    • ~36% selected "Until the end of my career"
    • ~23% selected "Until the end of the research project (approx. 2-3 yrs)"
    • <1% selected "Until the end of the week"
    • <1% selected "It doesn't matter to me"
    • ~23% selected "Another option"

    We then asked: "Is there a gap between your expectation and desire for image persistence, and are you concerned about it?"

    • ~43% selected "Yes"
    • ~35% selected "No"
    • ~22% selected "I don't see a gap"

    Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, we asked: "If you could store your research images communally, would you?

    • 48% selected "Yes, in a heartbeat"
    • 16% selected "Yes, I suppose"
    • 32% selected "Maybe...talk to me more"
    • 0 selected "No, it's fine"
    • 0 seleged "No way"
    • <1% selected "Other"

    Consider these as you will! 

    We also presented the attached "rogue" poster at various wine hours throughout the Congress. 

    Categories: 
    • Sustaining DH
    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW

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  •  

    Botanical dioramas, collaborative research, digital space

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Aisling and I continue to chip away at our Botany Hall project, and it seems high-time for a status update. Back in January, we held a colloquium in the History of Art and Architecture department to share our progress and experience with three undergraduate museum studies students, Leslie Rose, Eliza Wick, and Bridget Lynch, who worked on our project in the context of their academic internships last fall. They all posted here about the research projects that they designed and executed, which will be included in our digital exhibition, alongside the work of MLIS students Kate Madison and Emily Enterline. In the colloquium, we traced the development of our research questions, and the network of experts and archives that now form the foundation of our work. We got valuable feedback from HAA faculty and students, as well as from CMNH staff who joined us for the discussion. Our presentation from that day is attached here.

    This semester, we have continued to distill the key insights that we want to get across in our exhibition, and what tools we want to use at this stage in the process. We are pondering a digital tool that we could potentially use to create a first iteration of our exhibition, such as Wordpress or Tumblr, something that could be flexible as we add, edit, and test with users. We hope that a first iteration will help us determine the best structure for this online experience, which is one of the key questions for us this project. At the moment, we are creating content in the form of Word documents of text and images, and hand drawn maps of how the content will interconnect online. Our ultimate goal is to work with a web designer to create a customized, interactive, online experience, which will require grant funding, so at the moment whatever tools we use need to be extremely accessible and adaptable, and not get in the way of us trying to plan our digital curatorial argument. As far as our future visions go, however, we are inspired by the structure of things like this Oxford Museum exhibition about brains. It is both informative and manageable, both guided and open, and it makes digital space feel welcoming and flexible as opposed to limited and tricky.

    We are also very lucky to be participating in this year’s Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh workshop, Consuming Nature, which will mean visiting local collections and participating in discussions with a group of other Pitt scholars from a variety of fields who are interested in notions of landscape and relations between humans and nature. We are cooking up some other plans as well for applying to conferences and organizing workshops this coming summer and fall as ways to present the results of our research and continue investigating how Botany Hall works, and plan to have a first iteration of our exhibition available for online viewing in Fall 2017.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Semester Wrap-Up of Decomposing Bodies

    Hard to believe that this semester is already coming to an end!

    My work on Decomposing Bodies this spring focused on two different areas: reading and research about the history of policing and prisons in the United States, and data management of the images and related documents making up the heart of the DB dataset. At first glance, these two endeavors seem wildly different, and they certainly require different ways of thinking and skillsets, but I think that they are both essential part of the work that makes DB an interesting and engaging project, and that you can’t have one without the other.

    Decomposing Bodies is a digital humanities project, and the work that I’ve done on it this past spring has been both digital and humanistic. After the Data (after)Lives exhibit in the Fall, we felt it was important to update DB’s presence on the web to reflect our most recent work, and some of the ideas, tools, and visualizations that have come out of it. This involved updating the public Decomposing Bodies website with a timeline of the project’s history, updated bibliography and contributors, and the addition of an interactive visualization of the faces and measurements of some of the people documented by Bertillonage that make up DB.

    Along with updating the website, I have also worked to update the documentation of the transcriptions of the Bertillon cards in Omeka. I can now say that over 1,800 cards have been completely transcribed, and 700 more have been at least partially transcribed. This represents approximately 20% of the cards in the Decomposing Bodies collection. This is in large part thanks to the work of the graduate and undergraduate students working in the VMW, including two First Experience in Research students, Joe Jang and Ashley Cipcic, who not only helped immensely with transcription this term, but also conducted their own research about the racial and social demographics of the people in the cards they transcribed.

    Engaging with the social and cultural situation that led to the implementation of Bertillonage in the Ohio penal system was another avenue of my work for this semester. This is the ‘human’ part of this project. I have been reading about the history of the prison system in the United States, and the particular circumstances that lead to the implementation of Bertillonage in Ohio at the turn of the last century. Some of my readings have included: “At Hard Labor: Rediscovering the 19th Century Prison”, by Martin Miller, Forgotten Reformer : Robert McClaughry and Criminal Justice Reform in Nineteenth-Century America, by Frank Morn, and the Proceedings of the annual congress of the National Prison Association, held at Cincinnati, September 25-30, 1890. It’s impossible to disconnect the prison reform movement of the late 19th century from the shift in the goals of incarceration that was happening concurrently, or from the rapid expansion of the prison-industrial complex in the United States today. And no part of that process can be separated from the understanding of race in Reconstruction Era America.

    I will be continuing to work on Decomposing Bodies over the Summer Term, and I hope to expand my work in both the data management and historical contexts of this project. There are so many directions to go with DB, and I feel lucky to get to explore some of them, especially as they relate to my own research interests. See you in the summer, then!

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

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