Graduate Work

  • Botany Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
     

    The Botanical Dioramas of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Botany Hall is situated in a corner of the second floor of the CMNH, accessible through the North American Wildlife section. Inside, seven window dioramas depict seven different biomes of the United States. In each, a richly painted curved wall supports a highly detailed three-dimensional scene, in which every individual leaf, stem, insect wing, and bit of moss is hand crafted and botanically accurate. 

    The complexity of these dioramas and the wonder they were meant to inspire is somewhat lost on many of the people who enter the hall I think.  If one happens to read the signage indicating the number of human hours required to create these, and how much information is embedded in every single detail, some sense of the uniqueness and specificity of these objects sinks in.  However, museum audiences are accustomed now to flashy screens that move when they touch them, to the backlit, the monumental and the loud.  The impressiveness of these dioramas takes a little longer to see than much of what modern museums do.

    I don’t think this would have been so for audiences when they were made.  Otto and Hanne Von Feuhrer created the first five dioramas in the 1920s and 30s.  Otto was primarily responsible for the backgrounds and overall design, and Hanne made the individual specimens.  Their work was based on field expeditions to collect specimens, which either were models for flowers and plants in wax and paper, or were preserved themselves as part of the display. Otto Jennings, Curator of Botany, conceived a broad vision for a hall that as a whole showed how different levels of heat and moisture lead to distinct environments.  Each diorama, or “group,” as they were more often called, is conceived as a unified whole, in which all parts work together, both aesthetically and as a natural environment. In the 1960s the Von Fuehrers were assisted by Elizabeth Niedringhaus to create a sixth diorama, and Neidringhaus then took over and worked with Curator of Botany Dorothy Pearth to craft two more, with the help of a faster techniques of her own development and a team of volunteers.  Pearth and Niedringhaus strove to continue to complete Jennings' vision, committing themselves to his interest in helping Pittsburgh viewers to understand how these plants relate to them and their own lives.

    The dioramas are examples of a specific form of art and museum display of a past era.  The backgrounds are carefully extended past the edges of the windows, past the peripheral vision allowed to viewer by the diorama frame.  Special attention is paid to the edges where the two-dimensional meets the three-dimensional, and certain visual devices are employed to make a seamless transition and enhance illusion, such as strategically placed plants or rocks, play with light and shadow, and repetition of specific specimens. Every single item, color, and texture, as well as a landscape background, is allowed in only for its precise accuracy as to what would be found in nature, in many cases what was actually found in nature by the artists, for its contribution to a “complete” and representative picture of that particular biome, as well as for its ability to contribute to a harmonious aesthetic whole. The individual crafted plants are part of a tradition of botanical drawing and glass sculpture that goes back to the 19th century. The achieved effect speaks to a yearning for a version of nature that can be harnessed and dominated by human eyes and hands.

    While the Von Feuhrers are mentioned on an explanatory panel, Niedringhaus’s authorship is invisible, as are Jennings, Pearth, Clifford Morrow who was exhibition designer in the 60s and 70s, and numerous others who assisted in these projects.  The hall’s construction has been largely supported over the years by local and state garden clubs, and it should be noted the key ways in which this has been a women’s space, both in the sense of the empowerment of women as leaders and participants in scientific institutions, and in the sense of their sequestering to subjects deemed appropriately feminine.

    A group of us from the History of Art and Architecture department visited Botany Hall in March, and had a productive discussion about approaching these objects from an art historical or museum studies point of view.  It was clear that many of the issues and discourses art historians care about – the politics of display, representation as pathway to knowledge, the lives and agencies of objects – could be brought to bear really fruitfully on Botany Hall.

    Curator of Botany Cynthia Morton and Director of Exhibition Experience Becca Shreckengast are committed to preserving Botany Hall and finding ways for modern audiences to appreciate the amount of information that is contained within them and the ways in which this specific type of display contributes to enjoyable learning.  My interest is unearthing the archival story of how they were created and how they were expected to operate in terms of visual knowledge. As usual with scientific display and imagery, I think an art historical approach could bring some much needed elucidation as to what is going on.  What are the aspects of this history that are invisible, and need to be filled out? How should the dioramas be situated in the context of American museum display as a whole? How do formal, sensory, or object-based concerns intertwine with pedagogical and scientific ones?

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Debating Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
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    HA&A Graduate Student Trip to the College Art Association Annual Conference

    With generous support from the Dean of Graduate Studies, ten HA&A graduate students (Maria Castro, Nicole Coffineau, Clarisse Fava-Piz, Annika Johnson, Isaac King, Colleen O’Reilly, Ben Ogrodnik, Nicole Scalissi, Krystle Stricklin, and Marina Tyquiengco) traveled to New York to conduct individual research and attend the annual conference of the College Arts Association. In a colloquium on March 25th, these students discussed their research, their newly acquired tools and knowledge, and the presence of the constellations at CAA.

    Attached is the slideshow from their discussion which includes some resources and potential jumping off points for further discussion in the department.

     

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    • Agency
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    Colloquium on Methods course

    On March 18, Shirin and I introduced our thoughts for the Methods course we are planning to teach this fall and opened up a lively conversation about object-based inquiry vs historiorgraphically based inquiry. Thanks to Annika for these detailed notes of the conversation, which are attached.

    Please feel free to join the conversation here and add your own responses and suggestions.

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
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    Digital Humanities at CAA: New York City, February 11-14, 2015

    Last week, I attended the conference of the College of Art Association in NYC, and I was struck by the level of enthusiasm that art historians had for the field of Digital Humanities. You only had to look at the size of the crowd who came to attend the Saturday morning session on “Doing Digital Art History” in the basement of the Hilton (after four days of conferences)  to notice the strong interest from art historians for Digital Humanities. This enthusiasm was emphasized by Professor Paul B. Jaskot, who organized last year, along with Anne Knowles, a summer program on Digital Mapping and Art History at Middlebury College, which received the unexpected number of 128 applications for only 15 slots available!

    On Friday morning, an entire session was dedicated to “Art Historical Scholarship and Publishing in the Digital World.” Its aims, as stated by Emily Pugh, from the Getty Research Institute, and Petra Chu, from Seton Hall University, who presided over the session, was to address the question of what we mean by digital publishing, and was aimed at establishing standards and best practices in the field.

    A wide range of presenters were invited, from the academic perspective of Kimon Keramidas from the Bard Graduate Center, and Elizabeth Buhe, PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Art, NYU, to the museum point of view of Anne W. Umland, who developed at MOMA the first digital publication on “Picasso: The Making of Cubism, 1912-14,” and to the private sector and the company Artifex which develops online catalogues raisonnés. Each speaker brought an interesting point of view on how to do digital publishing, and what is at stakes.

    I was particularly interested in Keramidas and Buhe‘s presentations because they questioned the way digital humanities are taught at school, which prompted me to think of what we do here in our graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh with Alison Langmead and her seminar on Digital Art History and the Humanities (which I participated in last semester).

    If the Van Gogh letters project ( vangoghletters.org ) was introduced by Kimon Keramidas as a landmark project for the field of digital publishing, the speaker tried to demonstrate how digital media can help us think differently about our process of writing, what we publish, and what it even means to publish something. He emphasized the necessity of practicing “defamiliarization,” a term coined by Viktor Silovsky in his book Art as Technique from 1917, to make us think more deeply about publications as, what he called, “designed experiences.” The speaker introduced two projects created by his students at the Bard Graduate Center:

    -“Making Connections: visualizations of American telephony, 1900-1949,” by Cailtin Dover, which constituted their first digital-born qualifying project

    - http://visualizingnyc.org/ a visualization of 19th century NYC that allows for building multiple layers of context on top of each other

    As well as his own project, “The Interface experience”, which aims at understanding what a book can offer, and what are the strengths and limitations of our codex.

    Paired with what I would call “how to practice digital humanities at school”, was the presentation given by Elizabeth Buhe on “New Questions in Digital Humanities: Virtual Tools and the Historical Exhibition.” The speaker received a fellowship from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to build her digital project “Sculpted Glyphs: Egypt and the Musée Charles X” then published in the digital journal “Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide”: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/spring14/sculpted-glyphs-an-introduction . The scope of her project was to build a model which would enable the viewer to “experience” the musée Charles X during the time when Champollion was its curator between 1824 and 1827. This would provide not a fac-simile, but a “reenactment,” to quote Buhe, and provide an insight into Champollion’s curatorial work. The speaker emphasized the financial constraints and problems of copyright and ownership of such a project, and is now working on a document, “Digital Humanities best Practices: Engaging with a Collaborator,” http://caa2015thatcamp.org/2015/02/09/workshopping-this-now-digital-humanities-best-practices-engaging-a-collaborator/#comment-567 which is open to everyone to help create a better set of practices for people working on digital projects. What is the timeframe and project’s associated costs? Who has the physical responsibility or ownership of the project once it is completed? What will happen to the project after completion? How will collaborators be credited for their work?...

     

    Clarisse

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
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    One Record's Journey at the Ohio State Reformatory

    A particularly confusing component of our Decomposing Bodies research has concerned the inconsistent and seemingly illogical tangle of records that surround any particular inmate within the grim walls of the Ohio State Reformatory (I alluded to this in my January post). In an attempt to get a grip on the record-keeping system of this institution in the late 18th and early 19th century, I took a few hours today mining our own unofficial image archive and trying to connect the various recordkeeping nodes extant at the Ohio History Connection's archive. I made a little timeline (see image attached) following, in particular, prisoner #1087, a laborer arrested for burglary and larceny, for whom we have both a Bertillon card and a photo of his corresponding page in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger. It seems that, as he was received in 1901, it is likely that the OSR had a version of this prisoner's record in three different locations: the Bertillon Examination Record, the Ohio Reformatory Historical Conduct Record, and his Bertillon Card. Based on the information in the Examination Record, it is evident that inmate #1087 was a recidivist, so he was within the prison system until 1919 (although he was released from the OSR in 1904).

    So, to review, prisoner #1087 was evident in three different locations: two of which included Bertillon descriptions, and the third of which (the Conduct Record) included information about the inmate's ancestry, upbringing, and "condition on admittance," none of which adhered to the Bertillon system of anthropometric measurement. Had this inmate stayed at the OSR until 1910, he would likely have acquired at least a fourth record: in the "Register of Identification," which tracked the movement of inmates among institutions, but also later incorporated the categorization of prisoners by race. Finally, if this inmate had been admitted to the OSR after 1913, he would have had at least 5 extant records: in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger, the Ohio State Reformatory HIstorical Conduct Record ledger, the Bertillon card system, the Register of Identification, and the Bertillon Photo Book, a literal face book comprised just of mugshots without any additional metadata.

    Why was each inmate recorded in so many disparate ledgers and drawers? When were these different recordings made, in relation to one another? How did recordkeeping occur at the Ohio Penitentiary, in contrast? These are all things that we're still trying to figure out, but I thought I'd get this initial timeline out while it's still hot off the press.
     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work

    Postcard of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1908.

     

    Debriefing on DB: February Edition

    On Monday, January 29th, Jen Donnelly, Alison Langmead and I braved a wintry mix of snow and slush, arriving at the Ohio History Connection (OHC) in Columbus by mid-morning. We came for another marathon digitization session, equipped with tripods and digital cameras, laptops, and sufficiently dexterous hands. Our task for the 36-hour visit was to photograph as many Bertillon identification cards as possible, while retaining a sufficiently high-quality image for transcription, and ensuring the safety of the already-brittle cards (some of which are almost 120-years-old).

    Alison tackled boxes of cards from the Ohio State Reformatory, beginning in 1907, while Jen and I convened around a less-familiar set of Ohio Penitentiary cards dating from 1896. The Ohio State Reformatory, to clarify between the two, operated from 1896-1990, and was located in Mansfield, Ohio (about 67 miles Northeast of Columbus). The OHC has Bertillon cards from the Reformatory dating back to 1901. As Alison spent the most time engaged with these cards on the most recent trip, I will leave subjective observations on that set up to her.

    The Ohio State Penitentiary was a prison operated in Columbus, Ohio between 1834 and 1984, and was infamous for its corruption and inhumanity (for example, newspaper clippings from a 1908 scrapbook allude to various kinds of torture: including instances of paddling, being “hung up,” and enduring the “water cure”- modern day waterboarding). The postcard photographed here illustrates the Penitentiary circa 1909 (the card was postmarked August 1909, and represents a relic from the odd genre of prison tourism- is that even a genre?).

    In the midst of all this, or at least until 1919, the Bertillon system was alive and well at the Pen. Marvin E. Fornshell’s The Historical and Illustrated Ohio Penitentiary (1903) provides insight into how the Bertillon system was implemented at the Penitentiary, although his account is extremely skewed (as demonstrated by his effusive subtitle: “How the Wonderful System Works in Picking Out Any One Particular Individual,” p. 49). The Pen adopted the Bertillon system in 1887, taking its first measurement in October of that year (so almost 15 years before the Reformatory adopted the system).

    On this January trip, Jen and I lingered mostly in 1896 and 1897, making several subjective observations (as well as more concrete discoveries) along the way. For example, we noted that these early Bertillon cards featured remarkably gaunt and emaciated-looking prisoners, and these inmates tended to be older than their Reformatory counterparts. This may be attributable to the fact that when the system was implemented, some of these prisoners had already been in prison for a while, whereas the Reformatory seemed to mostly track incoming prisoners (again, this is a theory that we may later refute).

    Our more concrete findings included locating and photographing the identification card of William Haas, the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair at the Penitentiary. We discovered- much to our horror- that Haas, convicted of murder, was only seventeen at the time of his execution (shockingly and disturbingly, the policy on juvenile executions was only formally changed in March 2005. The United States Supreme Court ruled that “the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution” (DPIC)).

    We also located not just one, but TWO sets of twins in our selection of cards. Twins are particularly interesting in the context of the Bertillon system because of the famous Will West case, which was blamed for revealing the cracks in Bertillon’s system. If twins had identical measurements and similar photographs, this would obviously render the system fairly useless, although we are not arguing that identical twins necessarily had identical measurements. We found one set of identical twins and one set of fraternal twins (the latter is photographed here).

    It was, overall, a fruitful and thought-provoking trip, yielding digital documentation of over 3,500 that will now enter the transcription phase.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
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    Debriefing on DB: January Edition

    On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

    The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, the VMW research project investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

    The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910 (see image), and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred inmates included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

    Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

    Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team will reconvene in Columbus next week, and we will undoubtedly return with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    Public Humanities

    I've attached a short, interesting piece arguing that historians need to be more engaged with nonacademic publics.  The author makes the interesting point that in in the early to mid 20th century most PhDs in American history got jobs outside the academy, and they took it for granted that they needed to be able to talk about their research with a very wide audience.  Then with the big boom in university employment in the 1960s, PhDs became much more focused on academic jobs and academic audiences, and the profession as a whole acquired the luxury of being insular.  So in fact the current turn toward a more "public" humanities is a return of sorts, to an era in which humanities scholars understood their livelihood to depend on reaching beyond academia.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
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    • Visual Knowledge
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    ULS now subscribes to ARTMargins journal!

    ULS has recently subscribed to the peer-reviewed journal ARTMargins, published by MIT Press. According to its website, "ARTMargins publishes scholarly articles and essays about contemporary art, politics, media, architecture, and critical theory. ARTMargins studies art practices and visual culture in the emerging global margins, from North Africa and the Middle East to the Americas, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Australasia. The journal seeks a forum for scholars, theoreticians, and critics from a variety of disciplines who are interested in postmodernism and post-colonialism, and their critiques; art and politics in transitional countries and regions; post-socialism and neo-liberalism; and the problem of global art and global art history and its methodologies."

    Here is the URL (log in through PittCat to access off campus): http://www.mitpressjournals.org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/loi/artm

    Thanks to Kate Joranson for making this subscription possible!

    Categories: 
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    • Mobility/Exchange
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    The Act of Identification: Bertillon and Chinese Exclusion

    Last week’s break-through led us to begin researching the use of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 to 1943.  Whereas prisons and police departments used the Bertillon system to identify criminals, the United States government used the Bertillon system from approximately 1903 to 1906 to identify those Chinese immigrants who were allowed in the United States because they met certain sets of requirements, while excluding all others.

    The use of the Bertillon system of identification to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act was short-lived, but was the result of twenty years of increasingly stricter immigration polices. After 1882, the any Chinese laborer who was already in the United States was banned from obtaining citizenship and needed to obtain a certificate to leave and re-enter the country.  Furthermore, Chinese members of the groups still permitted entry, such as students and wealthy travelers, were required to obtain certificates verifying their status and their access to enter the United States.  After 1902, the regulations were stiffened, and all Chinese residents in the United States were required to obtain a certificate of residency or risk deportation.  Shortly thereafter, around 1903, the Bertillon system was briefly implemented.  These regulations also burgeoned an extensive human smuggling and document forgery industry.

    Therefore, for potential immigrants, having, creating, or purchasing the "correct" identity was key; identification was the avenue to immigration.  Paperwork was the basis of entry and exclusion.  As the certificates of residency attest, "laborer" did not refer to an occupation but rather was a statement of fact that enabled thinly veiled racial exclusion.  In one such certificate from 1900, a baby-laborer's occupation is listed simply as "infant."  Thus, the language of exclusion was bound-up in the identification requirements, which evolved as the twentieth century approached.

    In 1882, when the law was first enacted, it was required that the Collector of Customs board all departing vessels carrying Chinese laborers to foreign ports, and "on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall by entered into the registry books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the customs house."  Likewise, every every Chinese person who was not a laborer and who was therefore allowed to enter the United States need to be "identified" by the Chinese government in an official certificate, translated into English.  The certificate stated "the right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, official rank if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China" and required the applicant’s “proper signature.”  In 1884, “individual, family, and tribal name in full” were added to both methods of identification.  By 1888, the identification certificates for the eligible classes, “Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants or travelers for pleasure or curiosity” were required to include “a full description of the person, of his age, height, and general physical features.” 

    Notably, between 1884 and 1888, fifteen years before the implementation of the Bertillon system for Chinese Exclusion, identification requirements changed from “peculiarities” to “general features.”  What does this shift mean for the nature of identification? The initial focus on “peculiarities” marks the person by his or her difference.  In this case, that difference is what permits the person to be identified as one with special rights and priveledges.  The later turn towards “general features” suggests that instead of individual marks of uniqueness, the entire body much be subjected to the systematization of the identification process.  Eventually, this will lead to the implementation of the Bertillon system.

    Furthermore, the shared use of the Bertillon system on criminals as well as immigrants created problematic parallels.  Those who received identification cards using the Bertillon system were permitted into American society, while the prisoner identification cards were meant to keep repeat offenders out.  In the case the prisoners, the act of measuring renders the prisoner into a permanent piece of metadata.  The goal, in an extreme interpretation, is to identify the person as a criminal and remove that criminal from society, made invisible behind a prison cell.  For the immigrants, the metadata is instead a tenuous guarantee to remain visible in the United States, yet also a reminder of the invisibility of the uncountable, unwanted potential Chinese immigrants banned from admission to the country.

    Thus, the act of subjugation to the system and judgment under the schematization of numbers was a humiliation.  "Lan Qiche…noted how his country people were measured 'as if they were criminals.' Like many others he found this 'an insult to our nation's dignity.'" (Parenti, The Soft Cage).  The question here lies in the nature of the insult of the Bertillon system.  What was commonly known of the Bertillon system and how was it received?  The shame of the Bertillon system was folded into a deeper institutional insult, revealed in language of exclusion of the law and its appeals.  "The exclusion of paupers, criminals, and persons afflicted with incurable diseases, for which statutes have been passed, is only an application of the same power to particular classes of persons, whose presence is deemed injurious or a source of danger to the country.  As applied to them, there has never been any question as to the power to exclude them.  The power is constantly exercised; its existence is in solved in the right of self-preservation…"

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

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