Visual Knowledge

We come to know the world not only through words and texts but also through visual images anchored in real spaces.  Pictures, diagrams, illuminations, architectural constructions, museum displays, statues, and scientific visualizations reflect, as well as crucially establish, doctrines and ways of knowing that may also exist in discursive form. Just as our work investigates relations between visual media and non-visual formations, it also concentrates on relations across different visual media and on the ways that visual objects become irreducible to text.

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Visual Knowledge

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    Network Analysis + Digital Art History

    Author: Alison Langmead

    Researchers in the Visual Media Workshop, a digital humanities lab located in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, have been working on a Getty-funded advanced workshop on network analysis and digital art history. This research fits within the Visual Knowledge Constellation, because of its connections with visual and material culture, but it also holds ties with Mobility and Exchange as many of the projects that are participating in this workshop deal with art exchange and the ways that network analysis and network visualizations can reframe trade and the sharing of ideas.

    This workshop is officially entitled the Getty Advanced Workshop on Network Analysis + Digital Art History [NA+DAH]. It was designed by Alison Langmead (University of Pittsburgh), Anne Helmreich (Getty Research Institute, now Foundation), and Scott B. Weingart (Carnegie Mellon University) to bring scholars of art history and network science together in a structured, supportive, and persistent environment in order to encourage and advance research at the intersection of these two fields of inquiry. This event is unfolding over the longer-term, having begun in 2018 and enduring the delays and changed plans following the Covid-19 pandemic. 

    The foundational convening, the “Digital Art History + Network Science Institute,” was a five-day event held between July 29-August 2, 2019 that hosted over 25 US-based and international scholars on seven project teams. During the Institute, participating teams had the opportunity to structure a longer-term research agenda that uses network analysis to advance such art historical areas of inquiry as museum provenance, exhibition histories, and the history of the art market. We hosted five keynotes, supported eight workshops, and held two receptions. We were very happy to welcome HAA graduate students Sarah Reiff Conell and Meredith North as Project Associates. After this initial event, between September 2019 and March 2020, we held bi-monthly virtual project meetings with the teams as well as bi-monthly virtual webinars on topics useful to the teams. This work was spearheaded and facilitated within the VMW by the assiduous efforts of S.E. Hackney (SCI), the project’s GSR.

    The work of Spring Term 2020, was, of course abruptly transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Yet, we were able to hold a successful virtual convening over Zoom during our originally scheduled time in June-July 2020. This work included project presentations from each of the teams, focused time for discussion on how the pandemic was changing our research plans, and also a closing keynote. In our closing survey, we were so heartened to note that a number of participants contributed thoughts such as, “Thank you for making our virtual convening so successful. It was so much better than most Zoom-based events I have attended in these past months and I was sorry when it ended!”   

    We are thrilled that the Getty has approved our revised plan to extend this advanced workshop for an extra year, allowing us to run another year-long series of webinars and facilitate another year of project team meetings between September 2020 and April 2021. We are then crossing our fingers that we will be able to conclude this workshop in Summer 2021 with a four-day, face-to-face symposium held in Pittsburgh, although only time will tell!

    For more information on this project and to read further about the participating projects, please visit the NA+DAH website.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge

    Continuing my research into the museum world with Mr. Michael Walter and others in Washington, D.C.

     

    Around The Rooms in ~70~ Days

    Annette Yauger - Museum Studies Intern at The Nationality Rooms - Spring 2020

    Chancellor John Bowman, the 10th Chancellor of the University in 1927, developed the Nationality Rooms in a moment of turmoil. He had planned for a massive campus building to be constructed, and it was going well until the Great Depression hit. After a devastating loss of income, construction on the Cathedral of Learning came to a halt. People from a variety of ethnic groups from the Pittsburgh area donated money to the university for their educational endeavors. In honor of the ethnic communities that donated money to the university, Bowman dedicated a classroom in this new building to some of the area’s major ethnic groups. These are educational spaces, but decorated and designed in a style inspired by the traditional décor and architecture of the donors’ country or region. Almost 100 years later, these 31 rooms remain a unifying space for those in the community, as well as visitors. Each is filled with donated objects, a surprise to many visitors.

    During my internship, I photographed, processed, and accessioned a massive donation of items from West Africa. These items ranged from small leather wallets and wooden busts of people to a large container of margarine. While going through and researching the items was the most fun, writing condition reports was the most educational part of my internship. I was able to see how the items needed to be taken care of, and, in turn, learned more about them and collections management.

                I worked together with Mr. Michael Walter, The Nationality Rooms Tour Coordinator, to mount an exhibition in January. This exhibition was already planned, requiring last-minute research and installation. Later, I assisted Mr. Walter in the development of an exhibition showcasing items of varying size by researching specific objects in the collections and finding narratives between them. While looking at a few of the items he wanted to use, we noticed that nature and natural elements were a common theme. Nature: Large and Small came together in the form of a PowerPoint, due to COVID-19 cutting the semester short. I used photographs taken of different items, netsukes and gold weights for example and was able to discuss their similarities and differences through a lens focused on size and natural elements. For example, also included in the exhibition was a Romanian wool shepherd’s coat with floral embroidery, and very small Turkish slippers, also embroidered with flowers. I compared the detailed photographs of the embroidered flowers on each garment and discussed the unique styles while focusing on the purpose of the items – whether that purpose be keeping warm or being stylish. This exhibition may not have been “mounted” in the way that I expected, but it provided a valuable and unique learning experience that I will be sure not to forget.

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Spaces
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    Learning of the Local and the Global in the Art Gallery

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Spring 2019

    My semester-long internship with the University Art Gallery promised from the start to be an exciting opportunity to expand my passion for audio-visual exhibition. The task was to assist with technological arrangements for an exhibition of Chinese video works being curated by Graduate Student Assistant Ellen Larson and set to open in the fall of 2019. The video technology aspect was mostly familiar territory for me, as I frequently organize pop-up microcinema events, which have afforded me with substantial experience in planning the logistics of presenting moving images in various formats. It was the geographic focus of the exhibition that mostly piqued my interest, as my knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema was limited. As a cinephile who constantly endeavors to push my understanding of the medium and to foster a diverse knowledge base, this was one particular knowledge gap that I was eager to narrow.

    The perspective shift from understanding the world through the art of residents of a country foreign to my own was a welcome aspect of the internship. What I did not anticipate that my work with the UAG would encourage, however, was a different understanding of the gallery settings that were already so familiar and close to home. As the semester progressed, I was delighted to find that, in addition to a steady diet of contemporary Chinese film and video works, I was also offered opportunites to consider gallery exhibition practice beyond my familiar territory of audio-visual needs. It was often precisely in the areas where expectations were not met that I encountered the most enlightening learning experiences.

    Early in the semester, I had devised lists of equipment necessary to display each work selected for the exhibition. Moreover, I learned to use SketchUp software to create visualizations of each installation. The setups were generally straightforward -- display and playback devices, speakers, and various connecting cables -- though it was not until Ellen and I had the equipment in hand and completed a dry-run of the first setup that I began to understand some of the minutiae of exhibition planning for the gallery setting. With the installation assembled, I considered aesthetic details as precise as color and positioning of extension cords and other wires. 

    Although such elements seemed inconsequential at the SketchUp stage, seeing the installations progress from visualization to realization allowed me to understand the importance of such diminutive details to the overall aesthetic of each piece.  It also allowed me to more fully appreciate the labor that takes place within exhibition spaces. In this way, my internship with the University Art Gallery has provided a new way of seeing not just at the global level through a newfound appreciation for contemporary Chinese audio-visual culture, but also right here in Pittsburgh, since no gallery visit will ever be quite the same for me again.

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Spaces
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    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

    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
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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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    A Catalyst for Nostalgia: Lion Attacking a Dromedary

    A Catalyst for Nostalgia: Lion Attacking a Dromedary

    Isabella Sigado

    “I’ve been coming to visit this piece for years,” was the shared sentiment that grew quite repetitious, but no less interesting, during my day of conducting visitor evaluations and interviews at the grand unveiling of the reimagined Lion Attacking a Dromedary. I had heard the same thing in slightly different words nearly a dozen times by the day’s end. I found, through conducting interviews, that the group in attendance largely felt connected to the piece— it was a catalyst for a shared sense of nostalgia, and I felt it too.

    There was one attendee in particular; they had traveled with their whole family to come to the symposium because the piece, and the Carnegie Natural History Museum as a whole, was so important to them. They recounted the feeling of seeing the piece now known as Lion Attacking a Dromedary for the first time—“It was overwhelming, seeing this intensely dramatic moment right in front of you, acted out like a freeze frame at the climax of a play; it took me to a different place entirely. I fell in love with it, and I’ve been visiting it ever since, bringing friends and family along too.” That particular attendee boasted that they knew everything there was to know about the diorama. Another symposium attendee brought their adult son along. They said “I’ve been visiting the diorama since I was a child, then when he [their son] was old enough, I brought him and his wife. I can’t wait to bring my grand kids one day too.”

    I could remember my first time seeing the piece as well. I was on a girl scouts field trip in second grade, and was overcome with the drama most attendees I interviewed identified with. It incited fear in me—the same fear the fictive moment portrayed in the eyes of the courier. In high school I would volunteer at the CMNH, and always looked forward to being in the hall where Lion Attacking a Dromedary was situated. As a child, I couldn’t see how problematic its location was, but after sitting in on the lectures throughout the day at the symposium, I was enlightened to the plethora of problems surrounding the piece, its name, and its location.

    After the first round of lectures in the morning, on topics varying from orientalism and exoticism to the nuances of conservation, I returned to most of the attendees I interviewed during the opening refreshments to see if their view had changed (like mine). Unsurprisingly, we found ourselves in the same boat. Issues were brought to light that we hadn’t considered, but we were happy they were resolved. Even the self-proclaimed expert on the piece was blown away by what they had learned during the symposium. With new information, excitement grew for the unveiling of the reimagined piece.

    As the red curtains were pulled back, a small crowd of adults watched with wide child eyes. It was, and is, beautiful. But, what the attendees I had the chance to talk to were most pleased with was not the new shiny clean quality of the pieces in the diorama, rather, its new location where it could attract all of the attention it deserved.

    Lion Attacking a Dromedary is so much more than a piece in a museum, it is a defining icon for our museum. It functions as a catalyst for waves of memories for Pittsburgh locals and travelers alike, and its reimagining benefits its message, its history, and its audience.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • HAAARCH!!! 2017
    • Undergraduate Work
    Tags: 
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    Transcribing by the Dozen

    I have been working on Decmposing Bodies for over a month now and I have noticed interesting facts about the Ohio State Reformatory prisoners. I noticed the majority of the cards I transcribed had crime and occupation written on them and that both characteristics varied some but not too much; I became curious if these two characteristics had any correlation. After transcribing numerous cards, my interst grew and I wanted to know more about why these supposedly ordinary people went to prison and if their jobs gave them the influence over why they committed the crimes they did. I discussed my interest and opinion of the cards with my FER partner Joe Jang and it turned out he wanted to uncover the same information while adding prisoners complexion into the analysis. I never thought about adding complexion to the mix but it made sense to consider one's skin color as a characteristic that could influence why the crime was committed. 

    Joe and I brainstormed what we wanted to accomplish with this project and as a jumpstart into our potential research project, we decided that after every transcription, we would record the prisoner's occupation, complexion, and crime into a google document shared between Joe, Sarah Hackney, and me. We have been cataloging our findings on this google document for roughly two weeks and we have over 300 cards transcribed. I analyzed the data we collected so far and found that most of the prisoners had Labor as an occupation, a large portion were of fair complexion, and the most committed crime was burglary, which was often committed alongside larceny. The photos I added are two exapmles of prisoners that had all three characteristics that I noted were the majority out of all the cards transcribed. 

    Joe and I still have numerous cards to transcribe but we have given each other a foundation to build on top of, making the transcription process quicker, easier and meaningful. Hopefully this trend of fair laborers committing burglary and larceny will continue or maybe a handful of cards will tip the scale into a different combination of occupation, crime and complexion. 

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
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    My First Day on the Job

    I was first exposed to the project Decomposing Bodies under First Experience of Research's (FER) guidance. I was given a description of the project along with over 200 others and the digital humanities caught me hook-line-and-sinker. Right off the bat I was intrigued by what the title of the project meant and how it relates to inheriting the nineteenth-century process of treating human beings as numbers. Before reading the description of the project, I had no previous knowledge of Alphonse Bertillon or his process of classifying human beings as individuals on cards. As I read on, Decomposing Bodies seemed to reach out and call me; the skills and activities (being comfortable with computers, highly observant, and extreme interest with details) were all up my alley and what I loved to do. Naturally, it made sense to ask if I could join the project to help advance the research that was taking place.

    My first day working with Alison Langmead and Sarah Hackney was mainly an introductory period for me; we discussed the project in more detail and what my job would be as their undergraduate assistant. My very first assignment was to brush up on my information of the Bertillonage system and I discovered numerous, interesting facts. For instance, back in the nineteenth-century the majority of crimes were committed by men, but roughly 20,000 women were convicted criminals as well. After reading multiple articles, questions began to arise: Why did Bertillon chose these specific measurements? What types of crimes made a person eligible for prison? How accurate was this process in preventing recidvism? Some of these questions I was able to answer by further reading, but more bubbled after every answer I found. After I had a fairly good grasp on what the system was and how it worked, I was able to start transcription of the prison record cards from the Ohio State Penitentiary. Actually seeing and transcribing the cards was an exhilarating feeling; I had the chance to delve into their world and try to comprehend what each piece of data meant. The hardest part of this process was attempting to read the old fashioned, nineteenth-century writing. However, the more cards I became exposed to, the easier my brain was able to decipher the handwriting.

    I have been working with Decomposing Bodies for a little over two weeks and every time I get the chance to work with the project, my fascination for the decomposing cards continues to grow. I am excited to continue my research with Alison Langmead and Sarah Hackney and hope all the information I dig up will help the Digital Humanities reach their intended goal with this project: to explore creative ways of connecting the community to the juxtaposition of academic inquiry and the social world.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work

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