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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    Lamenting Lord Elgin

    Today is my last day working on the Itinera database until my presentation tomorrow.  While gearing up for the end of the semester, let's take a moment to look back at the unfortunate life of Thomas Bruce.

    Thomas Bruce suffered from asthma throughout his life, so under his doctor's orders, he doused his face with mercury for his frequent lung complaints.  Medical treatment in the 1700s certainly is not what it is today. The mercury caused abrasions on his nose, which prompted doctors to cut off the tip of it, disfiguring Bruce's face.

    In August 1803, Bruce was traveling with his wife, Mary Nisbet, and got detained by the French in Bareges, because he was a British ambassador with a travel schedule that coincided with the Napoleonic Wars.  From there, he was eventually sent to prison at Lourdes.  While he was incarcerated, Nisbet was allowed to leave France, accompanied by a man named Robert Fergusson.  The two were secretly engaged in an affair, and Fergusson would go on trial in May of 1808 for adultry.

    In 1816, facing bankruptcy, Bruce sold his prized marbles to the British Museum.  He said that the marbles were worth about £75,000 (roughly $111,360), but the museum bought them for £35,000 (about $51,950).  Needless to say, he was not happy about the sale.

    Between his cheating wife, partial nose and massive debt, Bruce was not a happy person.  Because he bought the marbles and messed with Greek culture, people still don't like him after his death.  And they certainly don't pity him.  He will always be remembered as the man who brought antique culture to Britian, but at the expense of ancient Greek identity.

     

    The picture, of Thomas Bruce with his full nose, is courtesy of http://www.athensguide.com/elginmarbles/photos/elgin.JPG

    For more information, check out these books:

    Nagel, Susan. Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. New York: William Morrow, 2004. Print.

    Vrettos, Theodore. The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity's Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused. New York: Arcade Pub., 1997. Print.

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  • 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
    Tags: 
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    Itinera Got An Upgrade

    We reworked Itinera because it was glitching on some tour stops for agents.  Now that it's been updated, all the tour stops are functioning, and it looks a lot nicer.  This is great because coincidentally, my FE-R presentation is next week.

    Today, I finished up all the goals that we were trying to achieve with inputting the Parthenon Marbles into Itinera.  All the sculptures are linked to each other, the people are linked to each other and (hopefully) I inputted all the relevant data.  I've done a lot of mouse-clicking in the past couple months, and I'm happy that we've been able to complete so much for this project!

    Next week, I'll be able to go back into Itinera and fix anything that I missed.  I'm relieved that I finished most of the programming today, because I was a little nervous that I wouldn't be able to input all the Marbles in time.

    Photo courtesy of the new Itinera site: https://itinera.pitt.edu

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    Why the Parthenon Marbles are Controversial

    Last week, I got into the story surrounding Thomas Bruce and the Parthenon Marbles.  Now, let me tell you about the controversial past (and present) of these artifacts.

    As I mentioned, Bruce had to get a firman from the Ottoman authorities in order for his workers, including Giovanni Battista Lusieri and William Richard Hamilton, to continue sketching the Acropolis in Athens.  He eventually got this letter of permission in early 1801, and the document was deemed official by July 1.  However, due to transnational tensions that culminated into the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815), government paperwork and rules at the turn of the century were a little murky.  This led to a disagreement on the true owners of the Parthenon Marbles.  People who want the Marbles to stay in London say that Bruce obtained the firman with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece at the time, so his actions were completely legal.  But people who want the Marbles returned to Greece say that the Marbles should be replaced to their homeland, stating that Bruce illegally stole the Marbles during Greece's Turkish occupation.

    Bruce removed the Marbles between 1800 -1811, but then sold them to the British Museum in 1816 because he was facing debt.  Controversy about the Marbles was reintroduced in 1925 when a newspaper argued that Greece should be able to reclaim the Marbles.  Today, why do people care about the movement of the Marbles if it happened almost 200 years ago?  In October 2014, the London-based lawyer/activist/author Amal Clooney said that Greece had "just cause" for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.  So even today, the plot thickens.

    Why does this even matter?  Well, the controversy about the Parthenon Marbles is important for a couple of reasons.  Pro-London supporters say that the Marbles are "an important representation of ancient Athenian civilization in the context of world history" and they give "maximum public benefit" to the people of England, so it is more important that they should stay in London than go back to Athens.  To these supporters, the Marbles represent a moment in antiquity and continue to emphasize the ancient Athenian culture to the modern public.  Pro-Athens supporters say that the Marbles are an important symbol of the whole nation's heritage - in the present, not just in antiquity - and they should be returned for the sake of national pride.

    The significance of the Parthenon Marbles is completely defined by society, meaning that people assign importance to these ancient sculptures.  These artifacts are symbolic of an all-but-lost ancient culture, and if Greece ever gets the Marbles back, the nation will have to reevaluate their cultural significance in a modern context.

    In late March, Greece requested the return of the Parthenon Marbles for the second time.  The British Museum turned down the request, and it is unlikely that the Marbles will be returning to Athenian soil anytime soon.

    Check out these sources if you're interested in learning more about the controversy about the Parthenon Marbles:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11274713/Why-are-the-Elgin-marble...

    http://greece.greekreporter.com/2015/03/27/double-rejection-for-partheno...

     

    Photo courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/14/amal-alamuddin-advis...

    Categories: 
    • Temporalities
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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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.

     

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
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    The Marbles Go to London

    I'm still inputting data about the Elgin Marbles (now we're calling them the 'Parthenon Marbles') into Itinera.  For your intellectual curiosity, let me educate you a little bit about the international controversy that surrounds these ancient marbles statues.

    The artist Phidias sculpted the Parthenon Marbles as decoration for the Parthenon in Athens, Greece between ca. 447 - 438 BCE.  However, although Athens was once a leading city, it diminished into a sketchy, decrepit neighborhood with a far-off a history of grandeur.  By the time Lord Elgin (also known as the ambassador, Thomas Bruce) became interested in the Marbles, Athens was already in tatters.  His interest was sparked by the decorative Marbles, and he told his secretary, William Richard Hamilton, to check out the Marbles in July 1800.  Hamilton also brought along the artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri and a group of other artists to draw the statues at the Acropolis, including the Parthenon Marbles.

    This was all in the early 1800s, when tensions were brewing around Europe because of the Napoleonic Wars.  So in February 1801, Bruce's artists were denied entrace to the Acropolis because of paranoia that the French would attack Turkey after the invasion of Egypt.  Unless Bruce could send a firman, or letter of permission, to the Athenian government allowing the artist to have access to the Marbles, they were finished.

    After some procrastination, Bruce requested a firman at the Porte in Athens, Greece, which became (debatably) official by July 1801.  The firman granted the artists access to the Marbles, and Bruce also threw in a clause stating that the artists had permission to move the Parthenon Marbles from Athens to London, England.

    Next week, I'll post about the controversy that surrounds the Parthenon Marbles.  Stay tuned!

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • UAG
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    Inputting into Itinera

    As I mentioned in a previous post, my next step in Itinera is to input my Elgin Marbles-related information into the database.  So far, I'm actually pretty efficient at this part.

    In Itinera, I'm submitting info for agents (people), tours (their lives), and tour stops (places they visited).  Right now, the main people whom I'm dealing with are Thomas Bruce (Lord Elgin), Mary Nisbet (his wife) and Giovanni Battista Lusieri (artist comissioned to draw the Marbles).  There are a couple more people involved, but those are some of the more central actors.  After I'm finished with the people and their lives, I'll be able to input information about the Marbles themselves.

    Everything in Itinera is connected - it is a digital web of art historical information.  Everything has to be precisely submitted step-by-step, and I frequently have to go back into the database to make sure that all the information is recorded correctly.  It's tedious and a little bit frustrating, but I think I'm getting the hang of it.

    However, I am a little concerned about the timing.  My FE-R presentation is in about four weeks, and I'm worried that we'll run into more problems as we try to submit the Marbles (which will be called 'objects' in Itinera).  I'm almost finished with inputting all the agents, tours and tour stops, so luckily, completing that won't take too much time out of next week.  Then I can spend the rest of the day entirely devoted to putting the Marbles in Itinera.  Jen and I have gone through my spreadsheet and identified about 20 sculptures or fragments of the Elgin Marbles that are ready to be put into the database.  Then it's just a matter of if Itinera will organize them correctly.

    At the same time, that still means that there are over 100 fragments in the British Museum alone that I won't get a chance to put in Itinera before the semester is over.  I know that this database is a work in progress and we will be adding info to it for quite some time, but I wish that I had more time in the Visual Media Lab to finish up this project before the semester ends at the end of April.

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Populations
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    Hey, Art Historians! Interested in learning more about copyright issues in your work??

    CAA has produced the pamphlet, "Code of Best Practices for Fair Use for the Visual Arts." It is clear, concise, and direct. Do read it!

    It's attached below, and it's also on the Internet here: http://www.collegeart.org/pdf/fair-use/best-practices-fair-use-visual-arts.pdf

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
    Tags: 
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    The Future of the Elgin Marbles in Itinera

    This week, just about all of the known Elgin Marbles have been submitted into a spreadsheet as preparation for Itinera.  However, we're having a couple problems with actually inputting the Marbles, and there are some issues with organizing other museums that are not the British Museum:

    1) We need to get permission from the British Museum to use their cataloged photographs of the Elgin Marbles.  This museum has the largest portion of the Elgin collection, and they also have the most accurate and thorough metadata for our purposes with Itinera.  Until then, we'll be finding images on the internet that we can use without having to ask for permission.

    2) We're still figuring out how we are exactly going to input the Marbles into Itinera.  We need to figure out how we're going to organize the metopes, the friezes and any other larger portions of the Marbles within the database.  Some portions of the Marbles, like the west pediment figures, are individual, so those will be easier to input into Itinera.  But the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum have different ways of categorizing the Marbles, so it will be more difficult to submit them both into Itinera since they use different units to divide up the Marbles.  There's more information about the Marbles at the British Museum or the Louvre than at the Acropolis Museum or any of the other museums that have Marble fragments, so organizing the Marbles at these other museums presents more of a challenge.

    Starting after spring break (3/18), I'll begin submitting information from my spreadsheet into Itinera.  I'll start with the people whom I've researched (Lord Elgin, Mary Nisbet, etc.) and work my way through some of the individual figures and fragments from the west pediment.  At the very least, there will be lots of traveling going on around the Marbles, at least through Turkey, England and a little bit of Russia.  Let's hope I'm better at programming the second time around.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    Where the Elgin Marbles Were In February

    For the time being, I know where the Elgin Marbles have been and how they traveled around Europe for all research purposes.  This information is sitting in a spreadsheet in my Google Drive, organized by sculpture number, location, donor, etc.  All this information, that is, for the 120 Elgin fragments in the British Musuem.

    For the past two weeks, I've been organizing the metadata of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.  This is a long and tedious process because it requires me to comb through museum catalogs to find information and pictures (when possible) for these artifacts.  Now that I've finished categorizing the pieces at the British Museum, I have to do the same thing for the Marble fragments in France, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Russia and Greece.  Oh my!

    After organizing the Elgin Marbles' metadata, I will input this information into Itinera itself.  

    Most of the Elgin Marbles are in the British Museum, but a large portion of the Marbles are still in Athens, Greece.  The Musée du Louvre and the Vatican Museums house Marble fragments, and there are many Marbles at the National Museum in Copenhagen and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, according to my research.  Still, a lot of the Marbles live in the University Museum in Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich.  Earlier in December and January, the British Museum also lent a statue that was believed to be a representation of Ilissos to the St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum in Russia.  So, the Elgin Marbles are pretty spread out throughout Europe.

    Recording the metadata for the Elgin Marbles is tedious and rote - it takes hours to find the metadata and file it away for future use.  The goal is to have all this information prepped and ready so that it can go into Itinera by the end of the semester.  Seeing as it's taken me two weeks to file just the information for the British Museum, this is a lofty goal, but it is a goal nevertheless.

    However, like I mentioned before, a great deal of the Marbles are at the British Museum, so then here are fewer fragments in these other museums.  Theoretically, it should be much quicker to organize the rest of this information, so let's see how this goes.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
    Tags: 

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