It's been a long time. We've been busy! Or, Augmented Reality meets Old World European Collection at the Riversdale House Museum, Courtesy of the Collaboratory
Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Imagine you are a prominent socialite living in Bladensburg, Maryland, Washington, D.C., or even Philadelphia, in early 1816. Rumour abounds that Rosalie Stier-Calvert, wife of George Calvert, the prominent planter from the first family of Maryland has consented finally to show her father's collection of paintings from Europe in the couple's home Riversdale. The collection, sixty-three paintings, most of which she has kept crated up virtually since they first arrived with Henry J. Stier in 1794, contains works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Brueghel, and others. Names you know, works you do not. Excitement builds.

Such was the scenario in late winter/ early spring 1816, when overnight Riversdale became the destination of art lovers as far-flung as Boston and Philadelphia to see works around which much legend and lore had grown in the over twenty years that they had been in America, in crates. And now, with Napoleon safely defeated in Europe and as a result the works to be returned back to Henry J. Stier in Antwerp, Rosalie Stier-Calvert has consented to hang all the works in the house for one great and glorious show.

The Riversdale House Museum is recalling this fascinating moment in the history of the family, the house, indeed, even the development of the history of art in this country, in an exhibition telling the story, "Some of the Finest Paintings ever in America," a title taken from a description of the collection from one enthused visitor in a letter to her sister.

Samantha Ferris, head of Education at the Riversdale House Museum (and a Maryland and Department alumna!), approached me in August 2015 about how the Collaboratory might be able to help them employ digital technolgies to tell this story. She was inspired especially by Augmented Reality, which she had seen showcased at the Collaboratory in June 2015 during a one-day symposium for area heritage centers and museum organized by Nicole Riesenberger and me.

In the intervening months, Nicole and I, along with Caroline Paganussi, have designed a number of interventions using Augmented Reality to complement the wonderful show Riversdale staff have mounted. The show focuses only on sixteen works that can be identified from the various inventories of the Steir collection, although it is known that sixty-three paintings in fact were present. While Riversdale staff are limited to framed reproductions, most, but not all, to scale, Augmented Reality is a platform that allows Collaboratory staff to enhance visitors' experience of the works themselves, including displaying them at correct size, in period hanging solutions, and with glorious detail made possible by pinch-and-zoom action on the iPad tablet. It's of piece with what I like to call "picking the low-hanging fruit."

The particular platform used, Aurasma, uses visual triggers to unlock media content, and Quint, Caroline, and Nicole are pushing this platform to deliver content beyond simply enhanced visualizations of the works on display. For instance, Nicole and Quint recorded video of conversation between Historian Susan Pearl and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Curator of Northern Baroque Paitning at the National Gallery of Art and Professor of Art in the Department, about the original April 1816 show and have edited several clips that visitors can access throughout the show, including an introductory video. Nicole also has developed an exhibition-related website,, that allows visitors to explore the movement of the works in the exhibition from the Stier collection to their modern-day repositories. This content is triggered, appropriately, next to a hands-on crate, where visitors can pull out some of the paintings that Rosalie kept packed away until their brief star turn in April 1816. The story of Rosalie keeping the works crated for over twenty years allowed for one of the more exciting Augmented Reality moments of the show, one that Riversdale staff had not planned for: using Augmented Reality to allow visitors a glimpse of  what the west wing looked like in the early nineteenth century, when it was a carriage house with a platform on which crates were stored, not the elegant paintings gallery of today. Finally, Caroline, who already is quite expert in developing user surveys, has employed her experience and knowledge to good effect developing both digital and paper surveys of user experience in Riversdale. Both the Riversdale and the Collaboratory teams will use the resulting data, along with observational data, to assess quantitatively and qualitatively the effectiveness of Augmented Reality in enhancing the overall visitor experience.

Make sure to visit Riversdale during the run of the show, which is up through October. Riversdale is open Fridays and Sundays, 12-3:30. If you want to follow the Collaboratory's Aurasma channel (you can also check out AR interventions for Madeline Gent's exhibition "Manhua + Manga" in the Art Gallery), search for MichelleSmithCollaboratory within the Aurasma app.

Congratulate Caroline and Nicole when you see them!


Truth, Lies, and Sharing: Digital Humanities 101
Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Getty Foundation and George Mason University’s Building a Digital Portfolio institute ended last Friday, and I’ve finally snagged a quiet moment to reflect on the second week of digital art history training. We started the week learning how to lie with data (both through visualizations and maps), and we ended by learning how to share. Of course there was more to the data visualization and mapping tutorials than deception. Our guest instructors Lisa Rhody and Lincoln Mullen were, in fact, more concerned with teaching us how not to be deceived by other peoples’ data and how to be honest with our own. The responsibility of Digital Humanists to clearly show degrees of (un)certainty in their digital projects, be they maps, visualizations, or models, was a recurring theme throughout the two-week institute.

It was the final three days of the institute and our focus on intellectual generosity that resonated the most with me, however. On Wednesday we read about and discussed shared authority in museums—one kind of generosity, one based on the assumption that museum audiences have knowledge and opinions that are valuable and should be accounted for in museums’ planning and initiatives. The last two days of the institute had me thinking a lot about another kind of generosity, though, and one that is perhaps more relevant to academic audiences and researchers.

On Thursday morning we had a visit from Michele Greet, Associate Professor of Art History in George Mason University’s Department of History and Art History. Michele came to share with us her fantastic project, Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Interwar Paris. Michele’s website, built with Omeka in collaboration with several GMU graduate students, is a companion to her latest book project on the same topic. Michele approached this project, not simply as a means of digitally replicating her book—in fact, there is very little narrative analysis on the website at all—but rather as a way to share and ‘publish’ the data she collected on her research trips that didn’t make it into the book. In this case, the data included records of nearly 350 Latin American artists in Paris between the wars, as well as records for the roughly 75 Parisian art galleries where those artists exhibited their work. These records contain heaps of valuable information. All of the data was made available through the website and then loaded into two separate digital maps that allow users to study the networks among artists and galleries. As Michele explained, her book is not an encyclopedia. She only discusses about forty of these artists in her manuscript, so this website provided a home for much of what was left out of the book.

There is so much about this project that excited me, but I was most impressed by how open Michele was with her data. One of the questions I asked Michele was at what point she made her data available to the public, a query that interests me because I have my own digital projects and an Omeka website that I’m building related to my dissertation research (all of which I am keeping completely private until the project is complete). Michele, however, made her data public as soon as it was ready, and before she had completed her manuscript or secured a book deal. One reason she felt comfortable doing so is that the website does not reveal the thesis of her book—it’s a different project entirely. But Michele also felt very strongly that it was crucial, and perhaps even her scholarly responsibility, to make this information available. She has benefited from that decision, too. She described several new contacts she has made as a result of people finding her website and sharing their own information or simply reaching out to express interest in the project. She argued that establishing an online presence for one’s work can have many fruitful results, including much more scholarly prominence than a print publication could provide.

This struck me as a pretty dramatic departure from the typical approach to academic research, which can sometimes amount to fierce protection and competition around ideas. Sure, there are many people who openly share information and data related to in-progress research, but I get the sense that there are many more people who are quite fearful of doing so. Michele’s trusting, open, and generous approach to the accessibility of her work is one that I really admire, and I think it’s one shared by most Digital Humanists.

This brings me to the final day of the institute, which focused on online publishing and scholarly communication with Stephanie Westcott, Research Assistant Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and Managing Editor of Digital Humanities Now and the Journal of Digital Humanities. Among other things, we discussed the question of thesis and dissertation embargoes—a natural topic for a room full of PhD Candidates. My mindset going into this conversation was that I would be taking a huge risk by not embargoing my dissertation for seven years, and I had definitely planned to do so in order to protect my work. I don’t know yet what the final form of my research will take after I complete my PhD, but either way, I figured I would need to protect it from public view. Our conversation completely changed my mind.

Stephanie claimed that, in contrast, it might actually be more risky to embargo one’s work. Stephanie argued, “If your work isn’t available, no one knows it's yours.” Furthermore, “The more people know your work, the less likely it is to be stolen.” According to Stephanie’s reasoning, we should all be promoting and sharing our work online so vigorously that it’s clear we have staked our claim to that topic. Inspired by our conversation, I typed my dissertation topic (“King Ferrante, art”) into Google, and here’s what I found.


I have barely made any effort to establish an online presence for my research, but my name is already the second hit after the fan page for one of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Borgias! Okay, so making it to the front page of a Google search is not my greatest academic accomplishment, but I think it has its benefits. If I were trying to choose a research topic and I saw that someone was already working on that topic, I would find a different research question to pursue. Perhaps one day my shameless self-promotion will lead to a fruitful collaboration, but if nothing else, at least I have already begun to make a mark on the interwebs’ historiography of “King Ferrante, art.” I’m not suggesting that I plan to copy and paste the entire text of my dissertation onto my blog, but I think that establishing an online presence for myself and my research will only benefit me.

Now for some final reflections. The Building a Digital Portfolio institute has made me feel more capable and more confident about starting to tinker with new digital projects. I have many great new DH readings and tools in my toolbox, and I am now thinking much differently about what it means to be a scholar in the twenty-first century, and what responsibilities I have to share the findings of my research. This institute ranks among my top two experiences in six years of graduate school—the competitor being the four weeks I spent at the Villa Arianna in Castellammare di Stabia with the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. The similarity between these two experiences was the bringing together of a large group of people from diverse backgrounds, and asking them to learn and work together toward a common goal. This is something that I think we need more of in academia, because great things happen when we work together.


Building a Digital Portfolio 2015: Reflections on Day One
Monday, July 20, 2015
In Defense of the Virtual Reconstruction
Monday, July 20, 2015

Nicole Riesenberger, "In Defense of the Virtual Reconstruction," July 16, 2015.

Questioning the Ethics and Usefulness of 3-D Printing
Monday, July 20, 2015

Nicole Riesenberger, "Questioning the Ethics and Usefulness of 3-D Printing," July 16, 2015.