Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part I, Goals and Audience
Monday, November 24, 2014

 Editor's note: In the blog post that follows, and that which follows next week, Cecilia Wichmann, Grace Yasumura, and Nicole Riesenberger lay down essential bulding blocks for this Department's adoption of Omeka and Neatline as viable platforms for many digital projects envisioned in the Department's future. As we see with clarity that future, it will be because we stand on the shoulders of these three giants (with apologies to Newton).


Nicole Riesenberger, Cecilia Wichmann, and Grace Yasumura have been experimenting this semester with the open-source, collections management system Omeka and Neatline, its mapping and timeline plugin. In this two-part series, they sit down together to compare notes on three rather different projects and to reflect on lessons learned.

GY: Let’s start by introducing our Omeka projects.

CW: So Grace and I are working on an Omeka site that will act as a digital companion to a real life exhibition at the UMD Art Gallery in March 2015 curated by Abigail McEwen’s Aesthetics of Exile class. The idea is to host a collection of objects online, artworks that will be in the show or related to the show, from the collection of the AMA ǀ Art Museum of the Americas, augmented with a lot of interpretative material that the class pulls together.

NR: I’m building two separate installations of Omeka, and I’m using the Neatline map and timeline plugin for each. One site, related to my dissertation, focuses on charting the intersections of art and politics at the Neapolitan court in the late fifteenth century. The second installation is for a course on fifteenth-century Italian art that I hope to teach during UMD’s Winter Term 2015.

GY: Let’s talk about primary (and secondary) audiences for our projects. Cecilia and I have a number of different audiences to consider. Perhaps the most obvious is the university community–college students, faculty members, and staff—who will visit the show and then be directed to the website. But we also thought about how the digital companion could reach a much larger and more diverse audience. We have been thinking about the potential for reaching out to the community members in the surrounding area, particularly as our work focuses on Latin American art and there is quite a large Latino community around our university.

CW: It is also something that can be used collaboratively by our institutional partners at the AMA, The Art Gallery, our department, and here in the Collaboratory. Each has its own audience, and our site can circulate within each of those constituencies.

NR: The audience for my fifteenth-century Italian art site is most immediately the small group of undergraduate students in my course. As an online resource, however, this site could potentially be used by anyone teaching a course on fifteenth-century Italian art, or by students wishing to gain a greater insight into the topic. My Naples site is mainly geared toward scholars with an interest in Early Modern Naples, but I think it is composed in a way that is also accessible to the non-specialist. I hope that one day, if I am able to publish my dissertation, I will have this nice, freely available, digital component to my research. And this is an important aspect of the project, because there is such a dearth of English-language scholarship published on Naples, and photographs of many of the surviving artworks from the period are also difficult to come by. So, my Omeka site will make a lot of this material accessible online, for free, for the first time.

GY: Has digitizing your project changed, particularly with regard to your Naples Neatline, the way you have organized your dissertation or the way you have approached your research, methodologically speaking? Or did you already have an idea of how you wanted to represent the data and Neatline lent itself well to it?

NR: I think it has changed a little bit. When I started my dissertation I was not so focused on mapping networks. I knew I wanted to do something with digital maps because I’m interested in showing how Naples is interconnected with other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Through my dissertation I want to combat this stereotype of Naples as isolated from the rest of the world, and I knew digital maps would be a great way to achieve that. When I began experimenting with this mapping project I started thinking about how I might also use maps to recreate networks of artists, ambassadors, and courtiers interacting and moving through European courts. So, I guess the digital project has caused me to start thinking much more geographically about the arguments I’m making.

In terms of my course on fifteenth-century Italian art, the Omeka/Neatline site has completely driven the organization of the class and the material I plan to teach. Thinking about teaching from a map has forced me to use more of the map, to really teach all of fifteenth-century Italy and to divide our time in each location more equally, rather than spending ⅔ of the class in Florence.

CW: Grace, how do you think building the digital companion has changed the way our class is approaching curating the physical show?

GY: That is a really important question. I think one of the neat things about Omeka, or more generally digitizing a project like this, is that it allows you much more fluidity. In a gallery the objects are static and when you place them somewhere on the wall they can only exist next to a certain number of other objects. However, Omeka allows you to place objects in dialogue with many other kinds of objects (not just the ones you have access to for the physical show). Omeka affords you the opportunity to tell stories that you may not able to tell in the gallery, because of limitations of space or wall text length, for example. As we know, objects don’t just tell one story. When the objects live online there is a great potential to flesh out their complex and complicated histories and socials biographies. The story one tells online need not be linear in the same way that the story one tells in the gallery might be.

CW: Neatline is really useful in this respect because it allows us to interpret the objects we’re working with not only through text but with other images and media.

GY: It sort of opens the world up in a way that you are not always afforded in the gallery.

NR: Do you feel that the digital component has put any constraints on the exhibition you’re organizing, particularly in terms of what materials you have image rights to and what you are able to put online?

CW: I think normally it would. If this were an exhibition with loans from multiple collections, image rights could be an enormous undertaking. We have a lot of freedom in the sense that we are working with one collection and the AMA is very amenable and appreciative of the opportunity to get these images out there. Time is our biggest constraint given the technical effort that goes into building a site alongside solving conceptual curatorial problems.

Digital Art History Week
Monday, November 17, 2014

Okay, it is not really, officially, Digital Art History week, but in the Collaboratory and in the DC area such a perception should be forgiven for the embarrassment of riches coming our way over the next few days.

This week is the week that a distinguished Steering Committee of national and international scholars gathers for meetings in the Collaboratory Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the agenda for a Digital Art History Conference to take place at the University of Maryland in Fall 2015. This stimulating exercise would not be possible but for the persistent and eloquent efforts of Dr. Neil Fraistat, Director of Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and Dr. Meredith J. Gill, Chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, in successfully securing a planning grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to support travel and logistics. While these working meetings necessarily are closed, look for abundant opportunities to attend and participate next Fall!

If you just cannot wait until next year for a taste of a fully realized Digital Art History conference, well, you are in luck. On Friday at the National Gallery of Art, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) is hosting an all-day conference. The list of speakers is impressive, featuring scholars working in a variety of modes under the still-forming heading Digital Art History, including Dr. Caroline Bruzelius of Duke University, who will be discussing the Visualizing Venice project that she heads (she also is on the Steering Committee for our own conference). The day should be filled with wonderful discoveries so do make plans to arrive early for a good seat!


GUEST POST: Debating Visual Knowledge
Monday, November 3, 2014

Colleen O'Reilly is a PhD student in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh working on visual pedagogy in American art, design, and science with Josh Ellenbogen. Colleen's dissertation will examine Berenice Abbott’s scientific photography, Will Burtin’s science exhibitions, and the mid-century discourse on “visual literacy.”

Underwood and Underwood, The Pool of Siloam, --outside of Jerusalem, Palestine, 1900, 2 photographs mounted on card; (8.5x17cm). From a collection of stereo views of Israel/Palestine c.1900. Collection of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.                                                         


Example of the usage of the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon tool, showing nodes within two degrees of separation from William Laud. SDFB is “a digital reconstruction of the early modern social network (EMSN) that scholars and students from all over the world will be able to collaboratively expand, revise, curate, and critique.”

Earlier this month, students in History of Art and Architecture and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh hosted Debating Visual Knowledge, an interdisciplinary graduate symposium. It was an honor to have Patrick Jagoda and Simone Osthoff participate as keynote speakers, as well as many other inspiring and diverse thinkers and makers. Highlights included a panel on curating with Terry Smith, Cynthia Morton, Alison Langmead, and Dan Byers, opportunities to experience the work of filmmakers Ross Nugent and Mike Maraden, Ella Mason and Joanna Reed of Yes Brain Dance Theater, and a Finnbogi Petursson exhibition curated by Murray Horne at Wood Street Galleries. We heard 14 presentations on a huge variety of topics from grad students who had travelled nationally and internationally to be here, and were able to workshop papers by two participants. We also toured Configuring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia at the University Art Gallery.

I hope that we can continue the many specific and fascinating conversations raised that weekend as we post videos and further thoughts to the Constellations website, collaborate with our graduate journal Contemporaneity, and produce digital projects that present the results of this event. I think we have an opportunity here to become a network of researchers who are a resource for each other because of some common interests. We take images seriously as sources of new knowledge, not just reflections of other knowledge. We share a concern about focusing on “the visual” as something specific, as something that matters as a historical concept, but not always, not necessarily, as separate from other domains. Most of all, we think that the study of visual material and sensory experience does not belong to a single discipline. We all have to reckon with traditional disciplinary boundaries in our work and can benefit from the support of a community in doing so.

When we started developing the symposium, we were intentionally vague about what we wanted to happen, and the conversations throughout our process were both exciting and confusing. We took a risk and refused to decide what exactly we meant by ‘visual knowledge’, what kinds of material would count, or which scholars would fit. Really the only thing the CFP asserted (besides that visual knowledge is in many places and means many things to many people) is that visual knowledge is different from language, a choice that continues to bring up important questions. By working as a multi-disciplinary group, we were able to invite work across a broad variety of areas and in formats other than papers--like posters, artworks, and workshops. At the same time, we learned how difficult interdisciplinarity can be to achieve, and I think our CFP still spoke most readily to humanities scholars. There is so much ground that must be covered in order to make non-superficial bridges between the cultures, communication networks, and languages of different disciplines.

We took some baby steps though, and the biggest payoff for me was that our CFP, and the idea of visual knowledge being put forward jointly by art historians and information scientists, attracted people who all shared a feeling that their work requires interdisciplinarity. I believe that this sensibility alone is a powerful idea, that young scholars who have this feeling should get connected early on to affirm that their work can develop in this way. We also were successful in experimenting with traditional conference structure and in thinking about what it is we really want to get out of a graduate symposium. It is clear to me now that while opportunities to present in front of auditorium audiences are important for us as developing scholars, working groups and roundtables are where we really have the productive conversations of which we are in search when we travel to conferences.

I am really excited about how collaboration between people in different disciplines permits work that could never be done by one person. Humanities scholars don’t publish multiple-author papers very often, but to me this seems necessary. Twentieth-century photographer Berenice Abbott commented, when talking about how she tried to collaborate with scientists to make photographs to teach physics in the late 1950s, that one of her main arguments with them was that photography is a lifetime profession too, and that if true expertise in photography could be combined with other scholars’ expertise in physics, the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Many other examples of this kind of situation came up in talks during the symposium. We need also to talk about the difficulties in collaboration—how it can be slow and inefficient, how it can be socially and emotionally demanding.

Debating Visual Knowledge is aiming to extend outward the constellations model that the History of Art and Architecture department at Pitt has been working with for the last few years. In our department, the identification of important themes and terms facilitate a specific kind of scholarly collaboration between experts in different fields. This environment has resulted in co-authored digital projects, co-taught courses, and this symposium, which seeks to apply these approaches beyond our department and make contact with others who are working in convergent ways.

Colleen O’Reilly
PhD Student, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

Cross-posted in the collaborative web space of the Constellations program in the History of Art and Architecture Department, University of Pittsburgh

Remember the Digital Humanities!
Monday, October 27, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of attending "Mash-Up: Navigating Art and Academia in this Millenium," the Mid-America College Art Association's Fall 2014 Conference in San Antonio, Texas, where I delivered a talk on the Collaboratory as part of a panel "Digital Humanities and the Visual Arts." Organized by Juliet Wiersema, Assistant Professor of Art History at University of Texas San Antonio (and Maryland alum!), and Amy Rushing, Director of Special Collections, Libraries, University of Texas San Antonio, this panel explored the unfolding landscape of digital humanities through both the lens of specific projects engaging with some facet of the digital humanities and the lens of space-as-incubator for such projects. My talk, the last of the session, explored the latter theme. I introduced the Collaboratory as a space, including the history of its conversion from a slide library to its present form, and finished up with an overview of some of the many types of projects that have found their form in the space over the last five years. I think that Juliet must have had one audience member in mind for my talk, because I had a wonderful discussion afterwards with Rex Koontz, Director of the Art and Art History Department at University of Houston, who is centrally-involved with a digital humanities consortium getting off the ground in Texas and who at the moment is quite focused on the physical spaces of this center. I look forward to many fruitful exchanges with Dr. Koontz.

I must confess that I was most excited by the other talks on the panel. Rachel Simone Weil is a lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas Austin. She also maintains a presence in Austin helping keep the city weird (it's unofficial motto). Her talk focused on the role of citizen-scholars in building knowledge in a networked, digital age. Along with her colleague Elizabeth Lovero, Rachel organized a session for the February 2014 Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon (sometimes known as a hack-a-thon, although that phrase carries with it some of the very gendered weight under interrogation). Did you know that only an estimated 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are female? An eye-popping disparity, this imbalance manifests itself in many ways in Wikipedia. Perhaps most obvious is the focus on subject matter, which tends to skew towards what are perceived as male interests. For instance, Rachel is interested in video games, herself a gamer and passionate citizen-scholar-cum-scholar on the subject. Only her interest in video games is not in those canonically indicated in Wikipedia (being written, again, mostly by males), but on those she labels "girly games" and which she says are categorized as culturally irrelevant in much the same way as are "chick lit" and "chick flick." So, during the February Edit-a-Thon, Rachel contributed a number of new articles to Wikipedia, most all of which shine a light on an underappreciated or unknown sector of what, really, has been for years a cultural force in much of the world. Apart from the fact that Wikipedia tends to represent the interests of the 87% in its subject selection, the very nature of a wiki means that topics may be subjected to distortion and attack, meaning that what for many has become an important repository of information and argument potentially contains horrible bias (Rachel related that the article "Feminism" in Wikipedia in the past has been subjected to a number of edits by authors with misogynistic intent).

One vehicle by which Rachel seeks to redress some of the gendered, institutional biases, at least with regard to video games, her particular passion, is through FEMICOM, which is both virtual and physical museum of artifacts concerning the universe of "girly-girl" games. Per Rachel, "FEMICOM is a portmanteau that combines the words feminine and computing." In addition to investing countless hours amassing, cataloging, and presenting collections of video-game culture that offical keepers of memory (Wikipedia?, and museums) ignore, Rachel also creates and programs video games. These games, such as Electronic Sweet-N-Fun Fortune Teller!, are not ironic but earnest "art with a prodding edge," critiques, if you will, of the prevailing social critique that such games are unworthy of serious consideration because they are overtly feminine. By creating these games from scratch, including repurposing the old casings necessary to play on a Nintendo Entertainment System, Rachel demonstrates that this perceived male domain is, in fact, subject to feminist control and manipulation.

Claire Kovacs is quite busy! In addition to her work as assistant professor at Canisius College, in Buffalo, NY, she is this year the interim assistant director of the Augustana Teaching Museum of Art in Rock Island, IL. She also, in her own, wonderful words, is a "provisional digital art historian," and her talk, "Mapping Paris: Social and Artistic Networks, 1855-1889," built a convincing case for removing "provisional." Claire's scholarly project grew out of her dissertation work on Edgar Degas and his relationships to artists in Italy when she realized she needed a good way to visualize the many relationships just to keep track of them. Claire's search for a tool to manage the work led her to Gephi, an open-source tool for visualizing data sets that will be familiar to some as a tool with which Matt Lincoln has in the past worked. As well Claire has worked with text-mining as a promising approach to extracting data from the vast correspondences between and among artists in Paris and beyond during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Realizing that this work is too big for any one person, Claire sketched out her wonderful and ambitious scheme to invite collaboratoration: to create a dataset publicly accessible and to which one can contribute (a website/UI). It is one thing to imagine the thing, quite another to create it, and Claire spent most of her talk identifying some of the challenges to this vision. Among them are:

* what are the standards for creating data, and how does one (or is it many?) go about defining these standards?

* how to go about developing the protocols for analyses of social networks? Open to change? Tailored to the user?

* does one rely on tools/platforms that are broadly available, even if these tools/platforms erect roadblocks because of their general-purpose approach, or does one build something from the ground up (and all of the facility with coding that this approach likely necessitates)?

Two websites functioning as user-generated databases and repositories are potential models going forward - Cornell's Project Feederwatch and The Open University's R.E.D. (Reading Experience Database). Again, each of these examples holds both promise and peril for the engorgement from multiple users of data and proper weighting of these data to ensure that resulting patterns are valid. For me, these two examples also speak to the privileging of scientific data in visualization projects, a point recognized by several thinkers in DH, among them Johanna Drucker, who coined the term capta to reflect the data that humanists construct, which necessarily is incomplete, nuanced, messy, difficult to work with. Project Feederwatch falls more on the side of (scientific) data - simple counts of bird species, time and place. You may miss every bird that comes to the feeder, but the inputs are well-regulated and the terms clearly defined. How does one decide what qualifies as a meaningful reading experience, the question at the heart of R.E.D.? Such qualitative information - anecdotes, oral histories, written letters, well-thumbed and/or annotated copy of a book - is the stuff informing the term "capta" and critical to the humanistic enterprise. And it is precisely the type of information one might expect users could contribute to a website on Mapping Paris, which informs and complicates the structure of Claire's project. As she put it, asking the right questions at the beginning of the project is key to that project's success and long-term viability. I expect we will hear a good deal more on this project in the future.

After the talks, the organizers and panelists enjoyed a vigorous discussion of some of the issues facing DH today. One issue of utmost concern is that of sustainability. Whether a project created and maintained by one, as are the projects both of Rachel and Claire (to this point!), or the running of a small facility like the Collaboratory, being able to keep things viable and accessible is a continuous challenge. In addition to a good deal of shared laughter at our shared challenges, some creative ideas were hatched. Look for evidence of these in the future!


Doing Digital Art History: Dispatches From Camp
Monday, October 20, 2014

This summer my colleague Matt Lincoln, a PhD student in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art, and Professor Abigail McEwen, our Latin American art specialist, participated in two of the four institutes for Digital Art History convened across the country. Dr. McEwen crossed coasts, heading to UCLA in late July for the Getty-sponsored Beyond the Digitized Slide Library. A few weeks later, Matt made his way to Vermont for the Kress-sponsored Mapping and Art History at Middlebury College.

Grad students and faculty gathered last week in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for a lunchtime debriefing about these experiences. We heard how the two institutes were structured, what progress our colleagues made on their own distinct projects, and core messages they had digested over the course of their weeks at camp. We were eager to hear from Matt and Dr. McEwen about issues pragmatic and strategic, from responsibly manipulating metadata to sustainably archiving digital projects. Many in our community experiment with digital methods in scholarship, from faculty research to dissertations, and in pedagogy (especially those of us serving as graduate assistants in the Collaboratory). As our department prepares for a major symposium in fall 2015—Art History in Digital Dimensions—with our partners at MITH and vital support from the Kress Foundation, the curiosity in the room was palpable.  

I left digesting these big picture questions and provocations:

  • Digital Art History describes processes and methods not solutions. You may articulate a well-defined, critical, humanistic question as a theoretical starting point—say about constructions of place across a historical timescale or the nature of a particular social network—but your question morphs as you work it digitally. You discover the limits of the technologies at hand and find yourself pushed to be far more precise about what you want to know. Rather than some utilitarian scheme to elicit answers, the most productive digital approaches challenge you by posing complicating (albeit quite interesting) questions.
  • Metadata is not neutral. Data is predicated on terms and concept with shifting rhetorical meanings across time and space. Datasets may also come with hidden errors that skew results.
  • In fact, there’s a data canon. Metadata is not available across all art historical areas. Visualizing data on the simple basis of what’s already out there will simply reinscribe traditional hierarchies. Collecting digitized images and metadata is labor intensive and costly. Access to funding and infrastructure is radically uneven. If we privilege digital tools, will we exacerbate these divides?
  • Resist a singular, unified data model. While modeling is fundamental to computational work and provides an important contextual backdrop to your research, keep in mind that any model is an abstraction of the world. Set various data models in counterpoint, exploring that which each reveals and conceals.
  • Not every project should be digital. Not all projects benefit from digital application. Digital projects take vastly more time, energy, and resources than any print publication.
  • Accessibility and public knowledge.  How might we use digital tools to make our research discoveries—image scans, archival documents, correspondence, evidence of travel, and so on—accessible to a wide public, alongside and en route to the more focused academic book project? 
  • Digital methods have histories and contexts of their own. Digital literacy means more than technical know-how. It requires us to ask what it means to take a method, say GIS mapping, out of its original sphere and to reapply it to an art historical question. The gap between the history of the method and the art historical subject may turn out to be a very productive site of inquiry.
  • Digital projects are differently archival. Don’t assume your project will endure, especially given the rapid life cycles of digital technologies. Your end-product, from beautiful map or model to online exhibition, likely will not live on. The underlying code, on the other hand, representing your decisions and analytical processes should be archived.
  • The best projects may be digital in method but not in presentation. Though you use digital methods—network analysis or text mining, for example—to build your argument, your final work product may be best expressed in a (linear! print!) book or article.  
  • What are my responsibilities as a digital art historian? If I create a dataset, from a simple list to a complex research database, am I obligated to make it open to other scholars? To the public? Should I open up opportunities for my students to collaborate on my digital projects?
  • What new protocols does digital art history require? How do universities evaluate this kind of work?  Should outside readers with relevant technical expertise serve on dissertation and tenure committees? Where might motivated scholars turn for training and mentoring when technical expertise is not available in one’s home department?
  • Do digital art history with an open mind! Don’t think about how digital tools can supplement art history as you already know it, but about how digital approaches can speak back to our discipline and transform the questions you thought you were asking.
  • What kinds of institutes and convenings do Digital Art Historians need moving forward?

 Finally, an open and provocative question posed by Dr. McEwen at camp:

 Can metrics and metadata approximate the discursive and imaginative substrate of humanistic inquiry?


[Dr. Abigail McEwen (far right) shares a provocation at the concluding symposium of UCLA's Beyond the Digitized Slide Library institute. ]

Cecilia Wichmann
MA Student, Contemporary Art + Theory
Graduate Assistant, Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture