Visual Media Workshop

The VMW is
a lab/
creative zone/


sits at the intersection between/
falls between established disciplines of/
crosses the fields of

art history and information studies/
humanistic inquiry and technology/
established humanistic and new data-driven approaches

(Alex Oliver, April 2014)



    Discoveries in Medart

    With the help of Matt Burton we were able to successfully extract metadata from the medart folders via unix commands. We have since imported that data into an excel spreadsheet from which we have begun analyzing and organizing our findings. I have been specifically looking at when which directories were most frequently modified and which file types were used most prominently. Unsurprisingly, the files are overwhelmingly jpgs followed by gifs and the directory with the most files by far is the “image” directory. We have also looked at which months showed the most activity and have found that their actions directly reflect the school year with the most modifications taking place in May and June and the fewest during the winter holidays in December and January.

    Unfortunately, we have only been able to find the date modified for these folders. Every avenue I have tried in my attempts to find the date created has yielded either November 4, 2014 (long after medart was created) or January 1, 1970 (long before medart was even thought of). While we will continue to look for new ways to capture the date created of these files, in the meantime there is a lot that can be learned from the metadata we already have.

    Also, while combing through the data I came across a folder titled “Kalamazoo.” In it I found presentation outlines for the 2009 International Congress on Medieval Studies. The Sustaining Medart team attended this same conference in May 2016 and will again in 2017. In 2009 two of medart’s primary creators, Jane Vadnal and Phil Maye, presented on medart. While we don’t have their actual presentations the outlines do give us some insight into the creation of medart and the intentions behind it. For example, we now know medart began as a way to turn Alison Stones’ course materials into webpages.

    Studying medart is constantly leading us to new surprises and discoveries at every turn. I’m excited to see what we will find next as we put more and more pieces of the medart puzzle together.


    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

    New Directions in the VMW

    Alison Langmead has embarked on outreach efforts to connect the VMW with other digital humanities spaces, beginning with our colleagues in the US, but soon hoping to move more internationally. We are looking forward to all of the opportunities this will provide, and are perceiving a future where the question is less "what can computers do for the study of material culture," and more, "what shall we do today?”

    One of these outreach efforts is making the connection with Tracey Berg-Fulton, creative technologist and webmaster at Registrars Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. Berg-Fulton donated to the VMW a 26000-entry dataset of Algernon Graves' collection of 18th- to 20th-century art sales, digitized from his vast, published ledger Art Sales from Early in the Eighteen Century to Early in the Twentieth Century. In the short run, S. E. Hackney and Lily Brewer are working toward implementing this data into visual patterns and historical contextualization respectively for Sotheby’s Institute of Art Research Award through the Art Libraries Society of North America. Undergraduate research assistant Vee McGyver, under Hackney’s supervision, is working on figuring out how to visualize relationships in data based on art sales using a force-directed graph from the javascript d3 library. Frick Fine Arts Library director Kate Joranson is sponsoring these efforts.

    As Graves’ data becomes available and conceptualized in visually informative ways, we’re investigating ways in which the data can turn into objects that we can track through Itinera ( By honing and creating more geographically specific locations for these entities and tracking works of art through Graves' art sales, the VMW cohort under Brewer’s guidance is working toward diversifying Itinera by mapping the European and non-Western routes of lesser tracked populations such as influential women and people of color through 18th-century Eastern Europe and Turkey. In our attention to multiple scales and modalities of historical vision, our attention focuses on the questions, how can we visualize and generate new insights into the travels of 18th-century travelers through contemporary identity politics and digital mapping methods? Furthermore, how can mapping diverse populations in this time over this space creating meaning through historical place-making?

    As the end of the term approaches, the Sustaining MedArt team lead by Aisling Quigley continues to unearth and reconstruct the socio-technical history of the website, Images of Medieval Art and Architecture ( While the digital forensics research has provided helpful insights into the foundations of the site, this work has been arduous. The digital forensics tools are complex and uncooperative, and the dissection of the site itself has revealed a tangle of messy innards. Despite numerous obstacles, however, our team perseveres undaunted! Indeed, the complexities are revelatory in and of themselves, and the data is slowly but surely bringing to light important moments in the website creation process. Following from this work, the team, comprised of Quigley, Lindsay Decker (read Decker's reflections on the subject here), and Jedd Hakimi, is discussing and establishing a firm infrastructure for developing a socio-technical digital preservation roadmap.

    Undergraduate researcher Dheeraj K. Jalluri works on a neuroaesthetic research project investigating neural basis of artistic aesthetic experience in Abstract Expressionist art under Brewer's guidance. This semester, he is focusing on formulating a method to quantitatively analyze artwork qualities implicated in neuroaesthetic theories, such as symmetry and contrast and value using Photoshop. In future exploration, he gears his tools toward the crowd-sourcing tool Mechanical Turk and Fourier Analysis in the development of a larger research question that best suits these methods.

    Decomposing Bodies’ focus for the coming year will be building a unified online collection and corresponding data set for thousands Bertillon cards in the collection, and making that data accessible. The historical, physiological, and contextual data contained on these cards is a rich vein for researchers across many fields, and our goal with DB is to begin to make our digitized collection more visible to research communities and to begin building the relationships that will result in future projects and collaborations. These goals manifest in continuing the work of classifying and transcribing the cards, managing their metadata, and creating more robust public-facing representations of the project, under the guidance of project manager S. E. Hackney, and with contributions from the entire VMW cohort. (Read more of Hackney's reflections on the subject here.)

    As an invitation to inter-institutional connection and networking, those interested in our efforts toward constructing bridges to other digital humanities spaces can follow #arthistory on our Digital Humanities Slack ( and through our new listserv at

    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Itinera
    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Populations
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Spaces
    • VMW

    This is the original image used, artwork by William de Kooning. 


    The Beginning of an Exploratory Project in Neuroesthetics


    My name is Dheeraj K. Jalluri and I am an undergraduate senior working on an independent project with the Visual Media Workshop under the guidance of Dr. Alison Langmead and Lily Brewer. I have long been interested in the field of “neuroesthetics”, a relatively young field of study that looks at the neural basis of aesthetic experience. Much of the literature theorizes that certain qualities of art, such as contrast, gestalt grouping, symmetry, etc. elicit neural responses such that the viewer finds them aesthetically pleasing (Ramachandran 1999). In my project, I aim to quantitatively analyze artwork in a manner that contributes to neuroesthetics. There are several approaches that I am considering. One approach is to simply use these neuroesthetics theories as a basis to which characteristic(s) to focus on, and look at the characteristic within a time period, artistic movement, etc. Using symmetry as the characteristic, I started with this approach.


    I decided to look at symmetry using programs that I already had expertise in, notably Adobe Photoshop. The methodology I came up with is as follows:

    • Find image of artwork and open in Photoshop
    • Find middle axis of image (Photoshop nicely “snags” a marker to the center)
    • Cut and paste half of the image to one side of the axis into a new layer
    • Flip that layer over (vertically or horizontally, depending on orientation of central axis used) and move on top of the other half of the work
    • Put that layer on “Subtract” mode

    After the final step here, any areas with the same exact color and value show up as black. This value of black can then be measured or quantified. This method may be done with either original images or gray-scaled images, the latter of which would instead compare symmetry of just value rather than overall color. Attached are examples of what this method looks like with a work by William de Kooning.


    This semester I am also taking a course called “Neural Basis of Vision” with Dr. Marlene Cohen. It was a class that I have been excited about taking since I decided on the Neuroscience major at Pitt! Given that she is an expert in visual neuroscience, which I am attempting to use as the basis of my investigation, I asked her for some advice. Through my discussions with both Dr. Cohen and Dr. Douglas Ruff, a postdoctoral associate in her lab, I have discovered many other methods of potentially studying neuroesthetics from different angles. Some examples are using Mechanical Turk to have people rate artwork that varies in some characteristic or creating a code that will perform Fourier Analysis on a set of artworks.   

    Given the wealth of already established literature devoted to quantifying art, especially those with implications in neuroscience, I have decided to focus on understanding and learning these methods before continuing on with my previously described Photoshop method. Proper knowledge of these methods may help me in improving my own methods and/or lead to a more interesting focus of study! In my next blog post, I will detail what I have learned and possible next steps in formulating a method of study for my project.



    Ramachandran, V. S., and William Hirstein. "The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience." Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (1999): 15-51.

    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW

    Almost There with BitCurator

    For the last  couple of weeks on the Sustaining MedArt project I have focused on compiling what I have learned from comparing MedArt with MedArt-2014 in addition to continuing to work with BitCurator.

    In my last post I excitedly announced that I had conquered BitCurator perhaps a bit prematurely. I have found that creating a disk image of the hard drive holding MedArt and MedArt-2014 may not be possible. The 2 TB hard drive is too large to be successfully imaged on a computer with only 700 GB of storage left. To combat this problem I tried making a copy of MedArt (which is only 1.8 GB and much easier to work with than the 7.7 GB MedArt-2014), but I have not been able to get BitCurator to read any of the copies I made.

    However, I was able to simply copy and paste MedArt onto a small 16 GB flash drive and was able to use it to successfully experiment with some of the forensic tools on BitCurator. Using tools like Bulk Extractor to create reports I was able to see everything that had ever been on the flash drive I was using, even though everything on the flash drive was deleted before the copy of MedArt was added. I did find a few things that were interesting like email addresses attached to certain files that showed me when the files had been emailed and to whom. But the reports really seemed to focus on the actual flash drive more than on its present contents. So I think I will start moving away from BitCurator tools that require a disk image, granted there are not very many.

    The BitCurator tools that might provide more useful responses are FITS and sdhash, which I learned about by talking to Matt Burton in DSS. FITS can extract metadata from MedArt and MedArt-2014, and sdhash can compare data. I’m also going to look into Mac’s Filemerge utility which can compare folders. Hopefully using these tools I will be able to get results more relevant to the Sustaining MedArt project.   


    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

    Structuring Decomposing Bodies

    Working on Decomposing Bodies over the last month and a half has been an exercise in process. Shortly after the start of the semester, the Data (after)Lives show went up, featuring data from DB, some of the physical Bertillon cards and exploring many of the same ideas that we confront in DB every day. Data (after)Lives was a great way for me to see what Decomposing Bodies is as a concept, but since then, most of my work has been examining and manipulating it as a structure.

    Since DB has changed hands several times over the past few years, a lot of what I have been doing is following the threads of my predecessors, trying to understand their processes, the choices they’ve made, and their relationships to the thousands of image files that truly compose the heart of this project. For every task that needs to happen to construct the dataset around these images, and to make that data available to researchers, there are dozens of tiny tasks that have to take place. Tasks from, “mark which files have been uploaded to Omeka” and “transcribe the handwriting on the cards into metadata fields” all the way to “defrag the hard drive” and “back everything up.”

    Let me be honest, visual media isn’t actually my area of expertise. Or even my research interest. But! The way people collect, label and organize things is. In case you couldn’t guess, I am a PhD student at the iSchool, rather than in Art History. For me, Decomposing Bodies is an interesting blurring of observing and contributing to how resources get organized and disseminated. I am finding gaps in documentation— what does tag “pass1c” mean?— and creating my own protocols for the project going forward— it means the “Age”, “Apparent Age”, “Born in”, and “Complexion” fields have been transcribed.

    Everything that the VMW does with DB is in preparation for other people to do something else with it later. We have to try and answer questions about how imaginary potential future researchers will want our data to be formatted, and what kinds of questions they might want to ask. The Data (after)Lives exhibit is the beginning of presenting those questions, and inviting conversation around what it means that these cards exist in the first place. My work, for now, is about making sure that those conversations can continue, and that all the pieces of this project are speaking the same language.

    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  • A screen grab of MedArt ca. December 1996 c/o the Internet Archive.


    Update: Phase III of Sustaining MedArt

    It seems that autumn is finally here, more or less. It is a splendid season, but also perhaps the most hectic in academia-land. New students arrive, conference abstracts and grant proposals are due, and time seems to accelerate and contract alarmingly (or so it feels, as I get older).

    The Visual Media Workshop has expanded to include eight student researchers (from undergraduates to doctoral candidates), each arriving with their own skills and experiences and their own unique roles in our various projects.

    This post will focus specifically on Sustaining MedArt, our lab project funded by a Research & Development Grant from the division of Preservation and Access at the NEH. This project takes Images of Medieval Art & Architecture, a valuable scholarly resource and early instantiation of a digital humanities project, as a case study for exploring the correlation between usability and sustainability of digital content. Our research will culminate in the creation of a Socio-Technical Digital Preservation Roadmap with broad applicability to digital humanities projects.

    As of September, we have entered the third phase of our research, having successfully completed and analyzed initial user studies. For those who are curious about how a work plan might evolve for a year-long project, I’ve described our phases below:

    May 2016
    • conducted over 100 on-site, face-to-face interviews at the 51st International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan
    research team: Sarah Conell, Kiana Gonzalez, Alison Langmead, Jackie Lombard, and Aisling Quigley
    Summer 2016
    • transcribed and analyzed interviews from Kalamazoo
    • used grounded theory to extract phenomena from these interviews
    • began digital forensics work on the site (extracting file trees, etc.)
    research team: Kiana Gonzalez, Chelsea Gunn, Alison Langmead, and Aisling Quigley
    Fall 2016
    • develop the theoretical foundations for our project
    • continue digital forensics work with BitCurator
    • interview Dr. Alison Stones and early contributors to the site
    • submit paper abstracts for confernces
    research team: Lindsay Decker, Jedd Hakimi, Alison Langmead, and Aisling Quigley



    In this third phase, we are benefitting greatly from the significant contributions of Jedd Hakimi, doctoral candidate in Film Studies, who is creating an in-depth bibliography and developing the foundational underpinnings for our work. Lindsay Decker, MLIS student at the iSchool, is valiantly diving into BitCurator, battling with its many quirks, and becoming our in-house expert on digital forensics.

    Initial findings from our research thus far include the following discoveries:

    1.  many scholars implicitly trust the authenticity and reliability of the content on the Images of Medieval Art & Architecture site because of the obvious association with an academic institution (expressed through the ".edu" in the site's URL), and the presence of Dr. Alison Stones name on the homepage (a known and respected entity in the history of medieval art and architecture)
    2. many scholars express concern/embarassment/shame/guilt about the fact that they resort to Google for image searches, because they generally distrust the authenticity of the information they discover, or cannot find attributions for this content
    3. many assume that a search bar will improve the website. We've found evidence that the initial site creators and contributors experimented with a search feature in the early days of the website, but we've found no evidence that it was ever implemented as it is absent from the December 1996 screenshot.

    I will post with further updates in the not-too-distant future, and my fellow team-mates are also contributing to the site with their own blog entries. Stay tuned!


    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

    VMW Toolshop: Project Management

    This Friday's toolshop, facilitated by Kate Joranson, Alison Langmead, and myself, focuses on tools and techniques for project management. We have designed our discussion to encompass both available software and strategies for project planning and working with a team. For ease of accessing some of the resources we will discuss this morning, we have compiled a list of links in this post. Of course, this may also be useful for those of you who couldn't make it in person, though unfortunately, this blog post does not come with coffee or bagels.





    Google Keep




    Project charter guidelines

    Project one-pager

    Gantt charts

    Agile project management & sprints


    Trello as editorial calendar

    Other Resources

    Who are project managers? 

    Digital project management for digital humanities

    Project management for humanists

    It's a team if you use "reply all"


    • VMW

    Is a Search Engine Necessary [to MedArt]?

    A major trend that the Sustaining MedArt research team found in the interviews taken in Kalamazoo on the usability of the site was the assumption that a search engine would be useful or is necessary; many of the interviewees noted that it would be easier to navigate MedArt if there was a search bar or some kind of search function on the site. This trend made for an interesting inquiry on users' experiences with search engines. 

    One of the articles that I read, “Private Power, Public Interest: An examination of search engine accountability,” discusses information as a “critical commodity” of our modern society and search engines as shaping the internet user’s experience by emerging as “managers of information, organizing and categorizing content in a coherent, accessible manner” (Laidlaw 2008, 113). This was an interesting point that the article made, and I started to think about our trend in relation to this claim. Many of the interviewees would try to navigate through the site, and almost every single one of them would be able to navigate in order to find “Canterbury Cathedral” as we asked them to. This task was marked as “extremely easy” by most of the participants, even though some of them said it would make it easier if there was a search function on the site. This phenomenon in itself may support Laidlaw’s argument that search engines have made an impact on how internet users experience the web and how they expect to find information that they need. If they have to find information in an unexpected way, they yearn to have the ease of that search bar or search engine. In MedArt’s case, the unexpected way to find information was to follow a path by clicking the correct alphabetical symbols and finding information by manually “searching” a list of possible choices with your eyes and withyour own stored background knowledge about the information being sought.  

    Laidlaw argues that search engines owe a public interest duty because they control our informational experience (Laidlaw 2008, 123). She relays to us that, “[b]y controlling the structure of how information is accessed, search engines control the information flow. Without more, this might not be as consequential, however, search engines are now the portals through which the information on the Internet is experienced. They are seen as authoritative and reliable, and shape public opinion and meaning.” Similar to the subject headings that the Library of Congress creates to categorize world knowledge in a way that definitely shapes our ideas of how the world’s knowledge should be structured, Laidlaw argues that search engines do much of the same thing. She does discuss, however, the difficulties surrounding imposing a public interest duty on search engines. One of the most pressing difficulties is search engines staying neutral and organizing information in an unbiased fashion (Laidlaw 2008, 126-128).

    Overall, this trend of assuming that a search engine or search bar would be useful or is necessary is one that should and will definitely be explored more in depth. One of the starting questions for the Sustaining MedArt team could be, "is a search engine neccessary to have on the MedArt website?" 

    I know that I have barely even scratched the surface here. All that I mean this to be is food for thought until the Sustaining MedArt team takes the research further with some of the trends found in the interviews.  


    Laidlaw, Emily B. 2008. "Private Power, Public Interest: An examination of search engine accountability." International Journal of Law and Information Technology 17 (1): 113-45.


    On a more personal note:

    As my time at the VMW working on the bibliography for Sustaining MedArt and transcribing/coding interviews comes to an end, it is important that I reflect on the work I’ve done this semester and how it has made an impact on my experience and notion of research.  I’ve learned more specifically about some big concepts, like grounded theory, and a little bit about coding interviews. I’ve learned that it is entirely possible to construct a bibliography of resources on a project and on topics that I was not very familiar with when starting out. As someone who just took on a position as a Visiting Fine Arts Librarian in the Frick Fine Arts Library, this gives me hope for my future “search-and-seize” efforts (as one of my library school instructors called the practice of retrieving information). My work here has definitely had an impact on my experience and notion of research, in that it has exposed me to different ways of approaching research (using grounded theory) that makes a lot of sense to me and has the ability to be very rewarding in unexpected ways because of the nature of that approach. Overall, being exposed through this work to some of the approaches that I was unfamiliar with before has been very rewarding.



    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

    Learning About Grounded Theory

    While reading up on grounded theory I was having trouble coming up with a “grounded theory for dummies” definition that would help me with my own understanding of it. I started by reading articles by others who had tested grounded theory, used it in their work, and had come up with their own methods for applying grounded theory to their work. Everyone I was reading was starting with grounded theory but many were using different methods and achieving different outcomes. I ended up facing frustration and decided that I needed to begin again, but this time at the source. So I started reading Glaser and Strauss’s 1967 explanation of the theory that they had “discovered,” and it’s actually easy enough to understand right from their first chapter. They describe grounded theory as the “discovery of theory from data” (Glaser and Strauss 1973, 1).


    Analyze the data you’re working with and extract a theory, or multiple theories, from it.

    Don’t try to prove some theory with the data you have; analyze and compare that data in order to generate theories (Glaser and Strauss 1973, 2).  

    I also really enjoyed Roy Suddaby’s article about “What Grounded Theory is Not” (Suddaby, 2006). He explains that what Glaser and Strauss were trying to do was fight against the presumption that all of the subject matter that was dealt with by the social sciences and the natural sciences was the same, which we now know to distinguish between as qualitative and quantitative (Suddaby 2006, 633). By focusing on the importance of interpretive work, Glaser and Strauss were revolutionizing the way that researchers could deal with and react to the qualitative data they are working with (Suddaby 2006, 633). Suddaby’s article gives 6 big misconceptions that most people have about grounded theory that I found quite helpful to read:

    - “Grounded theory is not an excuse to ignore the literature”: It’s important to have some background knowledge about the data and the field you’re doing research in (Sudabby 2006, 634).

    - “Grounded theory is not presentation of raw data”: The data should be digested and theories developed—interviews are a good example; you shouldn’t just present the transcripts, you should analyze them, find common themes, and abstract the experiences into theoretical statements (Suddaby 2006, 635). 

    - “Grounded theory is not theory testing, content analysis, or word counts”: “[t]he purpose of grounded theory is not to make truth statement about reality, but, rather, to elicit fresh understandings about patterned relationships between social actors and how these relationships and interactions actively construct reality” (Suddaby 2006, 636). This doesn’t mean don’t use mixed methods, it’s just that you’re not starting your inquiry with a hypothesis or a theory, you’re looking for that theory in the data (Suddaby 2006, 636-637).

    - “Grounded theory is not simply routine application of formulaic technique of data”: For example, if you code your interviews but don’t apply any subjective interpretation to them, or if you simply let software analyze your data without applying any subjective interpretation to them, or if you present any of your data or routine “mechanical” analysis of the data without “creative insight”—this is not grounded theory (Suddaby 2006, 637-638).

    - “Grounded theory is not perfect”: This one is self-explanatory. Some people try to make their methods using grounded theory perfect by creating rigid rules and guidelines, but social processes are very complicated, and saying for example that you recorded just the right amount of interviews for a study, or that you collected the correct amount of data for it, can be faulty because that is a very subjective assumption to make (Suddaby 2006, 638-639).

    - “Grounded theory is not easy”: A great grounded theory study is “the product of considerable experience, hard work, creativity and, occasionally, a healthy dose of good luck” (Suddaby 2006, 639).

    - “Grounded theory is not an excuse for the absence of a methodology”: Your methods for collecting, analyzing, and drawing theories from that data should be clear in the presentation of your research (Suddaby 2006, 640).

    After completing some of this reading, and analyzing some of the interviews we recorded for the Sustaining MedArt project, I definitely agree with Suddaby that grounded theory is not easy, but I feel like the definition of what it is and how it works is now much clearer and easy to understand.


    Works Cited

    Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 1973. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.

    Suddaby, Roy. 2006. From the Editors: What Grounded Theory is Not. Academy of Management Journal 49 (4): 633-42.

    • Current Projects
    • Sustaining MedArt
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  • Antonio Roberts, f(Glitch), (CC BY-SA 2.0)


    Summer 2016 Syllabus: "Digital Humanities," MLIS Program, University of Pittsburgh

    Please find a link here and below to the most recent version of the course that I teach in the Digital Humanities to the MLIS students here at the University of Pittsburgh. This and my PhD-level course have been going through iterations over the last three years. 

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW