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

    Ferdinand Bauer engraving

     

    What is the real, "real" object?

    As an information scientist striving to define and describe online exhibitions, I am constantly reflecting on what constitutes a “real object” versus one that is acknowledged only through its absence. The status of the object has historically correlated to changes in museology, and it seems we are in the midst of a particularly challenging moment, in this regard. With the proliferation of museum apps, for example, museum visitors are simultaneously engaging with site-specific media while also being pulled away from their actual physical or “real” surroundings.

    In her writing, Andrea Witcomb suggests that objects in the material world carry “weight...authority, knowledge and privilege” whereas “multimedia,” or virtual objects, are characterized by their superficiality or otherness: their immediacy, temporariness, and popularity.[1]

    Traveling through and among the various institutions and collections that were included on the Consuming Nature workshop itinerary, I was constantly thinking about perceived distinctions between real and digital objects. Particularly as we hopped from the Hunt Library, with its exquisite engravings and ink drawings of botanical specimens, to the overgrown vacant lot of Carrie Furnaces, I also thought about what distinguishes the real and the real object. This is a confusing and unhelpful qualification, but I have been trying to grapple with the levels of human intervention that are represented by or within any particular object, and how these levels contribute to notions of authoritativeness and authenticity.

    Of course, these ruminations largely revolved around the figure of the “curator,” the individual traditionally endowed with the power to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one. At the core of curation likes the act of selection or “the crucial idea” that “turns a part of the natural world into an object and a museum piece.”[2]

    As an “object,” where does Ferdinand Bauer’s engraving of Pinus cembra (1803-1824) stand in relation to the wild grass growing in the garden next to an abandoned Pennsylvania steel mill?

    Throughout the workshop, I found myself pondering the distinction between reality and fiction, or between data and capta. With regard to this latter element, I was thinking about data in the eighteenth century sense, as something that is given or assumed rather than something that is captured, or taken. At its conclusion, I think my brain had accepted that everything we saw during the workshop was the result of human intervention: from the alcohol-soaked beetles in the CMNH’s section of entomology to the errant trees growing atop a former furnace.

    Should I be anxious about the way that museums incorporate real and fake representations of things? Probably not.

    Is it important to signpost these things, such as what parts of the dinosaur’s skeleton are actual fossils versus man-made plaster reproductions? For me, yes.

    Brenda Laurel, author of the book Computers as Theatre (1991), describes the artificiality of the computer interface as follows:

    “...in the world of interfaces, the graphic designer renders the objects (like zoom-boxes and pop-up menus)” and represents “both concrete and ephemeral aspects of context through the use of such elements as line, shadow, color, intensity, texture, and style.” (10)

    In depicting nature, broadly, so many representations (2D and 3D, alike) provide a similarly mediated version of “reality.”

    As Colleen O’Reilly and I endeavor to describe and even re-contextualize the dioramas in CMNH’s Hall of Botany through our online exhibition project, these are some of the questions I continue to ask.

    [1] Andrea Witcomb, “A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), 35. 

    [2] Susan Pearce, “Museum Objects,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2003) 10.  

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
    • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
    • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
    • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
    Schenley Park Entrance 1922

    Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

     

    Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

    In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, about the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

    I also had learned from the work of Peter Clericuzio (Currently Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) on the architecture of Forbes Field about how in the early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together, while at the same time, the funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment, via philanthropic activities.

    At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in a culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

    At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks, which as Lulu explained, can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the linkage of art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
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    Botanical dioramas, collaborative research, digital space

    Aisling and I continue to chip away at our Botany Hall project, and it seems high-time for a status update. Back in January, we held a colloquium in the History of Art and Architecture department to share our progress and experience with three undergraduate museum studies students, Leslie Rose, Eliza Wick, and Bridget Lynch, who worked on our project in the context of their academic internships last fall. They all posted here about the research projects that they designed and executed, which will be included in our digital exhibition, alongside the work of MLIS students Kate Madison and Emily Enterline. In the colloquium, we traced the development of our research questions, and the network of experts and archives that now form the foundation of our work. We got valuable feedback from HAA faculty and students, as well as from CMNH staff who joined us for the discussion. Our presentation from that day is attached here.

    This semester, we have continued to distill the key insights that we want to get across in our exhibition, and what tools we want to use at this stage in the process. We are pondering a digital tool that we could potentially use to create a first iteration of our exhibition, such as Wordpress or Tumblr, something that could be flexible as we add, edit, and test with users. We hope that a first iteration will help us determine the best structure for this online experience, which is one of the key questions for us this project. At the moment, we are creating content in the form of Word documents of text and images, and hand drawn maps of how the content will interconnect online. Our ultimate goal is to work with a web designer to create a customized, interactive, online experience, which will require grant funding, so at the moment whatever tools we use need to be extremely accessible and adaptable, and not get in the way of us trying to plan our digital curatorial argument. As far as our future visions go, however, we are inspired by the structure of things like this Oxford Museum exhibition about brains. It is both informative and manageable, both guided and open, and it makes digital space feel welcoming and flexible as opposed to limited and tricky.

    We are also very lucky to be participating in this year’s Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh workshop, Consuming Nature, which will mean visiting local collections and participating in discussions with a group of other Pitt scholars from a variety of fields who are interested in notions of landscape and relations between humans and nature. We are cooking up some other plans as well for applying to conferences and organizing workshops this coming summer and fall as ways to present the results of our research and continue investigating how Botany Hall works, and plan to have a first iteration of our exhibition available for online viewing in Fall 2017.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
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    A Catalyst for Nostalgia: Lion Attacking a Dromedary

    A Catalyst for Nostalgia: Lion Attacking a Dromedary

    Isabella Sigado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Botany Hall: The Advantages and Disadvantages To Navigating A Self-Directed Research-Intensive Internship

    As I applied to an academic internship over the previous summer, I was invited to collaborate in in an ongoing research endeavor that was being led by two Ph.D. candidates in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, Colleen O’Reilly of the History of Art and Architecture department, and Aisling Quigley of the Information Sciences department. Their research was concerning Botany Hall of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and was conceived out of the realization that there is very little knowledge about the conception of the hall and its content available to museum visitors. With the pursuit of finding more knowledge about this mysterious hall that is tucked away on the second floor of the museum, in the spring of 2016 Colleen and Aisling began conducting research through many veins like provenance, history, and individuals who helped make the physical hall, as well as individuals in charge of curating and making decisions about it on behalf of the museum. The purpose of the research was to eventually create an online exhibition of Botany Hall that would be available to the public for educational and informational purposes. Colleen informed me at our first meeting of their current research and end goals. I was very intrigued, but expected that I would do basic internship tasks to aid their process and help nurse along their end goal of an online exhibition. To my surprise, Colleen told me that they wanted myself and two other undergraduate students to conduct our own research of our choosing that relates to Botany Hall. We would eventually contribute our own final product, of which the platform would also be up to our discretion, to be a subset of their final online exhibition. After visiting the hall and considering what knowledge could be emphasized to museum visitors, I decided to do my research from an art historical and visual studies angle. I found the dioramas that made up the hall to be extremely interesting yet contradictory. I was confused why there was an artistic painting in the background of each diorama. Why was art in a science museum? The time spent on my internship each week was rather autonomous and up to my discretion. The only requirements I received were that I must work on my internship for 10 hours per week, I should keep a journal of my progress, and that I would also meet with Colleen weekly to discuss my progress and findings. The only person I reported to was Colleen and Aisling, as they dealt with the relationship with the university and museum. Other than that, my research and final product were up to me and therefore, my weekly schedule of what I needed to accomplish was the same, along with what type of final product I would want to contribute. Throughout the semester I would conduct research by finding primary sources related to the museum and the hall as well as secondary sources that related to the display style and related topics in visual studies. I would also visit exhibitions like the botanical show in the Hunt library at CMU, make appointments to see various Carnegie archives, and explore other areas of the Carnegie museums to research. Over the course of the semester, I felt a lot of feelings of being overwhelmed or alone on my research due to the nature of the internship. The autonomy can be very exciting as it is based on self-inquiry, yet it can also be extremely overwhelming when you have little direction on your process and end-product. Meeting weekly with Colleen was very helpful, but it would have been nice to be able to meet with the two other undergraduates working on their own research and projects on Botany Hall more often. Unfortunately scheduling became a major issue since we did not have specific time we all met together during the week and our busy school and work schedules made it almost impossible to find time to collaborate and inform one and other along the way. Throughout the semester my topic also evolved many times as I found more information or realized I wanted to focus more on another element. My plan for an end-product changed many times from originally wanting to do a formal essay to the more visual and interactive media of a Prezi presentation. My final Prezi presentation discusses the oddity and general disinterest revolving the artistic qualities of the dioramas, specifically the idealistic background painting and why there is art in a science museum? I later go on to discuss problems of trustworthiness with subjective images such as art paintings that are used for the education of science. After arguing for why we can trust these images, I ultimately prove why those same artistic qualities are the what make the diorama so effective as an educational tool. Furthermore, I explain how art through different mediums and media can be advantageous for communicating educational material, specifically scientific information in this example. Overall, this internship was extremely helpful in strengthening my confidence in my research and preparation and time management abilities. It also gave me a taste of what it takes to do research at a higher level of education, which is something I found useful as I am interested in graduate school. Not only did I enjoy the material I researched, but it also inspired me to further this research. With an interest in focusing more on visual knowledge through the study of botanical illustrations, I applied to the London Field Studies Program in 2017, to which I found out I was accepted! If it were not for this internship, I would have never had the chance to do so much independent research on my own and strengthen the necessary skills, but I especially would not have been introduced to a topic that I find so fascinating.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Academic Interns
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Site Specificity and Diversity Concerns within Itinera

     

    Since starting on Itinera, I've focused on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-Century aristocrat and poet. Specifically, I focus on her tour from London, through Eastern Europe, and into Istanbul with her hubsband, the English ambassador to Turkey. As her introduction reads:

    With her husband and ambassador Edward Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu set out to Turkey from Westminster, England by way of the Netherlands, Austria, and Serbia in August of 1716. At that time, Turkey was at war with the Venetian Republic, whereby Mr. Montagu was assigned to mediate on behalf of England an agreement with Austria, in the attempt to prevent Austria from engaging with the Spanish power in the Mediterranean. During this time, Lady Montagu entertained at court while studying Arabic and reading Arabic poetry. Toward the end of their tour, her husband inevitably failed at establishing a truce with Austria, his position was usurped by competition, and he failed to ascend to a political post of any import. Shortly after they separated. Lady Montagu turned her sights to Italy for almost the rest of her life, keeping up with her studies and correspondence with her stately and artistic friends abroad.

    Originally, I saw my take on this project to be one that diversifies both the travelling agent and their destinations. As it was, and, in light of recent electoral events, selecting and following a wealthy, white woman as she travels through Eastern Europe and Turkey was not going to suffice. Thus I've redirected my thinking on what it means to do diverse digital humanities and scholarship as far as I can see: though it would be wrong to ignore the readily available histories of white travellers during this time, I use Montagu as locus to investigate the structural biases built in to the historicization and visualization of these white, European travellers.

    In doing so, I hope to place at the forefront practical and conceptual best practices: practically, I aim for site specificity in order to visually differentiate the plot points on Itinera's map. When an agent, Montagu, visits Rome, for example, she lists details such as churches, squares, villas, often without naming the building or describing its function. So I focus my attention on teasing evidence foremost from the primary material, (i.e., Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters) and historical data (i.e., histories of medieval bridges, churches, etc.) in order to best differentiate between sites. I ask myself questions such as:

    • Architecturally, which sites, details, buildings were extant while she was visiting and what buildings are known to have been demolished? This question might lead to understanding what peoples were displaced with the destruction of their communities and spaces both during the Austrio-Turskish War as well as more contemporary wars.
    • Socio-politically: what positions did her hosts hold? I can find much of this information in the endnotes, but sometimes this would still need further investigation, especially with the misspelling of a name or location. Certainly, this question can help in determining in what "castle on the hill" she stayed while in Budapest in January 1717, but even more importantly this specificity can shed light on her hosts' alliances and what hand they had in the erasure of other histories.
    • Also socio-politically: what historically significant meetings and events occurred while she was in that city that would indicate the location of a town center, assembly hall, or city center? This question could shed light on significant events in the history of the Habsburg Empire and could point to the location of other points of interest in uncovering other histories. For example, what effects, if any, did Montagu's epistolary criticism of the Imperial German Diet's assembly to other aristocrats (i.e., Alexander Pope) have on court life? Would the ramifications of her criticisms have any political or legistlative effect?

    Practically, if I'm able to piece together pieces of evidence that in some way answer questions such as these, I am able to narrow down a specific location with some degree of certainty. And if such details are not available, I do not take it upon myself to differentiate the location and will, as necessary, defer to others who specialize in these histories. I recognize at this point I am an interlocutor to interpret subjective data and place it into a flattened network of other data points on a map. In this case, if I name the site simply as "Rome instead" of "the north wall of the Colosseum," I leave the reponsibility of further specification to a future historian that may perhaps work with a new visualization and evidence.

    This attention to site specificity, of course, serves a worthwhile conceptual function as well. Although I am still working on this connection, attention to historio-politically mediated spaces in turn draws attention to the systems of power and the erasure of other histories. 

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Itinera
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
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    Women of Carnegie's Botany Hall

                Located on the second floor of CMNH, adjacent to the North American Wildlife Section, the Hall of Botany seems like a forgotten space by the museum. Initially, I was unsure if I would find a story that genuinely interested me.  I had no idea of the wealth of research avenues that would peak my interests.

                The narrative that I found most engaging was women’s roles in the conception and creation of the dioramas featured in the Botany Hall. In the beginning, I believed that researching the work and lives of these women and writing their biographies would sufficiently tell this story. However, while I was exploring through the abundant archival documents and photographs, I began to realize that there was something larger going on. I quickly learned that by learning about these women’s lives, I was only scratching the surface. The questions that came to mind focused on the subject of botany as a discipline. Was the study of botany considered “women’s work”? If so, how did this happen? What happened to the study of botany in academic settings? Has it been labeled as another topic? Other questions related to the subject’s relationship with museums. Why was CMNH neglecting this section? Were other museums doing the same thing? Did this lack of interest relate to gender? I was really seeking to understand these relationships. 

                I think the biggest challenge I have faced so far in this research project is trying to create a coherent narrative that connects the women of CMNH’s Botany Hall to this broader investigation into Botany’s importance in natural history museums and as a discipline general. Through these weeks of research, I have formed many questions but at times forming the connections between these queries seem disjointed or forced. In the coming weeks, I believe that as I continue my research and gather more details I will be able to see the connections that exist. 

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Academic Interns
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Midterm Blog Post- Update on Progress

    After reading only a mere summary of a few possible academic internship opportunities, I really had no idea what to expect when I chose to join an internship that involved working on a digital exhibition of Botany Hall in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I had no idea what my role in this project would be, nor how large of a project this digital exhibition would be. When I first met with PhD candidate, Colleen O’Reilly, one of the two students in charge of creating the idea for the exhibition and curating it through each stage of the process, I was a little overwhelmed when she explained my role in the project. I was told that I could basically contribute any final project to the digital exhibition that I saw suitable after visiting and extensively researching Botany Hall – a site in the museum that mysteriously seems to have little obvious and accessible information available about it to the public. I was generally confused about what Botany Hall was, considering I knew it had been years since I visited the Carnegie Natural History Museum. She explained that the hall contained dioramas of various biomes around the United States.

    After meeting with Colleen and being introduced to the project, I examined Botany Hall on my own using a careful and precise art historical lens and the first thing that really stood out to me was the oddity of the idealistically painted backgrounds in the dioramas. They were made to be illusionistic and to make the three-dimensional objects in the foreground appear to extend into the background painting, giving an overall trompe-l’oeil effect. It seemed so odd that something so subjective like art could be used as an educational tool for something accredited with being so objective like science. At this point I knew my contribution to the digital exhibition would revolve around researching the background paintings and I ultimately decided that I could best contribute to the digital exhibition on the hall through producing an essay and wall text with images.

    Probably the biggest problem that I have had is one that might seem like a positive at first, but I have had the bittersweet problem of finding so much information, whether primary or secondary, to sift through it to ultimately choose what information is relevant. To my advantage in research, individuals that worked on this project previously had digitized a lot of primary sources that were at my disposal, so accessing that information was not as much of a struggle. The only aspect that therefore overwhelmed me were the many angles to pursue in looking at Botany Hall which made it hard to form just one cohesive argument. That one narrowed down argument is something that I am still struggling to define and is always being polished and refined in my process towards materializing my research as a final product.

    A lot of my time has been spent contacting other archives or individuals that would be primary sources regarding Botany Hall as well as researching data bases for secondary sources that hold relevance. The biggest problem I have faced that is both a pro and a con is the large amount of autonomy that I have in setting my own work schedule, research topic, and final product that contributes to the larger picture of a digital exhibition on Botany Hall. At this point in the semester, I have done a lot of research and am now just waiting to meet with other individuals and finalize my ideas for my contributions. For the time being, my research questions are whether art can be considered a legitimate platform for conveying scientific knowledge, and what scientific knowledge can be learned from 2D art paintings in this specific style versus other styles, mediums and media such a 3D crafted objects. I hope to make this a more precise and polished statement as I continue my process.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Academic Interns
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

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