Faculty Work

  • William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.

    William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.

    • William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.
    • William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, pl. 27.

    The Body as Microcosm

    In the first century BCE, the Roman author Vitruvius wrote: “just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.” [book 3, chapter 1]  Manuscript copies of Vitruvius’s text do not include illustrations and so authors who have translated and edited his work generally include images to clarify the meaning of his difficult, technical Latin.
    The circle and square have been considered the most perfect shapes since Plato, who theorized that a set of proportional relationships expressed in regular geometric forms governed the structure of the cosmos and were the cause of beauty in music and the visible world.  Vitruvius taught that the same simple forms and proportions could be found in the human body and were the source of beauty in architecture.
    The copiously illustrated 1521 Como edition of Vitruvius published by the Milanese engineer Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) includes two wood-block prints representing the same passage.  Cesariano distorts the length of the arms and legs, hands and feet, in order for his man to fit the Vitruvian ideal.
    Visualizations of Vitruvius’s ideas about beauty, proportion, and the human body gave his work renewed meaning in the Renaissance and continued to resonate well into the twentieth century, as evidenced by Le Corbusier’s “Modulor Man.”


    Le Corbusier, Poem of the Right Angle (1955)

    Reflecting on a six-decade long career that ran from the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II era, the Swiss-born artist Le Corbusier (1887-1965) composed his Poem of the Right Angle (Le Poème de l’Angle Droit) between 1947 in 1953.  The work is a summation of his life-long enquiry into the principles of aesthetics, which he explored through media ranging from painting and architecture to ceramics and textiles.
    Unlike his earlier publications that combined photography and type to convey ideas about mass-production, standardization, and modernity, Le Corbusier’s hand is present throughout the pages of the Poem of the Right Angle.  Limited-edition color lithographs accompany each section of the poem, and typography is rejected in favor of the artist’s own script.  Abandoning perspective, idealization, and the naturalistic use of color (the copies of Renaissance paintings in the Cloister are exemplary of these principles) the form and content of the Poem of the Right Angle celebrate the beauty and immediacy of spontaneous human experience.
    The concept of proportion is central to Le Corbusier’s ideas about beauty. In antiquity, it was believed that the cosmos was ordered by a fundamental set of proportional relationships, an idea revived during the Renaissance. Simple geometrical forms – square, circle, sphere – embody these proportions and were believed to be beautiful and perfect.

    Le Corbusier, the Modulor Man

    Central to Le Corbusier’s ideas about proportion were the Fibonacci numbers, a sequence in which each term is the sum of the previous two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.  Finding this principle in natural forms – from the spiral of the nautilus shell to the length of different parts of the human body – Le Corbusier developed a sequence of standardized measurements called the Modulor.
    The accord of these preferred measurements with the human body is represented in the “Modulor Man,” a standing, male figure that incorporates the principle of the Fibonacci numbers in the following manner.  The distance from the ground to the hand above the head is 2.26 meters; from the ground to the top of the head is 1.83 meters; the difference is 0.43 meters.  From the ground to the navel is 1.13 meters; from the navel to the top of the head is 0.70 meters.  These dimensions are terms in a Fibonacci sequence:

    0.43 | 0.70 | 1.13 | 1.83
    The Modulor could be extended indefinitely in both directions to generate a sequence of preferred measurements that functioned in metric as well as feet-and-inches.  Systematic use of the Modulor, Le Corbusier asserted, would guarantee the creation of beautiful forms in harmony with nature and the human body.  The Modulor was a tool Le Corbusier believed could unite humanity, a goal he shared with his one-time collaborator, Otto Neurath.

    Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, 2nd ed. (1737)
    Title Page

     A reader of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is greeted with this title page, the publisher’s description of the book.  The volume’s illustrations and the exemplary status of the illustrators are noted first, a telling placement that not only indicates the enormous appeal visual diagrams of scientific information had at the time, but also signals the important function of pictures in the process of learning generally.
    The phrase “DRAWN AFTER THE LIFE” corresponds to the impulse toward veracity in both scientific disciplines and the fine arts.  Bidloo illustrated in front of his specimen, not unlike a portraitist observing and drawing in the presence of his subject, or “drawing from life.” His anatomical illustrations – split brains, ribboned skin, veins fanned out – were indeed drawn after the lifetime of the person: only a dead man could confess this much about the internal operations of living. Anatomical knowledge can only surface after the life. This phrase identifies the specimens as dead, and further emphasizes that death is predicated on having lived. Pressing ever more firmly on the distinction between the reader’s living and the subject’s deadness, “AFTER THE LIFE” sonically recalls “afterlife,” a state beyond both life and death, a term that potentially recharges the anatomized body with spirituality.

    Plate 27 | Upper Torso; back muscles exposed
    Plate 30 | Upper Torso; spine exposed; wrists bound

    Prior to the modern era, bodies of convicted criminals were most readily available, sentenced not only to death but also to dissection, a public punishment that served as a moralizing warning to citizens. The bound wrists in plate 30 recall a handcuffed convict, reminding us of her likely status as a criminal punished in life and in death. Used to keep her corpse in position for dissection and illustration, the bindings signal a body as intractable in death as it was in life.

    In her advancing dissection, the cadaver’s female gender remains intact through a system of aesthetic markers: a delicately turned wrist, manicured fingernails, and nipped-in waist. These qualities, however, are parenthetical to our understanding of the spine and musculature of the back; instead, they unnecessarily signal a gendered body. In this illustration, femininity becomes as much at issue as the vertebral column. Her long hair still braided and tucked into a drapery like a bridal veil, it feels as though we have encountered a woman at her bath; only, it isn’t a robe slipping down her curvaceous torso, but her skin peeling from her body. Dissection here is a type of undressing, a sexualizing aesthetic that foregrounds the erotic potential of any female body and presumes her obliging desire and complacency -- her incapacitation notwithstanding.

    Here, both the feminine body and female sexuality are revealed as unwieldy, requiring not only moral but physical control to correct her unacceptable behavior, and restrain her undisciplined body in both life and death. The reward for such control is medical knowledge, as well as the erotic pleasure of objectification that is embedded in the patriarchal gaze.

    Plate 67 | Muscles for Bending the Fingers and Carpus (Wrist)
    Seeking scientific accuracy and professional reliability, early anatomical studies required illustrators to work alongside dissectors.  In this drawings of the arm, the dissector’s tools are included – a wood block propping up the elbow, a bolt of cloth cradling the delicate wrist, and tiny scaffoldings lifting tendon from bone.  Making an aesthetic choice to present these practical necessities of dissection, the artist suggests that he – with his own hands – thoroughly and precisely captured the anatomist’s procedures that revealed the construction of the human hand.  Each block or pin is made to speak for the credibility of both the image and its maker, as if to say these hands were drawn accurately, down to the very tools that opened them.

    Plate 70 | Muscles which Extend the Carpus, Fingers, and Thumb
    The hand, flayed and pinned, is understood to be lifeless – clearly, this is the arm of a cadaver.  Its fingers, however, gently curve around the edge of the wooden board as if they are about to move.  With the highly-textured fabric draped over the shoulder, the image recalls slumber more than death, like a sleeping man with an arm poking out from under his bed sheets.  The aestheticization of the anatomized body calls into question distinctions between the living and the dead and how durable those distinctions might be, ultimately reminding us of the incomprehensibility of death in the mind of the living.

    Plate 71 | Muscles for Extending the Carpus and Fingers
    Pins and mounts might be expected in a dissection, but the book in plate 71 is a more curious object.  Hugging the edge of the book, the cadaver’s bicep nudges the cover slightly open, literally inserting itself as an anatomical specimen among its pages.  On the one hand, the book does the aesthetic work of concealing the gruesome site of amputation, as well as displays the pulled-out muscles; on the other, it symbolically links the cadaver’s body with text and the authoritative knowledge we associate with written language.

    The presence of the book itself is not so unlikely since anatomists depended upon previous anatomical texts as guides in their own dissections. Whether or how a book was used as a tool in Cowper’s lab remains ambiguous. Bidloo’s aesthetic decision to include it as part of the dissection record, however, can be seen as a claim for the legitimacy of illustrations as educational tools. Such drawings are intended to be “read” for specialized information. His artistic decisions convey information, as well as trigger aesthetic associations with learning and knowledge.  Is it ever possible to see a “scientific” image and not have an aesthetic re


    Computational Identity

    The fantastic scholar David Berry recently drew attention to a number of issues surrounding facial recognition and the impact of remote sensing in public. While working on Decomposing Bodies, and thinking about article's such as this, I have begun to start addressing a concept forming in my head called, "computational identity." The art project of ANTI-SURVEILLANCE FEMINIST POET HAIR & MAKEUP PARTY is particularly important in this vein. Please do check out both Prescott's post and the work of the group.

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    • Decomposing Bodies
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    • VMW

    In the first year the NEH was in existence...

    ...FIVE of the grants went to projects incorporating computing. ("The digital humanities community responded to NEH’s call for grants, resulting in the Endowment funding at least five digital humanities projects during its first full year of operation.") For more information, please do see Meredith Hindley's fascinating article, "The Rise of the Machines" at the NEH's own site, http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/julyaugust/feature/the-rise-the-machines.

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    What do you value about studying the humanities?

    Our colleagues over at 4humanities.org have brought our attention to an "idea comparison" engine that they have set up to talk about what the value of studying the humanities might be. You can visit the survey here: http://www.allourideas.org/4humanities. It presents you with a series of dyads, allowing you to pick between different options...including "I can't decide." You may also add your own thoughts. A peek at the results is also revealing...

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  • André-Guillaume Dezauche. Carte Botanique de France from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Augustin Pyramus de Candolle. Courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University.


    Natural History

    Drew Armstrong

    Formal Analysis and Plant Classification 

    Before the nineteenth century, the main challenge of studying plants was learning to identify different species and assign standard, scientific names.  This skill was essentially visual and developed through the inspection of specimens in carefully arranged botanical gardens.  As new plant species flooded European collections as a product of expanded trade networks and global exploration, scholars developed a number of distinct systems of classification to cope with the enlarged scope of botanical knowledge.  In the Encyclopédie, the comparison of the systems proposed by Tournefort and Linnaeus made this situation manifest to mid-eighteenth-century readers.

    By the late eighteenth-century, the figure whose name became synonymous with botanical taxonomy and nomenclature was the Swedish-born scholar Carl Linnaeus.  Focusing exclusively on the parts of plants involved in reproduction (or “fructification”), Linnaeus simplified the process of categorizing species based on the visual inspection of the flower and the number, proportion, shape and location of pistils and stamens.

    Linnaeus divided the plant kingdom into three “tribes” based on leaf types and further sub-divided these into families (trees, grasses, ferns, mosses) grouped by common characteristics or “distinguishing marks.” Families were further subdivided into Classes, Orders, Genera, Species, and Varieties.  Orders and classes were established only as an aid to memory; Linnaeus did not believe they reflected “natural” groupings.  Genera and species, by contrast, existed in nature: all species in the same genus shared the same configuration of sexual organs and each genus was marked by a single “essential characteristic” apparent “at first sight” to the practiced eye.  Species existed as communities of individuals that could reproduce.  Varieties differed only due to accidents or environmental factors that in no way altered the fundamental characteristics of a species.

    Books like this abridged, English edition of Linnaeus’s Philosophia Botanica explained his method to amateurs.  Rather than depicting individual plant species, Linnaeus included only a small number of simple line engravings illustrating all variants on the form of different parts of plants.  On one plate, for example, 62 leaf types are illustrated in schematic renderings and served to establish a systematic vocabulary of terms that could be applied to the description and naming of any plant.

    Cross-Section of the Andes

    Systems of botanical nomenclature are intended to be universal in their application and were based on visible characteristics that allowed species and genera to be distinguished from each other.  Of secondary concern to figures such as Linnaeus were issues such as the geographic distribution of plants, though since the Renaissance such data has been routinely gathered in encyclopedic compilations that aspire to provide thorough descriptions of individual species.  The use of representations such as maps and topographical cross-sections to show the relationship between geography, climate, altitude, and dominant plant species appears to be a major innovation around 1800.

    Cursory remarks about plant distribution are encountered in earlier works, especially in the writings of travelers.  Tournefort, who was sent on a mission to the Near East by the French administration in 1700, found that as he ascended Mount Ararat (Armenia), he encountered plant species typical of increasingly northerly parts of Europe.  The German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) made the same observation in the Andes during his travels to South America between 1799 and 1804.

    In 1805, Humboldt presented his “Essay on the Geography of Plants” at the Institut de France in Paris, illustrated with a single cross-section through the Andes.  In this famous image, Humboldt assembled information from many related disciplines into a single, graphically compelling diagram.  Rather than focusing on identifying individual species in isolation, Humboldt sought to understand the interrelation of phenomena and the impact of contextual variables such as climate, altitude, and soil types on the growth and distribution of life.

    In his best-known published work – Cosmos (1845-1862) – Humboldt aspired to present the reader with a complete “portrait of nature” and of man’s place within it.  The mid-nineteenth-century German school atlas exhibited here includes a cross-section of the Andes based directly on the work of Humboldt and was among the kinds of imagery that inspired Otto Neurath in his development of an international picture language.

    Botanical Distribution Map of France

    Publication of the third edition of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s important Flore française (1803-1815) was overseen by the Swiss-born botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841).  In addition to proposing a new system of plant classification, de Candolle included a novel “Botanical Map of France” (Carte botanique de la France).  Though thematic mapping was not completely new, this is an especially important early example of the technique being applied to natural history.  The purpose of the “Botanical Map of France” was two-fold: to graphically represent the extent of botanical knowledge at the time of publication and to define five geographic zones where distinct plant species dominated.

    Variations in the typography used for place names denote different levels of botanical knowledge. The author intended that the map indicate where botanists should concentrate their efforts:

    Capital letters (PARIS; MONTPELLIER; TURIN) indicate areas were plant species were well-documented in many published sources.
    Small capitals (Grenoble; Geneva) indicate sites described in a single published flora.

    Typography thus served to underline not only what parts of France were well documented by botanists, but also which cities lacked sophisticated scientific communities (for example, the major Atlantic port city of Bordeaux).

    The “Botanical Map of France” used five colors to indicate different plant zones, resulting in a novel method for grouping species based on environment rather than on the degree of similarity apparent in their visible parts.

    Like Humboldt’s exactly contemporary cross-sectional analysis of the Andes, the “Botanical Map of France” expanded plant studies to encompass the relationship between environment and distribution.  Variations in temperature and elevation were understood to be critical factors.  In order for the viewer to grasp the impact of altitude on plant distribution, elevations above sea-level are illustrated by dotted contour lines with heights indicated in meters.  The technique was borrowed from nautical cartography, which had long incorporated depth measurements on coastal maps.

    Species Distribution

    Rae Di Cicco

    In the early modern era, the heterogeneity of flora and fauna found in different parts of the world was seen in terms of God’s delight in variety – the diversity of species distributed around the globe precluded creative monotony.  Identifying the context of a specimen was less important than illustrating its unique characteristics.
    Earlier examples of atlases of natural history that include geographic specificity in their illustrations of species do so by including visual clues in the backgrounds, such as regionally specific architecture.  The botanical illustrations by Johann Christoph Volkamer and Robert John Thornton exhibited at the entrance to the Hall Gallery are exemplary of this technique.
    Theorizing about the relationship between species and their environments, George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) made the challenging claim that animals and plants developed characteristics suited to their particular habitats and had the ability to mutate, or degenerate in Buffon’s terms, to better adapt to their surroundings.  Although he included maps in his important Natural History, General and Particular [Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière] (1749–1788), Buffon continued to contextualize specimens by including landscape views to indicate specific geographic locations.  In the volume from the English edition exhibited in the adjacent case, the geographic specificity of the “Turkish Dog” is suggested by the silhouette of Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) in the background (see image at right).
    While portraits of specimens containing geographic markers allowed scientists to evoke environmental context on a case-by-case basis, distribution maps allowed for the comparison of several species – their populations, their characteristics, and their territory – simultaneously.  Plant and animal distribution maps illustrated the interaction of species on a macro level.  With the use of this new method of visualization, natural scientists were able to analyze their subjects from a new perspective, shifting the focus to comparative studies of species location, population size, historical migration, and adaptation.

    Bulliard, Dictionnaire élémentaire de botanique (1798)
    Lamarck , Encyclopédie méthodique (1782)

    Allison McCann
    No display on botanical categorization would be complete without a mention of Carl Linnaeus, often considered the father of modern botany.  Linnaeus devised his categorization method around the sexual systems of plants, counting and noting the configurations of the stamens and pistols.  Prior to his development, plants had primarily been identified and categorized according to external factors, such the shape, color, and configuration of leaves and petals.  In his Dictionnaire élémentaire de botanique first published in 1783, Pierre Bulliard (1742-1793) furnishes an example of this earlier method with a table titled “Methode de Tournefort.”  This table shows how Joseph Pitton de Tournefort advocated for a system of classification according to the external properties of flowers and leaves.  In contrast, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) utilizes the Linnaean system in his volumes on botany for the Encyclopédie méthodique as a means of describing plant species. 

    To the left, the “Analysis of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus” by Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) offers a schematic illustration of the Linnaean classificatory system.  On the far right of this chart, a column shows cork and pin models of the various stamen and pistol configurations that Linnaeus had identified.  The reproduction above this chart, a page from Jean-Louis Marie Poiret’s Leçons de flore, shows yet another visualization of the Linnaean sexual system.  Poiret collaborated with Lamarck on the Encyclopédie méthodique and ultimately took over the project.

    Classification and Plant Anatomy

    Allison McCann

    Each botanical atlas on display here was published between the late-seventeenth to early-nineteenth centuries in Europe – an era that spans the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The modernization of the Western world set many scientific changes into motion, and new systems for ordering and classifying the natural world were chief among them. 

    This new modernizing worldview was a striking departure from the pre-modern era that preceded it. Broadly construed, medieval understandings of the natural world had once sought to find heavenly corollaries to natural phenomena. The “natural sciences” once took a vastly different shape than they do today, and the study of flora and fauna was deeply enmeshed in biblical allegory. The books on view here offer a new conception of the natural world as a complex yet knowable natural sphere that can be ordered and systematized through man-made schema. These atlases represent a significant contribution to this new schematization of scientific understanding, as they are all concerned with breaking down specimens into their component parts and reordering them according to universal principles.

    Not all of the botanists who contributed to these volumes used microscopy to create their images, but they all took a “micro” view when studying their specimens. Each took a focused view of individual plant parts, often highlighting segments that are invisible when the plant is viewed in its entirety. While the medieval herbalist had considered various plant specimens as a whole, these botanists considered their subjects part-by-part. By doing so, they were able to make novel comparisons among species, and broaden modern understanding of biological similarity.

    Malpighi, Opera Omnia (1687)
    Poiret, Leçons de flore (1819)

    Allison McCann

    Other naturalists worked in the spirit, if not the letter, of the Linnaean system, considering specimens according to the configuration of their parts, rather than by the properties of the whole.  By isolating and describing individual parts, botanist organized, classified, and compared species in novel ways.  When isolated and magnified, the elements of the specimens became de-contextualized and abstract, allowing the scientist to extrapolate from each specimen and to compare and categorize various genera and species at a macro level.

    Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), whose work is on display to the right, found essential similarities between the respiratory organs of certain plants and low-order insects.  Jean-Louis Marie Poiret (1755-1834), whose visualization of the Linnaean system is reproduced on a wall in this gallery, also produced a table shown in this case that demonstrates the value of counting hairs, thorns, glands, and other tiny plant components.  Such microscopic cross-species comparisons became the groundwork for thinking about the mutability of species and evolutionary change.

    De Candolle, Limites polaires de quelques espéces (1855)
    Scharff, The Lion (Felis leo) with the Geographical Distribution (1907)

    Rae Di Cicco

    The works on display here show how natural scientists used distribution mapping to propel the study of botany and zoology into new areas previously difficult to investigate.  One of two maps included in Alphonse de Candolle’s (1806-1893) Géographie botanique raisonnée (1855) reproduced here, shows how relationships between different species and geography were represented by distribution mapping.
    De Candolle’s map compares the northern limits of several different species found across Europe.  The color-coded borderlines allow the viewer to compare the territories of species grouped by type – annuals in red, perennials in black, and ligneous in blue.  Like the “Botanical Map of France” produced by his father and included in the Front Gallery, de Candolle’s map plotted observations gleaned from dozens of authors and revealed gaps in knowledge about the extent of the habitats of individual species.
    In contrast to de Candolle’s comparison of several species at a single point in time, Robert Francis Scharff (1858-1934) uses distribution maps to aid in the study of a single species across time.  In Scharff’s map of the lion, the current territory inhabited by the species felis leo, is indicated in black, while the dotted area indicates land inhabited by the lion at some point in the past.  Comparing the changing habitat of species over time provides a visually striking statement about the impacts of environment on survival.

    Johnston, Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena (1856)

    Rae Di Cicco
    Alexander Keith Johnston’s (1804-1871) Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena (1856) is the first English atlas devoted to thematic maps, maps that include data about natural and human phenomena such as plant, animal and language distribution.  Johnston’s atlas is based on the German cartographer Heinrich Berghaus’s Physikalischer Atlas which was intended to serve as a supplement to Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos.  As shown in the Front Gallery, Humboldt’s pioneering work on botanical geography in the first half of the nineteenth century contributed to the development of new approaches for representing natural history.
    The maps displayed here show two styles of distribution maps – the zoological map uses lines to indicate the territorial borders of carnivorous species while the botanical map employs shading to distinguish the regions where particular types of grains grow.  As a child, Otto Neurath perused the German version of this atlas in his father’s library and later described it as a major stimulus to his thinking about visual communication.

    Volkamer, Aranzo Distorto (1708)
    Thornton, Large Flowering Sensitive Plant (1807)
    Thornton, Blue Egyptian Water Lily (1807)

    Rae Di Cicco

    Before the use of distribution maps, authors frequently noted the location where botanical or zoological specimens were found in the text of their compendia.  Some authors, including those on display here, chose to indicate geographic specificity through landscape cues, included in the background of illustrations of botanical specimens.

    The English physician Robert John Thornton (1768-1837), writing for an audience of both serious scientists and laymen, says of his choice to include background elements specific to a particular region: “Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. … In the large-flowering MIMOSA, first discovered on the mountains of Jamaica, you have the humming birds of that country, and one of the aborigines struck with astonishment at the peculiarities of the plant.”  In addition to including geographically specific animals and humans, Thornton frequently uses architecture to indicate a specific locale, such as the palace at Aboukir, Egypt in the image of the Blue Egyptian Water Lily.  The German botanist  Johann Christoph Volkamer (1644-1720) similarly included the architecture of a particular town in Italy where the citrus Aranzo Distorto can be found.


    Trevor Owens on Digital Preservation in the Digital Humanities

    For those of you who couldn't attend the talk Trevor Owens gave at the iSchool yesterday, check out his slides and rough notes on trevorowens.org. Naturally, the discussion of digital preservation and its place in the future of the digital humanities raised several important and intriguing questions among students, staff and faculty in attendance. Although there may be no definitive solution to digital preservation, the talk ended on an optimistic note, with Trevor's statement that:

    The future of digital preservation is less about defining a hegemonic set of best practices, than it is about scholars, curators, conservators and archivists working together to define what it is that they value about some kind of digital content and to then go out and collect it and make it available for use to their constituencies. It is about setting definitions that are often at odds with each other but that are coherent toward their own ends.


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    Upcoming Talk: Digital Preservation's Place in the Future of the Digital Humanities

    Ensuring long term access to digital information sounds like a technical problem. It seems like digital preservation should be a computer science problem. Far from it. In this lecture Trevor Owens, a digital archivist at the Library of Congress argues that digital preservation is in fact a core problem and issue at the heart of the future of the digital humanities. Bringing together perspectives from the history of technology, new media studies, public history, and archival theory, he suggests the critical role that humanities scholars and practitioners should play in framing and shaping the collection, organization, description, and modes of access to the historically contingent digital material records of contemporary society.

    Trevor Owens, Digital Archivist, Library of Congress
    Tuesday, March 18
    11:00 a.m.
    Information Sciences Building | Third Floor
    135 N. Bellefield Avenue

    Trevor Owens is a Digital Archivist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress. At the Library of Congress, he works on the open source Viewshare cultural heritage collection visualization tool, as a member of the communications team, and as the co-chair for the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s Infrastructure working group. Before joining the Library of Congress he worked for the Center for History and New Media and before that managed outreach for the Games, Learning, and Society Conference. He has a BA in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin, an MA in American History from George Mason University and is currently finishing his doctorate in Research Methods in George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development. http://trevorowens.org

    • Agency
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  • Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum

    Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum


    Agency in and around the period room

    I visited the Met two days ago and found myself in the period rooms of the American Wing.  I was interested in the new interpretive tool, the screen with a menu of options, in place of the old static placard that listed all the objects in a horizontal format.  It puts a whole lot more information at the visitor's fingertips and seems to give us more agency as well because we choose to navigate: we can focus on "people" rather than "objects" and so on.  But the period room itself is still a bizarre disembodied space with fetishized objects absent of users.  In the Verplanck room, a re-creation of the luxurious mid-18th century Wall Street house of one of the old and wealthy Dutch settler families, I was most interested in the issue of the slaves, the house servants who probably handled the objects as much as or more than the owners themselves did.  Not only are they invisible from the disembodied space, but they are absent from the interpretive screen as well.  They don't qualify as "people" or as context in any other way.  And in the end this is hard for me to stomach: why should a chair or a bowl or a table occupy me to the exclusion of the slaves whose job was to keep these objects clean and pristine?  Aren't the social relations embedded in these objects more interesting than whatever motifs or "style" they might show?  Deprived of real human agency, these objects become...what exactly?  And what is the rationale for displaying them in the first place?

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