Technology and the Liberal Arts: an iPod touch in the lecture hall

Please turn that off, it’s distracting.

Last night I was very pleased to attend the kick-off event for Vassar College’s year long celebration of its 150th anniversary. The evening began with a reception for the opening of an exhibition at the library, “The Most Perfect Education of Body, Mind and Heart: Vassar and the Liberal Arts,” curated by archivist Laura Finkel and history professor Rebecca Edwards. This exhibition showcases a wonderful selection of items from the Vassar archives that help to tell Vassar’s story, from its founding to today, with a wider context for some of the key issues of women’s education. I look forward to reading the accompanying catalog.

This reception was followed by “Vassar and the Liberal Arts: Then and Now,” a lecture by Rachel Kitzinger, Dean of Planning and Academic Affairs and professor of classics. Rachel is an inspiring educator, and her advocacy for the processes of teaching and learning at Vassar has been extremely influential for the college, and for my own work. Ever since this event was announced, I had been looking forward to hearing what Rachel would have to say on this subject, and when her talk began, I immediately set to taking notes on my iPod touch.

Rachel began with the derivation of the word “liberal” and the significance of the liberal arts education as an education suitable to a free person. This moved me from the start. How we take our freedom for granted! And yet, how current socio-economics limit education. She discussed the manner in which it is not what, but how we learn. As a member of the Drama faculty, I was particularly touched by her discussion of Greek theatre as the first form of mass education. Her discussion of the art of asking questions took me back to my own days as a Vassar student, and reminded me of my constant concerns with my own teaching and with my concerns that theatre-making, like teaching, needs to provoke questions rather than answers.

But, not long after those notes were taken, the evening took a turn for me.

A gentleman sitting behind me tapped on my shoulder and asked me to turn off my device, that it was very distracting to him. I apologized and immediately turned it off. Then, the next several minutes of Rachel’s wonderful talk were lost to me, as my attention had turned to my embarrassment – mainly for a concern that this gentleman didn’t realize I was taking notes, but thought that I was texting or doing something otherwise unrelated to the lecture. I would not dream of being disrespectful to Rachel – in fact, I was immersed in her words until his interruption. Of course I did not want to be a distraction to him, which is why I did immediately turn off my advice, regretting that I had interfered in some way with his enjoyment of Rachel’s talk. The hall was darkened for her slides, and my screen was indeed distractingly bright – it didn’t occur to me until it was too late that perhaps I could just turn down the brightness on the screen. A few minutes passed and I collected myself, discreetly reaching into my purse to find pen and paper to continue my notes in a more traditional way, scrawled in the dark.

I was, I am, embarrassed. But should I be? As these thoughts have festered overnight, I have been thinking of our students’ use of technology in the classroom, in similar lecture halls. With my production-based work in the costume shop of the drama department, this is not an issue for me. The technology we use is needle and thread, perhaps a sewing machine, and the computer provides music in the background. But if I was teaching in a more traditional classroom, would I feel that students using technology were a distraction, disrespectful to me and to their fellow students? The short answer is no.

For several years now I have been working to digitize Vassar’s collection of historic costume, housed in the Drama department. That work has taken me on a path of discovery, entering the world of digital humanities. I have been concerned with the need for digitization to better represent the complex nature of three-dimensional artifacts, beyond the brief two-dimensional representations that are so common in digital collections today. All of this came out of my own memories of being a student, and the technology that was not available to me at that time. What if the slides that were shown in class could be consulted after the class was over, in a dorm room, at 2am? How wonderful to have that precious time in the classroom reinforced after the fact with digital access to classroom resources! How wonderful to listen to a recording of the class lecture, and rewind the part that you didn’t quite understand the first time, or look at that image of a painting more closely and really see more of the detail!

As I have worked with a variety of students with different learning styles, and as I have become aware of the differences between my own learning styles and those of my students, I have come to embrace the potential of technology to provide alternative forms of access to the same content. In short, I have come to see much of technology in the classroom as assistive technology. I have never been labeled with a particular disability, and I rarely have students who share that they are. However, over my years of teaching I have become very aware of the fact that we all learn in different ways, that our brains are very individualized in terms of how we process information, that students need to learn to advocate for the methods of learning that work best for them, and that teachers need to be open to multiple alternative methods coexisting in and out of the classroom.

Though I am now teacher more often than student, I am constantly seeking out opportunities for professional development, and for years I have been fine-tuning a system that is best for me to keep notes, both from lectures and from reading. I have gone back and forth between hand-written notes and device-assisted notes (laptop, iPod touch, iPad). Sometimes handwriting works better for me – after all my years of thinking I was a visual learner (and indeed I do have a somewhat photographic memory) I have discovered that I am more of a kinetic learner – the act of writing imprints the words on my brain as much as viewing the writing does. I have found it indispensable to have my notes in machine-readable form, so I can easily search through them, and cut and paste from them for longer passages of writing.

Perhaps I cannot say that my iPod touch is assistive technology, when my only disabilities are extremely poor handwriting and the negative effect of stress on my memory. It is a function of my age and career that I need something to help with my memory – between two different part-time jobs (both at Vassar, but very different) and being a mother and wife, I am constantly multi-tasking, constantly switching gears. I have read studies suggesting that my memory will actually improve with age, as I mature out of such an over-stressed period, and I can only hope that they speak the truth. But for now, I need all the help I can get, and my iPod touch is a huge help.

Perhaps I should have seen this event as the kind of lecture that is more of a sermon, more of a piece of theatre itself, either of which would render note-taking of any form inappropriate. But I experienced the moment as an active student rather than a passive audience member, and it was important to me to remember some of her words after the fact.

A key theme of Rachel’s talk was how a Vassar education helps with the important developmental step of acknowledging the validity of opposing views, yet being able to choose a particular point of view and move forward into action. So, here’s an example: I acknowledge my neighbor’s distraction, but my point of view is that I have the right to use my device to help with my learning.

Yet, even after saying all of this, I still feel embarrassed. So, to avoid that feeling in the future, how should I conduct my note-taking in the future? If I do continue to use some sort of device, how can I make it less distracting to those around me? Should I care? Even if you tell me I shouldn’t care, I still will.

» an update from the Vassar College Costume Collection!

It’s time for an update from the Vassar College Costume Collection!

You last heard from me right around our exhibition, “A Glimpse into Vassar’s (Secret) Closet.” So what has happened since then?

When the objects were mounted for the exhibition last spring, I was able to work with Charlie Pane ‘10 to carefully photograph each full costume. Not only did we get high quality full length views of each piece, but each was placed on a turntable and rotated, with a photo taken of each different view. Charlie then worked with these photos to create a QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) file, which allows the viewer to rotate the object and better understand it as if in 3D. Stay tuned for more news about when and where these will be made available online.

Other than that, we haven’t had too much time to work with the collection this fall. Vassar’s new costume designer, Kenisha Kelly, is doing a wonderful job of helping us to recover from the blow of Holly Hummel’s retirement last spring, but we still are very busy with the productions in the Drama Department, and haven’t had much time for research or conservation projects.

But we’ll be sure to make time in the spring! “Glimpse” was such a success that we’re moving forward with another exhibition, from mid-May to mid-June in 2011 (probably 5/13 – 6/15), in the Palmer Gallery in the College Center (same as last year). This will be a part of Vassar’s Sesquicentennial Celebration (150th anniversary), and we will feature clothes that relate to Vassar’s history and to the history of women’s education. We’ll be working on this throughout the spring, so we’ll keep you posted as more details arise.

This is a cross-post from

Shared data dictionaries and sustainable collections | Discussion | Digital Objects in the Classroom

Hello everyone!

I wanted to repost something I just wrote on the Costume Society of America list-serve, which I thought might interest some of you. My email is in response to  Jacqueline WayneGuite, the Emily Reynolds Historic Costume Collection Manager at North Dakota State University. She was asking if anyone had developed a data dictionary for costume for ContentDM.

Don’t just skip over this as being only about costume – the issues considered here apply to any collection of any kind of material, and are particularly important if we want to build large aggregated collections with standardized collections that can be easily searched by our students. The issue of sustainability is also important if we want our classes to be able to rely on continued access to a resource.

Here’s my reply:

I know others have worked on this (but I’m not going to volunteer anyone else!), but with our collection at Vassar we haven’t created much of a controlled vocabulary yet. Part of the reason for that is that I’ve been waiting for a time that several of us could work together collaboratively to develop one that could be agreed upon and shared consistently by the costume history community. This could be developed as a part of the Getty Art and Architecture thesaurus (used by many visual resources libraries) or as an alternative to it in our field. I always have my eyes open for grant funding opportunities for working on such a project – if anyone else would be interested, let me know and I’ll look more actively for a collaborative grant application. We need one shared resource for best practice in digital costume collections.

If anyone does have a data dictionary they’d be willing to share, that could be a great starting point for others to evaluate and build something standardized. So far I find that everyone builds an individual dictionary for their collection, and since specific collections (and our own use of vocabulary) are so diverse, they aren’t very standardized. My dream is of an aggregated resource where we can search many of our collections at once, so you can imagine standardization is important. Imagine being able to search costume collections all over the country the way you can search in library collections!

As for ContentDM, I would recommend that you move forward with careful consideration. The library at Vassar encouraged us to use Content DM 8 years ago when we were starting our digitization project, but luckily we were slow in moving forward – 8 years later ContentDM is barely supported on our campus and another product, Luna Insight, has overtaken it. Sustainability of digital collections is a big concern. They key is to keep your own data somewhere separate. Do you have your own private database already for the collection? Or even something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet? What we have done at Vassar, as many librarians have recommended to me, is to keep our own local database (in our case, Filemaker), which then can be imported into another product such as ContentDM or Luna Insight or Omeka. Hopefully by now it’s possible to export out of ContentDM and back up the data, but I’d rather have a backup of my data in the beginning than in the end. We’ve worked so hard on collecting our data, I’d hate to leave it in the hands of a librarian or IT person who may move on to another project and leave me in the lurch (it happens!).

I look forward to hearing responses from others on this issue. I’ll post this on a few different lists myself, to try to keep the conversation going.

Historic Costume Preservation Workshop

I haven’t had much time for posting here, lately, because I’ve been too busy with another blog for the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop (HCPW) at Vassar College. Please take a look:

  • I’ve just written a post about working with digital vs. physical collections
  • Over the next few weeks, there will be new posts every day or so to show students’ videos and photos of the objects they have unearthed from boxes

We’d love your feedback! We have to make some decisions soon, to choose about 7 objects from the collection for our final projects.  We’ll identify objects that have condition issues, and stabilize them so that we can mount them and exhibit / photograph them. It’s going to be hard to narrow down our selections, so your comments can help guide us.

I hope you’ll take a look!

Notes from “The Artifact in the Age of New Media”

Here, finally, are some highlights of my notes from the “Artifact in the Age of New Media” symposium at the Bard Graduate Center.

The discussion throughout the day was very stimulating, and I was very grateful to have been able to attend. Overall, though, I was struck by the way that the discussion really never got around to what distinguishes 3D artifacts from text or 2D images in digital collections – I had hoped that was what the day would be about! If you’ve read my other posts, here and elsewhere, you know that this is my issue right now. The day was definitely more focused on new media than it was on artifacts.

Anyway, I wish I had been able to speak more with other attendees at this event! I know many of us are facing the same issues with our individual projects and have much to learn from each other. Perhaps we’ll all connect again at future seminars, or perhaps we’ll find each other online. If you’re reading this, you’ve found me – please let me know you’re out there, and keep in touch!

You can also read other people’s tweets from the event under the hashtag #digifact, and keep an eye on the forum they’ve set up for continued discussion (general info about the symposium, and some of the presentations, are there as well). There was talk of a continuing seminar series – I hope that pans out!

On to the notes (my asides, including things out of order, are in parentheses):


Dan Cohen (CHNM)

loved the title of his presentation – “The Social Life of Artifacts”
much of what he discussed was already familiar to me, from following his blog, etc., so I didn’t take many notes (sorry!)
my keywords: open, sharing, abundance, flexibility


Josh Greenberg (NYPL)

Digital Artifacts:
1. decoupling of text from artifact
2. decoupling of artifact from single physical context

(someone (Steve Brier or Josh Brown?) made the point later – this is in fact a de-de-de-coupling, as many artifacts were removed from their original context years ago and have been in multiple contexts since)

(at some point I raised a question related to this – we have collection databases and we have virtual exhibitions, but often they don’t link to each other – why not? is anyone working on this? shouldn’t there be hybrids that connect these functions? answer from Carrie Rebora Barratt (Met) – it’s a goal, but slow to come)

(another later follow up to this (from Koven Smith, I think?) was about the structure of many databases not allowing for alternative information, therefore not allowing for entries about the history of the object pre-acquisition and the history of the object post-acquisition, or the “present history” of the object – ideally databases should include multiple entries for this, for every time the object has been moved, in a different exhibition, any time our understanding of it has changed – for example, “until 1996 we thought this was from XXX, but now we believe it’s from XXX” – as opposed to just deleting and re-entering information when knowledge develops)

idea of “deputizing” people outside the curatorial staff
-the NYPL did this with students working on mapping projects
(-this is what I’m doing right now with my Historic Costume Preservation Workshop (HCPW)!)

role of curator = community organizer
(this really resonates with me, and the HCPW! Of course, this relates to the changing role of teacher to community organizer, as well.
this is a significant shift – training for curators and educators often hasn’t included this kind of community organization work – how do we develop these skills? It’s not just about good intentions. I’m looking forward to reading Jono Bacon’s book related to this, The Art of Community )

importance of multiple access points – loved the discussion of the Handmade Librarian’s blog, as picked up by the Design Sponge blog, which turned into the Design by the Book project, which had a giant party in person at the library. They promoted the project on several platforms (I wrote down youtube and itunes, but I know there were several others) with great results. This ties in nicely with my goal of multiplicity for digital material culture projects (see my previous posts on this) – multiple access points can bring in a much more diverse audience. Bringing the community together physically like that, and bringing them into the institutional space, is a wonderful accomplishment.

much of his talk was about the tension between professional and amateur, and ways of connecting an interested public with the experts they could value; connecting these two sides without one negating the other


Carrie Rebora Barratt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

my most important notes from her talk are all focused on the importance of standards – data standards, workflow, etc.

of course she talked about much more than that, but since data standards are one of my areas of interest right now, that’s what I focused on. One of her current concerns is how to create a central catalog for the museum (there currently is not one) but maintain the “purity of data” from each of the museum’s 19 diverse departments

(later in the day I talked briefly with Koven J. Smith, also of the Met, about how they’re reconciling the varied data collected by each department – turns out it’s not so much of a mapping, as a semantic process – I’m intrigued, and I look forward to following up with others at the Met to learn more about this)


Amelia Peck (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

she spoke about the updated technology in the Period Rooms – touch screens in 10 of the 18 rooms so far, for increased depth of supporting data about the objects

early on, she described the rooms as being an odd way to display art – which in the context of the Met is mostly true, and which I found to be very telling perspective. How is it that we have come to see the white box as the right way to look at art? Certainly for decorative arts / material culture we often prefer the context of a period room or some such attempt at re-creating the original setting. But even for other art forms this is an interesting issue. (see the section about Beth Harris below, which really relates to this)

silhouettes are used on the touch screens for seeking more information (vs. photos), to keep viewers in the room focused on looking at details on the objects themselves
but some details which are hard to see in the room are shown in better photographs on the monitor

she prefers guided comments to random comments – this is a wonderful point –
that lack of guidance can result in comments which are not at all helpful (and in the case of the Luce Center, turned obscene)
also, without guidance, people may not feel motivated to leave a comment at all

the phrase “multiplicity of authority” came up in the Q and A, when the expert curator vs. amateur enthusiast conversation continued – again, fits in very well with my ideas of multiplicity (see my previous posts) – authority with flexibility

it might also have been in this Q and A that someone (another prof from the BGC, I think?) brought up the concern of material culture being turned into, or viewed as, visual culture – unfortunately this thread wasn’t really picked up


Beth Harris (MOMA,

loved the MOMA video “I See” that she shared – yes, it does bring tears to my eyes, and not just because my husband’s a sculptor

I also loved her discussion of her experience of seeing Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in context at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome – how a slide on a projection screen, or an image in a book, had not prepared her for the experience of seeing it in person, surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells and feeling that went with it. Of course this continues the discussion that inevitably follows the digital vs. physical binary (which has been pointed out doesn’t need to be a binary, either/or – instead of digital vs. physical, think also of virtual, augmented)

she also discussed the “trust issues” that exist between museum and audience – “why is this here?”


Joshua Brown (CUNY)

using archival images not just as illustrations – this is an important distinction! they are works to be studied in their own right

discussion of the Picturing US History site

I loved his point about “seeing the seams” – showing the historian’s process, seeing how someone arrived at their conclusions, rather than just being presented with that conclusion fully formed


Steve Brier (CUNY)

as with Dan, I was already familiar with Steve’s work, so I didn’t take many notes (again, sorry!)

but it’s always great to hear about the work being done at CUNY’s Interactive Technology & Pedagogy Certificate Program, and to discuss the challenges and excitement of incorporating this kind of work into our teaching


That’s it – if you were there and there’s something important I missed, please add a comment! Or if you weren’t there but you want to continue the conversation, leave a comment!

Multiplicity in Digital Material Culture – Part Two – A History of the World in 100 Objects

Many different aspects of the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (AHOW) work together to succeed in prompting the user’s imagination to better understand the physicality and context of a 3D artifact. Let’s revisit my goals of multiplicity, from my last post, as they apply to this project:

  • multiple levels of supporting data – the interface includes an elaborate system of cross-referencing or searching, by location, culture, period, theme, size, colour, or material. It also includes a “Find out more” block with a link that takes me to more info at the British Museum site, and on that page there are citations for books that could be consulted for more info, and even more cross-referencing to explore related items in the museum’s collection. On the down side, there aren’t any links to related discussions on other sites, at least not that I’ve seen so far.
  • multimedia – you can choose from an audio podcast, written transcript of the podcast, photographs, line drawings, video of the object in detail, video of an interview about the object, or map showing where the object is believed to originate from
  • multiple views of a single object – while  so far they only have one still image of each object, it is very high res and can be zoomed in upon. This, however, is supplemented greatly by a video of each object, which typically rotates around it to show different perspectives and close ups of different details. I love that many of the videos begin with a hand placing the object on the platform to be filmed, so that you can get a sense of its scale. I’m a sucker for the QTVR 360 degree view (here’s one of my favorites from Cornell – pretty high res, so give it a moment to load if necessary), so I wish they had that, so that I could choose which part I wanted to look at, and for how long, and be clear about what I’m seeing in detail relative to other parts (the cuts in the video don’t always make that clear). The videos are very dramatically lit, which certainly adds to their aura of mystery, and does help to show the depth and texture of the objects. However, this is more akin to the dark interior of the museum than to the setting in which the object may have been originally used, and therefore may detract from understanding its original function.
  • multiple voices – resources include text, audio, and video comments from multiple named experts, unattributed introductory text, audio comments from unnamed others, attempts of the experts to represent the original users or makers of the object (the project is working chronologically, and as I write this they’re up to about 5,000  BC, so there’s been no opportunity yet to interview the actual users or makers – I can assume this will be included when they get to a time period for which it’s possible!) Users can comment on the associated blog, but not on the object pages themselves. There’s a fairly good cross section of voices, but I wish there was even more transparency – some text is unattributed, and I haven’t been able to find credits anywhere on the site!

Again, all of the above are in service of goals related to a further multiplicity:

  • audience interests – Users coming from a variety of perspectives can appreciate the site in different ways. While older users may navigate themselves through the resources, younger users may be guided by teachers or parents using the guides and lesson plans on the site (see below). Users who have never seen such objects before or studied a particular period are provided with a good introduction. Even users who come to the site with advanced knowledge of a particular subject can still enjoy the high resolution photos of an object they may not be able to visit in person. And the most enthusiastic users can contribute to the project by uploading photos and information about their own object, whether it’s in a museum or a personal collection.
  • interpretive or pedagogical plans – the interface allows flexible use of the available resources, so that individual users can choose whether to focus on more interpreted sections (like the podcasts) or less interpreted sections (like the photos and metadata) However, the project also has resources for teachers under the “Learning” tab, both to provide interpretation and to guide students in forming their own interpretations.
  • learning styles – the following are all included – verbal (text), visual (pictures), auditory (podcasts), and kinesthetic (video showing someone placing / holding / using the object relates it to human scale and functionality; even audio descriptions of use / motion can help the listener to imagine how he or she would use it). Truly differentiated instruction allows for users to get the same content in multiple ways, and therefore must be redundant. Otherwise users will have to access all resources to receive all the available information, and their learning style may inhibit their appreciation of all the resources. Some, but not all, of the resources are redundant; for example, the transcript of the podcast provides an alternative for those who either can’t hear or who don’t have good listening skills. While the other resources are not exactly redundant, they do cover some of the same features. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the podcasts (I listened to a few while driving, on my commute to work). They were very successful at describing the objects and portraying their use. I definitely wanted to visit the site afterward and see the images, but having heard the audio first, my viewing of the images was much more focused. Some might find it very complementary to listen to the podcast while interacting with the digital images on the website. Or, you might think that a video podcast would be better than just audio. Personally, however, I found that the audio followed by the images/video definitely benefited my ability to focus. When I listened to the audio and pictured the object, and its context, in my head, it was much more evocative to me than when I had the image right in front of me. This surprised me, because I tend to be much more visual/spatial in my learning style- and of course, my experience, my way of processing, is likely different from many others. This is precisely the value of trying multiple approaches. Of course, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at my engagement with the audio – as we’ve learned from the folks at, the role of conversation is very important.
  • access points – None of us want our audience to visit our website instead of our physical collection. But sometimes it’s just not physically possible – I know I won’t be able to afford a trip across the pond to the British Museum anytime soon! And when I was there, years ago, it was a brief visit and I was focused on the Elgin marbles and Lindow man. I missed out on most of the treasures highlighted in AHOW. But even for those who can and will visit, those who will benefit from that indescribable psychic quality of being in the physical presence of an object, this kind of digital support is still extremely valuable. When you do visit, typically you can’t hold an object in your hand or see it from all sides. If you are allowed to handle an object, or even a reproduction, it can make a lifelong impression, but the experience itself is all too brief. The digital object can build upon your memory of a physical connection. Even if I could visit the British Museum, I doubt they’d let me hold their oldest object, a stone chopping tool from 2 million years ago. But seeing someone hold it in a video and hearing someone describe using a reproduction, I am much better equipped to understand the object and place it in context.

In the draft that I’ve been writing, I discuss my disappointment with the failure of larger institutions to provide innovative leadership in the presentation of material culture online. However, AHOW has changed my perspective on that, to some extent. My concern has been that the larger institutions (who have the funding for innovative projects) unfortunately also have bureaucratic baggage that holds them back, and that perhaps smaller institutions, despite smaller funds, could be more innovative with their smaller collections. By focusing on 100 objects, and engaging with some multiplicity, this subset of the British Museum does manage to be innovative. But how dynamic will it be?

Yes, my focus is also on DIY digital projects for small institutions (and teaching collections, on top of that), and in that aspect this project is a rather intimidating model. I couldn’t find any credits on the project website, but I imagine a listing of the behind the scenes team would be lengthy. However, even if you take away the attractive user interface, the timeline and the animation with the objects flying across the screen as you speed through time, AHOW’s success at multiplicity can still inspire my project, even without the luxury of hiring a professional design team.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the recent economic crisis, the next few years are prime time for smaller institutions to be open to experimentation, taking advantage of student or volunteer labor, open source software, and multi-institutional collaboration to explore the boundaries of what digital museums can be. I know that’s what I’m going to try to do with my digital collection of historic costume. Now, what about you? I believe that it’s possible to generate this kind of multiplicity even without extensive funding, by using tools like Omeka to create dynamic, flexible resources that involve input from a variety of users, including students and amateurs.

Are my goals too ambitious? What do you think? Please leave a comment below and continue this conversation.

Multiplicity in Digital Material Culture – Part One

Of all the subjects I’m eager to write about, the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (AHOW) is the one that has inspired me to finally launch this new blog. Well, that and the fact that I’m attending a symposium at the Bard Graduate Center this Friday on the Artifact in the Age of New Media, and I’m trying to get my thoughts in order before I go. The BBC project brings together many aspects of my concerns for material culture online, and I’m curious what other people think about it. From what I’ve seen so far, this project fits very well into the model of multiplicity that I’ve been developing to describe my ideal, completely hypothetical, digital collection of material culture.

A little background: This has been my year of thinking about digital material culture, and I thought it was about time that I shared some of what I’ve learned this year with the rest of the world. Last March, I was able to explore some of these issues as they related to the Digital Objects in the Classroom conference that I helped to host at Vassar College. Next, in May, my team from Vassar took this subject to NERCOMP. Then in June, I had the good fortune to attend The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where I was able to host a session on material culture and get the conversation going once again. This has all continued to percolate for the last few months, and I’m still amazed at how much conversation there is about digitization, yet how little about representing the specific nature of three-dimensional artifacts.

But the fact is, all this theorizing has been holding me back from just getting down and dirty with my own digital project, and thinking generally about digital material culture has taken time away from thinking about digital costume. I’m in the midst of trying to digitize the Vassar College Costume Collection (a research collection of authentic historic clothing) and starting to write grants for an aggregated collection of historic costume from institutions across the country. I’ve been wanting to get my thoughts out in the world, hypothetical as they are, so that I can move forward from theory to practice. If you want to read the full draft of what I’ve been writing on this subject, let me know, but for this blog, I realized that writing about the BBC project would give me a great opportunity to summarize my thoughts and apply some of my ideas to an actual, rather than hypothetical, project.

I’m going to present this in two parts, introducing my hypotheses in the first post, then applying it to the BBC project in the second.

It seems like there are exciting new digital collections popping up all over the place – yet when it comes to representing 3D artifacts, I’m still usually disappointed. The objects I work with – costume – are particularly complex, and particularly under-represented online. Most collections simply follow the model that was created for 2D objects, which started with digital libraries of texts and moved to photographs and 2D art, such as drawings and paintings. There has been great success with representing those formats, especially since a single high resolution view is often sufficient, but the evolution to represent 3D objects is going to require a different model. The recent BBC project, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” is one of very few I’ve seen that are moving digital material culture forward.

A great potential exists: to represent material culture in more of its complexity, both in terms of physical perspective (how it is seen) and intellectual perspective (how it is understood). When I consider this potential, I can best describe my goals in terms of the idea of multiplicity:

  • multiple levels of supporting data – rich metadata, links to other related resources (both within the site and from other institutions)
  • multimedia – photographs, drawings, text, audio, video, patterns, models
  • multiple views of a single object – QTVR 360 degree view, video of object in motion, detail photos inside and out
  • multiple voices – curator, conservator, donor, producer, consumer, expert, enthusiast

All of the above are in service of goals related to a further multiplicity:

  • audience interests – different ages, different perspectives
  • interpretive or pedagogical plans – different stories to be told, lessons to be learned
  • learning styles – verbal, visual, auditory, kinesthetic
  • access points – as Seb Chan puts it, “online, onsite and offsite”

Perhaps all of this seems somewhat obvious – but if that’s the case, then why are so few projects taking advantage of such potential? This multiplicity would be ideal for all web content, but for material culture I believe it is particularly necessary. A two-dimensional screen cannot fully represent a three-dimensional object, but by making a variety of connections to other objects the user has experienced physically, it can prompt a user to imagine the object’s physicality in his or her mind’s eye. Multiple layers of content are necessary to reinforce the physicality and context of a digitized object of material culture, in order to stimulate imagination and critical thinking for individual users.

If history can be described either from the top down or the bottom up, many artifacts are somewhere in the middle, especially when looked at as objects making physical the relationship between producers and consumers. They provide a physical sense of the past that relates to a human scale, separate from the literacy related to documents. To represent such objects virtually, the goal should be to inspire the viewer to imagine physical interaction with the object in its own time, and thereby imagine its place in the culture, economy, or politics of another time. This, in turn, can inspire the recognition of relationships between past, present, and future.

“you don’t see with your eye
You perceive with your mind”

-from the Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood”

The visual on the screen should not be all that a user sees, but rather merely a prompt to help him perceive it in his mind’s eye. This is best accomplished if the user is reminded of previous experience with a similar physical object. The element of imagination is particularly important in terms of historical context. Most modern viewers will first view an object from the perspective of their own time and culture, and will need other verbal and visual cues to help them to imagine it in its own time and culture. Maybe the user can’t interact with the physical object, to turn it to see a different view or run his hand over it to feel its texture, but a combination of different media can join together to help the user imagine such actions and therefore better appreciate the object. There is a danger in taking the two-dimensional nature of online images, or even the “two and a half” dimensional nature of Quick Time Virtual Reality (QTVR) images and other animated models for granted. Visual and verbal cues must help the viewer to understand the difference between the surrogate they are viewing on the screen and the actual object, particularly in terms of scale. These digital objects may be appreciated in their own right, but if their viewers are not reminded of their own personal experience with actual physical objects, then their understanding can never be complete.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how AHOW succeeds at increasing understanding using a variety of just such prompts to the imagination.