Week 4: Image and Art

At first glance, an entire chapter dedicated solely to cataloging cultural objects seemed a little unnecessary, since the act in itself seemed so much like common sense. However, Baca surprised me with a ton of situations that I had never thought of before. One of which stuck out to me was the distinction between an image and a work of art. I had never realized that there was such a distinction between the two until he provided the example with the Eiffel Tower:

The photograph La Tour Eiffel by the well-known French photographer Brassaï is a popular image that shows the Eiffel Tower standing majestically at night. In this case, La Tour Eiffel is considered a work of art, not just an image of the Eiffel Tower.

I had always known the photograph and considered it a work of art because of how it was displayed and revered in the art world. I never really thought that at the end of the day, it is what it is—a picture of a building. There was no clear distinction between this photo and a photo I could take of the Eiffel Tower at night other than the fact that somewhere down the line, an art connoisseur deemed it to be a work of art.

This distinction definitely stuck out to me, especially when I think of myself or others taking pictures with art at the museum. Sometimes, people like to pose in a way that reflect their own understanding of the piece, which I feel, when photographed, shapes the way that others understand the same piece.

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The Broad

For example, taking this picture (see above) makes it a photograph just like any other. But if some art curator were to deem that this was a work of art, would it be mounted and revered as one? What are the ‘standards’ to which something is considered art? And who takes the credit—the secondary producer of the art or the individual whose work is encapsulated?


Culture as Subject and the Ontology of Digital Photography

This week’s readings encouraged us to think about the relationship between a museum, a cultural object, and the community to which it belongs. Charles Zange argues that the museum’s “ownership” of the object is an opportunity for them to showcase and educate the public about cultural artifacts. However, this does not mean that they are free to emphasize or omit certain facts at their discretion, while ignoring the richness of the community voice and their role in influencing the cultural backdrop of the object. Especially in the context of digital display and networks, where information is as easily disseminated as it is misrepresented, ignoring the conditions and means of information display would affect the object’s cultural network and therefore its “ontology”.

More so than cultural artifacts, I thought about how digital photography fit into the argument. In this age of Instagram, DSLRs and the obsession to create the perfect digital image, photographers often travel to exotic locations to take snapshots of the landscape, the people and/or the culture. However, it is not as clear to me how many actually bother to connect with the local people and understand the cultural context in which they are capturing these shots. It is easy to see how a well composed shot with the proper lighting, saturation etc would garner a lot of likes, but they might lack the perspective and the narrative behind what compelled them to capture that moment. This is a clear example in which the “risk of dual digital networks” is clearly exemplified- the information asymmetry between a digital photograph and the actual scene in a cultural community or landscape can result in a split of information with “both sides only getting one piece”.

One photographer who does do this well is an environmentalist named Chris Jordan. He travels to rural areas of the world where plastic pollution is prevalent, and uses what he knows about the environment to capture and convey the reality of the situation to others (as opposed to just taking pictures of things that look pretty). While this course discusses the importance of preserving the authenticity of man-made cultures, we have not really touched on what it means to preserve and protect our natural environment, which has a carrying capacity and ontology of its own. It’s easy to deny the reality of environmental degradation even when the facts are presented to us, but there is hope that photography as a journalistic device will be a better way to spread this message if photographers i.e. photo curators are able to reflect critically on their work on not only an opportunity for artistic expression but a means for cultural investigation and education.


Midway: Message from the Gyre by Chris Jordan

Week 4: Technology as Objects

Digitized images and objects along with electronic kiosks are nothing new nowadays in museums. Many have adopted the practice of incorporating technology into their exhibitions. However, based on this week’s readings and my own experience, I am a little doubtful about the effectiveness of technology in museums, especially when it involves minority cultures. Gwyneira Isaac argues in her essay that media technology has become a ‘museum object’ rather than a platform that provides for better exploration and cultural understanding of the artifacts in the exhibitions. Its presence has distracted the viewers’ attention from what’s really important. When I visited the Getty Center for my museum field report, kiosks were usually occupied by younger kids. Adults just stood back and watched as their kids became immersed into the technology. These kids did not look up from the screen to examine the real object in front of them, and instead treated the kiosk as if it was a part of the exhibition. I wonder if they have attained any cultural knowledge or understanding of the object or if they were simply drawn in by what the device can do. If it is the latter, wouldn’t technology pose a threat to the objects it’s supposed to support?

There have been arguments regarding the lack of diversity or underrepresentation of minority cultures in exhibitions. And as cultural institutions, museums have the social responsibility of educating the visitors, broadening their perspectives, and encouraging conversations among the community members. However, Lavine and Karp point out that exhibitions reflect the views and attitudes of the people who created it. They wield a form of authority where “decisions are made to emphasize one element and to downplay others, to assert some truths and to ignore others.” With this in mind, exhibiting cultures that were historically undervalued, misrepresented, or silenced can be a great challenge for these exhibition makers. With an already sensitive issue at hand, a misguided use of technology within these exhibitions can lead to further marginalization of cultures and trivialization of their issues.

Isaac also points out how media technology is used for the wrong reason, such as to “present the image of modernity.” Museums need visitors to function, and with places like Apple, they might have felt the need to amp up their image among the younger generations. However, incorporating some kind of technology into the exhibit does not necessarily mean that it will enhance the visitors’ experiences. It can actually deflect the purpose of the exhibition. Therefore, museum curators really need to weigh the pros and cons of incorporating technology into exhibitions and decide if it is appropriate and carefully examine the effects on the museum visitors.

The Difference (Or Lack Thereof?) Between Work and Image

Hopefully, the title of this post encompasses what most of us were thinking while reading Cataloguing Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images; the top of page 6 had me going, The digital image is surrogate for a photograph, which is a work, that contains a work inside of it, which emulates another work, work? What? Admittedly it took another close look at the text to decipher what author M. Baca was implying. In part I of the manual, Baca briefly explains the differentiation between a work and an image.

CCO recommends making a clear distinction between the work and the image.

A work is “a distinct intellectual or artistic creation limited primarily to objects and structures made by humans, including built works, visual art works, and cultural artifacts.” An image is “a visual representation of a work. It typically exists in photomechanical, photographic, or digital format.” This part of the reading sort of reminded me on our discussion on categories and how these categories affect the veneration and exhibition of works in museum settings. The mouthful at the end of that section is, in a sense, true; an image can contain a work, which may be based off an initial work itself. Baca gives the example of “a photograph of a work may also be treated as either a work of art or an image, depending on the stature of the photographer and the aesthetic or historical value of the photograph.” But what does the reputation of the photographer have to do with distinguishing a photo as a work, and why does the photo need any sort of historical or aesthetic value? Baca states, “…another photograph purchased from a commercial source depicting the same structure would probably be treated as a photographic documentation of the [object]…” This, again, highlights the controversy behind what and who gets venerated, esteemed, or put on display due to name and cultural significance.


A work versus below, being an image.


Art is, of course, full of contradictions; but in this day and age, it seems that the justifications to make something an art work aren’t as unattainable. More popular artists do exist, but would that be more of a matter of time, or just general popular opinion– then again, who’s opinion makes an artist consensually great across all boards? I feel that Baca’s point on works and images being two different categories are valid to an extent, but with the residence of the digital age, it’s hard to say where the hard line is. Is my photo of the painting of Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror #1 just a documentation of the work, or can it be a work itself if I decide to put it on display somewhere, or if someone requests for it to be put on display? There is never a truly finite answer to questions like this, much like how there is not a limitation on what digital humanities can explore or withhold within the field of museum studies.

Appropriating week 4

Isaac’s case study of the National Museums of the American Indian is the potentially the best demonstration of many of the issue and tensions that we have been discussing in class. The Museums aim in incorporating technology into the museum was to open the discussion about the objects, express different cultural view points surrounding the objects, and to moderate the ideas of both letting the object speak for itself as well as culturally contextualizing it. The intention is very positive, as it always is, but Isaac notes several ways in which the technology doesn’t work out as planned. The overwhelming amount of it can be distracting, some visitors never look up from the screens (particularly the younger generations). The act of never looking up, however, seems to be a very common current trend in younger generations, period. I’m always amazed walking through campus and seeing how many people never look up from their phones while crossing streets, or just walking down sidewalks. I have a suspicion that the screen viewing obsession is not something that museum curators took into consideration when working to incorporate technology into the exhibits. But videos, and tv screen tend to be distracting anyways, partly due to the fact that they produce sound. In an otherwise sound-less environment, where the only sound is the mumbles/talking of visitors and the shuffling of feet, music and the projected dialogue of the videos can capture attention easily. They are also attractive because they are more “conversational” let’s say, than looking at something that is behind glass – videos talk to you, present a stream of images of objects or people, and give you information with you having to interact with the objects (they present it without you having to go look for it, or read it – the idea of digital story-telling). Isaac’s conclusion states that while the NMAI has a wonderful intention of broadening the cultural scope of the museum, they seem to be teetering on the edge of having added to much mediation between viewer and object.

Week 4: Elgin Marbles

As an anthropologist, I love the idea of museums playing nice with the cultures they represent. In Zange’s piece, the work between the tribe and museum perfectly illustrates how communities should be involved with their museums. Although reading through these articles, I had to laugh at how simple this all sounds…


Behold, the Elgin Marbles! Otherwise known as the architectural friezes that once made up the Parthenon in Greece. But they are not in Greece at the moment and have not been for several decades. They are in the British Museum in London proudly displayed in a large room mimicking the original Parthenon. The politics behind these pieces is an interesting one. To keep it short, they were acquired by the British many years ago and the museum has refused to return them to Greece, partially arguing that the Greeks could not take care of such precious pieces. The Greeks, in response, send demands every year for the pieces to be returned and even have a whole section of their museum set for the display of the marbles; pedestal, placards, and all.

Although circumstances like Zange’s are ideal, they rarely occur. Improper display of cultural pieces is not the only point to consider here but also the technical theft of the object itself. While the pieces made have been acquired legally, home countries always argue the legitimacy of the dealings (as they took place decades ago). Egyptian pieces were also removed during the excavations in the early 1900s with some partially shady dealings.

While it would be nice for everyone to return the pieces to their heritage country we would be left to ponder the next problem? How do we experience other cultures if we are unable to travel there? If a country is unwilling to part with any object, how can we learn about that culture? Perhaps technology really is the answer here. Acting as a replacement for the object, 3D visuals and interaction could be used in museums to avoid nasty politics. Unfortunately, having the original piece still generates public interest and increased revenue so there is a monetary benefit to have the originals…

Digital Storytelling Links

“Founding Fragments: Freemason’s Snuff Box” (Smithsonian)

“The Crystal Palace,” University of Houston

“Founding Fragments: Mr. Peanut” (Smithsonian)

“Cheese Powder: A Brief History” (New Yorker)

“The Phone That Could Not be Killed” (New Yorker)

“Puffed: The Magic of Cereal” (New Yorker)

Questions for your group:

  • How do the filmmakers balance an affective (emotional) dimension with secondary research?
  • How does the pace of the video affect your experience?
  • Does the video inspire a sense of resonance or wonder toward an object? Which one, and why?
  • How is watching the video different from encountering an object “in person”?
  • What role does the soundtrack play? What about the voiceover?
  • How does the story create a beginning, middle, and end?
  • How is a story different from an essay? Can both convey the same information?
  • What would you do differently if this were your story?

Week 3 Reading

This week’s readings were focused on the open cultural data museums present and how they are being used for visualization studies and analysis. In particular, Mia Ridge’s “Where Next for Open Cultural Data in Museums” highlighted how the community can interact with projects and art pieces better because they are given access to the open cultural data and linked data. Open cultural data refers to any data that cultural institutions make public and accessible, for example museum images and captions. Meanwhile, linked data is another way of sharing information however, if requires other sources that relate to the data being described as well – for example the “Cooper-Hewitt’s Collection Color History”.

I thought it was intriguing how the idea of open cultural data could not only be applied to museums but also to any type of information source whether it be science, epidemiology, sports, food, or wines. In the past for my job, we have had to learn a lot about different alcohols – especially beers and wines. As a waitress, we would have to be able to explain why certain wines were priced differently than others and what the significance was behind that. When learning about different wines – I found a open data website for them.

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This “Open Wine Data” website has been compiled from public data released from the French government about the statistics of domestically produced wine. The data includes the quantities of wine being produced, the annual figures of wine, and where it is being stored in each country. This data helps explain for example why a 1984 Bordeaux is so sought after. During that year, the sales were really high – and the way the wine was made in particular makes it really special.

I thought open data in this situation was really interesting, because I never really expected it to be used to explain the reasoning why some wines are better than others.

Week 3: Open Cultural Data

Mia Ridge’s article “Where next for open cultural data in museums” brings up the history and usage of the open cultural data. Ridge highlights events such as the US and UK launching open data sites in 2009 and the Brooklyn museum’s release of its data through an API as key moments in the wave towards digitizing and making cultural data available. As a short aside, API is an abbreviation of “application program interface” even this definition is not very clarifying however and it is difficult to find a practical definition online.

Ridges goes on to make the point that now while many museums have made data available, the data is not used as much as the institution or organization might expect.  She points to murky licenses and inconsistent data as potential reasons for this underuse.

I resonate with this point as for my DH 101 project my group was working with data collected from a series of menus in the New York Public Library collection.  The library has been working to digitize the menus in a series of ways they have, however, been relying on public volunteer support.  This is problematic as it leads to inconsistent inputs such as in capitalization of names and the input of units.  For my own group, this kept us from being able to take our research in particular directions.

We also experienced there being too much data available.  While this may not seems like a problem it became overwhelming and the length of our project forced us to narrow our focus.  This speaks directly to the museum’s sentiments on their data not being used as much as they would have thought.  Museums house many objects, each containing its own extensive metadata and data contained within the object itself.  When we move to digitize this, the data produced is extensive and this makes it difficult for it all to be used.

Week 3 Post

I found it interesting how Ridge’s article linked the public’s call to open data and transparency within their government to museum’s movement towards open cultural data. this move has always excited me because I feel that in opening up museum data to public use, it forces the museum to further analyze their collection and find meaningful connections as well as gaps in representation. As stated in Ridge’s article I feel that museums may be frustrated with the public’s lack of interaction with these technologies because most people only go to museum websites to check the hours and see what is on view, and these newly pubic datasets tike a large amount of time and money to produce.

This race to make museum data public I encounter everyday in my work at the Hammer Museum. I work with rights and reproduction and digitizing the Hammer’s collection of works. Right now the Hammer has a few works online but we are working to digitize the entire collection. This process has been extremely arduous with getting copyrights form artists, galleries, and estates and then getting images created for these works. As a student I was always frustrated by the lack of information museum’s provided on their website, however, through this internship I have gotten a lot of insight into the roadblocks that occur when creating this info. In the Wall reading we see the importance of standards in creating and presenting understandable and meaningful data. I think that with contemporary and modern art it is becoming increasingly hard to set uniformed classifications especially with medium. Many artists blur the line between previously rigid lines of what defines mediums. I found that in making my DH101 project using the Tate’s collection of Turner paintings it was hard to classify works as drawings or paintings because of the multimedia work of the artist and it became hard to discern which pieces were sketches and which were finished works solely by looking at the data. It is important to see the image itself. In flattening this to produce data do we loose the multidimensionality of the work?