Brandon’s Adventures

This blog primarily focuses on my activities as a grad student, but I’m not the only one who’s enjoying new opportunities here in Williamsburg. My partner, Brandon, has also been up to some exciting things, so today I’d like to spotlight them.

Out at the City of Rocks in New Mexico

Brandon and I met at the Roswell Museum. Originally from Florida and Mississippi, Brandon majored in history at FSU. He moved to Roswell to be closer to his parents, although they ultimately moved back to Florida. Initially a security guard, Brandon later became the museum’s preparator.

In the museum field, preparators are the ones who actually handle the artworks, whether it’s moving them, getting them ready for exhibition, or installing them. Preparators also get the gallery spaces ready for exhibitions, from repairing walls to repainting. When it comes to installations, they not only hang the works, but have to do the calculations needed to make sure everything is spaced correctly, and adjust the lights to make the pieces all look good. In essence, the preparators require skills in crafts such as framing, carpentry, painting, theatrical lighting, as well as mathematics, all while having the ability to think quickly and adapt to different situations. The preparator position one of the more demanding jobs in the museum field, but being mostly behind the scenes, it doesn’t get the same kind of attention that curatorships do. Any curator worth her salt, however, knows that preparators are the ones who make the exhibition magic happen, because they’re the ones who get the works ready and into place.

Matting works on paper is a time-consuming task requiring lots of skill and patience.

At Roswell, Brandon would do everything from re-mat and frame works on paper, transport artworks for conservation, hang paintings, prep galleries, and more. For one exhibition, Peter Hurd on Paper, he had to mat or re-mat more than thirty watercolor sketches and paintings, a tedious job requiring skill and patience. In one of his more unusual jobs, he built a custom support structure for one of the museum’s tin chandeliers so that it could handle the drive up to Santa Fe for much-needed conservation work.

Made by tinsmith Eddie Delgado for the museum in 1937, these three tin chandeliers are fantastic pieces of WPA craftsmanship. Conserving them took about 4 years and required a lot of patience and creativity.

He also has a special knack for moving large artworks safely. For one exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, for instance, he oversaw the transport and installation of a 5-foot, 400-lb. wooden sphere. While the rest of the curatorial department (i.e. Amberly, our Registrar, and myself) would assist with installations and other activities, Brandon was the one who oversaw these functions.

The 5-foot wooden sphere was one of the most difficult pieces to move and install in the RAiR at 50 exhibition, but thanks to Brandon’s planning and leadership it was placed safely.

In short, Brandon was a critical member of the Roswell Museum staff, but he willingly left that position behind to move with me to Virginia. While we were moving to a place with plenty of museums, finding a preparator job in any of them wasn’t guaranteed. The museum field is a fickle place to get a job, and you usually have to go where the jobs are, not the other way around. I knew I would have plenty of opportunities in Williamsburg, but with Brandon, there was no guarantee.

As it turns out, our expectations have been exceeded.

Given his background in history, Brandon really wanted to work at Colonial Williamsburg. He initially got a position in Public Safety as a means to get his foot in the door, but he knew security wasn’t what he wanted to do in the long term. In October, however, a Senior Preparator position became available, and after a round of interviews, he was offered the. As of December 10, that’s what he’s been doing.

Loading up a desk and bookshelf in Kentucky.
Riding back from Kentucky. Brandon drove there and back with another co-worker. Whenever you transport art, it’s best to travel in pairs so you can take turns driving and help each other move the work.

Working at Colonial Williamsburg is quite different from Roswell. CW is much larger than the Roswell Museum, so staff members tend to specialize in particular fields rather than do everything. In Brandon’s case, he focuses primarily on safely moving collections items to different locations rather than install them or prep them for exhibitions. He works with a variety of both collections managers and curators to figure out what needs to be moved and how, and every day his schedule varies depending on what needs to get done. So far he’s helped move rifles, furniture, and other objects. He’s even gone to Kentucky to pick up works, and helped move a historic chair to Richmond. Although it’s different from Roswell, Brandon’s been enjoying the work quite a bit. He enjoys being part of a larger team, and in terms of his career, moving from Roswell to CW is a big step up.

Look at what Brandon made!

Brandon’s also been exploring some of his other interests, most notably blacksmithing. Earlier in the fall, he took a half-day introductory workshop, where he made a firestick. He really enjoyed that, and once his schedule settles down a bit more he’ll likely continue doing it. A fan of historical European martial arts (HEMA), Brandon has also been getting back into that, meeting with local groups in both Williamsburg and Richmond. Although he’s most comfortable with the German longsword, he’s also been exploring the saber, and even a little spear work.

I’m extremely proud of Brandon. He came to Williamsburg determined to find new opportunities, and he’s seized right onto them. I can confidently say that we’re both glad we moved here, and are looking forward to being here a little while.

How I spent my winter break

My first semester ended when I turned in my capitalisms paper on December 17. With classes not resuming until January 16, that left me with several weeks to myself. After working in a job where I only got two weeks off a year, having that much free time was a welcome change. So how did I spend it?

When I was getting my master’s I remember sleeping a lot during the first week in a break, as I would habitually stay up until 3, 4, or 5 am during the finals period to finish papers (I never could pull a total all-nighter). I didn’t try that this time because I frankly don’t see the point anymore, so I wasn’t as exhausted. I also didn’t travel during the break, so I didn’t have to contend with jet lag or its related energy-sappers. Still, I did get a little more sleep than usual, partly because it’s the winter and I’m always tempted to go into hibernation myself when it gets dark at 5.

Spending the holidays in Williamsburg meant plenty of time to study its decorations.

I did do some preemptive academic work. I wrote plenty of conference abstracts, for example, and thought ahead to the next semester’s projects. Since I already know which classes I’ve signed up for, I figured I may as well start thinking about projects so I won’t feel rushed by the time the end of next semester comes around. I also read about some new working techniques to help me better space out my research and writing next semester.

One of the codes I worked on, in this case for a map with pop-ups on specific locations.

I spent a week improving my Digital Humanities skills by taking an intensive workshop the first full week of January. Whereas my DH class had focused on theory as well as practice, this was all about the nuts and bolts of basic programming with Python. I don’t fancy myself a programmer, but being familiar with coding doesn’t hurt, especially since I intend to continue making these kinds of projects.

I also wrote several posts for this blog. I always like to keep a stash of them in case things get busy and I don’t have time to write. Since several of them aren’t tied to any specific event, they can be posted whenever they’re needed, whether it’s this semester, the summer, or even further in the future.

Not everything was work though. I also spent a lot of time with Brandon. We took day trips to nearby places such as the Jamestown settlement, which is only about 15 minutes from where we live. Having lived in the Southwest for several years, we regularly encountered the complicated legacies of Spanish Colonialism, but here, we’re seeing how the English approached it. We contemplated the geography, the sense of place, and complicated histories.

A couple of views of one of my houseplants, an angel wing begonia.

I also did a lot of drawing. I stopped sketching regularly in October, so I really enjoyed taking my time on these drawings. Doing these sketches made me realize that I need to change my drawing habits for next term, so I picked up a smaller book that I can carry around with me for quick drawings, the sort of thing that I can do in 2-3 minutes. Drawing every day is better than not, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. They may not be finished or detailed like the ones I did over the break, but I’m still making marks on paper, which is more than what I’ve done for the last several months.

So that’s how I spend my break. Some preemptive work mixed with mostly fun and self-care. I can’t complain about that.

Computing for the Humanities

Semester breaks are for rest and relaxation, but they’re also a great time to learn new skills through workshops and other opportunities. Such was the case with the Digital Humanities bootcamp I took last week, which I’ll be talking about today.

Image courtesy of https://www.anaconda.com/.

This intensive workshop met from 9-4 Monday through Friday. Each day focused on a different activity, including visualizations, optical character recognition, and social media analysis. For the actual coding, we used Python, one of the more accessible programming languages out there, as offered through the open-source distributor Anaconda. To help concretize what we were learning, we used examples from our own research, empowering each of us to conceptualize how these various methods could benefit our work.

A simple test code, in this case producing a list of words.

One of the techniques that particularly excited me was machine reading, known as Optical Character Recognition. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I would like to expand on my work with the Roswell Museum and its WPA documentsas part of my ongoing research with community art centers. In addition to scanning and uploading every scrap of paper from that archive, we would need to produce a transcription for each text so that readers would not have to rely exclusively on the original, faded documents for content. As you can imagine, typing out a transcription for every document would take years for a human like myself, but a python program can enable a computer to read and produce a preliminary transcription in a fraction of the time.

As an example, let’s take a look at the checklist above for an exhibition selection of textile patterns shown in October 1938. To get the computer to recognize and register the individual characters of the letters, you have to heighten the contrast between the text and the page as much as possible. To do this, you first have the python program convert the photograph to grayscale. Once you’ve done this, you further convert it to black and white. While you’re doing this, you can add command filters that help adjust for shadows and other imperfections that interfere with the clarity of the text. This is especially useful for photographs taken on smartphones, as was the case with this checklist.

The actual code for turning the photograph into a black-and-white image.

Once you’ve got your black and white image, you can have the computer read it. Here’s the transcription that I generated for the checklist:

aa

CALIFORNIA PRIFT!D TExtires

Received Cctoper 4, 1938

1.

Yaxichilan on Linen
Costa Rica |
History of Music Hall
Guatamalna –

Playboy |

Figures with Still Life

Family Print

Carnival
Kinston
From & Dorming Garden

Kitchen Print

ixhibited October 10

While there are a lot of typos in this document, it’s reading at more than 50% accuracy, which is great for character recognition. Since computers can’t intuit (yet at least, take what you will from that), they process things exactly as they see them. When it comes to historical documents, then, it’s a given that you’re going to have to clean up the text, but the rough transcription is there. Once I had the program working, it only took a few seconds to generate this transcription, something that would have taken me a couple of minutes, at least. Multiply that by the hundreds or even thousands of written pages in an archive, and you’re saving yourself a substantial number of hours. Transcribing an archive will still take a long time, but Optical Character Recognition makes it a lot more manageable.

We also explored visualizations such as graphs and charts. I generated the bar graph below using a sample data sheet, in this instance opinions about commas. In addition to presenting the information itself, we learned how to change the palette, in this instance to correspond with William and Mary’s Pantone colors.

I’ve made graphs before in Excel, but python programs allow you to create a much wider array of visual explorations. A particularly exciting one we all liked was the heat map below, with more saturated colors corresponding to higher concentrations of numbers. By altering the data within the various columns of the program, we could change the layout to emphasize different sets of information.

The last day explored social media scraping and mapping. For scholars working on contemporary topics, Twitter, in particular, is a vast repository of information and opinions but can be overwhelming to process alone. Python, however, enables you to create programs that organize tweets. While I personally don’t foresee myself using this program that much, it’s still good to know about.

The code for plotting pop-up pins on a map. I found this exercise particularly useful, as it could be an effective way to plot out different art centers.

I was more interested in the mapping exercise. Using python, we were able to not only map specific locations and mark them with pins, but also add captions, descriptions, photographs, and other information. I ended up making a test map featuring community art centers in New Mexico:

This simple pop-up map shows only minimal information, as I wanted to see if I could program it. In the long term, I’d like to create a map that not only shows all the known art center sites, but includes more detailed information about their histories and their collaborative networks.

What excites me about this program is that it can develop alongside my research. As I find out about new art centers, I can add photographs, dates, and other information. Beyond simply plotting locations, I learned I can also use python to potentially draw the travel routes of different exhibitions and begin plotting the networks these art centers shared with one another. Python can help me expand my focus beyond Roswell, and start to incorporate that research into a broader national framework.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a programmer, and my knowledge of python remains fairly rudimentary. Fortunately, William and Mary has a computer science department that is more than eager to collaborate, so I’ll have plenty of help as I continue to expand and develop my skills. If I’ve learned anything about Digital Humanities, it’s that collaboration is key to every project, so I’m happy to know that there are plenty of other students who would be able to help me.

In short, I had a terrific experience. I not only learned a lot of new things, but have access to resources that will let me continue to grow and develop my DH skills.

2018 Reflections, and 2019 Anticipations

I don’t know about everyone else, but 2018 was a pretty eventful year for me, full of endings, beginnings, and overall change. Today, I’d like to reflect on the past year, and more importantly, look ahead to the future.

Magical and Real as it appeared in Doylestown, PA.
Magical and Real in its Roswell incarnation.

2018 started off with the opening of Magical and Real, the Peter Hurd and Henriette retrospective that I’d been working on for the last four years. It opened at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA, then traveled to Roswell in May. Having a project that I’d been working on for so long was both overwhelming and immensely satisfying. After years of hard work, researching, writing, and negotiation, it was wonderful to see all those efforts pay off.

So long, Roswell

In July, I officially left my position as curator, shortly after my fifth anniversary at the museum. It was my longest job up to this point, and it was a big decision to leave that all behind. Yet I definitely felt ready to leave, and they’ve got a great new curator who will do a better job than I did.

I drove from New Mexico to Virginia, spending as much as 16 hours on the road at one point. My Prius has never been happier.

In August, I moved to Virginia with my partner, Brandon. He drove the U-Haul with our stuff and his truck in tow, while I drove the Prius with our two cats as co-pilots. Driving cross-country is something of a rite of passage in my family. My parents have done it several times, as has my sister. While I helped my parents drive when I moved to New Mexico, this was the first time I drove cross-country entirely on my own. It was tiring, and I have no interest in doing it again, but I’m glad I was able to prove to myself that I can do it.

Then in the fall, I completed my first semester at William and Mary, which went a lot more smoothly than I expected. I knew that going back to school after working for several years was going to be quite a transition, but giving myself permission to acknowledge and experience the changes happening in my life made it much easier.

I also found that being older has proven advantageous. Initially, I thought I would feel out of place, but having years of work experience and a previous graduate degree helped me put the program into perspective. I’m also in a different life chapter than I was at Williams. I was fresh out of college and single when I went to Williams, but nowadays I’m in a committed relationship and provide a home to two kitties. So while I work hard at William and Mary, I have other commitments, and I’m much more comfortable with giving myself permission to relax and not work at 110% all the time.

Really it’s all about the kitties.

Most importantly, I’ve become comfortable with who I am and my own abilities. When I was at Williams, I thought I had to know everything, and felt insecure when I didn’t. At this point, I know that anyone who thinks they know everything is a damn fool, and the best thing you can do is learn from everyone around you. I’ve got wonderful classmates who all work on different things, so the best thing I can do at this point is┬áto learn from them as I continue working on my own projects.

So what’s ahead moving forward? Aside from the regular classes, I’ve signed up for a DH workshop to continue building my digital humanities skills. I’ve been reflecting on my working habits from this past semester and thinking of ways to be more efficient next term. I’ve been submitting abstracts to various conferences so that I can start getting back on that circuit. I’ve also been looking ahead to the summer and figuring out how best to use that time on my research.

One nonacademic goal I have for next semester is to do more sketching.

Not everything is about school though. I noticed I didn’t do a lot of sketching last semester, in part because most of my sketchbooks at this point are large, attractive volumes that I prefer reserving for fairly detailed, lengthy studies. In response to this hesitation, I picked up a small, informal sketchbook so that I can make quick drawings wherever I go. Even if it’s just a couple of minutes per day, that’s better than nothing, right?

So that’s where I’m at. these days. Reflecting on the past is fine, but it’s more important to keep moving forward. Here’s to a happy, productive 2019 for everyone.