Toilet Paper Advertising is Weird

Before we launch into my third reading list for comprehensive exams, we’ll take a break this week for some lighter fare. I first wrote this post over a year ago as filler content for those times when I’m too busy or tired to write blog content, but in the era of COVID-19 and the ever-present search for toilet paper, now seems like as good a time as any to post this. To quote Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts, because today’s post is a bit of an oddball.

The great thing about being in an American Studies program is that you have the opportunity to think seriously about all the things you find weird about popular culture in the US.

Take, for instance, toilet paper.

I was reading about advertising in my capitalisms class in the fall of 2018, when I suddenly remembered an old Quilted Northern commercial from the late 90s:

The premise is that these tiny women quilt toilet paper. As they work, they chat about quilting, the local scuttlebutt, and other things you might expect from a quilting bee-type session, though the conversation invariably shifts to promoting Quilted Northern’s superior absorbency. I distinctly remember the little blonde one was new to the group and feeling a little nervous about her quilting abilities, but was assuaged by her more experienced counterparts. There were other ads in the series, but I don’t remember them as well.

Anyway, those commercials always struck me as odd (and I’m not the only one, as you can read here). We’re talking about toilet paper, the stuff you use to remove fecal matter from your anus. How does a commercial about social quilting ladies rendered in a folksy animation style convey that message? And why are they all women? Are there any gentleman quilters working on the toilet paper, or, like housework in general, is it just assumed that making toilet paper is women’s work? How much does this vision of handmade, female-dominated, personality-driven crafting correlate to the actual mechanized, impersonal production of toilet paper? In the ad at least, they heavily imply that machine-produced toilet paper is flat and less absorbent, yet Quilted Northern itself isn’t actually made by little quilters, so how effective is this campaign at all?

To be fair to Quilted Northern, some of their more recent commercials take a subversive chuckle at the whole hand-crafted element of their advertising, as well as hipsters in general, as you can see here. Yet note that the craftsman is now distinctly a guy, reaffirming carpentry and woodshop activities as distinctly male activities.

(This why it can be hard to watch TV or consume any kind of popular culture with academics. We feel compelled to analyze it.)

From there, I started thinking about other commercials for toilet paper. When it comes to bodily functions in general, American advertising veers toward the euphemistic (I’m looking at you, period products), but toilet paper is particularly strange to me. I mean, we all have to clean our anus in one form or another, so why are we so hesitant to address it outright?

Apparently, these bears have names, with the female bears given pink bows to denote gender. And they’re color-coded to connote the particular qualities of the toilet paper, red bears for strength, blue for softness. Who thought of all this?

There are the infamous Charmin bears of course, but they’re probably the closest we ever get to seeing toilet paper in action. Remember Mr. Whipple?

Somehow his efforts to deter people from squeezing Charmin was enough to convey to visitors that this product was sufficient for anus-wiping needs.

Even the packaging itself on toilet paper is peculiar. You never see the paper in action, for instance, no butt-wiping to see here (Hieronymous Bosch would be disappointed). Rather, you often (though not always, to be fair) see images of cute baby animals, such as ducklings, kittens, or even human infants. Yet we tend to reserve moist towelettes or wipes for baby bottoms, so what does the human infant have to do with dry toilet paper? It’s as though in our effort to euphemize toilet paper, we have to infantilize it in order to render the taboo subject of anus-wiping harmless.

Then I started thinking about a peculiar billboard for Clines Corners, an extensive gas station in New Mexico. Established in the 1930s, Clines Corners is located at the junction between 285 to Santa Fe and I-40 to Albuquerque. Being the only gas station in the vicinity, it gets a lot of traffic just through its existence, but it’s also one of the most expansive gas stations I’ve ever seen, encompassing a large gift shop, convenience store, a Subway, and even a full sit-down restaurant.

What does this have to do with toilet paper though? Whenever you’re getting close to Clines Corners, you start seeing billboards advertising different products for the place. There’s one for coffee, one for ice cream, even one for moccasins I think, but the one I always remember is the one for clean toilets:

To be fair, Clines Corners has a lot of toilets, about twenty per gender I think, so the likelihood of you finding an empty, working toilet when you arrived is very high. But look at this picture. Rather than have a shot of the bathrooms themselves, they have a closeup of this woman closing her eyes and throwing her head back serenely. Grant it, I understand that you need an image that is visually legible from a distance, but why not have a picture of a toilet then? Wouldn’t that be just as effective?

The bathrooms have a Southwest Art Deco feel to them. As far as gas station bathrooms go, they’re pretty nice.

Brandon and I used to speculate about this lady whenever we would drive by her. Did she just have an orgasmic bowel movement? Is she remembering a time when she had a good poo? Did the toilet paper feel especially nice? What’s the deal?

My broader point is that advertising, particularly when it comes to anything relating to bodily functions, is weird to me. Not that it’s developed spontaneously. I would argue that our disdain for bodily fluids is a hand-me-down from Victorian obsessions with cleanliness, but the part that’s so odd is that we take it for granted. In this world, making cartoons about ladies quilting or bears with toilet paper sticking to their fur is apparently the most effective way to peddle products that help you wipe your ass.

Oh Bosch, of course you would write a legible song on someone’s butt.

Isn’t that weird?

Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities III

Last week I talked about some of the critiques that have been made of digital humanities, including its replication of previous academic biases, the overrepresentation of white, particularly male perspectives, and its complicity in the corporatization of the university as an institution. There are few things more annoying than pointing out flaws without offering solutions, but fortunately for us, lots of scholars and activists have been developing pedagogies and practices to facilitate the development of more inclusive digital humanities. Today then, we’ll wrap up our exploration of this reading list by highlighting some of these works.

One way that scholars have been addressing the historical oversights of both digital humanities and more broadly academia is using theoretical frameworks that account for marginalized groups. In New Digital Worlds, for instance, Roopika Risam adopts a postcolonial approach that addresses the overrepresentation of the Global North in the digital humanities canon and other biases by using her DH scholarship to expose and explore colonial roots. Additionally, she seeks to empower people of color, indigenous populations, and other marginalized groups by concentrating her research on the Global South and highlighting smaller projects that emphasize community participation. Through this focus, she decenters large, lab-led projects as the DH ideal, proposing instead smaller, more intimate work that focuses on community needs over product. Such an approach shares affinities with Moya Bailey’s work with black transgender communities, which she discusses in “Transform(ing) DH Writing and Research.” Much like Alana Kumbier’s theory and praxis of queer archiving in Ephemeral Material, Bailey puts the needs of communities she works with first, with the ultimate form of her projects reflecting their needs and choices rather than her individual need or want for tenure.

Intersectional feminism is another important theoretical framework for digital humanities, as explored in works such as Bodies of Information, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, and Data Feminism, co-written by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. In Data Feminism especially, intersectional feminism explores power structures, and the ways that constructs such as race, class, ableism, and gender intersect to both enable and curtail power for individuals, communities, and other populations. Rather than reduce oppression or power to a single cause, intersectional feminism regards it as a complex matrix, with contextualization being key to both comprehending and ultimately addressing it. It is also a framework that values affect and embodiment, qualities traditionally disregarded as irrational by more logical, masculine-oriented epistemes, as both legitimate subjects of research and a means of conducting research itself. Through this flexible yet complex theoretical framework, these authors explore everything from the tenure process in academia and its privileging of individual publications over collaborative, community-based research, to the introduction of emotion to the visualizations as a legitimate research focus, to the ways local communities use mapping and other DH projects to map trends in their areas.

These theoretical frameworks not influence what kinds of topics these digital humanists explore, but how they conduct that research. Consent, the acknowledgment of labor at all levels, and treating community partners as equals all underpin intersectional research. Related to this recognition of service as key to scholarly production is a focus on pedagogy within these academic practices. In works like New Digital Worlds and Data Feminism, the authors dedicate at least one chapter exclusively to teaching, underscoring its quality to research and writing in terms of scholarly output. One edited volume, Digital Humanities Pedagogy, focuses entirely on teaching, with each chapter highlighting a different project or approach.

Underpinning these practices is an emphasis on social justice. Rather than simply report the facts, these authors argue that scholarship, digital or otherwise, should actively seek to create a more inclusive, accepting society, both through the kind of research it conducts and its faculty representation in academia. Rather than operate independently of society’s political and economic concerns, academia should be immersed in them, using its distinct skills in research and organization to empower different groups.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these readings connect back to the works I read in the archival theory section of my list. Works like Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research and Ephemeral Material underscore the significance of community collaboration both as a means of acknowledging labor and undoing the pernicious effects of colonial by recognizing the autonomy and expertise of historically marginalized groups. Texts like Archives Power and “From Disclaimer to Critique” also serve as a call to action to archivists to take a more active role in combatting oppression through their own scholarly expertise, whether by reaching out to different groups or annotating historical documents to highlight themes of oppression. Through these interventions, these scholars argue for the relevance of these disciplines, positing that they can and should play a crucial role in the betterment of society while recognizing their own historical role in perpetuating oppression through their archival documents.

I found a lot of these readings very exciting. What I appreciate about intersectional feminism as a theoretical framework in particular is its refusal to reduce oppression and power to simple binaries. Rather, they weave a complex, interconnected web of causes, and with individuals often experiencing both depending on their gender, race, economic standing, and so forth. Intersectional feminism’s recognition of oppression as a palimpsest of causes and effects, as well as its close dialogues with adjacent theories such as postcolonialism, queer theory, critical race, class, ableism, and others, makes it a very flexible approach to studying society. I also appreciate how these readings emphasized both practice and community. For them, the way you conduct research is just as important as the results, and if you’re going to undertake an intersectional feminist project, you’d better be prepared to practice what you preach when it comes to working with others.

Installation shot from “Collecting Roswell,” the first group-curated show I did in Roswell. For this exhibition, I invited three of my co-workers to curate part of the show, which included selecting objects, writing the text, and as a group, determining the layout. I also invited each curator to give a public talk. Throughout this process, one of my top concerns was making sure each co-curator received credit for his or her work.

Looking back at my previous work, I can see how the ideas I’ve been reading already informed my practice, albeit less overtly. When I was a curator, I took the idea of acknowledging my co-workers’ labor on exhibitions very seriously, in part because I know what it’s like to not have credit given to your effort. I pointed out their efforts in staff meetings, for example, as well as during gallery talks. For group-curated shows, I made sure my co-curators received authorship credit on their text labels or panels, and invited them to give gallery talks about their work.

Community curation was another idea that interested me when I was in Roswell. In these kinds of shows, the curator invites members of a group or community to put together a show. The curator acts as a facilitator, helping community members meet their deadlines while also acknowledging and respecting their roles as the exhibition’s experts. I learned about this approach during my first couple of years at Roswell, but at the time I was a relatively new curator and felt insecure in my position at the museum. Looking forward, however, I would definitely be interested in trying this approach, as it would introduce stories and subject matters I cannot think of due to my own relative matrix of power and oppression.

More immediately, the ideas of intersectional feminism could be very useful for my own research. While putting together my Scalar book, for example, I became very interested in highlighting the labor of all the staff who had worked at the museum, as opposed to its administrators who wrote the majority of its surviving text. What kinds of skills and knowledge did these other people bring to the museum, and how did they enhance its operation? The idea of working with communities as opposed to drawing information from them for my own use also seems like a beneficial practice. Asking how my work should benefit their community, as opposed to focusing solely on my own needs, seems like a more ethical approach.

In short, I have learned a lot from this list, not only in subject matter, but in how to go about conducting my own scholarly practice. It’s left me with a lot to think about, but isn’t that what all reading lists should do?

Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities II

Last week I talked about some of the texts I’ve been reading that emphasize the general excitement and scholarly potential surrounding digital humanities. Today we’ll take a look at some critiques of DH.

As Amy Earhart argues, Digital Humanities did not emerge from a vacuum, but remains deeply informed by the traditions and biases of other humanities disciplines.

One of the main critiques of digital humanities is that, rather than revolutionize humanities scholarship, it has perpetuated the biases of academia. As Amy E. Earhart argues in Traces of the Old, Uses of the New, digital humanities scholarship has often replicated both the questions and formats of established academic disciplines such as English or art history, with digital editions of journal, archives, and other formats replicating established forms of scholarship. While this can be advantageous, uncritical replications can continue previous biases or overlook other bodies of scholarship, including older websites that are no longer compatible with current technologies. In the case of digital archives, the extensive resources tend to be based on the most extant available materials, which, unsurprisingly perhaps, belong to white writers and creators. As Amardeep Singh argues in “The Archive Gap,” by gravitating toward readily accessible, extensive paper archives, we replicate the overrepresentation of white writers because their works tend to be better preserved than those of more marginalized groups in the first place. Such a preference for readily accessible written material also hearkens back to Diana Taylor’s discussion of the archive and the repertoire, with the dominance of written texts overshadowing knowledge expressed through more bodily forms.

Since 2012, the anthology series Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, has been an important scholarly platform for critiquing DH theory and practice. A lot of the essays I read for this part of the list came from the most recent volume, published in 2019.

Additionally, DH has been accused of replicating the flaws of the university through its treatment of service-related work. Although DH has been celebrated for its emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, not all contributions are acknowledged equally. As Roxanne Shirazi posits in “Replicating the Academy,” librarians, archivists, and other university workers whose jobs concentrate on service-related tasks play a critical role in the implementation and maintenance of digital humanities projects due to their technical expertise and access to various academic resources. Yet they rarely get credited for their efforts to the same degree as professors or other faculty members, who often manage the conceptual side of the project. Such omissions, Shirazi argues, perpetuate an ongoing bias toward service-related work such as librarianship, nursing, and other tasks, jobs that are considered more technical than intellectual and consequently regarded as less serious.

Not surprisingly perhaps, such service-related careers are devalued due to their history as feminized positions, with women dominating the field. As John Hunter points out on “The Digital Humanities and ‘Critical Theory,’ An Institutional Cautionary Tale,” women entering the workforce underscored the affinity such jobs held with housework, nurturing, and other feminine roles, qualities that made them less controversial with regard to allowing women into the workforce, but also devalued them in the eyes of white male administrators. Yet DH scholarship as we know it, and more broadly academia, would not exist without the labor of librarians and other service-oriented positions, despite their relative invisibility.

Volumes like this book offer critical examinations of making and its significance to DH as a means of research.

The overrepresentation of whiteness, and by extension the Global North, through digital archives mirrors a broader issue of whiteness in the digital humanities. According to Moya Bailey in “All the Digital Humanists are White,” historically digital humanities has consisted of white male academics. As a result, marginalized groups are not only underrepresented through faculty appointments, but through digital project choices as well because the economic and social privilege underpinning whiteness makes it difficult for white faculty members to discern issues specific to marginalized groups. Bailey also resists the idea of simply “adding and stirring” a few token diversity faculty members into the overall white DH mix, arguing instead that digital humanities, and more broadly academia, should be recentered altogether, with white scholars becoming just one facet of a scholarly practice that embraces women, people of color, queer theorists, disabled people, and other groups.

Books like The Digital Humanist explore not only the humanist roots of the DH, but also critique its overemphasis on urban centers and the Global North at the expense of work taking place in the Global South and outside urban and university settings.

Connected to the homogenized, white character of the digital humanities is its complicity in the neoliberalization of the university. While DH is not directly responsible for the increasingly corporate nature of universities, scholars have observed that the DH projects that tend to receive the most funding originate from large lab environments and have a decidedly apolitical character. As a result, smaller projects that focus on marginalized groups, the kind of scholarship that should be getting attention, receive minimal to no funding, an omission that gets perpetuated in the DH canon. As Dr. Catherine Knight Steele mentioned in her CDHC talk, for instance, black digital feminists have been active on the Internet for years through blogging and other platforms, but because their work often exists outside the academy, or doesn’t originate in a large lab with ample funding, it gets neglected or ignored altogether.

Another facet of DH’s complicated relationship with neoliberal policies concerns the use of data. As discussed in the 2019 anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities, consent policies when it comes to collecting big data can be murky. While datasets like historical literature are open source, searching Twitter, Instagram, and other commercial repositories are more grey. While it’s presumed that people who post images or other data online accept that their information may be used for other purposes, offensive memes, the commodification of data via Google and other commercial search engines, among other issues, underscores the controversial nature of online data. Using people’s data for a project without them being able to knowingly consent, then, is a questionable practice.

Interrogating the mechanisms behind computational data itself has been another topic on inquiry. As Tara McPherson famously argued in “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” the computational methods of UNIX and other early systems, with their 0-1 language, demands a clean, rational approach to data that overlooks the messiness of reality, and omits people or data who don’t fit into that neat model. In a more recent but related article, “Against Cleaning,” Kate Rawson ad Trevor Munoz turn a critical eye to data cleaning, or the work we do to render archival documents and other forms of data ready for computer reading. As the authors discovered, cleaning usually prepares the documents for only one kind of machine reading, such as seeking out a certain word or phrase, at the expense of discovering other kinds of information or insight. Consequently, the recommend creating indexes for documents, and enabling different users the possibilities of creating new lists and categories for the documents they search. All of these readings hearken back to the observations made in Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every classification made, an omission occurs that leaves other information out.

Edited anthologies like Between Humanities and the Digital interrogate the “hack vs. yack” debate while simultaneously critiquing itself for offering fairly conservative solutions to ongoing problems of representation and critical analysis.

This lack of critical engagement with the tools we use to create digital humanities projects also underlies another major critique of the field in general: the need for critical theory. As a discipline grounded in projects, DH puts greater emphasis on practice than a lot of humanities fields, the result in part of being able to explore producing knowledge in ways beyond the textual. Yet many scholars have argued that there’s been a greater emphasis on producing dazzling projects with minimal critical engagement than on interrogating both the tools we use to create works, and using those tools to critical ends. To put it another way, if the balance between theory and practice in DH could be described as “hack vs. yack,” there’s been a more pronounced emphasis on making, or “hacking,” without the deep investigation or reflection as enabled through critical theory, or “yacking.” In short, DH has been accused of perpetuating the biases of the academy because its primary focus in on creating cool-looking projects without a deeper analysis of the questions, data, and tools driving our research.

A lot of these critiques have resonated with me. As a white woman, I know that my demographic is overrepresented in both academia and museums (to the point that Brandon has joked on multiple occasions that I’m a ‘type’), and acknowledge that a lot of my previous work was fairly apolitical. Additionally, the years I spent working in smaller museums in the west brought me first-hand experience with the frustrations of larger, well-funded institutions receiving the bulk of grant monies because they had the time and resources to file the paperwork. Regarding my research on community art centers, I’m working with older material, but the communities in which these centers were based are still around, and I want to be mindful of consent moving forward.

While there are plenty of critiques of DH, however, there are also scholars who are working hard to develop a more inclusive version of digital humanities, one that recenters the field away from white, male dominance through considerations of race, feminism, class, postcolonialism, disability, and other theoretical frameworks. We’ll take a look at some of these readings next week.

Thinking (and Reading) about Digital Humanities I

While the first two sections of my second reading list focus on archival theory, the last group of readings have focused on digital humanities. I added these readings because DH is a field I’ve gotten really interested in since taking a seminar on it during my first semester at William and Mary. Like the archival theory list, this section consists of two parts: one focusing on the appeal of digital humanities, and one addressing issues of representation and ethics, with a lot of overlap in between them. There’s also a lot of overlap with the archival theory list, since a lot of the readings I selected focused on both digital archives and more broadly frameworks of power.

Today, I’d to share my thoughts of this part of the list and its applicability to my own work.

Every chapter in this book was written collaboratively to emphasize the team-based methods of Digital Humanities.

As with the archival theory list, I started off with the works that focused on the allure of DH. For DH proponents, digital humanities isn’t just about putting humanities work on a computer, but a whole new approach to conducting scholarship through three interconnected qualities: collaboration, big data, and a shift away from text as the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge. In works like Digital Humanities, Anne Burdick and her co-authors juxtapose the traditional approach of solitary scholarship with a team-based method (the book itself was written collaboratively to demonstrate this point). To put it simply, DH encourages collaboration because computer-based scholarship is too expansive a field for any one person to completely master. The chances of finding someone who can code, create visualizations, and do humanities-based scholarship such as close textual readings are pretty slim, so more often than not you team up with other scholars with different skills sets. The potential of this cross-pollination, Burdick and others argue, is that you have scholarly dialogues occurring across the humanities/science divide, which opens up new research questions and project possibilities. Given that academia has been accused of siloing itself off by departments, such interdisciplinary collaboration has been regarded as a good thing.

This 3D printed abstract sculpture from historian David Staley represents the top 100 words used by the Florida Historical Quarterly from its 85-year run of back issues. The work interprets the words as a topographical map, with the height of the peaks representing frequency of usage. In addition to seeing overall work use, viewers can also see how the journal’s use of language has changed over time, reflecting changing ideas and concepts. You can read more about here.

Another theme that comes through this first part of the list is an emphasis on design. As Burdick, David Staley, and others have argued, written texts in the form of monographs and articles have been the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge in academia for centuries, a form that encourages solitary research and production. By privileging this form, other ways of making sense of the world, such as visual art, textiles, and other creative means, tend to get summarily dismissed as being less serious than written texts and regarded simply as a supplement to the printed word. Yet as digital projects in the form of graphs, spatial renderings of history, and other forms have demonstrated, visualizations are not just a means of illustrating textual knowledge, but of producing knowledge in its own right by exploring themes or ideas that text can’t render very well.

Related to the enthusiasm over visualization in these works is the excitement over big data, or the use of computers to process large amounts of data. As scholars such as Franco Moretti and Mathew Jockers argue in works such as Graphs, Maps, Trees and Macroanalysis, traditional humanities approaches that emphasize close readings of finite amounts of information (in their case, literature), results in a distorted understanding of a particular academic field. Since humans are only capable of reading a finite number of books, or looking at a finite number of paintings, we only see a small percentage of the total human output, resulting in an overemphasis on so-called masterpieces at the expense of all other works. What these authors argue for is adapting quantitative approaches to humanities scholarship through machine reading. Since computers can process a lot more text than we can in a faster amount of time, we should use their abilities to “read” large amounts of text and then write codes for them that enable them to look for specific words or themes (for example, how often texts use articles such as “the”). In its way, we can better contextualize the so-called masterpieces we tend to highlight in our close readings within a broader literary landscape, and see how they fit in with the vast body of other lesser-known works.

Visualizations like this project on MoMA’s photography collection, created by Lev Manovich and the Cultural Analytics Lab, enables viewers to see large quanities of images and discern general trends about them. In this case, the photographs are sorted by tonal value.

I’ll admit, I found a lot of these readings exciting in their optimism, even if I know from my coursework and conferences experiences that DH is, like every academic discipline, a flawed field. The years I spent in museums taught me that all projects are collaborative in one form or another, so seeing a field actively embrace teamwork with all its complexities and messiness is both exciting and a little daunting, especially for an introvert who finds networking overwhelming sometimes. I also found the readings on big data and visualizations exciting, particularly as someone coming from an art history background. One thing that has always irked me about the field is its emphasis on “greatest hits” at the expense of understanding works by lesser-known or less-skilled artists. While newer fields such as Visual Studies have attempted to address this issue by expanding the field of study beyond the so-called fine arts, art history remains a pretty conservative field in a lot of respects. As digital humanists such as Lev Manovich demonstrate in their visualizations, however, computer-based scholarship offers a way to process a large number of paintings or artworks and not only observe patterns or trends, but also underscore the diversity of human creativity.

I could potentially see such visualizations working well for my own research. As I mentioned in my CDHC talk, the logistical complexity of the Community Art Center Project makes it difficult to describe its operations through text, but mapping it digitally could offer a way to better discern its exhibition shipping patterns. Additionally, applying quantitative methods to the thousands of art works shown through the program could offer insights into the overall program itself regarding the kind of work it selected for exhibition, whether it’s the prominence of specific color palettes or preference in subject matter. These kinds of distance readings, combined with a close reading of a specific exhibition or two, could be very useful.

While these texts tend to paint digital humanities and its potential in a glowing, uncritical light, more recent texts have debated whether DH has actually revolutionized academia or replicated the biases of the university, and offer their own suggestions for creating more inclusive scholarship. Big data and macroanalysis-based methods, in particular, have been questioned for their flattening effect, and in the case of contemporary texts or images from living people, the ethics of using their works without permission or acknowledgment of their labor. Moretti’s assault of graduate students also underscores the ongoing issue of ethics in scholarship.

We’ll take a look at some of these critiques next week.

Bake Break: Chocolate Raspberry Cake

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about archival theory and the various questions it raises in terms of how archives affirm or undermine authority, whose voices tend to get preserved or not, and the allure of the archives as a tactile connection to the past, among other issues. Before we move on to the next part of my list though, which addresses digital humanities, I thought I’d take a break from the theory and share this post about a cake.

A little backstory first. I originally wrote this in early February, and it’s rather strange reading it now. Before the pandemic, I usually only baked cakes and that sort of thing for social occasions. Not so anymore. I’ve done a lot of baking since the pandemic started, but aside from Brandon, I haven’t been sharing my baked goods with anybody. The cake I talk about in today’s post, one that was meant to be shared by a group of people, feels like it happened a very long time ago. Future historians take note: sheltering at home in the Covid-19 pandemic alters your sense of time.

Anyway, here’s the original post:

A coworker of Brandon’s recently got a new job at the Valentine Museum in Richmond. To celebrate this new chapter, Brandon asked if I could make a cake for her, as he knows I enjoy baking. After finding out that she has a penchant for chocolate raspberry cakes with cream cheese frosting, I decided to give it a go.

Here’s the recipe, which is modified from a King Arthur recipe for classic birthday cake:

  • 2 cups cake flour (I used King Arthur’s unbleached and unenriched)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark, but it’s up to you)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cups) butter, cut into parts
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center. Lightly grease two 8″ or 9″ round cake pans. If the 8″ pan isn’t 2″ deep, use the 9″ pans.
  2. Combine flour, sale, baking powder, and cocoa powder in a small bowl.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until thickened and light gold in hue. The recipe called for using a hand-mixer at medium-high speed for 2 minutes, but I was able to do this by hand with a little effort.
  4. Add the dry ingredients and mix just enough to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides, and mix again briefly.
  5. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat in a saucepan on the stovetop, or in the microwave. Remove from heat, add butter and oil, and stir until the butter melts
  6. Slowly mix the milk/butter/oil concoction into the batter until everything is well combined. Use the low setting on your hand mixer if you’ve got one. Scrape the bowl and mix one more time, briefly.
  7. Divide the batter between the two pans.
  8. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top feels set (38 to 42 minutes for 8″ pans, 26 to 30 minutes for 9″ pans)
  9. Remove from the oven, loosen the edges, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Remove the cakes from pans onto a rack (right-side up), and let them finish cooling. Cakes should be completely cool before you frost them.

And here’s what I did for the cream cheese frosting (You can also find it here):

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened.
  • 8 ounces cream cheese (the block kind, not the spreadable stuff for bagels)
  • 4 cups’ confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese until blended, then add sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until creamy and smooth.

For the filling in between the cake layers, I used seedless raspberry preserves, probably between 1/4-1/2 cup though I wasn’t measuring precisely. I got mine from Publix, but any brand will suffice. To keep the raspberry filling from soaking too much into the cakes, I coated the top of the bottom layer and the bottom of the top layer with a thin coat of frosting. I then applied the raspberry filling on top of the bottom layer of cake, placed the top layer over that, and covered the whole thing with cream cheese frosting.

Now for the story behind this cake:

As I mentioned earlier, this recipe is modified from a classic birthday cake recipe from King Arthur Flour, my favorite baking company. The recipe is on their website, but you can also find it on the back of their cake flour box.

This recipe is definitely easier with a hand mixer, but you can do it by hand, like I did. I broke my hand mixer a few years ago, but I’m able to meet most of my baking needs without it. If I start baking cakes more often though, I’ll definitely get a new one.

Two-layer cakes have always been an aspiration of mine. I’ve done lots of sheet cakes and cupcakes, but there’s something about the height and elegance of a layer cake that intrigues me. I don’t bake them often enough to be really good at them, but I always appreciate the challenge.

In retrospect, I would have done three things differently. First, I would have put the frosting back in the fridge before using it, as I found that despite using block cream cheese, it was still a tad runny when I was using it. Second, I wouldn’t have spread the raspberry filling all the way to the edges. When I applied the frosting around the edges, the raspberry filling bled into it, causing an ombre effect. While I actually liked how it looked, it wasn’t what I had initially set out to do. Third, I would have applied more frosting in between the layers. I ended up with more frosting than I needed to cover the cake, so I ended up having a very thick layer on top.

Overall, though, I was pleased with how this cake tuned out. Adding the oil also kept the cake moist, which is another improvement on my previous cakes. Visually, it wouldn’t win any contests on a baking show, but this is definitely one of my better efforts. I mean, it’s upright and evenly coated with frosting more or less, so in my books, it’s a success. Most importantly, Brandon’s coworker loved it, along with everyone else in the collections department, so I’m happy I was able to help make her sendoff a memorable one.

Who knows when it’ll be safe to do this again.

Messy Archives

Last week I talked about a variety of readings that explored the allure of archival research, from the tantalizing yet ultimately impossible pursuit of origins as detailed by Derrida’s Archive Fever, to the seductive yet deceptive appeal of historical artifacts providing an unmitigated connection to the past, as explored in Carolyn Steedman’s Dust. Other authors, however, have explored the challenges of archival research, whether through interrogating the archive as an affirmation of state power and violence, or developing new methods for creating and researching archives that include marginalized voices. Today then, I’d like to explore some of these readings, and more broadly the idea of archival messiness.

The politicized nature of the archive as both a concept and a tactile repository for historical documents is not a new idea. Particularly when it comes to colonial archives, a popular method of research has been to read documents “against the grain,” in an effort to explore moments of resistance to state authorities. Within the last decade or so, however, other scholars have been questioning the efficacy of such resistance-focused approaches, as it not only overlooks the vast majority of historical documents, but neglects to account for the insidiousness of the state apparatus itself by instead highlighting pluckier moments of resistance.

That is the angle that two of the authors I’ve read have taken, but with different emphases. In Along the Archival Grain, Ann Stoler takes a critical look at common sense as exerted through colonial authorities. She posits that colonial powers asserted their authority not solely through reason and rationality, as has been conventionally been assumed, but also through affect, specifically uncertainty and fear. To tease out these emotions, she reads documents for moments of uncertainty from colonial authorities, particularly when it comes to the terminology and treatment of children produced through miscegenation. In this work, Stoler isn’t so much interested in resistance against the state as she is in discerning moments of uncertainty within the state itself, emphasizing that colonial infrastructures, far from consistent or permanent, were instead amorphous and prone to fluctuation.

Marisa Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives also reads colonial documents along the grain, but with the intent of emphasizing the violence defining the colonial state. Focusing on enslaved women in the Caribbean, Fuentes examines the lives of women who have been lost to the historical record. To do this she employs a variety of interpretive techniques, from analyzing the spatial layout of Caribbean cities and the way their architecture reinforced racial and classist hierarchies, to taking abolitionist texts and inverting their perspective to focus on the actions of the enslaved people they discuss. Fuentes deliberately concentrates on women who have disappeared from the historical record in order to underscore the extent to which the violence of the colonial state affected the lives of enslaved people. By focusing solely on moments of resistance, she argues, we in essence take a neoliberal approach to historical memory by putting the onus of remembrance on the individual. Unless you actively resist, in other words, something not everyone had the means or resources to do, your life doesn’t deserve to be remembered. Additionally, Fuentes argues that focusing on moments of resistance, while important, overlooks how extensively the state endeavored to deny agency to enslaved people. Reading archival documents with this oppression in mind, Fuentes concludes, underscores the trauma of the colonial state while also bringing attention back to forgotten lives.

Other works focus on the material challenges of the archive itself. Lori Emerson explores in Reading Writing Interfaces how interfaces in the form of writing utensils shape both the format and content of creative production. In particular, she expresses concern over ostensibly user-friendly computers, smartphones, and related technologies, arguing that these devices derive their seeming ease of use from their invisible interfaces, with their inner workings concealed from users. Consequently, she argues that because such devices are nearly impossible to tinker with, we cannot discern how they influence us. Most unsettlingly, as she posits with the algorithms of Google and related search engines, such devices not only shape how we write, but what we write, with the ultimate objective being to transform us from producers to consumers.

The essays in the anthology Residual Media also consider the challenges that come with retaining old materials, both from an ecological standpoint as well as from an intellectual or cultural perspective. As Will Straw argues in his essay, for instance, the omnipresence of older media through the Internet not only means that the past is always with us, but that any new content produced must compete with older media for attention. Consequently, new media continues to resemble old media in content and style, limiting the possibilities for innovation (just think of how many movies that come out are remakes, sequels, or entries in a franchise).

While the archival documents I work with predate the technologies Emerson describes, the idea of interfaces shaping both the method and content of writing is still applicable. Most of the surviving documents I encountered in the Roswell Museum archive were written on typewriters, a significantly different technology from the computer (and one far less forgiving of typos). How did that technology shape the daily routine of the people who wrote on it? How did it influence their writing process and the kind of content they wrote? Given that the Community Art Center Project documents were intended to circulate both locally and nationally, questions of how they were written are definitely worth exploring.

Another group of readings explores how to both create and research archives, with the intention of bringing attention to marginalized groups. In Ephemeral Material, Alana Kumbier outlines a practice of queer archiving. She advocates for a ground-up approach, with archivists approaching communities as collaborators rather than authorities. A key part of her practice is having archivists listen to different communities, and offer resources based on what they need, whether it’s archival training or materials for preservation. In other words, Kumbier advocates having archivists view the communities they work with as the authority, rather than the other way around. Her people-focused practice parallels Dr. Catherine Knight-Steele’s discussion of digital black feminism from the recent CDHC symposium I attended, which similarly advocated for putting people before things.

The idea of listening and working with communities to fulfill their respective needs is a common thread throughout much recent feminist scholarship in particular. Whereas first-generation feminist scholars focused on recovering the lives of historical women through archival research, the authors in more recent texts such as Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research argue for a more nuanced approach that questions the axiom of archival completeness as key. Instead, acknowledging archival silences as a means of resistance to colonial states, or even enabling the destruction rather than preservation of documents, may be more important to a specific community rather than preservation. An ethical feminist practice requires listening to these different groups or communities and respecting those requests.

This last point is admittedly a challenging concept for me on an emotional level. As a museum person, I’ve been trained to believe that everything should be preserved, but as these essays make evident, that may not be desirable for every community. At its core, it raises an important question: should information be free and universally accessible? I’ve always assumed to answer to be yes, but as these readings make evident, the realities are more complicated.

Thinking back to a fragment from last week: who wrote this letter? Is the recovery of their names and memories the most important thing, or are there other priorities based on the needs and expectations of their descendant communities?

Still, these readings do raise important questions for my own research moving forward. I know that the Roswell Museum archive and others like it are politicized in that they represent a federal voice, but what about the local communities mentioned in them, or excluded altogether? How do we recover the voices of the visitors who have disappeared from the historical record? What are the needs and expectations of the descendants of those visitors, and how can I as an ethical researcher respect those needs while completing my own work?

The main thing I’ve learned from these readings is to keep my own expectations flexible. As I encounter new archives, art centers, and affiliated communities, I’ll most likely need to adjust my research questions and approaches. After all, real people, not abstractions or concepts, experienced these places, and their memories need to be respected accordingly.

The Allure of the Archive

COVID-19 has deeply affected our lives in a variety of ways. I’ve still got exams to prep for though, and while at times it’s been difficult to focus, I’ve continued working through my reading lists. Today then, I’d like to start talking about my second reading list, which focuses on archival theory and digital humanities. I’ve just about finished this list, but over the next few weeks, I’ll share my thoughts about it with you.

To start things off, my first sublist considers the definition of an archive, and more specifically what draws us as scholars to this kind of research. Not surprisingly, the definitions of an archive vary, encompassing everything from a repository of documents, to an epistemological framework that dictates knowledge through the discourses it enables or limits, as Michel Foucault argues. When it comes to the allure of archival research, justifications also vary, whether it’s the tactile experience of working with older documents and the inherited historical practice that comes with it, as Carolyn Steedman posits in Dust, or Jacques Derrida’s assertion that archival research constitutes an ultimately futile pursuit for origin stories while simultaneously burying any actual memories in documents. Still other scholars like Diana Taylor advocate for the repertoire, an embodied form of knowledge enacted through performance that works closely with the more textual, object-based nature of the archive (as an example she cites the wedding: you need the license, but what everyone remembers is the ‘I do’s’). All in all, it’s some of the more theoretical reading I’ve done recently, but I’ve really been enjoying it.

Naturally, I’ve been thinking about these ideas in relation to my previous work on the Roswell Museum archive, as well as future expeditions to other repositories. Taylor’s argument about the repertoire, in particular, intrigues me with regard to a mystery play that was performed at the Museum in 1938. Performed within Roswell’s Hispanic community since at least the 1850s, the play known as Los Pastores belonged to an established oral tradition, one that reflected both the medieval European mystery plays from which it was likely descended, as well as more regional embodiments specific to southeastern New Mexico. Its performance at the Roswell Museum represented a seminal moment in its own history, as that was the first known occasion that it was performed not only at the museum, but specifically for an audience outside the Chihuahita community. How did that movement in space and audience affect the play’s performance? How did the actors and audience together use their bodies to create and share meaning? What knowledge do we miss when we rely exclusively on photographs or newspaper writeups from the time? The validity of performance as a form of knowledge is something I’ve been thinking about since participating in last year’s annual conference for the Space Between Society, so it’s been engaging to delve into its theories a little more deeply.

The cast of Los Pastores, 1938.

Another idea that’s particularly intrigued me is the idea of absence or fragments, a concept that Zeb Tortorici explores in his article, “Archival Seduction: Indexical Absences and Hagiographic Ghosts.” Based on his research as the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City, Tortorici argues that the appeal of archival documents comes from its fragmentary nature. While historical documents offer tantalizing windows into the past, what they yield is a fragmented perspective. No document can ever successfully offer an objective window into the past, yet the appeal remains due to their tactile nature. They were physically there, after all, and remain an alluring physical link.

The Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico City. Photo by Miguel Angel Marquez – https://ddd.uab.cat/record/211778, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83037981

More specifically, Tortorici argues for the allure of fragments: documents that are, in the case of indexical absences, referenced in documents but no longer extant, and in the case of hagiographic ghosts, known only through the hearsay of secondary literature. For Tortorici, the appeal of these documents comes from their refusal to conform to an established narrative, thereby revealing history itself as a construct rather than a natural state. Additionally, because they provide so little information, fragments invite speculation and the potential for discovery even while they refuse to provide any closure through information. In short, fragments represent the tantalizing unanswered questions of archival research, remnants that stand out for their resistance to narrativization.

Thinking back to the Roswell Museum archive, there are documents with incomplete stories, if not outright absences. The letter above was composed by an elementary school class that visited the museum in 1938, and represents one of the few extant surviving documents from actual visitors. For the most part, we only know what we thought about the museum through the writings of staff members, so to have something from the students themselves is quite extraordinary. Yet its allure comes in part from its own brevity. Who visited the museum that day? Does this thank-you note represent the collective opinion of all the students, or did some pupils enjoy their visit more than others? What were the “many interesting things” that they learned, and what did they see? How did Rainey Woolsey herself, the woman who led the visit, feel about this experience?

Even more tantalizing is a reference to a disagreement that occurred between Domingo Tejada, who supervised the design and carving of the Roswell Museum’s wooden furniture, and his assistant, Trinidad Bernal. The disagreement survives through references the correspondence between the museum’s director and the state director for the FAP, Russell Vernon Hunter. According to the administrators, the disagreement seems to have stemmed from the degree of oversight Bernal needed from Tejada to do his work, with the latter being resentful for not having his skills recognized. Other letters suggest that Tejada was in high demand for furniture around the state, and relied on Bernal to help him stay on schedule without going overtime. Perhaps Bernal didn’t feel appreciated for his efforts, or thought he could take more initiative in the studio. Yet without documents from Bernal and Tejada themselves, we can only speculate on what they argued over, or how they felt about the situation. Did they disagree over specific designs? Did they have different working styles? Did Bernal want to work on certain pieces, while Tejada had other projects in mind? As with the letter from the school group, the references in the correspondence offer tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the people who worked there, but without providing a complete narrative or story.

Looking into the main gallery with Tejada’s furniture on view. What conversations revolved around the creation of these pieces?

Historical curiosities aside, why does any of this matter? Because archives are about people. They are written by people, they talk about people, and people use them. Fragments and incompletions remind us that whenever we write history, we need to remember that we’re addressing real people who lived unique lives, and that telling narratives at the expense of eliding that uniqueness, or projecting your own speculations without acknowledging them as such, has its own ethical perils. Just as Foucault argues that the archives aren’t so much an enclosed repository of documents as they are an ongoing discourse and epistemological framework, so history is an ongoing process, one that also remains incomplete and full of fragments.

New Publication: The Artist as Soldier

For the last two weeks, my posts have reflected on the current pandemic, but today I’d like to share some good news: I’ve recently published an article in Arts, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. You can read the article here.

While I’ve published my work before, this is my first peer-reviewed work. This means that other scholars have read the manuscript commented on it, and ultimately considered it worthy of publication. Better yet, Arts is an open-access journal, which means that anyone can read its contents without having to pay. As someone who’s experienced the frustration of paywalls, I’m glad that I can share my work with anyone who’s interested. It also means that my work will have a better chance of getting read and cited because there’s no fee that might turn off potential readers.

Howard Cook, Self-Portrait in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

So what’s this article about? The subject is a collection of World War II drawings from New Mexico artist Howard Cook (1901-1980), and more specifically a group of works collectively titled Self-Portrait in a Foxhole. For three months in 1943, Cook served as an art correspondent in the South Pacific as part of the federal War Art Unit, a government initiative intended to document the war. During those three months, Cook sketched Allied soldiers engaging in everything from watching movies to digging trenches. In the case of the Self-Portrait group, Cook shows himself taking shelter during an air raid while participating in the Invasion of Rendova. In the article, I argue that the Self-Portrait group explores the war experience through the lens of vulnerability, a theme that recurs throughout his war drawings.

This article developed out of an exhibition I curated in 2015. The Roswell Museum has a large collection of Cook’s art, including the war drawings, along with the correspondence Cook wrote during his assignment to his wife, fellow artist Barbara Latham (1896-1989). Roswell has a large veteran population and fond memories of the Walker Air Force Base, so I knew an exhibition on war art, especially one on view during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, would appeal to a lot of visitors. In addition to showcasing our collection, I borrowed a few painted works from the art collection at the New Mexico Military Institute. I also featured a 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, where Cook had some of his art published. For the actual text labels, I quoted from Cook’s letters whenever possible, allowing readers to learn about the works through his perspective.

Howard Cook, Two Men in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

While I may have started out this exhibition with visitors in mind, I ended up getting really interested in the works myself. I’ve always liked Cook’s work, but the war drawings are especially interesting because they’re something of a departure from his earlier works. Cook started out his career working in a Precisionist style, and he always drew in a clear, lucid manner with an ample amount of reflected light to give his work a luminous quality. He continued using that style for a lot of his war drawings, but he also experimented with a more gestural, expressionistic style. In works like Two Men in a Foxhole, shown above, Cook uses thick strokes of white pigment to suggest the forms of the two men, their white flesh standing out vulnerably against the ink wash background. While Cook relied on strong contrasts between light and shadow to bring clarity to his compositions, there’s a raw quality to the Rendova drawings that you don’t always see in Cook, and I thought that was worth exploring further.

An example of Cook’s Precisionist work: Skyscraper, 1928, wood engraving on paper. Image courtesy of http://oldprintshop.com/product/20247

What especially intrigued me about the Self-Portrait group was the artist’s decision to depict himself in a moment of vulnerability. Cook doesn’t show himself digging the trench, or running off the boat during the initial Rendova landing. Instead, he’s showing himself taking shelter from artillery fire, something he couldn’t actively fight back against. I thought this vulnerability was worth exploring and decided to write about it.

I first floated the idea of a potential essay in 2015, when I presented a conference paper at the Southwest Art History Conference in Taos. It was well-received there, so I sent the paper to a professor I knew at Williams for suggestions and began expanding it into a manuscript. I was on a roll, but after the exhibition opened, other projects and tasks began demanding my time. I decided to shelve the piece until the right opportunity came up to revisit it.

That happened in the summer of 2019, when the Williams College listserv forwarded a call for papers for a special issue in Arts journal. The editor was especially interested in works that dealt with the Pacific Theater, so I sent in an abstract because I figured I had nothing to lose. They accepted it, so I spent the next few months reworking the piece. In July, I was notified that it was accepted, so I started work by making a schedule. Since the manuscript was due in early December, I worked backward to July to make sure I had plenty of time to finish. I ultimately decided to dedicate an hour each weekday morning to working on the piece, so that I would make steady progress while having plenty of time to focus on my coursework.

I started by taking the original essay and reading it all the way through. After rereading the original essay, I made notes on how to improve it. I then refreshed the research (having access to a university library and all its academic resources made that a lot easier), which including rereading Cook’s letter as well as finding new secondary literature. I then wrote three different outlines: one for the original essay, one for the envisioned new essay, and one that combined the two. I then spent the next few months reworking and expanding the 2015 essay. The manuscript then went through two rounds of peer reviews, and after each round I incorporated their suggestions. The final essay was substantially different from the 2015 piece, but having a draft that I could then rework made the whole process much easier.

An example of Cook’s studies of indigenous peoples. Despite his interest in the indigenous people of the South Pacific, as well as their involvement in the Allied effort, Cook ultimately focused on white soldiers because he believed they were the dominant aspect of his assignment, a decision that merits further exploration. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

It was interesting to revisit this piece, because it showed me how much my interests have changed over the last few years. I’m proud of this article and I’m happy to introduce RMAC’s art collection to a scholarly audience, but my focus has shifted since I first started working on it. if I were to write this piece now, I’d focus on Cook’s decision focus on white soldiers rather than indigenous populations, aside from a few preliminary sketches. As I’ve learned, what’s not shown is as important as what is.

All that said, I’m pleased to have this essay out there now (and very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful commentary), and I hope it will open up more scholarly inquiries into both Cook’s work and the Roswell Museum collection more broadly. It’s got some great works that scholars would benefit from studying.

#MuseumFromHome: Art Engagement and Covid-19

Life in the age of Corona has changed the way we do a lot of things, including how we consume art and other museum artifacts. I may not be working in museums right now, but I’m still concerned for their long-term well being. More immediately, I’m interested in how museums have been using the closures of Covid-19 as an opportunity to engage their audiences digitally. Today then, I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last couple of weeks.

Who says you have to go here to experience great art? By the way, this is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it’s literally the first image that came up when I typed “art museum” into the search engine.

First I’ll tell you a little about my process. I’ve always followed museums on social media, but I’ve been focusing on them more recently as a way of managing my time online (i.e. preventing downward spirals into anxiety and despair). I’ve been paying particular attention to how art museums have been responding to Covid-19, since my background is in art curation, but other kinds of institutions have been posting content as well (in arguably the cutest examples, of course, aquariums and related institutions have been letting the animals out to tour the museums). Of all the social media sites, I tend to use Instagram the most because it accommodates both text and image, but I’ve also been following individual museum websites, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m not especially familiar with TikTok or the other more recent platforms, but if I were to turn this into a research project I might look into them to see if and how they reach younger audiences.

I initially started thinking about museum responses to the Coronavirus when I started seeing the hashtag #MuseumFromHome on a lot of recent posts. From there, I began following different museums that either used that specific hashtag or otherwise related their content to the Coronavirus closures. The rhetoric typically goes something like this: “hey, we know you’re at home and can’t visit us, so we’ll bring the content to you!” Or something along those lines.

This Tiffany Lamp is one of many pieces the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has shared on Instagram recently.

When it comes to actual content, art museums have usually been sharing works from their collections, but certain themes have recurred. A lot of posts have a domestic element to them, whether through sharing works that focus on the home, or having staff members share works while working from their own houses. Such tactics not only establish a sense of empathy with viewers who are likely homebound, but also enable museums to align themselves with the familiar comforts associated with domesticity, underscoring their desirability as social media sites to visit. In one of the more extensive examples I’ve seen, Shelburne Museum, in addition to its blog and Instagram posts, has been offering tours of Founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s house via Facebook Live, led by curator Kory Rogers. A lot of posts also feature humor in them, with various museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, and other institutions offering moments of levity in a serious time.

Other posts have a decidedly less domestic character, in an effort to help visitors feel less confined. Some Instagram posts feature photographs from recent gallery tours, for example, encouraging visitors to reenact the experience of walking through the museum’s distinct spaces. In the most extensive examples, museums have enabled visitors to take actual virtual tours of their spaces. Places like the St. Louis Art Museum have also been recording new events and posting them online to maintain social distancing, such as a gallery talk by Kehinde Wiley. Other posts show works that depict different geographic locations, enabling viewers to embark on a virtual world tour through art. Sometimes these works will reference famous holidays or artist birthdays, offering a celebratory angle to the posts. What all these myriad efforts share is a sense of escape.

Harvard Art Museums recently shared this pastel by John Appleton on Instagram, Ocean Sunrise.

For the most part, the content has also been apolitical, with a focus on providing a sense of comfort and pleasure to visitors. That said, some places like the Allen Memorial Art Museum have taken a current events angle by sharing works on Instagram that address issues of health access and well-being. The Allen Museum also makes a point of including works by women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, and rotates its posts among different staff members. These posts are among the most extensive I’ve seen on Instagram, and read like detailed, scholarly exhibit labels.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum has been sharing works like Jenifer Woford’s MacArthur Nurses. Andrea Gyrody, Ellen Johnson ‘33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and one of my classmates from Williams, writes about the painting here. It’s a fascinating discussion, so be sure to check it out if you have a chance.

There’s also a strong personal element to these posts. A lot of museums will have curators and other staff share their favorite works, for example. Sharing staff favorites is an effective way to personalize museums with their visitors (heck, I did it at the Roswell Museum), but again, it’s the scale at which this is happening interests me. In one of the most popular recent examples, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has handed over its social media reins (forgive the pun) to its Chief of Security, Tim Send. Describing collections objects and other aspects of the museum through a distinctly humorous, folksy lens, Send introduces a personalizing element to his posts while also allowing visitors to experience the museum through the perspective of a staff member who might not usually get represented in social media. Additionally, Send’s wholesome and apolitical posts provide an optimistic element that associates positivity with the Western Heritage Museum’s brand, right down to Send’s hashtag #HashtagTheCowboy.

Tim Send has become a media celebrity thanks to his humorous posts for National Western Heritage Museum, and provides a new perspective on the museum’s collections. Image courtesy of https://heavy.com/news/2020/03/tim-send-national-cowboy-museum-twitter/

What also intrigues me is the way museums have been engaging audiences through participatory means. A lot of these methods have been used before, but it’s the scale at which it’s happening that’s struck me. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, have recently provided free coloring pages based on objects in their collection. Other museums like Shelburne have made music concerts available on Spotify and other channels so that visitors can re-experience those events from their homes. In perhaps the most playful example of inviting visitors to recreate or complete works of art through their participatory engagement, museums like the Getty and the Rijksmuseum, taking inspiration from the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine, have been inviting viewers to dress up and recreate works from their collection with items found in their own homes. Again, people have been dressing up as paintings for years, but it’s the scale and direct invitation to participate that’s caught my attention.

An example of a painting recreation using household materials, in this case a vacuum cleaner and towels. Image courtesy of @tussenkunstenquarantaine .

So what are my takeaways from all of this? Honestly, these are only preliminary observations because this social media work is still very much evolving, but here are some thoughts:

  1. How will this affect traveling exhibitions? Walter Benjamin argued in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photography would render the uniqueness of the original obsolete, but the scale at which people travel to see art in person, whether through traveling exhibitions or contemporary biennial, suggests that we still consider viewing the original significant. Yet ecocritics have rightly pointed out the ecological unsustainability of such a model, and that we should reevaluate the necessity of viewing originals. As these social media posts have suggested, viewers can have meaningful experiences digitally, if altogether different from the visual and tactile experience of the original. At the same time, I worry that this whole pandemic response could used as a means to justify cutting operating budgets to museums, since virtual experiences are possible.
  2. Social media can question or reify extant biases: While engaging visitors through a museum’s collection of greatest hits is a guaranteed way to secure visitor engagement, museums can and should also use social media as an opportunity to share lesser-known facets of their collection, or enable other staff members to contribute content.
  3. Everything depends on access: The world of the digital has often been hailed as the great democratizer, but as recent articles discussing the recent shift to online teaching have underscored, everything depends on web accessibility. If you can’t access the internet, you can’t experience this content, and not surprisingly, internet accessibility patterns tend to reflect the infrastructures of institutional racism and class-based separations.
  4. Ecological impact: the internet is often envisioned as an ethereal network that can liberate us from detrimental effects of climate change, but in reality it’s a massive physical and electronic infrastructure demanding large amounts of energy while also relying on toxic chemicals to make its connections work. In moving their work online, to what extent are museums assuaging or aggravating the current ecological crisis?
  5. Museums are more fun when visitors participate: Whether they’re dressing up as their favorite paintings or requesting that specific works be highlighted in Instagram posts, the whole #MuseumFromHome moment we’re experiencing is definitely a dialogue occurring between museums and they’re respective viewers, and that often makes for the most interesting posts.

So those are some preliminary thoughts. Overall, I find the work museums are doing right now to be exciting, and I’ll be interested to see how it continues to develop over the coming weeks.

Comps (and Life) in the Time of Corona

We’re living in strange times these days. I’m far from the first person to make that observation, but with my overall anxiety levels higher than usual, it’s important for me (and all of us, really) to acknowledge the extent that Covid-19 is impacting my daily life. Today then, I’m going to talk about how I’ve been feeling about this, and what I’ve been doing to stay focused.

When it comes to my day-to-day activities, my life hasn’t changed all that much, and I’m in a comfortable situation both financially and emotionally. Before the pandemic, my days this semester consisted of reading and working at home, so my schedule has remained the same, albeit with more self-awareness when it comes to social distancing. I finished my coursework last semester, so I haven’t had any seminars to attend. I also haven’t had to be on campus to teach, since teaching assistantships for American Studies students at William and Mary last for one rather than two semesters. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that right now, though I feel deeply sympathetic to the students and faculty who do have to teach right now.

What has changed is the anxiety I feel now. I’m not the first to notice it, but there’s a collective unease in the air these days, one that only gets compounded by the regular updates I get through William and Mary and various news outlets. I’ve had to cut back on social media because everything is about Covid-19 now. I’m also doing my damndest to ignore my IRA and other investment accounts, because believe me, they’re suffering right now (and if you’re wondering how the hell a grad student has an IRA, I rolled over my retirement account from the City of Roswell, because they still do pensions there).

All of this makes it difficult to focus on my work, even though I’m in a good financial and social situation. I’ve been noticing it especially while reading. Scholars have a tendency to use language that frames their argument as critical to the future of humanity, or at least our understanding of it. I get why they do this, after all they’re trying to convince me that their argument is both important and right. And the truth is, their arguments are important, but I’m also living at a time when a lot of the economic and social infrastructures underpinning our society are in flux, not to mention the health of millions of people around the world, so my perspectives have shifted.

All that said, I still have comps to prepare for, and for the sake of my mental and physical health I can’t spend all my time worrying about the future, so here’s what I’ve been doing to look after my well-being:

  1. Recognize that the pandemic is real and act accordingly: I’m relatively young and in good health, but not everyone around me is, so for their sake, I need to practice social distancing and wash my hands.
  2. Acknowledge that my anxiety is valid: ignoring feelings doesn’t do you any favors. This is not normal, and it’s okay to admit your emotional equilibrium is off. I work through these feelings in different ways, such as talking with Brandon about them and writing blog posts like this one, but the important thing is that I’m recognizing them rather than bottling them up. For more resources, click here.
  3. Maintain my routine while recognizing that my work patterns may shift: we may be in a pandemic, but I still have exams in a few months, so I’ve been maintaining my reading schedule. I’ve also continued cleaning the house and getting regular exercise. At the same time, I give myself the emotional and physical space to rest when I need it. These are strange times, and constantly wondering about the future of the world has a way of draining your mental energy.
  4. Make time for enjoyable activities: In addition to making art, I’ve been baking and playing music more regularly. Recently I’ve found some YouTube videos that play the accompaniment for some of my favorite sonatas, so it feels like I’m playing in an ensemble again.
  5. Eat well: When I’m stressed, I lose my appetite. Fortunately, Brandon takes care of the cooking, so he’s been making sure that I continue to eat. And since I know he’s also under stress, I’ve been preparing special meals like homemade biscuits and gravy so that he feels cared for too.
  6. Check-in with friends: This one is tricky for me, because when I’m feeling anxious or down I tend to withdraw. It’s important to stay in touch though, so I’ve been reaching out to friends and family to set up phone dates, or texting for more immediate responses.
  7. Spend time with Brandon and the kitties: If I didn’t have Brandon in my life, I know I’d be in worse shape right now. And of course, we’re both glad to have the kitties.

So that’s how I’ve been coping. Who knows what it will look like next week, or in the near future. These are new conditions, but I’ll keep doing my best while giving myself the space to rest, reflect, and rework.