Museums in Times of Crisis: An Equality Lab Virtual Symposium

In October I told you about Finding Home, a virtual symposium from the Equality Lab that looked at the concept of home during the pandemic. Last Friday, we hosted another symposium addressing the pandemic and the overarching need for social change, Museums in Times of Crisis. Organized by Laura Beltrán-Rubio and myself, this symposium provided an opportunity for museum professionals working in different regions, cultures, and institutions to talk about their work, from responding to the immediate crisis of the pandemic to addressing decolonization and other forms of ongoing change.

Poster for the event Museums in Times of Crisis, designed by Laura Beltrán-Rubio.

Like Finding Home, we started talking about this event back in the fall, but this conference spoke more specifically to the interests of both Laura and myself, as we’ve both worked in museums and envision ourselves most likely pursuing museum careers after we finish the program. It was also an opportunity to facilitate discussions about the problematic qualities of museums while learning more about how different institutions have been responding to the pandemic. As I’ve mentioned before, as someone who previously worked in museums but currently isn’t working at one on a full-time basis, it’s been a peculiar experience being a doctoral candidate during this time. While I’m extremely grateful that I’m in a place where I can focus on research and writing, I do feel like I’m on the outside looking in as I’ve read about how museums have been trying out new ideas and policies. Organizing this symposium and facilitating the conversations that stemmed from it, then, offered a way of engaging in these debates more directly.

Laura and I put together the entire program, from the organizing themes to the speakers participating in each panel. We started the process back in December by creating a preliminary outline with potential speakers and themes. In January, we revised the list by finalizing our proposed roundtables, adding new speakers to diversify the selection, and making sure our participants got paid. The final event included eight speakers (we originally had nine but one of the participants wasn’t feeling well) and lasted three hours. Many of the participants were people we knew from our respective museum networks; others were people we had either read about or seen in other virtual events.

Here’s the event summary (in italics) and schedule. To read more about the individual biographies and abstracts for each speaker, click here:

The global pandemic has changed how many of us do a lot of things: from going to school, to caring for children, to work. Negotiating between a crisis in public health and a new wave of social unrest, cultural institutions, including museums, have had to adapt to radically new circumstances. This virtual symposium explores the different strategies that museums and museum professionals have embraced during these complex times. Some museums have used social media and virtual conferencing to engage new audiences and forge new institutional collaborations, while others have reimagined their gallery spaces in response to precarity stemming from decreased attendance and revenue. Still, other professionals and activists have continued their work of decolonizing museums and challenging white supremacy within institutions that have proven to be, at best, reluctant to change. Join us for this special roundtable event as we share different projects and discuss the potential futures of museums.

Roundtable 1: On Decolonization (12-1 pm ET)

Brandie Macdonald, Director of Decolonizing Initiatives at the Museum of Us, San Diego

Debra Yepa-Pappan, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Native American Exhibition Hall at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Roundtable 2: On Access and Precarity (1-2 pm ET)

Christina Vassallo, Executive Director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and Founder of the Philadelphia Collaborative Arts Consortium

Charlotte Potter-Kasic, Interim Director of the Barry Art Museum at Old Dominion University, Norfolk

Aubrey Hobart, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center

Roundtable 3: On Virtual Engagement (2-3 pm ET)

Jane Lavino, Chief Curator of Education at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Wyoming

Vicky Salías, Director of Museo de la Historia del Traje (Fashion History Museum), Buenos Aires

Tanya Meléndez Escalante, Senior curator of education and public programs at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT), New York

Over the course of the event, participants talked about decolonization and the need for ongoing institutional change, as well as the potential long-term impacts of the pandemic on museum content and audience engagement. One theme that recurred throughout the sessions was the pandemic’s effect on audiences. As Vicky Salías, Tanya Meléndez Escalante, Charlotte Potter-Kasic, and others pointed out, moving to virtual platforms has enabled many museums to significantly expand their audience in quantity and geographic dispersion, with previously regional institutions suddenly developing an international following. As such, one of the questions these museums will need to confront after the pandemic is who they want their audience to be. In other words, do they want to return to their original purpose of serving the immediate community, or do they want to retain their more international focus? Or can they accommodate both?

Another resonant theme was nimbleness with respect to programming. Museums typically take a long view when it comes to their exhibitions and programming, often dedicating years to the development of a single show or related initiative. Indeed, as Brandie Macdonald and Debra Yepa-Pappan both pointed out, museums often use their long timeline as a means of maintaining colonialist frameworks, arguing that change is slow and they can’t be expected to decolonize their narratives overnight. Yet the pandemic has demanded that museums become more nimble. As Tanya Meléndez Escalante explained in her presentation, shifting curatorial energy away from large, in-person exhibitions to virtual presentations and social media engagement has enabled her institution to respond much more quickly to ongoing current events, making the institution more relevant with respect to Black Lives Matter and other ongoing calls for social change. As these new initiatives make clear, museums can be flexible when they feel it’s important or necessary.

Regardless, yesterday’s conversations made it clear to me that the impact of the pandemic on museums will have long-term consequences. For organizations like the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming, it means continuing to develop virtual educational initiatives and developing a more national and international following. For institutions like the Barry Art Museum, it means continuing to employ a hybridized virtual/in-person approach to programming and reassessing your core audience. For places like the Roswell Museum, it means reevaluating your community audience and actively reaching out to populations you haven’t engaged before while questioning the museum’s long-term future as an institution. In any event, while the pandemic may eventually go away, its impact on museums will reverberate far into the future.

Overall, Laura and I were pleased with this event. We were happy that we were able to bring together such an engaging group of speakers and to provide a place for them to share their work and discuss ideas. All in all, it’s been a satisfying way to contribute to the Equality Lab’s ongoing role as a space for facilitating conversation and collaboration.

Artwork, March Update

Last month I talked about the still life series I’ve been planning around a deer skull in different seasons. Today, I’ll show you the first entry in this group, Williamsburg Still Life: Winter, which I finished a couple of weeks ago.

I completed this drawing over two weeks. I worked on it during the evenings, after I had finished my scholarly and curatorial responsibilities for the day. I started with a pencil sketch based on previous studies, which I then outlined in pen and ink. I added values with ink wash, followed by acrylic diluted with water to resemble watercolor. I then repeated the process in reverse, starting with color, then inkwash, and finally adding details with pen and ink.

While I’ve already discussed how this series quotes art history through its evocation of the vanitas, I’ve also started thinking about other ways it engages histories of art. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on how the practical choices I’ve made with respect to medium, scale, and even the times I choose to draw engage longer histories of women artists negotiating the tensions between their creative work and domestic and professional labor.

When I first started planning this series, I imagined doing larger drawings, at least 18″ x 24″, maybe 24″ x 36″, to give the works a monumental quality. The final drawing ended up being much smaller, however, around 8″ x 11″, as I decided that working with smaller sheets I already had available would be both more cost-effective and more conducive to working in a living room, as I don’t have an easel or related art-making furniture. While I ended up liking the intimate scale, it did get me thinking about my personal history of creating small works. The daily abstractions I did in 2019, for instance, were each 2″ x 3″, and the largest single painting I’ve done since college has been 16″ x 20″. I’ve painted designs on preserved eggshells and made prints small enough to glue on Christmas cards, but I rarely attempt larger works.

This hasn’t always been the case. When I was in high school, my parents let me cover one of the bathrooms in our house with an ocean-themed mural. As a graduate student at Williams, I painted a mantle-sized recreation of the Villa of the Mysteries on butcher paper for a Halloween party. When I was in Vermont, I occasionally pulled impressions up to 11″ x 22″. Yet for the last several years I’ve been working on a small scale. When did this change occur?

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. I know my work has gotten smaller due to a combination of finite money for supplies, lack of studio space or the money to rent such a space, and time due to working and/or studying full-time. As such, it’s easier to create smaller works that accommodate my time and demand minimal clean-up. Indeed, the largest piece I’ve made recently isn’t a painting at all, but a knitted blanket, perfect for a fully-carpeted rented apartment with white walls.

I had always thought about these creative choices in practical terms, that I made the selections I did because my living conditions or work obligations necessitated them, but after reading Painting by Numbers by Diana Seave Greenwald, I’ve been recontextualizing my personal art practice within a longer history of time and space constraints on creativity. Greenwald reexamines the canon of nineteenth-century European and American painting using a hybridized approach combining formal analysis and other conventional art-historical techniques with digital humanities practices such as quantitative analysis and distance viewing. Through this approach, she revisits long-held ideas about art history, like the popularization of landscape painting during the nineteenth century. Given my interest in digital humanities, I initially read this book for its quantitative approaches, but I’ve also found it resonating with my creative practice.

Greenwald’s chapter on women artists especially struck me with respect to my own artistic pursuits. Wondering why so few women artists ended up in permanent collections despite exhibiting at salons and other events consistently, Greenwald looks at the actual checklists of pieces featured in these shows to see what women were painting. She argues that women most often painted smaller works such as still lives in watercolor, works that accommodated limited time and space due to domestic duties or difficulty in accessing studio space. Yet these works were less likely to be acquired by museums due to a hierarchy of fine arts favoring larger oil paintings, a bias that becomes evident when you scan the contents of museum collections. Unless women artists were willing or financially able to forego marriage and concentrate exclusively on their careers, as Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt did, domestic obligations and spaces dictated the kind of work they could do and its likelihood of being seen. Even when museums have acquired watercolors from women artists, moreover, their light sensitivity means they cannot be displayed for lengthy periods of time like oil paintings can, further limiting their visibility.

Again, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about these issues, but what really struck me are the parallels between my creative practice and those of nineteenth-century women painters concerning time and space. I have no children and don’t plan on having any, but I still work full-time and contribute to domestic labor through cleaning (Brandon does the cooking). And like so many nineteenth-century women, I focus on still life instead of portraiture or other subjects that require large chunks of time and focus because I can work on them in smaller increments in the evenings. And for easy clean-up, I use watercolor and water-soluble ink instead of oil paint. While conditions have changed for women a lot since the nineteenth century, as Greenwald elucidates in her book, in a lot of ways they haven’t.

Williamsburg Still Life, 2021, pen and ink with acrylic on paper.

Yet Williamsburg Still Life: Winter isn’t just about my general working conditions as a woman making art while holding a different full-time job. After all, I have accessed studio spaces in the past through museums and public art centers, and will likely again in the future. But that’s the key distinction right there: I have used these spaces in the past, and probably will in the future, but not in the present.

This piece, and ultimately this series, is about living and working in 2020, through its scale and medium and well as subject matter. To put it another way, it’s a work made within the home, using objects and animals I collected or sketched near that home. Every facet of its material nature, from its intimate scale to the use of local subject matter, asserts its creation as a work made at a time when using public studio spaces hasn’t been the best option. As such, the conditions of the home have informed this work’s scale, medium, and subject. While making art at home isn’t new for me, given the ongoing realities of working during the pandemic, it feels especially poignant at the current moment.

Exhibition Work, March Update

Last month my exhibition work with the Barry Art Museum started moving in two interrelated directions. On the one hand, I’ve continued doing my research independently, reading about different topics and artists and taking notes for future reference. I’ve also started meeting with the museum’s education and exhibition staff as a group, as we start finalizing the Exhibition Advisory Board and the ultimately conceptual focus of the show itself. To this end, I’ve been putting together PowerPoint presentations, sharing them with museum staff, and then opening up the conversation to the group. These discussions have been really productive because different team members will invariably introduce perspectives and ideas that haven’t occurred to me. We’ve talked about medical robots, for instance, debated how deeply we want to delve into the topics of science or AI, and other possibilities.

Cover image from the PowerPoint presentation I recently shared with the Barry Art Museum’s education team.

While we’re still very much in the exploratory phase, one thing we all agree on is the idea of using emotion as the unifying theme for the show, as it enables us to discuss a wide range of social and scientific issues. By using emotions such as fear, compassion, or curiosity as our organizing themes, we can discuss issues of systemic racism, misogyny, and the potentials of transhumanism. In short, these conversations have been exciting because the exhibition is gradually beginning to shift from being a research topic I pursue on my own to a collaborative project with museum staff and ODU faculty, and I know the final iteration will be far more innovative and exciting than anything I could have come up with alone.

On the research end, I’ve been spending more time reading about the ethics of robots and AI. Do robots have rights? Should they have rights? The answers to these questions are neither straightforward nor simple, but they underscore the complex ways that technology intersects with human interests and social issues.

Hitchbot, a robot that attempted to travel the world through hitchiking in an effort to study human behavior. It was destroyed in Philadelphia in 2015. Did Hitchbot’s demise represent the destruction of property, or robot murder? It depends on how you feel about robot ethics. Image courtesy of

From the perspective of AI, arguing whether robots potentially have rights underscores how you feel about biological versus artificial intelligence, and whether one is superior to the other. Even if we put aside the issue of AI, however, the question of whether robots have rights underscores a myriad of other issues. On the one hand, robot ethics highlight the very human tendency to anthropomorphize other beings, with varying consequences. In a harmless example, studies have revealed Roomba owners will periodically clean to give their robot a break, despite it being a machine designed to clean. Yet as Alexis Elder argues in Friendship, Robots, and Social Media, this anthropomorphizing can become problematic when people cannot distinguish clearly between reality and fantasy, as can happen in the case of dementia patients. In these instances, enchantment bleeds into deception, with consent being key. Additionally, the ethics of using sociable robots underscores the loneliness and isolation endemic among elderly and disabled communities, with robots being substituted for companionship rather than addressing the social infrastructures that enable such isolation in the first place.

Conversely, the abuse of robots also suggests connections to systemic racism, misogyny, and other forms of dehumanization. Studies have shown, for instance, that white robots tend to be treated more humanely than black robots. Images associated with the future, moreover, such as advanced robots and architecture, are overwhelmingly white, suggesting that the future is the prerogative of whiteness. Other studies, in turn, have explored the problematic use of female voices such as Siri and Cortana in smartphone apps, programs designed to be complacent even in response to outright verbal abuse from their users. Such disturbing qualities enforce patriarchal expectations that women be regulated to service-oriented roles and take abuse in stride.

The question of human autonomy and consent with regard to the use of technology also intersects with disability studies and the relationships between technology and disabled bodies. As Karin Willison of The Mighty has argued, many assistance-driven technologies such as caretaker robots take a paternalistic view toward disabled people, proffering themselves as surrogate companions rather than addressing the ableist frameworks that segregate disabled people from other communities. Activists like Aimee Mullins and artists such as Sophie de Oliveira Barata, founder of The Alternative Limb Project (many thanks to Sherelle Rodgers for introducing me to this latter group) argue for embracing the creative potential of prosthetics and other technologies to not only compensate for disability, but to highlight it through exploring movements and aesthetic experiences that normal-bodied people cannot do. Rather than see disability as something to be corrected or rendered invisible, these works of art highlight the distinct aesthetic qualities of disabled bodies, recognizing them as an important part of the human experience.

Indeed, some artists have used robotic technologies to gain cyborg abilities that expand their own creative practices. Neil Harbisson’s Eyeborg, for instance, not only compensates for his achromatopsia, but enables him to experience color in an entirely different way from normal-sighted people by transforming hues into sound frequencies. His vision, then, becomes a complex sonic landscape, with sound intertwining with sight. Another artist, Moon Ribas, uses technology to cultivate a deeper connection with the Earth. Through implants in her feet that connect her to seismographic data around the world, Ribas can feel earthquakes in real time, which she expresses through her dancing practice. As such, she explains she experiences two heartbeats: her own and the Earth’s.

All of these different creative, medical, and ethical practices underscore not only how intertwined robotic technology has already become within our lives, but how it intersects with other systemic issues such as racism, misogyny, and disability. While the Barry staff and I don’t know how the final exhibition will address these issues, we do want to talk about them, whether through the checklist itself, educational programming, or both. Either way, this is shaping up to be a fascinating educational experience.

Dissertation Work, March Update

The last few months have been rather busy for me regarding the dissertation, but the work has changed slightly as I’ve settled into the new year. If January was all about sorting through potential subtopics and archival repositories, February and early March have been about distilling those various resources into a coherent prospectus draft.

In addition to journaling, I’ve been doing daily freewrites on the laptop to document my research and thinking process.

Since I knew synthesizing all my recent thinking would be a potentially daunting task, I wanted to document this latest burst of work as thoroughly as possible for future reference. In addition to my regular journaling then, I started a new routine of daily writing related to my current research. Each morning before I started working on my self-assigned topic or archival repository for the day, I wrote for an hour about what I had done the previous day. I’d talk about any findings I’d made, what I thought about them, how they related to my broader interests, and what kinds of questions they raised. By the time I sat down to work on the prospectus outline, I had about three weeks’ of written logs describing the trajectory of my thinking.

The first thing I did for the outline then, was to read through each of these logs and write down any recurring observations. Right away, I noticed that my thinking had centered around traveling exhibitions, and I knew this would be the main subject for the dissertation. From there, it was a matter of organizing all my other thoughts, topics, and inquiries around this main subject.

I’ve talked about my writing process here before, and I used a similar format for creating the prospectus draft. The main difference was that I shared my outline with my advisor before I started writing, and I did an additional week of research into a few more topics he had suggested. This ultimately helped me streamline the prospectus further by re-shifting it to include a chapter on the early history of traveling exhibitions, and to drop two other chapters on 21st-century iterations.

The study where I do my writing. Having a dedicated writing space has also been helpful for maintaining focus.

I spent about two weeks writing and editing the draft, with the piece started out around 23 pages, expanding to more than 30, and shrinking back down to 22 as I refined my ideas. Of the various sections, writing the literature review was particularly challenging because it’s so easy to turn it into a kitchen-sink list of books, as you don’t want to leave anything out. As I started defining my own methodological interventions more clearly, however, it became easier to trim down the list and actually create a concise argument rather than a rambling list of titles.

At the present time, I’m gearing up to revise my draft, as my advisor has now read and commented on it. Although I have further revisions to make, the first draft was overall a solid effort. I credit a lot of that to my writing process (and the inauguration; the election disputes and the Capitol riots were hell on my concentration). I’ve heard that writing is thinking, and I agree with that axiom. With each draft, I clarified for myself as well as the reader what I wanted to say, and what kind of interventions I hope to make.

Starting my workday early in the morning and having a clearly-defined set of working hours also means more time for other interests like drawing, which are crucial to avoiding burnour.

The last couple of months have also been a valuable process for me in terms of refining my working habits and articulating my research interests. I’ve always known that I focus best in the early morning, but my workplace schedule or class schedule dictated my productivity when I was curating full-time or completing coursework. Now that I’m finished with classes and can set my own schedule, I’ve embraced my early-bird tendencies. On a typical weekday then, I start dissertation work at 6 am and finish by 10, leaving plenty of time in the late morning and early afternoon for Equality Lab work, exhibition research with the Barry Art Museum, and anything else I need to do before finishing work for the day at mid-afternoon. I get a lot more done when I follow this schedule while still having plenty of time for hobbies, exercise, quality time with Brandon, and sleep.

Writing the prospectus draft has also helped me better define my own research interests, which had been a somewhat daunting task. I’ve always been something of a Proteus when it comes to my research. I can get interested in almost any topic, but my work has always been defined by the expectations of a class or exhibition. If you had asked me what my core interests were though, I’d have trouble answering. The prospectus has forced me to do exactly that though, and it’s a relief to know that I do have research interests extending beyond the parameters of coursework, exhibition schedules, or archival availability.

Admittedly, I’m not surprised that I ended up focusing on traveling exhibitions, as it was the transit infrastructures of the Community Art Center Project that got me thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in the first place. During the last several months, however, I’ve gotten a much better sense of how my interests extend beyond the Community Art Center Project itself. Through this process, I’ve realized it’s not just transit infrastructures, but how people access art that interests me, whether it’s through traveling shows, seeing art in an airport, learning how to paint through watching television programs like Bob Ross or taking classes at painting paties, or other ways. The mobility of art as rendered through travel infrastructures certainly plays a big part in these questions, but so do classes, art stores, museums, and the spaces where art gets shown.

NMMI cadets at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, 1939. This process has shown me that while the dissertation may have started with the Roswell Museum, it will not end there.

In short, for the first time since I first started looking into the Community Art Center Project, I have really begun to see how my research is not limited to it. On the contrary, I could spend a whole career writing about the question of art access, with each book focusing on a different topic. Admittedly, the likelihood of actually finding a job where I could do this is essentially zilch, but it is useful to my curatorial practice. More immediately, the process has expanded my inquiries so far beyond the Roswell Museum that I can now comfortably envision a dissertation that still addresses the museum and its WPA history without it being the main focus. This was especially important for me personally because as significant as that place has been for my work, I have no interest in returning there, and didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as a scholar. Roswell may have prompted me to pursue doctoral studies at William & Mary, but I can now confidently say that my research interests are not limited to it.

And that alone has made the prospectus draft an invaluable experience.

Sharing Virtual Experiences with the Equality Lab and the 2021 CDHC Symposium

Nearly one year ago, I started spending almost all of my time at home due to the pandemic and the resulting needs for stay-at-home orders, mask-wearing, and virtual work. Working at home, however, doesn’t mean I’ve been entirely disconnected from the broader academic communities at William & Mary and beyond. While most of my time these days is dedicated to the dissertation, exhibition research, and sketching, I’ve also been sharing my experiences virtually through different platforms. Today then, I’d like to take about my recent activity with the Equality Lab and the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium.

Let’s talk about the Equality Lab first. In addition to offering symposia such as Finding Home, the Equality Lab also provides workshops on digital humanities methods and techniques. Last semester, two of my William & Mary colleagues, Ravynn Stringfield and Laura Beltran-Rubio, offered workshops on using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram for scholarly work. On February 19, I presented my own workshop on virtual conferencing.

I used photographs from my own conference experiences for the workshop’s PowerPoint.

I offered to do this because of my own experiences with virtual conferences. Last year I presented at two events, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, and SECAC 2020, and I learned a lot about giving presentations online as opposed to in-person. Over the course of the workshop, I described the differences between synchronous and asynchronous conferences, offered strategies for putting together effective presentations online, and suggested different ways to record presentations and render them accessible through closed captions and image descriptions. I also offered recommendations for avoiding burnout during virtual conference participation, such as choosing the sessions that best fit your interests and focusing only on those, rather than trying to attend everything. A lot of my suggestions, such as including slides of direct quotations and reading from a script as opposed to an essay, could be applied to in-person conferences as much as virtual experiences. Others, such as testing your microphone before recording, or using a default image rather than a blank slide so that viewers don’t accidentally think that their screen has stopped working, were more specific to virtual presentations.

Overall, this was a pragmatically-minded workshop that focused on concrete approaches to designing virtual presentations, and attendees said they got a lot out of it. Nevertheless, there are definitely ways I could improve the workshop in the future. Since I had only done prerecorded conference papers up to that point, I didn’t talk about live presentations that much. I’ve given live talks since that time though, and I’ve learned that they offer their own challenges, so I’d definitely address them if I were to offer this again.

We recorded the workshop for those who couldn’t attend, and as soon as it’s available, I’ll add a link.

I always enjoy taking part in CDHC’s symposia.

After the workshop, I had another opportunity to present my work virtually by participating in the 2021 Symposium for the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium, which happened on February 25 and 26. I took part in that event last year, and as I wrote in another blog post, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about great projects, listening to seminal digital humanists such as Dr. Catherine Knight-Steele, and getting helpful feedback about my own ideas.

This year offered another great selection of speakers and projects. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the symposium’s theme of social justice, a lot of the presentations focused on the pandemic, with discussions ranging from the COVID Tracking Project, which collects data on rates of testing, among other things, to creative responses to the pandemic. These latter papers were particularly interesting, with subjects ranging from Christina Han’s exploration of COVID-19-inspired acrostic poems from South Korea, to Katie Kuiper’s analysis of pandemic-related messaging from the CDC and WHO on Twitter.

Map illustrating the density of substance abuse treatment facilities in New York City. Dark red concentrations such as Harlem show that Black and other nonwhite communities are oversaturated with centers. Comparatively, white neighborhoods have no treatments, resulting in large areas of treatment facility deserts. This means that people living all over NYC travel to Harlem for treatment, regardless of distance, and the onus of substance abuse treatment is placed on BIPOC communities in terms of offering and hosting resources. Image courtesy of

Other projects focused on different social justice issues, such as Shawn Hill’s presentation on the Greater Harlem Coalition and the inequities that have developed in relation to substance abuse treatment facilities. This presentation was particularly effective for me because it underscored the harm of the “not in my backyard” mentality that I read about during my comprehensive exams, with white property owners consistently rejecting legislation to open treatment facilities in their neighborhood. The result is that centers occupy Black communities disproportionately, with residents from across NYC having to commute significant distances for treatment. Dealers, in turn, frequent these neighborhoods because they know their clientele is concentrated there, perpetuating a vicious cycle between treatment centers, substance abuse, and perceptions of Black communities and other nonwhite neighborhoods beings unsafe and undesirable.

Another facet that I really appreciated about this year’s symposium was the number of international speakers, particularly concerning projects happening outside of the more overrepresented United States and Europe. Madhu, for instance, talked about digital activism among dalits in India, bringing attention to the systemic inequities of the caste system, while Camila Lamartine Barbosa discussed social media efforts to highlight the harassment of Brazilian immigrant women in European countries, arguing that this abuse reinscribes colonial and gendered hierarchies. As someone who openly admits that my current research is US-centric, I really appreciated that the CDHC expanded representation in its symposium beyond the US-European sphere.

I talked about my Scalar project to show attedees how I used the platform to create a DH initiative within a semester.

For my part, I discussed my Scalar project on the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Compared to a lot of the other initiatives, my project is notably more modest in scale, but I wanted to demonstrate what students and other scholars can potentially accomplish on a platform like Scalar for a digital humanities seminar. I also wanted to show how DH and archival theory helped shift my focus away from simply relating the history of the museum to critically assessing its archive as a repository with respect to representation. Finally, I showed how I used Scalar to reorganize the archive to focus on labor, with documents sorted according to the employees they referenced rather than the people who wrote them, taking a cue from Foucault’s idea of untethering documents from authorship to create new relationships among them. Personally, I don’t think this was my most engaging presentation, as I’ve been prioritizing dissertation work, but I think attendees still got something out of it.

Based on these experiences, I’ll admit that I prefer giving prerecorded talks rather than live sessions. As someone who tries to cater my presentations to the interests and energy of the room, it’s unnerving to not be able to see everyone’s faces or read their reactions, especially if they’ve turned off their cameras. In all fairnness, you’re also talking to the void in prerecorded sessions, but for me, having a live audience without being able to see or hear them that well makes me more self-conscious than if I’m talking by myself. If I’m going to talk to a void, I’d rather do it knowing I’m alone rather than wondering who is out there and what they’re thinking. Then again, I’m also more practiced in prerecorded presentations, whereas these latest sessions were entirely new for me. Now that I’ve tried it out, I have a much better idea of what to expect for next time. Just knowing that will make my next live presentation more effective.

What my conference space looks like these days.

Overall though, my virtual workshop was a good experience for me, and I really enjoyed listening to all of the presentations at CDHC, both for their content and for the important questions they asked regarding equity, representation, and the humanity of data. All in all, not a bad way to spend two Friday afternoons.