Taos Center for the Arts Talk

A few weeks ago I shared some of my recent experiences with virtual conferencing. Today, I’ll talk about another virtual event that I just participated in last week, a conversation about the Community Art Center Project in New Mexico.

The poster from last week’s event.

This event was hosted on Zoom by the Taos Center for the Arts. What was especially cool about this conversation was that you were able to hear from two of the Roswell Museum’s curators: Aubrey Hobart, current Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and myself. Aubrey and I met in person before I left, and we’ve remained in touch intermittently since then, so it was an easy and natural conversation between two people who care a lot about this institution.

Compared to a conference or symposium, this was a more informal talk. To prevent Zoom fatigue we keep the event to fifty minutes. About forty minutes or so of that time was spent talking, with the final ten minutes being reserved for questions. I spoke during the first half, where I discussed the history of the Federal Art Project, the Community Art Center Project, and finally the three different community art center sites in New Mexico at Gallup, Melrose, and Roswell. During this part of the talk, I played a slide show featuring historical images of the Roswell Museum and other sites.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. This is one of the pictures I showed during my part of the talk.

We then transitioned over to Aubrey, who talked about the Museum’s current layout, upcoming events and activities, and the importance of supporting this institution during what is proving to be a challenging moment in its history. COVID-19 has adversely affected the economy in southeastern New Mexico, so the Museum’s staff and funding have both been reduced. Frankly, I don’t know what the Museum’s long-term prognosis looks like, which was one of the reasons why it was important to have a current staff member speak on its behalf. Aubrey’s presence and presentation reminded viewers that the Roswell Museum is still around and serving the community, but it could use some support right now.

They say in a lot of professions that it’s not necessarily what you know that counts, but who you know, and that definitely influenced this event. The Director of the Taos Center for the Arts, Colette LaBouff (who is also a published poet and writer), was one of my coworkers at the Roswell Museum before she landed her current position. She’s been following my blog since then, and based on my previous experiences in New Mexico, thought I would be a good fit for an informal talk. When she asked me if I could think of anyone who’d like to participate with me, in turn, I immediately thought of Aubrey, as I thought it’d be a nice way to spotlight current happenings at the Roswell Museum. I may not work there anymore, but I still like to think of ways to highlight that institution.

Overall this was a fun event. While the energy I often get from live audiences wasn’t there in the same way, I still found myself getting excited and enthusiastic once I got going. It was also cool to be able to participate from across the country, and to interact with audience members despite being 2,000 miles away. Similar to my observations on virtual conferencing, Zoom conversations like this one can also enable institutions to host a variety of speakers without worrying about the cost of travel, which could be cost-prohibitive depending on the distance or schedule. Likewise, I appreciated that I was able to fit this one-hour commitment at the end of a regular workday, whereas before I would have had to set aside a day or two for travel. As nice as it would be to see these places in person (especially Taos), it’s also good to be able to work on my William & Mary commitments without compromising my schedule.

Overall, I had a good time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these kinds of events remain commonplace, at least for the immediate future.

So What Exactly is a Dissertation Prospectus, Anyway?

At the beginning of this year, a time that feels like a million years ago now, I wrote a post called “So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?” In that post, I described the basic steps you go through to get a degree in American Studies at William & Mary. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at step three on that list, the prospectus.

What is a prospectus? Essentially it’s a roadmap for a larger project such as a book, or in the case of a Ph.D. program, a dissertation. Over the course of 15-20 or so pages, you discuss what you want to write about, what chapters or organizing themes you plan to draft, which authors or methodologies you intend to use, which archival sources you’ll rely on, if applicable, and most importantly, the argument or intervention you want to make in your fields of choice. While it’s understood that the dissertation will change and evolve as you get a better grasp on the subject, the prospectus is there to demonstrate to your committee that you’re not delving into the process completely clueless about what you’re doing.

This is where I’m at right now. Over the next few months, I’ll put together my own prospectus, and plan on having my colloquium next semester.

So how do you go about writing a prospectus? On the advice of several of my more advanced cohorts, the first thing I did was get myself a dissertation journal, a place where I can write down any questions, organizing ideas, and other thoughts relating to this project. Admittedly I’ve never been a consistent journal-keeper outside of special trips, but then again I’ve never written a dissertation, so this seemed like as good a time as any to start a new habit. I ordered my journal online from Jenni Bick, a locally-owned stationer based in Washington, DC.

My new dissertation journal. I got the Leutturm 1917 Master Notebook (A4+) in red, basically the biggest journal in the boldest color for big, bold ideas. The pen is a Lamy fountain pen, as I’d read they require less pressure for writing than a ballpoint, which I figured would be good for long-term hand health. So far, so good.

Journaling aside, I’ve been doing more reading.

More reading? Didn’t you just read 200 books for exams? Yes, but those readings were primarily intended to get a broad understanding of the academic fields that engage my interests and work. With prospectus readings, your aims are a bit more focused. Rather than aim for a broad understanding of a field, you’re seeking out the authors whose methods or areas of research closely engage your own work, and decide how their work could inform yours. All scholarship is inspired by other scholarship, after all, and a big part of the dissertation is demonstrating that you’re familiar with current research and can dialogue with other authors. So I’ve been reading about museums, New Deal art, and current events, as they all engage my interests in art access, public education, and the role of the state in culture.

Just as I moved 2,000 miles away from Roswell to seek out new intellectual opportunities at William & Mary, my goal with the prospectus is to craft an outline for a project that goes well beyond the Roswell Museum to address other places, time periods, and subjects.

Two issues in particular have been preoccupying me since I started this process, based on feedback from both my exam committee and personal reflection. First, I want to take my dissertation beyond the Roswell Museum. RMAC has been a recurrent case study in a lot of my term papers and projects because I was already familiar with the materials, but I’ve never envisioned the dissertation being a New Mexico-centric project. At most, I see Roswell forming a chapter, but moving forward, I don’t see it being my primary focus.

The second idea is to link my interests in the Community Art Center Project, and more broadly museums, to the cultural crises of the present moment. As many scholars have observed, there are a lot of uncanny, often uncomfortable parallels between the current moment and the Great Depression in terms of economic difficulties and social unrest. Yet the way in which the current administration has approached culture is markedly different from the New Deal era, with museums and other cultural institutions struggling to remain financially solvent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, museums have also been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy, colonialism, and other infrastructures of inequality, with many people asking whether museums are equipped to encourage radical social change. Given my own experience working in museums, I’m familiar with how daily operations, donor relations, and institutional policies, can often detract museum workers from addressing social change, and the dissertation could be a good opportunity to discuss some of these systemic issues.

In short, my goal over the next few months is to take my various interests and coalesce them in a bigger project that can sustain my interests for the next few years. Whether it focuses solely on the Community Art Center Project and its descendants, or more broadly looks at museums, public education, state culture, or something else, whatever I write should be multifaceted, engaging, and beneficial to those who read it.

The journal is a place to write down ideas, questions, and anything else that comes to mind as I make my way toward the prospectus.

It’s a tall order, but then again, that’s why I got myself a big journal.

This Year’s Assistantship: The Equality Lab

A new academic year means a new assistantship at William & Mary, and while conditions are very different from previous semesters, I’ve still got plenty to do for the College. Today then, I’d like to talk about my assistantship with the Equality Lab.

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities | ASA

The Equality Lab, as the name implies, is an organization on campus focused on providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds and interests. It encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary research through the digital humanities, and explores questions of representation, intersectionality, and the nature of equality as a concept. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate researchers, and hosts various symposia, workshops, and other opportunities throughout the year.

I first got involved with the Equality Lab during my first year at William & Mary. Elizabeth Losh, the professor teaching my digital humanities seminar, encouraged me to start attending events and activities because she thought my interests in representation and labor as rendered through my archival research resonated with the overarching objectives of the Lab. Over the past couple of years, I’ve attended various workshops and talks, and have had the opportunity to meet such seminal digital scholars as Amy Earhart and Lauren Klein, among others. Since I was still in coursework, I didn’t get to attend everything, but I knew I’d want to get more involved once I was finished with classes and comps. When it came time to pick a new assistantship then, I put the Equality Lab as my first choice.

The Equality Lab typically has two graduate fellows per year. My cohort is Laura Beltran-Rubio, who also started W&M’s American Studies Program in 2018. She’s a fashion scholar researching colonial dress in 18th-century Latin America, specifically Colombia, and is interested in questions of labor, maker-based modes of academic research, representation, and ethical practices. She’s a highly engaged scholar participating in seminars, podcasts, the digital humanities, and other media, and you should definitely check out her work on her website.

Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way we do things, at least for the fall semester. As a graduate fellow, one of my duties pre-Covid would have been to hold office hours at the Equality Lab’s space in Morton Hall, a place where students can come to work or projects, study, or ask questions, but that’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. In-person workshops and seminars are also out of the question for the sake of safety and public health. Instead, we’re organizing virtual symposia and workshops for at least the fall semester, and possibly into the spring. So instead of working in Morton Hall, I’m at home, but there’s still plenty to do in terms of reaching out to potential speakers, organizing workshops, updating the website, and all-around thinking of ways to be available to students.

The pandemic has also informed the underlying themes and questions of the events we’re organizing this year. The flagship event is a series of symposia centered on the concept of home and its many connotations, from a sanctuary or shelter to a place of confinement or violence. We’ve got at least three events planned. The fall will focus on home as explored in the spatial humanities, while the spring will delve into questions of representation through disability studies, indigenous studies, and other critical frameworks. In addition to the symposia, we’re also planning different workshops throughout the year. We recently had Ravynn K. Stringfield give an excellent presentation on crafting an academic presence through Twitter, for instance, and Laura is planning on doing a similar session with Instagram in November. Given my experience with virtual conferences, I plan on putting together a workshop on conference videos in the spring.

Even though things are different this year, I’m excited to be working at the Equality Lab. I appreciate that the American Studies program endeavors to diversify the professional experiences of its students, and as much as I enjoyed TAing last year, I’m glad to be trying something new. Especially given how easy it is to isolate these days, I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and scholars, virtually or otherwise, and to continue working on expanding my network. Most of all, I’m happy to help foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and intellectual curiosity for students, which is more important than ever now.

Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures

COVID-19 has changed the way we do a lot of things, or at least think about how we do things, from working remotely to providing education. Academic conferences are no exception. While some organizations like the American Studies Association or the Space Between Society have opted to postpone their gatherings until next year, others have been experimenting with virtual conferencing. I recently presented at one of these virtual forums, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, which I’d like to talk about today.

Selections from the Index of American Design exhibited at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center alongside local antiques, January 1938. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

As the name suggests, virtual conferencing means that you convene online instead of in-person. Conferences can happen in real-time, with viewers logging in at a scheduled time to view specific videos or presentations, or in the case of Museum Exhibition Design, asynchronously. This means that presenters upload videos of their presentations ahead of time, and then attendees can watch the videos at their convenience. In lieu of live Q&A’s, participants type their questions in a comments forum, and presenters respond when they get the chance. I got to experience an asynchronous conference earlier this summer when I participated in DH2020, an international digital humanities conference. I wasn’t a presenter, but watching the different presentations and commenting in the forum helped me get acquainted with the virtual conferencing format. The advantage of asynchronous presenting is that participants can attend the conference from anywhere in the world regardless of time zone, so long as they have an internet connection (as other scholars have pointed out, Internet connectivity is yet another signifier of systemic inequality and access, especially when it comes to education).

Hosted by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures aimed to create a nearly carbon-neutral conference experience. Scheduled from September 1-11, the conference hosted 500 participants from around the world, and dozens of presenters ranging from Ph.D. students and professors, to curators and exhibition designers. As you can imagine, enabling a virtual experience hosting so many different presentations and participants is a heady logistical undertaking. Its three primary organizers, Dr. Claire Wintle, Hajra Williams, and Kate Guy all did a fantastic job crafting a website that was easily navigable, stylish, and accommodating to various computer interfaces.

Beyond the conference itself, what really made this experience special is its ongoing life as a repository for exhibition design scholarship. Prior to the launch of the conference, attendees were invited to submit links to publications, projects, and other resources relating to their research, and these sources were made accessible to all conference attendees. What’s more, while the conference itself is over, these resources, along with videos that have had their image copyrights cleared, will remain online, rendering the scholarship of all the different participants available for future research. As far as virtual conferences go, Museum Exhibition Design offers a strong case study on how to run such an undertaking effectively, as well as facilitate ongoing access to different scholarly resources.

As with my previous conference experiences at the University of Michigan and the Space Between Society, I discussed the Community Art Center Project (CACP) in my presentation, but this time I focused on the influence of labor networks in exhibition design. More specifically, I explored how freight transport, quick installation times, varying architectural spaces, and staff experience all likely contributed to the standardized aesthetic of CACP shows. Additionally, I suggested that the standardization mandated by the format of the CACP itself likely contributed to an overall preference for small-to-medium-sized, two-dimensional works that could be transported easily and installed in a variety of spaces. I also speculated how this could have informed the development of the modern art canon itself, or at least public perceptions of what art should look like. For an individual case study, I focused on questions of labor within the Roswell Museum by considering the work experiences of one of its gallery attendants, Rainey Woolsey, and the issues she encountered regarding the recognition of her work. Based on the reception I got in the comments section, viewers found this particular take on the CACP engaging. Given my own interest in recognizing the labor of all museum workers, this could be a very fruitful direction for me moving forward.

As for the video itself, I ultimately went with the simplest option in that I made a PowerPoint and recorded it with a voiceover, though I originally planned to film a full video of myself narrating the text and splicing in images. Aside from personalizing the video, I wanted to show myself to make my identity as a white woman and all the privilege that entails transparent to viewers (this is also why I’ve added a picture of myself to my website’s homepage). I soon realized, however, that the video editing software required was beyond the capabilities of my laptop. Editing a full video also demands a significant amount of time to do it well, and since I was about to take my qualifying exams, I decided to opt for the simpler option. Despite scaling back my initial ambitions, I did manage to record a brief introduction and conclusion of myself, so while the majority of the video was a PowerPoint with narration, the beginning and the end featured me talking to the camera. Additionally, at the request of the conference organizers, I added closed captions by putting the video on YouTube, uploading a copy of my transcript, and synchronizing them.

The introduction I recorded for my video, which I filmed with my smartphone mounted to a tripod. Now you know what my voice sounds like.

While the video did its job in conveying information about the CACP to viewers, virtual conferencing has also been a learning experience, and watching the other presentations helped me identify several things I can do better in the future. While I included citations in the transcript of my talk, for instance, from now on I’m going to include bibliography slides at the end of my presentations so that viewers can consult any sources that interested them. I’m also going to add separate slides for direct quotations and their sources, again so that viewers can note exactly which sources I’m using in case they want to look them up. A lot of the videos I watched also included a more dynamic use of images, video, and text, which have inspired me to experiment with my own use of media. In short, this conference reiterated to me that presentations are an important scholarly resource, and should be made as accessible as possible to researchers.

The conference also emphasized the importance of investing in technology if I want to start making videos seriously. I learned through this experience that if I want to do videos well, I should invest in equipment like reflecting glasses for teleprompters. I’d also need to switch from working on a laptop to a desktop capable of handling video editing software. Luckily for me, my partner Brandon has a desktop for his gaming and we recently created an account on it for me, so if I decide to pursue that route, I at least have the computer at hand.

So what’s my overall take on in-person vs. virtual conferences? Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. In-person conferences definitely have a certain energy to them, and you’re more likely to be focused on the event itself because everything is concentrated in a finite period. There’s also the spontaneity of being able to approach speakers during breaks or after their talks, which you don’t experience in the same way with virtual forums. As someone who enjoys traveling, I also like being able to visit new places when I go to conferences.

All that said, there are a lot of advantages to virtual conferences. Since they’re often asynchronous, I can take my time thinking of questions to presentations, and I’ve noticed that I participate in Q&A’s a lot more as a result. As fun as conferences can be, they’re also pretty draining because of all the presenting, listening, and networking going on, so I do like being able to space out presentations over a longer time. And while the spontaneous coffee chat may not be possible, I still had several meaningful discussions in the forums, and even had an outside meeting on Zoom with a speaker whose work I especially enjoyed. Most significantly perhaps, virtual conferences offer another means of accessing scholarship, especially for graduate students. Not everyone has the budget or the generous time blocks to travel to conferences (or in the case of travelers from the United States like myself, we’re not really wanted anywhere right now), so having these virtual options can enable other scholars to participate who might not have been able to attend otherwise, and that’s important.

Overall, I had a great experience at the Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures Conference, and it should serve as a model for other experiences like it. After all, virtual conferences are likely to be the norm for the immediate future, and perhaps beyond, so we should embrace their potential as scholarly resources.

New Digital Project: Facemask Drawings

I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.

Another important project that I’ve recently made available is more personal. This is the online exhibit Facemasks: Drawings of COVID-19 Face Coverings, the latest addition to my Digital Projects page, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today.

This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.

I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.

The first mask I drew once I got the idea to start sketching them. This is Brandon’s alternate facemask. He doesn’t use this one as much because the material is thick and itchy, but I liked the marbling effect on the fabric.

Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission. 

This mask was sent to me over social media by Karen Strange, Brandon’s aunt. Since I was working from a photograph, the ties took on a more dynamic quality in jeeping with the original image.

Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.

Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.

Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.

This mask, with its rainbow stripes, reminds me of a Morris Louis painting.

Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to scwoodbury@gmail.com, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.

I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.

Rethinking the New Deal

Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.

The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy. 

Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy.  As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.

One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.

This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues. 

Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’s American Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.

Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo. 

At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.

In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.

So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.

As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.

As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely,  non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.

Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.

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.

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.