Starting the research…digitally

I wrote my dissertation on the collection of murals in Chicago’s public schools (about 2000 mural panels commissioned for schools between 1904-1941).  It was a fantastic project and I loved every minute of the research. I trudged through the halls and auditoria of hundreds of public schools in every section of the city in search of murals, often accompanied by teachers, conservators, janitors and students who told me stories of the school and wondered why I cared so much about the faded paintings on the walls.  I pored through the papers of the women’s clubs who commissioned the early murals, reading the carefully handwritten notes which revealed the genesis of the school mural movement. I spent days reviewing oral histories and archival papers of the New Deal artists who created the monumental frescoes in city schools in the 30s and early 40s. The archival research that I carried out in Chicago and DC was pivotal in my writing. I was able to create a database of murals — both extant and lost — that had not been compiled before and it allowed me set the foundation for my thesis.

When I first set out to research Pittsburgh’s public murals,  I thought the process would be similar. Sure, there are some similarities, and some of the research questions do overlap. However, the number of digital resources available to me now is far greater than when I worked on my dissertation, and I am hopeful that using digital repositories will add another dimension to my research. I will certainly consult the digitized collections of the Archives of American Art for this project, though it seems that some of the papers I will need have not yet been digitized.  I will also use the Historic Pittsburgh collection to access maps, photos, and census records, though this resource is still not quite as extensive as I might need and does not always deal with the time periods in question.  I am most interested in finding a digital tool that might allow me to map the murals across time and to annotate the murals. When working on the Chicago project, I mapped the murals manually and tried to manage a huge collection of visual images on my hard drive, but I never managed to adequately visualize the school mural collection in a manner that would show their relationships to one another. I am hoping that I will be able to find a way to do this with the Pittsburgh murals.

Source: Starting the research…digitally