Canary in the Data Mine

Confession: Data mining was not something that I was particularly drawn to before attending this workshop. I was unsure of the relevance of data mining to my research questions, and I was highly skeptical of the validity of projects that are premised on mined data. Today I was thrown deep into the data mine.

I wish I could say that today’s session was converted me to the glories of data mining, but I am afraid that I came away with more skepticism about how this can be useful to my research. While it was interesting to use Voyant to analyze texts and Google N-Gram to evaluate the changing use of word usage, I am still hesitant to embrace the validity of such findings. I think that these tools provide an interesting glimpse into texts and the visualizations of this data may even be very compelling, but I am not sure that those findings can be the end of the argument. In fact, I think the greatest appeal of these tools (as far as I can tell after one day in the field of data mining) is that the data that is revealed through these processes raises more questions, the visualizations ask for the inquiry to reach deeper.

Heading back into the data mine for Day Two. I hope I survive.

Source: Canary in the Data Mine


After a week of diving into digital art history, I now have a number of new tools under my belt that will be extremely beneficial to my teaching and to student learning. Last week we were introduced to Storymaps, along with a number of other mapping tools that could be useful in my teaching and research. While I will undoubtedly use a number of the mapping tools for my mural project, Storymaps seems like a relatively simple and effective way to have students map public art walks in the city or the provenance/transit of works of art. I have asked students to do these things in previous classes, but could never find a tool that would be easy enough to demonstrate, yet dynamic enough to fully engage them. Storymaps is well-suited to the goals of the assignments I have designed. More importantly, the learning curve is shallow enough that students will be able to gain competency in using SM without sacrificing content, which has sometimes been the case when I have tried to use platforms or tools in which the learning curve is too steep.

Here’s an example based on my grandmother’s life (I needed a break from murals!):

Source: Storymaps


After a dizzying morning exploring the world of Omeka, Scalar and Drupal Gardens created sites, I was happy to spend the afternoon getting some hands-on time with Omeka. Truth be told, I have tried to use Omeka before, though it was such a disaster that I am not sure I should even mention it. In my desperate search for ways to create online exhibitions in my classes, I stumbled upon Omeka last spring (after an even more disastrous attempt at using Google SketchUp).

Source: Omeka!

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