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Digital humanities allows for accessibility in race discussions

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor


The Center for Digital Humanities hosted their final event of the semester, “Rethinking Race and American Sculpture Through Digital Humanities,” over Zoom April 22. 


The event is the last in this year’s Race + Digital Humanities Invited Lecturer Series, and it began with an introduction from Professor Bart Brinkman who then invited Professor Erika Schneider to introduce the speaker for the lecture, Emily Burns. 


Schneider discussed the many accomplishments and titles Burns holds, which include director of the Charles M. Russell Center and associate professor of the University of Oklahoma. 


Her research focuses on relationships between U.S. and Native American artists, and is the author of the 2018 book “Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France.”


Burns began the discussion by offering an overview of the project she worked on, which began in the summer of 2022. 


It took her one year to complete the project, which she described as “unique” in the sense that it was funded for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 


Her focus on the project was on Daniel Chester French, who is known for creating the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. 


Burns then discussed the argument of her project, which she said was French’s sculptures “are participating in conversations in the United States about race hierarchies.


“In both subtle and overt ways, his sculptures affirm a kind of hierarchy that elevates whiteness and tends to other non-white bodies,” she said.


She said the project was “fluid and determined in dialogue with the Chesterwood site,” which culminated in the online exhibition that was created. 


The project was determined to answer two questions, Burns said. 


The first question was, “How are constructions of race linked with sculpture?” Burns said she experimented with this question with the concepts of casting as a way to think about casting in both sculpture and roles in society. 


Burns described a goal for answering this question was to find digital tools to not only explore this topic, but to make it accessible to wide audiences. She wanted this to be achieved through not only the accessibility of the website, but also through the style of writing. 


The next question was “How we could use digital media to center new stories that had not been told in the past?” 


Burns’ presentation showed a table of sculptures by French that were classified as either “Culturally Sensitive” or “Problematic.” 


Some sculptures were also classified as possibly being questioned by a public after the period of 2020, which Burns mentioned was when people were beginning to question the meaning of sculptures in public spaces. 


“There is simultaneously an awareness that some sculptures may trigger a public sensitivity because they represent people who have been involved with or complacent with histories of enslavement or Native American land expropriation,” Burns said. 


When working on the project, Burns said she was “interested in collaboration,” making the point that “historical monumental sculpture is by nature a collaborative process.”


She also said that oftentimes, artists in studios creating these sculptures were people of color, whose names were often not included in historical records. 


Burns said in her research for the project she was thinking about how contemporary audiences would be viewing it, as she said they have different experiences of viewing works of art. 


In an effort to collaborate on the project, she mentioned there were multiple writers on board, along with a focus group with the African American community in the Springfield region, which is near the studio that French worked in. 


“The members of that conversation also really helped us think about how to find the tools that would enable people to look carefully and closely at the sculpture,” Burns said. 


In conjunction with the project, there were also two roundtable events where each member of the advisory group for this project discussed race and sculpture. These events were digitized and accessible through the Chesterwood website.


One digital tool Burns and her team tried for the website was Insta360, which gave them the ability to view the sculptures in a three dimensional space online. 


Ultimately, they decided ThingLink was the most effective tool to “enable us to include links and quotations and other images related to those sculptures,” Burns said. 


Their final product involved combining Omeka, which is an online tool used for presenting archival work, with ThingLink, where they embedded information about each art piece. 


“This, we thought, enabled us to have more traditional texts that describe art history and ideas behind the topic, and the ThingLinks take us through the images and photographs of the works in greater detail,” she said. 


The website hosting the project offers a glossary for key terms about the topic, and a how-to guide that Burns said emphasizes that the website does not have clear instructions on how to explore it. 


“You can really go through different avenues and trajectories to explore it, which was also something really important to us,” she said. 


Burns showed attendees an example of how the website works, demonstrating how they can visit a page and learn more about a sculpture by clicking on the many icons set up on the page. 


Discussing the ThingLink tool, Burns talked about how an aspect she loves about it is how it is constantly evolving with new features. 


“I’m still using it in my courses for students to do assignments. But my students this semester are doing more sophisticated things to build a photo tour through the system,” she said. 


She then showed an example of this through one of her student’s projects using ThingLink. 


Following this, Burns opened the discussion to the audience to ask questions or to explore different aspects of the project. 


One attendee asked if there is a way to make this project accessible to middle school teachers to give students more context about memorials like the Lincoln Memorial outside of their Washington, D.C. trips. 


Burns answered this by saying although they tried to aim for clear writing that would be accessible for a younger audience, she found herself “writing against myself.”


“I think that as much as we wanted to target a lower age group, I don't know if the project succeeded, at least in the essays. I think the ThingLinks are more accessible,” she added. 


Another attendee, a student currently taking Intro to Digital Humanities, shared their excitement for seeing digital tools like ThingLink used in projects like this after seeing many examples of it in class. 


A third attendee asked Burns how they decided to choose what to include or not include in their project, and if there is a chance it will be expanded upon in the future. 


Burns answered this question by saying she and her team were “pretty thorough, although there are more things probably to say.”


To end the event, an attendee asked Burns if, after their research on this project, they are more observant of subtle discrimination taking place in art they look at. 


Burns said that becoming more informed on race problems and having the tools to discuss it make it easier to observe it more subtly. 


“Once you become versed in the tools to talk about race and how much the visual field is complacent in perpetuating ideas of difference, you kind of see it everywhere,” she said.

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