Monthly Archives: April 2016

Painting the Visual Vocabulary of Mesoamerican Archaeology

Adela Breton was apparently “a nuisance” to the men who couldn’t quite figure out what to do with a 50-year-old single woman in Mexico in 1900. Happily, Trowelblazers worked up a short profile on this fantastic artist and scholar and followed up their profile with this tweet:

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I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing something or have other heavy head-work to do, I like to browse through digital museum archives when I need to take a break. Maybe it’s just me. But it paid off big time.

The Breton Collection has 1301 entries, maybe 1/5 of these entries have images online. I can only imagine what else is in their storeroom, because the images that they have online are a glorious feast of archaeological visualization.

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Adela Breton is probably one of the most gifted archaeological illustrators that I’ve ever seen.

You see, I was working on a co-authored piece with Holly Wright on analog vs. digital archaeological field illustration, and so going through this collection was even more exciting. Breton didn’t just draw loooovely watercolors of ruins though…her works covered several of the other visual outputs of archaeology.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit. (Bristol Museums)

This hachured plan of an archaeological site would be familiar to any landscape archaeologist, and I love imagining Breton tromping across this mountainside in her Victorian lady-boots, sketchbook in hand, gnawing a pencil, thinking about contours, the relative distances between buildings, and the direction of slope beneath her feet.

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museum)

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museums)

Breton painted artifacts with such grace that you feel like you can touch their smooth curves. Can you see the chip in the rim of the animal pot?

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

She also drew more pottery in ways that are more familiar to archaeological illustrators, not quite as painterly, a focus on hue and shape. I love that this painting appears to be on the back of stationery from the Palace Hotel.

In addition to the archaeological illustrations, Breton drew ethnographic sketches, geological formations, and…earthquakes?

San Francisco Earthquake of  April 1892, 58 seconds.

San Francisco Earthquake of April 1892, 58 seconds.

Breton put pen to paper during a massive earthquake, even indicating north on the page! The first seismograph wouldn’t even make it to America until 1897. I flagged it up to Karen Holmberg & Elizabeth Angell, both of whom do exciting work on anthropology and natural disasters and can add much more nuance to the analysis of such an incredible visual artifact.

Thank you to Bristol Museums who have kept & digitized this glorious collection! Support your local (and digi-local) museums!

 

The Holocaust, 9/11, the Slave Trade and…Facebook? How Museums & Experts Fail at Social Media

As part of my EUROTAST postdoc I partnered with the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past and Marc Pallascio, a History MA student to conduct a survey of the online outreach of museums and institutions that commemorate so-called “dark” or difficult heritage. At the outset of my postdoc I wrote:

How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? (…) Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

This article attempts to address some of these questions through social media metrics and the online interactions of heritage institutions associated with difficult heritage: The Holocaust, 9/11, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, with a focus on the latter. Additionally, we looked into existing online communities surrounding difficult heritage that are independent of these larger institutions.

Spoilers: there was little-to-no interactivity between official institutions and online places where people chose to “remember together.” Social media was used by official institutions purely to broadcast, not to interact.

Figure_One

Institutions and experts were also pretty scarce where there was the most interaction, debate and arguably a need for an informed opinion. It’s a complete cliche online, but we ventured where nobody dares to go: THE COMMENTS.

Figure_Two

These were on a YouTube series for Africans in America, on the “Little Dread” YouTube channel. Even when a link to a reputable source is posted, it is countered with a reference to the van Sertima pseudoscientific book “They Came Before Columbus.” More importantly, there are several online places and communities that are obviously taking up issues of heritage, race, and origins and these are overwhelmingly NOT in ready-made, sanctioned arenas for such discussions. As we state in the paper:

Authoritative voices are absent in non-specialist discussions of heritage online, as experts frame their conversations within official settings.

From the conclusions:

The distributed network of the internet would seem to be an ideal venue for discussions with and between members of the diaspora formed by the descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet, there is little connectivity apparent on either websites or social media between academics, heritage interpreters, and the online stakeholder communities…identifying where meaningful performative collective memory is exercised, then engaging with stakeholders on their own terms, may be more impactful than websites or campaigns of outward-facing social media.

Despite the 2015 publication date, the article has just been published by the Journal of African Diaspora and Heritage:

Morgan, C., & Pallascio, P. M. (2015). Digital Media, Participatory Culture, and Difficult Heritage: Online Remediation and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, 4(3), 260–278.

It’s also available as a pre-print on Academia:

https://www.academia.edu/24144509/Digital_Media_Participatory_Culture_and_Difficult_Heritage_Online_Remediation_and_the_Trans-Atlantic_Slave_Trade