9/25: Digital Representation

The reading this week that really stood out to me was “Difficult Heritage and the Complexities of Indigenous Data” by Jennifer Guiliano and Carolyn Heitman. I feel like the topic of what should be digitized will forever be a conundrum that DH faces. In this article, Guiliano and Heitman mention, “Open access allows for objects to be divorced from their conditions of production and contexts of interpretation for all forms of reuse”. This is similar to one of the items discussed by Professor Josephs’ article we read a few weeks ago; namely, the circulation of works that have been separated from their original context. 

While this concern is always prevalent when thinking of digitizing items, this is not solely present in digital works. Print and visual media are currently under scrutiny due to the “fake news” environment currently. The way that I see it, the more items that are made public (digitally or otherwise), the less room for misinterpretation there is surrounding that topic. This was brought to my mind when reading about how Edward S. Curtis manipulated print photos of Native American culture to portray something that was not, ironically, the whole picture. This false representation is what leads to misrepresentation of cultures that we are trying to pull out of the “whiteness” of history. 

At the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) there is a diorama in the African Peoples hall that reminds me of this case. The diorama is depicting a ritual dance complete with figures dressed in the ritual garments for that specific tribe. One of the figures, however, you can clearly see wearing jeans and sneakers. There were many times, while giving tours at the museum, that I was asked why they had jeans and sneakers. To the visitors, the way the hall was set up, it separated the culture from present day and made it seem as if these were peoples from years ago, before the invention of jeans and sneakers. Granted, the hall opened in 1968 and, although it was still created with biases, it is not something that can be easily changed or updated. On the other hand digital forms of representation can grow and adapt to the changing times. 

Of course, it is equally important to remain culturally sensitive to the items being digitized. Just as museums had to display their Native American artifacts in ways that maintained their religious or cultural affiliations, the same respect should be shown to digital material.

Today these images continue to circulate in digital form. On the Library of Congress website, there is no notation that these images are of a religious ritual that is now prohibited from viewing by the non-Hopi public (and thus should be pulled from public view for reasons of cultural sensitivity).

Jennifer Guiliano and Carolyn Heitman, “Difficult Heritage and the Complexities of Indigenous Data,” Journal of Cultural Analytics. August 13, 2019. doi: 10.22148/16.044

One thing that crossed my mind, though I am not sure how possible it would be, was to only allow web pages with these religious items shown when looked at the web page as a whole; meaning, it remains in context. Screen capture could be prevented in the same ways that movies and streaming services block those programs from being able to record or take pictures. Though this would not eliminate photos of the page to be taken from a separate device (i.e. a phone taking a photo of the computer screen) it can lessen the distribution of items out of their original context. 

On a separate note, the article “Data is beautiful: 10 of the best data visualization examples from history to today” from Tableau was so interesting to look at. It provides further proof that data visualization is so important. How data is represented can bring forth deeper understandings of information than just looking at charts and graphs. Now, of course charts and graphs have their own time and place, but sometimes it takes another point-of-view to discern something new.