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Lesson: Reading Sacred Space

Many of us have had the experience of going to an art museum. We might see a painting we like, identify the artist’s techniques and symbols, then interpret the image. How do we approach a space filled with images? Where do we begin to look? How do we interpret the spatial relationship between images and objects? The following lesson will demonstrate my approach to establishing context and interpreting sacred space.

Presentation

Lecture Handout

Final Reflection

For the past year I have been interning with the Smithsonian Institute working on the Conflict Cultures project. The Conflict Cultures project is multifaceted, with goals including cultural heritage disaster assistance, research, and data collection. I was involved in the last of these goals and have spent the last two semesters collecting geo-spatial data and metadata. This internship was ideal for me given my education, occupation, and professional goals. Overall, I found the experience rewarding. First, because I had the opportunity to implement my skills as a GIS specialist and scholar of North Africa, on the other hand because I implemented what I learned in my George Mason course work to think critically about the project, rather than simply fulfilling data entry tasks.

The first semester of my internship coincided with Hurricane Irma’s destructive pass through the Caribbean. The George Mason intern group was the assignment of geocoding all the Caribbean museums we could find, which blended the disaster relief aspect of Conflict Cultures with data collection. The importance and urgency of our data building was so clearly manifested in the news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, making the work both exciting and fulfilling. Working in cultural resources management, I have the privilege to be a part of preserving cultural heritage every day. I will admit that most days I easily forget the value of what I do, but rare salvage projects where we are excavating right in the middle of active construction are quick reminders of CRM’s importance. Working with Conflict Cultures in the wake of Irma was a very similar situation in that regard. I really enjoyed coding the Caribbean because the work I was doing was tangibly helpful. The following semester, however, was much more of a struggle.

I was assigned North Africa as my area of focus for the Spring Semester of my Smithsonian internship. At first, I was excited since this is the area of the world I will be focusing on during my PhD study. Surprisingly, the novelty of working in this familiar region quickly wore off. I was occasionally encouraged by interesting museums, but for the most part I found myself grinding away hours. Perhaps I felt this way because I love problem solving. The first semester I had to figure out the best way to deliver what the Smithsonian wanted; this semester I had everything figured out. Also, the we didn’t know ahead of time the name of the museums we would be coding in the Caribbean, we had to find them. A previous group of interns had already entered in most of the data for North Africa and I was just completing their work. I realized that one of the reasons I love archaeology is because I love discovering new things; with all of the museums already entered for North Africa, I didn’t have the thrill of adding something completely new. Spring semester was not completely dull, however. I figured out early on that something was amiss with many of the Egyptian museum entries. Using my knowledge of Arabic, I figured out that someone had thought that “Al-Mathaf” (and several other transliterations) was the name of a town. This is just the Arabic word for “museum.”

The biggest take-away I gleaned from this internship had nothing to do with data-building, but rather with the nature of digital research. In our course work we spent a great deal of time, particularly with Professor Leon, discussing the limitations of virtual scholarship and collaboration. As an online student, both with George Mason and other institutions, I have experience both the frustrations and pleasures of working with the humanities in the digital world. Collaborating on a complex project with many people with various tasks as a virtual intern has been a wholly different experience.

The lack of direct guidance was both freeing and disorienting. I often found myself irritated because I felt like typical bureaucratic hinderances were exaggerated. Instead of just walking down the hall inform my supervisor I was finished with a task and needed something new, I had to wait. Generally, I felt my supervisors were dedicated to their roles, but occasionally I felt blown off. For example, since I was a late arrival in the Fall, the Smithsonian’s blog expectations were never explained to me, so when I submitted my first post it was rejected. Although I felt that I clearly expressed my availability to discuss what about my post needed attention, I was never connected with a supervisor. As a result, over a month passed before the expectations were explained to me.

Distance proved to be the greatest obstruction when the Conflict Cultures intern group constructed our final visualization project. Without body language during the group meetings, it was difficult to gage when I could talk or what people thought of my ideas. I wrote a separate blog post about my other frustrations, so I’ll not rehash them here. I will say that the moral to the story is that virtual projects, especially when large groups collaborate, need strong leaders and clearly stated goals. I never received from the leadership clearly articulated guidelines for the map, or where the final product would be stored. As we discussed in class, these two aspects- the end user and archiving- are central questions that need to be answered before embarking on a project. Without this information I feel the other interns and I provided the best deliverable we could, but to be honest I have doubts as to the usefulness or longevity of the result.

As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded of one of my bosses at my day job as a GIS Specialist at a small cultural heritage management firm. He is a collector. He’s constantly out at libraries, archives, and the State Historic Preservation Office gathering data. Then he gives it to me to do something with. Often, the data is completely unorganized. I spend quite a bit of time organizing the data and changing file names before I can decide if what he gave me is even useful. He functions under the idea that having as much data as possible is intrinsically good and useful. This just isn’t the case. Half the time I don’t even realize what I have, and when I do the storage is too cumbersome. In many ways, the museums database seems to be functioning under the same expectations. I have been left with the impression that the project assumes that once the data is collected it can be transformed at will into something useful and accessible. I have my serious doubts. As I’ve already discussed in another post, I don’t feel the data is being collected and stored in the best program. Additionally, I haven’t been told by the leadership how they plan on dissemination our database, just ideas about how it will be used. Given the fact that 320 hours of my life have been put into this project, I want to feel confident that the data will be utilized. Unfortunately, although well intentioned, the attitude of “If you build it, they will come,” often fails to reach a project’s goals.

Overall, I will remember this internship as a good, if not occasionally onerous, experience. I am pleased that I got to work with geospatial data for an entire academic year. Using Google Maps taught me the strengths and weaknesses of the platform and I did find many resources for my own academic work. As I have thought through this experience, however, there are a few aspects that do not sit well with me. The naming convention for the museums is chief among them. I admire that Conflict Cultures aims to empower local heritage organizations by teaching them the skills to reclaim, preserved, and protect cultural material in crisis situations. It seems contrary to this mission that we only record the museum names in English. While recording every museum in English makes the database searchable, I do think a field should be added for the native name. Such an addition would preserve the integrity of what the words are originally trying to communicate and allow the people who utilize these museums greater ease in finding them. Despite this problematic data gathering approach, I do feel very privileged to have worked on this project. As I have stated before, I do believe that the mission of Conflict Cultures is important and that the project has great potential to aid communities and advance scholarship.

Bureaucracy Battles

Navigating through institutional bureaucracy is rarely easy. Doing it remotely is even more difficult. As the Conflict Cultures interns are wrapping up our internship, we’ve been asked to synthesize our two semesters of work into a map visualization. I’m very excited to work on this part of the project. When I first started this internship, I assumed all the drudgery of spending hours combing through webpages to find accurate information about museum locations would culminate in a mapping project. I am so glad that I was right! The greatest obstacle is coordinating all the work from afar. At the moment, the biggest hang-up is who will have administrative control of the mapping software, which boils down to figuring out who within the bureaucracy has to sign off on what form.

From my perspective, this final project should take all of thirty minutes. We’re using Google Fusion Tables for our penultimate map. Essentially, users upload spread sheets with X,Y coordinate information and other metadata, and the software populates a map. An administrator creates what the software terms “views” for collaborators. Views are just specific parts of the root spread sheet that individual collaborators have permission to edit and view. Once the administrator has assigned views, each collaborator just needs to upload their data and, voila, Google makes a map. Since we’ve all been using the same spread sheet format and data standards, our spreadsheets should merge seamlessly. The hard work is already done. All that needs to happen is for one person to assign the views and everyone to upload their data. This could happen in an evening. Done.

But, it’s not going to be so easy. Because we’re working with the Smithsonian, we have to figure out what entity will own the administrative account. The decision will be made based upon departmental budgets and authority. Although I understand these considerations are important for the longevity of the product beyond our cohort of interns, it is frustrating all the same. I feel that if we were in a typical, physical working environment I could have shown everyone on my computer how to fashion the map together, then Brian could have just walked down to the appropriate office, had a five-minute conversation, and walked back with an administrative account. Granted, that process might be spread out over a few days, but I still think it would be more efficient. What’s going to happen instead is a tangled chain of e-mails littered with confusion and misinterpretations that will delay the final product.

Although the only way I could reasonably complete the internship requirement is virtually, I definitely prefer traditional arrangements. While it is convenient that I can go to my nine to five and fit in my internship hours around it, so many details get lost over the wires. While my internet connection is high speed, bureaucracy never is, especially without the ability to be an in-your-face squeaky wheel.

Data Storage Decisions

My task this semester, as last semester, has been to geocode the museums of the world by entering data into excel. Not only are we recording each museum’s coordinates, we are also writing a short description of each site. Now that I have figured out my work flow, I’ve started to think about how I’m entering data, rather they the mechanics of what I’m doing. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about why we’re using Excel rather than database software.

During the course work portion of the Digital Public Humanities, we touched upon databases when we covered metadata. At my job, I’ve continued to learn about databases, and one of the first things my boss told me is that excel is not a database. A user can’t query information or show relationships among data. I was surprised to hear this, because every data entry job I’be ever had used Excel.  I scheduled exams using this software as an undergraduate, and cataloged artifacts with it in graduate school. Shortly thereafter, he taught me to use Access, and I understood the difference. Access is a relational database, and it is much easier to find information in Access than in Excel, especially when I’m using multiple fields. I find it easier to find an specific entry I’m looking for, or sort by multiple criteria. I think this kind of functionality would be useful for the Conflict Cultures project.

The goal of the Conflict Cultures project is not just have a list of coordinates and museum names, but to facilitate research. I think it would be helpful to sort the data by multiple criteria.  Relating the data via liked tables would be the best way. I think the location data could be stored in one table, and the textual descriptive data in another. They would be linked by a table containing the museum names and country codes. Arranging the data like this would allow for looking at the data in multiple ways. For example, it may be interesting to know where museums are located in proximity to capital cities. First the museums could be sorted by country, then by proximity to a coordinate taken from the center of a city.

There is certainly good reason to use Excel for the Conflict Cultures project, however. First, there is great potential to use this data in GIS spatial analysis. By entering the data all in one table, it can be imported in ArcGIS and read as a point shape file. Once in Arc, the data table can be sorted by multiple fields and further manipulated. Second, most people have access to Excel, which is an important criteria since this project is collaborative. Although we used Google Docs last semester, Excel is compatible with ArcMap and other GIS software.

In thinking about these issues, I keep coming back to a key concept I learned from my second semester in the Digital Public Humanities coursework. When creating any data collection project, the developer must be conscious of how the end user want to use it. Although, in my opinion, a relational database is better for sorting and accessing data, Excel is probably the better option for this project. The end user is most likely going to use our data table in GIS, and Excel would be easier to import into GIS.

 

New Semester, New Challenges

This semester I am once again interning with the Smithsonian Institute’s Conflict Cultures project. I have been assigned the North Africa workbook, which has engaged me in new ways. This region is my academic specialty, and therefore I find I have more motivation to whittle away at the museum listing than last semester. At the same time, I find that I must confront the single most challenging aspect of academia- foreign languages.

Languages do not come easily to me, and although I consistently do well in my language classes.  I test well, because I can take time to prepare and think through the logic puzzle of grammar. But when it comes to real-life applications, I feel like a fish out of water. People speak too fast, and I feel I stumble through sentences. For this internship, I have to read through both French and Arabic articles. I have studied both languages extensively, but find myself resorting to Google translate more often than I would like. Part of the problem is that many of the websites I find with pertinent information are not written by professional journalists, so the grammar, spelling, and vocabulary are not what I learned in class. Additionally, North Africans speak an Arabic dialect which is a mixture of French and Arabic.  Although I spent more than a month in Tunisia, I often cannot understand these dialects.

This language challenge is, counter intuitively, making me feel more comfortable with French and Arabic writing. In class, I was so worried about minute grammar rules that I lost sight of the totality of language. Now that I don’t have corrected translations turned back to me, I feel more comfortable with not knowing a few words or phrases, but understanding the meaning of the sentence. Additionally, I feel more confident that I can read for content knowledge, which wasn’t a major part of my formal language education. I spent hours analyzing grammar constructions, but not much time attending to the meaning of a reading.

I look forward to continue to work with these languages and the museums of North Africa. Already I have learned about aspects of modern history, culture, and language that I didn’t know before. Additionally, I am passionate about preserving heritage in North Africa, a place where antiquity has long been controlled by religious and political agents.

Forgotten, But Not Lost

The most challenging aspect of being a student for me has always been standing out. In college I went to every class and completed every assignment, but I quickly learned that high marks did not lead to a strong impression. I also learned that name recognition with professors was a key part of success. I have had professors who would forget appointments, even though they had seen me in class hours before.  Being stereo-typically absent minded, they’d need two or three e-mails before offering a short, terse, response. These interactions (or lack-there-of) always left me feeling brushed aside and not worthy of their time.

Luckily, graduate school cured me of this self-depreciating attitude in response to forgetful professors. I learned to recognize that while it was true that they were very busy people who can’t set everything aside for one student, their laissez-faire mentoring was actually a vote of confidence. They trusted that I could meet dead-lines  without constant check-ins and was fully capable of directing myself. Although the sting of annoyance never lessened when a professor sauntered to their office thirty minutes late asking casually, “Oh, did we have an appointment?” I developed an odd sort of pride in the fact that they were so confident in my abilities that they didn’t have to worry about keeping me on track.

Being a virtual intern feels like being in this situation all over again. The difference is, now I have absolutely no face-time with my supervisor. Whereas in school I could pass a few ideas by my instructors after class or camp outside their offices, now the only recourse I have is incessant e-mails. There have been a few times when a call time for a phone meeting have never been completely nailed down because my supervisors never confirm when they are available.  The feeling of being on a team working towards a lofty  goal is greatly undercut when the supervisor forgets a conference call.

Given the severe lack of direction, I’ve become quite comfortable assigning myself tasks. I would like to report that I came up with some ingenious idea without supervisor direction, but instead I just kept perfecting the assigned task.  I quadruple-checked every one of my entries, and rewrote my blog post in the absence of direction. Although I often felt that I was not using my time effectively, I have never had more confidence in the precision and accuracy of my work.

Next semester, I would like use my time more creatively  if outreach to my supervisors go unanswered. Given that this project collects GIS data, I think I might try to make a visualization of our data. I would like to map the museums of an island, or perhaps compare the locations of museums across the islands to build a predictive model towards locating other museums. I think population density and proximity to cruise ship landings are two factors that most heavily influence museum location in the Caribbean. I might also use these same factors to see if there is a difference in locations between specialty museums and general interest museums.

Virtual Tourist

As part of the Conflict Cultures team, I’ve been researching museums in the Caribbean. Upon beginning work, I already knew I enjoyed GIS work, but over the past weeks I’ve discovered a new facet of GIS that I hadn’t recognized previously: being a long-distance tourist. I have never been to the Caribbean and did not dedicate time to studying this region in university. I’m quite enjoying familiarizing myself with a new part of the world.

Much like a tourist, I spend most of my time traveling the islands of the Caribbean. Unlike a tourist, I never put down my map to look upon the museum I’ve just navigated to. Instead, I move over to my spread sheet and input coordinates. I do feel as though I’ve gotten to know the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatias. Rincon, a town in Bonaire, is now particularly familiar to me. Three museums, Mangazina di Rei, Museum Kos Krioyo, and Museum Chichi’ ‘Tan are all within a quarter mile of each other. In my mind, I’ve started my morning at Mangazina di Rei, had lunch across the street at Kosbonso, stopped in at Museum Kos Krioyo down the block, seen the life-size dolls at Museum Chichi’ ‘Tan, and ended my day with some cactus liquor at the Cadushy Distillery just on the other side of the San Ludovico Bletran Catholic Church which stands in the center of town.

As much as I feel that I’ve come to know the layout of these islands and towns, I still feel very distant from the people. I know the names and locations of their museums, but very little about what they contain, or the people whose stories these buildings tell. Although every history museum I found exhibited “Amerindian” material, I had never heard of the term despite my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. I assumed Amerindians were the native peoples of Caribbean islands. Upon further research, however, I learned that Amerindian is a synonym for Native American. Surprised and embarrassed by my ignorance, I decided to write my Smithsonian internship blog about the term in case others were confused as well.

I hope that as I continue research in the Caribbean, I will become more familiar with the residents as well. The Smithsonian blog post assignment gave me the impetus to research the cultures represented by the museums more closely, and I have decided to take this lesson to heart. I chose to join this project because I feel the pressure of crisis situations around the world threatening people’s lives and culture, not just because I am fascinated by geography.

Software Limitation

Around the same time I was assigned my internship with the Smithsonian’s Conflict Cultures project, I started a new position at my CRM firm as GIS technician. I spend my days creating maps in ArcGIS. When I read through the Conflict Cultures Code Book, I realized we are coding Arc tables. With the best GIS software at my disposal, I asked my supervisor if I could use ArcMap to find the X, Y coordinates for the museums I research. She approved, and using the geocoding tool I queried the first address, obtaining the first set of coordinates without issue.

A few entries later, I came upon my first museum with no street address. I was working with Montserrat, an island about four miles wide, and the address I was looking for was just “Main Road.” ESRI’s base map did not contain a road called “Main” in Montserrat. I am acquainted with an archaeologist who has worked in Montserrat, and upon asking him where Main Road is located he replied that locals refer to a stretch of one road with several names as “Main Road.” I looked at the Google map embedded in the museum’s website and thought that I might have more success matching the embedded map with a Google map I could pull coordinates from. I obtained the correct coordinates using this method.

After this episode, I began to use Google maps regularly. I found that there was no significant difference in the coordinates, and I could find coordinates using directions (such as “next to the gas station”) in the absence of street addresses. I learned that although ArcGIS is professional-grade software, it is not equipped to handle every GIS inquiry. ESRI frequently updates their base maps, however Google’s pinned locations were more useful. In the case of the Caribbean, where most islands do not garner big-data interest, Google’s user-generated resources proved invaluable.

Learning From Other Students

In truth, I looked at these websites and student interviews about a month ago, since I knew I wasn’t going to have time to change much in my project. I have my huge, cumulative Greek grammar exam on Friday, so, I don’t see a ton of changes happening between now and then. Going through these resources, however, did really influence how I put my project together.

I think the interview that most influenced my project was Nate Sleeter’s who modeled the historical research process for his students. At that point, I already knew that I wanted to focus on the Alexamanos Graffito, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. After watching his interview, the idea of walking my students through the steps of an object study came to life.

Jeri Wieringa and Celeste Sharp’s project got me thinking about implementing my project in a class room. When I was first confronted with this assignment, I had no idea what Professor Mills wanted from us. What the heck was a “digital learning opportunity?” At first, I was thinking about creating a project geared at the general public, but Wieringa and Sharp got me thinking about creating something for students. I really wanted to make a syllabus like they did, to accompany my assignments, but I just didn’t have enough time. If I find a spare hour, I will post a list of  dues dates (not specific calendar dates, but the days and weeks of a typical 13 week semester).

The list of projects to check out didn’t really inform my thinking. They were either resources for the general public or k-12 teachers. And they were huge projects, more akin to the type of work I did last semester. In “Digital History” I did first begin to think about what kinds of online assignments are possible and how to integrate primary sources. Really, it was Digital History that first gave me the idea to include a teacher resource about how to use this assignment in a class. I had originally intended to make one for high school and another for post-secondary.  As I worked through the project, however, I found that the content was way too specific to Early Christian archaeology, so I abandoned the teacher’s guide.

Propsal: Object Study Exercise

My final project will be a lesson on reading an object. The goal is for students to not only identify and examine an object correctly, but understand artifacts as evidence towards historical questions. The primary learning outcomes will be 1) to conceptualize the artifact in physical and historical space. 2) to understand the capabilities and limitations of using objects as evidence. 3) to utilize artifacts in constructing an historical argument.
The historical question students will explore is: “Why were Christians unable to integrate into larger Roman society in the third century?”
Towards this end, students will be asked to examine an epigraphic graffito from the city of Rome ca. 200. Through a series of activities, they will construct and revise an object study as they explore evidence and are led through guiding questions. As they proceed through the exercises, they will be continually be asked whether or not their work is relevant to the initial research question.
After they have completed their final draft of their object study, they will be provided with a second artifact from which they will independently construct an object study. At the end of each object study students will draft and revise an essay in response to the initial historical question.Â
The exercise might be used towards choosing a historical question for a final term paper.