Digital Imaging Roundtable

January 2019

As part of the Mellon / Penn / PMA Object-Based Learning Initiative, the department hosted a collaborative roundtable on the topic of digital images with participants from the PMA, the Penn Libraries, and the School of Engineering, moderated by Karen Redrobe. The event took place in the Kislak Center in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at Penn on January 25, 2019, and was so well attended by members of Penn, the PMA, and the surrounding academic community, that event organizers opened up a wall in the Kislak Center in order to double the size of the space (which was still packed). The Q&A could have gone on for an entire day, and it is clear that there is great hunger for more knowledge and resources in this area.
Justyna Badach, Head of Imaging, PMA, discussed the production of digital images at the Museum, including some comments on where she sees the future of digital images in museums going. After the event, in response to issues raised, she shared a photography basic standards manual produced by the Rijksmuseum, which she suggested would be helpful both in learning basic imaging terminology and in providing clear instructions when working with a photographer. 

Karina Wratschko, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the PMA, addressed issues of storage of digital imaging and the roles of libraries in digital imaging preservation and access. 

Will Noel, Associate University Librarian & Director, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts and Director, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, focused on the use of digital imaging in research, especially with regard to manuscripts, and stressed the importance of making raw data available. He discussed the fact that many scholars now work from digital reproductions not knowing which exact version of manuscript they are working from, and predicted that all kinds of problems are going to emerge from digital-based scholarship if we don't start to standardize (and follow) some of the best practices in this arena. 

Norman Badler, Prof. Computer and Information Science, Penn, focused on the use of digital imaging, especially for object based study, in teaching and research collaborations between engineers and humanists at Penn. The projects he discusses are collected on the Center for Digital Visualization (ViDi) web page:

They include:

1) Visualizing the Past: Documenting Badler's course with Anthropologist/Archaeologist [Penn Museum] Clark Erickson, teaching 
undergraduates about 3D modeling and human activities in a cultural 

2) Archaeological Illumination: Measuring the BRDFs (full hemispherical 
reflectance functions) of soil and mudbrick for accurate lighting rendering.

3) Oil Lamp Relighting: Oil lamp spectra, flickering, and 3D models of 
oil lamp shapes were used to relight a 3D model of the Great Mosque of 
Cordoba. Work done with Renata Holod of History of Art department.

Christopher D.M. Atkins, now Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director, Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shared innovative projects undertaken by others like the Bosch Research Project and Closer to Van Eyck that utilize innovative approaches to imaging for art historical study. This raised questions about what close or comparative "looking" looks like, as well as what issues arise in the field when close looking involves analyzing things that can't be seen by the naked eye, including how this impacts exhibition practices / the act of looking in the museum. He also spoke of the work the PMA is currently doing with its digital initiative, and the challenges that has posed.
Karen Redrobe posed some questions about humanities methods that arise out of media studies. Media studies scholars are exploring what methodological assumptions and aprioris are embedded within algorithms used in digital humanities projects, noting that humanists (and indeed computer scientists) are not necessarily in a position to "read" or intervene into these dimensions of algorithms. They are often beyond our reach, leaving some questions about how humans can participate in some aspects of digital humanism. Many other questions came up, including issues of unpaid labor in DH projects (whether for Google or museums or other entities) and the question of how digital projects "count" (for the job market, for tenure, and in terms of intellectual property / authorship, given that many are collaborative).