Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Mary Rose remains and artifacts in stunning 3D

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

I love a good 3D scan of historical and archeological materials. Be it the Apollo 11 command module, Revolutionary War-era gunboat, Anglo-Saxon stones, Pictish stones, Chinese oracle bones, a king’s grave, or a centenarian ham and peanut, I have spent untold hours turning, zooming and flipping 3D models. So when I say that the recently uploaded 3D scans of one skull and nine artifacts from the Tudor warship the Mary Rose are the best I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.

It’s been a banner year for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy which sank off the coast of Portsmouth on July 19th, 1545, and whose intact hull still containing the remains of the crew and 19,000 artifacts was raised from the Solent in 1982. This summer, after more than three decades of constant conservation, the stabilized ship was displayed to the public in all its glory in an extensively renovated exhibition hall of the Mary Rose Museum. The museum opened in 2013, but because the ship was still being renovated, it was partially obscured by an intricate network of pipes, sprayers, sheets of glass and scaffolding. Now it can be viewed from three balconies and wall to ceiling windows that give visitors the chance to observe the hull from multiple angles.

The new Mary Rose exhibition humanizes the vast archaeological treasure of the ship by featuring the stories of members of the crew whose remains and/or belongings were discovered on the ship. While their names are unknown, their roles could be deduced by the locations in which they were found (the cook in the galley, the Master Gunner near a gun on the deck), from osteological analysis (the longbow archers suffered from a shoulder blade condition still found in archers today), or from their stuff (the purser had a chest full of coins, the carpenter had his tools).

Yesterday the Mary Rose Museum launched a new website, Virtual Tudors, which focuses on one of those featured crewmen, the carpenter, and the artifacts found with him. He was in his mid-to-late 30s when he went down with the Mary Rose. He was a strong, well-muscled man 5’7″ tall who suffered from arthritis in his spine, ribs and left collar bone. He also had terrible teeth with extensive plaque build up and an abscess in his upper jaw so severe and painful that he could only have been able to chew on the right side of his mouth. Nearby were found a leather shoe (one of nearly 300 shoes found on board), an oak grooving plane (one of 22 found), a poplar whetstone holder and more.

The website is a collaboration of the Mary Rose Trust, Swansea University and Oxford University. For the general public, the skull of the carpenter, the shoe, plane, whetstone holder, plus two knife handles, two carved panels, a wooden spoon, a wooden mirror, and a section of the ship’s rigging have been 3D scanned and uploaded to the site. For the skull alone, 120 high resolution pictures were taken with a 39-megapixel camera. They were then stitched together to create a 15-megapixel 3D model. The level of detail is unbelievable. I must have stared at the rope from the rigging for a solid 30 minutes at the most extreme zoom, and I’ve barely started.

The digitization team is hoping that this project will have research advantages as well. Besides the publically viewable models, another 9 skulls have been scanned exclusively for examination by osteologists all over the world.

Each participant will be given a questionnaire to see what their assessment is of the skulls, which the UK team will then compare.
If the results are good, Dr Johnston said, they might help tackle scepticism from some in the field who insist that physically interacting with specimens is essential.

“Do you really need to hold the skull, or can you tell a lot from the digital one? There’s the potential to speed up science dramatically – but this needs to happen first.”

Because the pool of expertise can be much wider once resources like these are online, there is also the possibility that a new discovery will emerge.

“It might be that somebody in, I don’t know, Arizona, has a particular speciality and they say, ‘Do you realise that this person here has such-and-such a condition?’ It’d be very nice if that happened,” said Swansea biomechanist Nick Owen, who has previously studied the skeletons of archers from the Mary Rose.

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Watch London burn again live!

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

A wonderful wood frame recreation of the London skyline at the time of the Great Fire built on a platform on the Thames is about to be set on fire. Watch now!

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Teapot is Smithsonian’s millionth digitized object

Monday, June 27th, 2016

A teapot made by 19th century silversmith Peter Bentzon is the one millionth object digitized by the Smithsonian’s Mass Digitization Program. There are 154 million objects in the many collections of the Smithsonian Institute, so just 153 million more to go.

Peter Bentzon was born on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies around 1783. The child of a free mulatto woman and a white father, he was what the Danish categorized as a “mustice” or “mustee.” His family was comparatively well-off; it is believed his father was Norwegian lawyer Jacob Bentzon who was a royal judge advocate on St Thomas for several years. Peter was sent to school in Philadelphia when he was eight years old, and was apprenticed to a Philadelphia silversmith in 1799 when he was 16. His completed his apprenticeship in 1806 and moved to Christiansted, St Croix, where he started his own silversmithing business.

The British occupied the island from 1807 to 1816 which was advantageous for Bentzon because the British didn’t have the strict laws the Danish had controlling the movements, professions and political rights of the free coloured population of its colonies. Denmark reclaimed St Croix in 1816 and Bentzon made arrangements to move his family and business back to Philly. He lived and worked there until 1829, after which he returned to St. Croix for another 20 years. He relocated to Philadelphia again in 1848. His name is on the 1850 Census. After that, he disappears from the historical record. Wherever he was living, he regularly traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and St Croix.

Bentzon was the only free silversmith of African descent in slavery-era America whose work can be identified from his hallmarks, P. BENTZON and PB. There were at least four other black silversmiths in Philadelphia during his time. Henry Bray and Anthony Sowerwalt are listed as silversmiths and “persons of color” in the 1813 and 1818 Philadelphia directories. Joseph Head and John Frances, a runaway slave, were also working as silversmiths. None of the four produced work under their own hallmark, however, so it’s impossible to link any surviving silver to them.

Very few of Bentzon’s pieces are known to have survived, fewer than three dozen, most of them teaspoons. That makes his work rarer than that of famed fellow silversmiths like Paul Revere and Thomas Fletcher. The Smithsonian’s teapot is the only one confirmed to have been made in Bentzon’s Philadelphia shop.

The silver teapot is an oval vase-shape on a pedestal foot. The scroll handle is made of wood topped with a leaf design. The cover has an acorn finial. It is stamped twice on the bottom with Bentzon’s mark and is inscribed “Rebecca Dawson” on the base. Bentzon rented his workshop from a Robert Dawson, so perhaps Rebecca was a relative of his landlord. The monogram “MC” on the side is a later addition.

It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which isn’t an actual museum yet. There had been efforts to create a national museum displaying art and artifacts from African-American history since 1915, but with little funding and no Congressional support, proposals went nowhere. A state initiative was more successful. The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, received a federal charter from Congress in 1981 and opened in 1988 with no public funding. Its focus was more narrow than that envisioned for the national museum, however, with its main exhibition dedicated to the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and others featuring the city of Wilberforce’s history as an important stop on the Underground Railroad and the founding of historically black college Wilberforce University, the first college in the United States that was owned and run by African Americans.

The Smithsonian’s collection of African-Americana didn’t see much light until dedicated exhibitions in the National Museum of American History in the 1980s. For a long time the Board of the Smithsonian itself questioned whether the collection could sustain a stand-alone African-American history museum, and it wasn’t until December of 2003 that all the pieces came together with the passage of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishing the new museum within the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It took another three years for the site, part of the Washington Monument grounds, to be selected. Settling on a design for the building took even more time. Finally, ground was broken on February 22nd, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian took the innovative step of creating a virtual museum when the physical museum was still years away from construction. It created a website for the NMAAHC with select objects from the collection and online exhibitions. The first exhibition in the three dimensional world took place in New York in 2005. In 2012 the NMAAHC partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to put on an exhibition about slavery at Monticello held at the National Museum of American History.

By 2015, the museum’s collection had grown to more than 33,000 objects including Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Selmer trumpet, 39 extremely rare Harriet Tubman artifacts donated in 2012 by collector Charles L. Blockson, Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, a 1922 Pullman railroad car from Chattanooga, Tennessee, used to carry Black passengers under Jim Crow segregation and a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary which was so big the museum had to be build around it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will opens its doors in the new building on September 24th, 2016.

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A romp through the Prelinger film archive

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

It’s been a while since I had a proper weekend romp through historic films. The Prelinger Archive, a wonderfully eclectic group of home movies, commercials, government and corporate educational and instructional films and a wide range of other assorted clips is today’s fertile field.

Confused by those newfangled rotary dial phones? Have no fear, AT&T is here (or was, in 1927).

This is how you brush your teeth, boys and girls of 1928. To reinforce the message, Goofus and Gallant apply for a summer job to the man with the pince-nez glasses. Goofus’ blackened grill and busted outfit does not impress, while Gallant’s sparkly whites and sharp suit win the day. Mr. Gorman is pretty mean to poor Bill about it.

This is a 1945 Army picture about insomnia associated with what was then called Combat Fatigue and is now PTSD. It’s not the most compelling of reels — perhaps it was designed to help cure insomnia — but there are two elements of note: 1) the movie within a movie starring Donald Duck, and 2) Dick York, best known as the first Darrin from Betwitched, in the role of the lead insomniac’s friend Lucky who laughs uproariously at Donald Duck’s entirely unfunny antics and generally babbles way too much. Bonus points for the shower scene.

Lessons learned from a 1961 prom. Shake hands with the receiving line of chaperones. The boy fills in the dance card, putting his own name in the first and last positions. Showing off on the dance floor is bad; accompanying a girl off the dance floor “so she’s not stranded” is good. Shake hands with the exit line of chaperones. Enjoy the midnight supper offered by parents afterwards. Say goodnight. Nobody even come close to making out. Enjoy Coca Cola.

The Prelinger Archive was assembled in New York in the 1980s, but it acquired a collection of California pictures so they have quite a few films of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

It starts off in the Western Addition neighborhood which surviving the earthquake with limited damage. Many of its Victorian homes still stand today. A shot at the beginning shows one of those amazing thickets of overhead cables from electric and telephone companies so common in cities before consolidation and monopolies began to thin out the volume of them. Around the 3:07 mark, the view changes starkly from the comparatively unscathed Western Addition to the rubble-filled war zone of Market Street.

This one captures one of the fires that devastated the city even more than the quake had. It’s remarkable how crowded the streets are, and there’s one car zipping down the street, driving around horse-drawn vehicles, people and rubble. The film rate is sped up, so it’s not actually going fast as it looks to be, but you can see later in the film that other kinds of vehicles stayed in their lanes a lot more. There’s a running streetcar and the destroyed dome of San Francisco’s grand City Hall makes an appearance.

This one was taken from Market Street and has a wider view of what was left of the City Hall and Hall of Records complex.

San Francisco passed the first anti-drug legislation in the country in 1875 and opium was its target. The law made it illegal to own or frequent an opium den, but as usual, prohibition did nothing to stop the growth of opium in the city. By the turn of the century there were hundreds of opium dens in Chinatown. In the end it took force majeur to bring down the opium dens. Unfortunately the earthquake also took down the rest of the city with it. In 1907 the sale of the drug itself was outlawed, except for prescription purposes. The police tried to combat the scourge of opium with very public bonfires of confiscated opium and smoking accessories, but other than creating huge, dense clouds of opium smoke in downtown San Francisco for passersby to get inadvertently high off of, the autos-da-fé accomplished little.

Here’s a video of one of these opium bonfires from 1914. In an interesting contrast to the earthquake films, in the background you can see the new City Hall with its dome still under construction. It would open a year after this film was shot.

Speaking of vice, since it’s Saturday and one hopefully doesn’t have to worry about keeping one’s viewing safe for work, perhaps you might enjoy the archive’s significant group of old-timey stripper videos. This is burlesque dancing, mainly from the late 1940s and 1950s, I would guess, although there may be earlier ones in the mix. They are not dated, alas. There is a hint of nudity here and there — sheer undies, the occasional glimpse of underbutt or rhinestone pasties, that sort of thing — but nothing to clutch pearls over.

Red-Headed Riot has a Rita Hayworth thing going on.
Dance of the Doves” involves no doves whatsoever, but rather one cockatoo and one macaw. Nora the Quivering Torso lives up to her name by moving more than the rest of them put together. This lady is unnamed but is notable for her proto-twerking skills and the black censor band built into her panties to obscure her scandalous butt cleavage.

Betty Rowland, “Burlesque’s Ball of Fire,” closes out the show. She starts off with a fine gown and ends up behind the curtain (still in her underwear, of course) à la Gypsy Rose Lee.

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Thousands of historic cosmetic, hygiene products digitized

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Included in the National Museum of American History’s enormous collection of 90,000 artifacts in the Division of Medicine and Science are more than 2,200 historic cosmetic, hygiene and personal care products. Most of them have never been on display and outside of museum curators, people don’t even know they’re there. Thanks to a grant from Kiehl’s, a skincare company founded in 1851 which has over the years donated more than 100 items from its own past to the Smithsonian, the collection has now been digitized.

The National Museum of American History, with the support of Kiehl’s, plans to extend the collection to the Web through the Cosmetics and Personal Care Collections Digitization Project. A museum specialist will identify, photograph and provide descriptive information for the cosmetic and personal care objects collection on the Web. The project will allow the museum’s collection of cosmetics and personal care products to be accessed online for education and research around the world.

The objects date from the 19th century to the present and include everything from skin creams to soaps, perfumes, razors and tooth powders. The range of products and dates provides a fascinating view of how drastically beauty standards and personal care regimens have changed over the years. Browsing the collection you can tread the dangerously fine line between medicine and makeup, poison and perfume. The inextricable link between medicine and cosmetics was acknowledged by Congress in 1938 when it passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act giving the Food and Drug Administration some degree of regulatory oversight over the cosmetic industry.

The grant comes none to soon as soaps and the paper box they came in were not made to last. These were disposable items and there isn’t a lot conservators can do to keep them from crumbling to dust. Then there are the inevitable chemical reactions, like between toothpaste and its old tubes.

If you’re researching something of have a particular interest in one type of product, you can search the collection by keyword. I got a kick out of searching for poisons like arsenic and lead, which have been mainstays of skin care products since antiquity. I also had fun picking more general old-timey keywords like “tonic” and browsing all the quackery and impossible claims that ensued. If you’d just like to have a look around, click on one of the categories listed in the column to the right of the page. I enjoyed clicking on each category and then scrolling down to the filter options, clicking the date, and exploring the whole category from oldest to newest.

Did you know that after World War I, they made menstrual pads out of sphagnum moss? Apparently they were first invented during the war for use in surgical dressings and later found new life as a consumer product. That brings me back to the wonderful barrels of 14th century poop found in Odense, Denmark, in which clumps of moss were found because they were used as toilet paper. Damn good toilet paper at that.

The collection is full of cool random finds like this. The digitization project will continue to keep up with new acquisitions.

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Watch a ghostly animated Titanic sink in real time

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Fair warning: this video is two hours and forty minutes long and there are significant stretches where very little happens. I expected to give up on it 10 minutes in, but much to my amazement, it was weirdly riveting. It starts just before Titanic strikes the iceberg and ends when the last of the ship plunges under the frigid waters. There are some very discreet sound effects — a few spoken orders, water, iron groaning, engines — and captions pop up explaining key moments. I found the notes on the lowering of the lifeboats and collapsibles particularly fascinating. Seeing it happen in real time strikingly conveys what an organization disaster this was, how much time was wasted, how so many more people could have been saved.

What makes the video genuinely eerie is the complete absence of people. It gives it a Mary Celeste ghost ship vibe. There are some voices — you hear some screams at the very end — but without moving figures it’s like Titanic is cursed to relive its slow, inexorable destruction over and over again.

That’s not what the finished product will be like. This animation is one element of an ambitious game called Titanic Honor & Glory and it’s still a work in progress. The ultimate aim is to have a fully explorable ship, accurate down to the smallest detail, with real historical people players can interact with at will. They’ll even have a period 1912 Southampton to wander through before boarding. There will be a story — a mystery to solve — but also a simple browse option if you just want to immerse yourself in the environment.

Judging from the glimpses of the grand staircase slowly filling with water in the sinking video and a video from last year that takes you on a brief tour of the First Class Reception Room, Dining Room, elevators, Turkish baths and the Third Class Dining Room, walking around will be plenty entertaining for those of us of a nerdly persuasion.

Here’s the full sinking video. Set aside three hours and just let it run. It’s not like you have to focus on it exclusively. You can do other things while it’s on in the background, but if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself having a hard time looking away.

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Chinese oracle bones: from rubbings to 3D scans

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Oracle bones are inscribed ox shoulder blades or the flat underside of turtle shells that were used for divination in Shang dynasty China (ca. 1600-1046 B.C.). The Shang was China’s second dynasty and the oracle bones are the oldest surviving texts in the Chinese language. They are the main source historians have about Shang China and Bronze Age China in general, but were only recognized as the immense cultural patrimony they are in 1899. Antiquarian Wang Yirong found some oracle bones being sold in Peking as “dragon bones” which were ground into powder and used in traditional medicine to staunch a bleeding wound. He recognized they were engraved with ancient script. The oracle bones were dated to the Shang dynasty when the origin of the ones floating around in markets was discovered near the village of Xiaotun in Henan Province, the Shang capital.

The late 19th, early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. Cultural patrimony issues were not governmental priorities and foreign scholars and collectors stepped into the void. One of them was Lionel Charles Hopkins, brother and biographer of the famous poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a diplomat who went to China in 1874 and remained there until his retirement in 1908. He collected almost 900 oracle bones which he studied over the four decades of his retirement. He died in 1952 at the age of 98. Hopkins left his oracle bone collection to Cambridge University.

Hopkins broke a lot of ground in the study of oracle bones, but he too was fooled by fakes. There were so many of them that for a couple of decades after their discovery, the authenticity of all of them were in question. It was only when excavations began in the late 1920s at Xiaotun that large numbers of oracle bones were confirmed to be part of the Shang royal archive. About 200,000 thousand bone fragments are known today, a quarter of which are inscribed.

Diviners used the oracle bones to invoke the ancestors of the Shang dynasty royal family who were believed to know the future. They were also thought to have influence on future events. When a Shang royal wanted to know the outcome of a war, the success of a harvest, an impending natural disaster or anything else, they turned to diviners and their oracle bones. On the reverse of the bones diviners carved out divots known as divination pits. The pits were exposed to fire, creating vertical cracks with a short perpendicular crack halfway down on the obverse of the bone. The cracks were interpreted as answers to the diviners’ questions and those questions were engraved next to the crack. The divination served double duty: predicting the future and securing the benign intervention of the ancestors. The inscriptions are invaluable records of Shang society, and can be of international import. One of the oracle bones in the Hopkins Collection is the oldest dated record of a lunar eclipse known in the world.

The texture of the bones and writing is important to historians, as are the divination pits and cracks. Within a couple of years of Wang Yirong’s discovery, rubbings of the inscriptions were published in books and suddenly collectors were clamouring to buy oracle bones. As usually happens when there’s an overwhelming demand for a finite material, unscrupulous dealers quickly produced as many forgeries as possible. Many oracle bones have both original engravings, pits and cracks, and forged text added to make a simple bone look fancier. The more text, the more expensive the artifact. Sorting out the genuine from the fraud requires careful examination of the bones, their inscriptions and cracks.

Since the earliest discoveries, the surface of oracle bones were captured with rubbings. In 1982, oracle bone expert Mme. Qi Wenxin visited the UK to make rubbings of all the bones in public and private collections. Cambridge’s Hopkins Collection was one of her stops. These rubbings are not the kind you made on gravestones in 5th grade art class with a crayon and tracing paper. Mme. Qi’s tools were a brush made of fine human hair, the finest quality Chinese black ink, very thin tissue-like paper, a piece of silk wrapped around natural cotton and a water infused with the herb baiji (Bletilla Rhizome). Baiji is used in traditional Chinese medicine to stop bleeding and reduce swelling, but infused in the rubbing water, it helps the paper adhere to the bone. If plain water was used, the paper would come off during rubbing.

The side of the bone not being rubbed was fixed to the table with putty. Then the paper was placed on top and brushed with the baiji solution. Mme. Qi tapped the wet paper into the engraving by lightly hitting it with the human hair brush until every letter of the inscription showed through the paper. When the paper was dry, the silk-wrapped cotton was dabbed into the sticky ink and stippled on with care not to cake it on too thickly. Once the ink layer dried, another was applied. The process was repeated until the inscription becomes clear, a white negative against the inky black background. You can see Mme. Qi at work in this video.

Now the Cambridge University Library has taken the first step in establishing a new kind of archive. It has scanned the first of the 614 oracle bones in its collection in high resolution 3D. As far as we know, it’s the first oracle bone in the world to be 3D scanned.

The image brings into sharp focus not only the finely incised questions on the obverse of the bone, but also the divination pits engraved on the reverse and the scorch marks caused by the application of heat to create the cracks (which were interpreted as the answers from the spirit world). These can be seen more clearly than by looking at the actual object itself, and without the risk of damage by handling the original bone.

Once scanned, a precise replica of the bone was 3D printed so it can handled and examined by students and researchers who would otherwise not be allowed access to the originals for conservation purposes. If the 3D scanning trend catches on, there’s another exciting possibility: that more of the hundreds of thousands of fragments may be pieced back together thanks to computer matching.

Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res
by Professor Dominic Powlesland
on Sketchfab

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Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

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Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

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Browse 18,000 historic menus in the New York Public Library

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present. It’s one of the largest menu collections in the world and it’s still growing, with Culinary Collections librarian (such a great job title) Rebecca Federman at the helm. She is the latest in a line descending from a formidable visionary named Miss Frank E. Buttolph who began collecting every menu she could get her hands on, mainly by writing with unstinting dedication to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, whoever had the goods all over the world.

It wasn’t a hobby or even about the food for her. Miss Buttolph dedicated her life to collecting menus because she believed they had genuine historical value. She made a point of seeking out menus used by notable personages or that were on the table when momentous events took place around them. Events include the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria, the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was assassinated and a banquet thrown by Emperor of Japan for William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, during the 1905 Taft–Katsura discussion.

An article published in the June 3rd, 1906, issue of the New York Times (pdf) acknowledged the drive for historic preservation underpinning her collection in amusing terms.

Miss Buttolph is making history for the year 2,000 which, should our present carnivorous natures by that time merge into a diet mild and milky, will hold this generation up as an example of brute force that should annihilate all our virtues and leave us in the eyes of our descendants a race of horror and greed, a pack of flesh-eating outcasts remarkable only for our gastronomic endurance.

While there are certainly a great many more calves heads, tongues, mutton and brain aspic than one commonly sees on menus today, there are also a surprising number of plain raw vegetable appetizers like celery or radishes. Just like a plate of celery. Coffee and tea appear the most frequently in the collection. Celery takes third place. The real stand-out to me, now that the year 2,000 has come and gone, is how lacking in variety so many of these menus are. Basically, if it’s fine dining, it has to be French or French-adjacent. There is little distinction between an 1843 breakfast menu in New York and a dinner menu from 1857 in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a lot of meat with French-like preparations, although at least the Battle House in Mobile had very respectable pie options. It’s all nuts and fruit in New York. Even the menu from the Streets of Mexico Restaurant at the Pan-American Exposition had far more ragout of beef, boiled trout with hollandaise and roast lamb with mint sauce than food remotely related to Mexico. The tamales and enchiladas (25 cents apiece), chili con carne, salsa and frijoles (15 cents apiece) at the very top of the menu were forced to carry the full burden of Mexicanness.

In 1899 Miss Frank E. Buttolph offered her collection of menus, already in the thousands, to the New York Public Library and offered to continue adding to the collection. NYPL director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted both generous offers and Miss Frank collected menus for the library the next 25 years until her death in 1924. The Buttolph Collection of Menus had 25,000 menus in it at the time of her death.

Now it’s 20,000 items larger and close to 19,000 bills of fare have been digitized and are available to peruse online in the New York Public Library’s extensive digital collections. The digitization project is ongoing, but it’s not an easy job. Some of the menus are in very delicate condition and require conservation before they can be scanned. Meanwhile, the collection is only searchable at a very basic level. Information that was in the catalogue description — location, date range, name of hostelry — is the only data that can be searched digitally. The menu items themselves are not.

To remedy this, the NYPL started an open transcription project where volunteers can hand-enter all the details on the menu from food to wine list to prices. The power of the crowd is more effective in this case than OCR scanning because a lot of the menus have condition issues that make the letters less clear, crooked layouts or handwritten entries. A person would have to edit every OCRd page anyway, so best to cut the middleman.

It seems like the project is just about caught up right now. Every decade I clicked on showed the menu transcriptions as done, but bookmark this page and check it out once in a while for a new influx of digitized menus. There are a lot of treasures mentioned in several turn-of-the-century NYT articles that have yet to be digitized. I’d love to catch one of those fresh off the presses.

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