GSAS/GSD curatorial innovation program

Effective the fall of 2011, the GSAS/GSD curatorial innovation program is providing eight Harvard graduate and two undergraduate students with the opportunity to become engaged in collections-based research, curation, and digital design, within the framework of the community of metaLAB researchers. The collections in question encompass everything from object-based collections (such as those found within the Harvard museums) to paper-based archives (such as those housed at Widener, Loeb Design, the Fine Arts Library and the Houghton Library).

Students have been selected for inclusion in the Innovation Curator’s program on a competitive basis and assigned to a collection/library/archive on campus as a function of their areas of research and expertise. During the course of the 2011-2012 academic year, they will be working closely with the curatorial staff of the collection in question, gaining an in-depth knowledge of the materials it contains and developing a curatorial project of their own over the course of the year to be realized in digital form. The best digital projects will be developed into proposals for full-fledged physical exhibition projects whose full implementation will be negotiated with potential museum partners both inside and outside of Harvard.

As members of metaLAB (at) Harvard, Innovation Curators become familiar with new approaches to digital collection development and curation, as well as with emerging models of digitally augmented exhibition design. They will participate in metaLAB’s workshops and have access to the full set of toolkits being developed by the lab.

Students selected for the curatorial innovation program receive an honorarium of $1500 upon successful completion of the program at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year.

Applications for Innovation Curatorships for the present academic year are closed. It is our expectation that the Innovation Curatorship program will continue on beyond this startup year, so please consult this page for updates regarding the next round of applications.

For additional information, please feel free to contact us at info [at]


Edward Lear: Landscape Drawings

Travis Bost, M.Des ’12 (GSD)
Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, MS Typ 55.11
metadata copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Numerous special collections archives held by Houghton and Harvard libraries each contain thousands of items and hundreds of linear feet of material, and while nearly all of them are extremely delicate and allowed for only limited access, a great many of the collections have exhaustive and meticulously detailed text-based finding aids that document the extensive metadata associated with each of the items and allow more efficient research of these items. The result of many years work of archivists, these finding aids work to not only catalog the information necessary for their location but every possible detail of their materiality, method of production, origin, and history, in addition to carefully documenting the historical development of the collection itself with its various donors, previous archivists, and their the impacts of each. However, much of this information is effectively only legible in a single, linear way that assumes a great degree of pre-existing familiarity with the items and structure of the collection, often privileging a reading of a single item in isolation rather than in the context of the others of the collection.

This project therefore works to delve into the incredibly rich mine of metadata in these finding aids that is easily overlooked and to expose the patterns implicit in the making of both the collection and its items made available by multiple readings of a single text-based finding aid. The finding aid for the Lear Landscape Drawings was selected as an ideal aid for this experiment as it is extensive (over 3,500 items) and exhaustively documented. This finding aid, like most at Harvard, is available online through a system called Oasis; however, it is only a list of text describing the items, with about one percent of the items including hyperlinks to a digital version of the item. This information was downloaded as an .XML database file and then converted to a plain-text, comma-separated value documents (.CSV); using Processing, an open-source visual programming language based on Java, an applet was written that simply reads this one CSV text file in multiple ways to produce several versions of an interactive visualization.

In one version, the program simple allows for a virtual flipbook of the items in the collection represented as blank rectangles created from their documented dimensions with their associated title and cataloge information. In a second version, each of the different ‘series’ breakdowns of the catalogue’s organization are analyzed for their total items and surface area (in square meters) of drawings; within each category, each of the items can be flipped through again. Finally, in a third version, each of the drawings in the collection is abstracted as a square in a grid in the order of the finding aid; each of the items can be sampled in a call out box for its image and associated details, but most importantly by shading each square based on the selected variable patterns emerge across the items in the collection. Toggling between the options, items can be analyzed for their proliferation in time (showing which years, months, and days Lear was most productive), for their location, for their relative size, for their medium of production (including watercolor, color wash, pen, or pencil), for the paper type used, or for the available metadata produced by Lear himself. From toggling across these different modes, not only can patterns across items be seen, but also the changing patterns for a given item can also be seen. This project aims to make the collection more available and interesting to lay persons and at the same time expose previously unseen aspects about the collection for scholars by capitalizing on the decades of work from the many archivists. Finally, not only can this applet be embedded into a website alongside the existing finding aids, but it can also update automatically as the finding aid itself grows, is updated, or corrected. And by making these finding aids available as a downloadable or feed-enabled XML, researchers could in the future develop their own analytics and visualizations tailored to their own purposes for this and other collections.

Edwin Land’s Color Constancy Theory
Laura Lee, GSAS (History of Science)

Edwin Land is known as the founder of Polaroid (which lasted from 1937-1980), but he was also a scientist of color vision. Much work went into developing his Retinex Theory, which addressed a simple but unanswered question: if color is a reflection of light our eye receives, why do we identify something as possessing the same color in a wide variety of lights? Land gave the name “Mondrian” to the colorful paper and wood panels he used for experimenting with color vision, curiously invoking the 20th century abstract Modernist known for his geometric, primary color paintings. He used three benchmarks in the visible spectrum of light—long (red), medium (green), and short (blue) waves of light—to get a description of the color for each panel, which was a mixture of those lights.

For the curatorial workshop, I created a “digital Mondrian,” which uses an image of a panel from Harvard’s Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments Collection circa 1975, to simulate Land’s Retinex Theory. Using the open source programming language Processing, a digital projector, and a webcam, the simulation takes a reading of the color waves (long, red; medium, green; and short, blue) and displays the image as affected by the mixture of colors making up the light sampled by the webcam. This digital Mondrian was installed as part of the show “Optical Allusions” mounted by graduate students in History of Science, in the departmental exhibition space on the third floor of the Science Center.

If Land was interested in why colors always “look” the same to the eye, this Mondrian offers an opportunity to contemplate the changefulness that characterizes the way color acts. The Mondrian transforms its appearance to reflect the change in ambient light in the room. Waving a hand, a color filter, or a shadow near the webcam presents the Mondrian in a new light, simulating how a Mondrian would actually look without our brains’ constant adjustments.

From the Desk of Emily Dickinson
Judy Sue Fulton, M.Arch ’12 (GSD)

By the time she was 35 years old, Emily Dickinson had composed over 1100 poems. Most were written in her bedroom at her small desk in the family homestead. This house remains today in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 1950, Gilbert H. Montague presented his collection of poems, letters, and personal objects of Emily Dickinson as a gift to Harvard University. Included in this collection was her original desk.

Today there are two desks. The original sits in Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the other sits in the Dickinson Family Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. The first desk is the original. It sits in darkness on the second level of Houghton Library and can only be seen on Friday afternoons and by appointment. The curatorial possibilities for this object are limited by the need to keep it preserved in a climate-controlled environment. The second desk, which can be considered a proxy, sits in its original location in full sunlight and is seen by all who visit the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst.

“From the Desk of Emily Dickinson” seeks to connect these two disparate environments, one in Amherst, MA and the other in Cambridge, MA. It perceives these two spaces as one continuous environment that can be networked together through the virtual realm. First, a webcam is used to capture and document the amount of light falling on the desk in Amherst, MA (input). This ‘live feed’ is then interpreted through a Processing applet and projected onto the desk (output) in Cambridge, MA.

It is a project that can be shared with viewers in two ways. First, this could be presented as an exhibition in Houghton Library. Upon entering the Emily Dickinson room, viewers would be presented with the desk and images projected upon its surface from above. In the second iteration, (hopefully launched after the exhibition), users can visit a website that displays the visual output from the Dickinson Homestead in real time while displaying poems pertaining to light authored by the poet. As in the work of many poets whom she admired, light is an important metaphor in her work. Poems will be choreographed to appear on the website depending on the amount of light falling on the desk. When the applet perceives a majority of dark pixels, poems relating to darkness and sunset could be displayed; when this suddenly changes with the rising sun, the following poem could appear as an example:

THE DAY came slow, til five o’clock
Then sprang before the hills
Like hindered rubies, or the light
A sudden musket spills.
The purple could not keep the east,
The sunrise shook from fold,
Like breadths of topaz, packed a night,
The lady just unrolled.

ONCE in Barre
Diana Lempel, MDesS ’12

ONCE in Barre (1890-1931) was an afternoon tea party presented by terroirstudio (Diana Lempel’s events project) and Cuisine en Locale on Mother’s Day 2012. Based on research and an event concept incubated by the metaLAB’s Curatorial Innovation Fellowship, the party featured three courses of sweets, prepared by and served by Cuisine en Locale, based on the manuscript recipe collection of the Rice Family. The collection, found at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, features a set of letters and notebooks exchanged or handed down by the women of the family, who lived in Barre, MA from 1890-1930.

The premise of ONCE in Barre was to create an environment for guests to reflect upon the role of family traditions in their own lives, using the example of the Rice family as a template. Also a part of the curatorial project was for guests to consider the role of physical objects in a family’s tradition and a person’s legacy, and reflect on the role of such objects in their own life in the context of today’s digital age. Guests were invited to produce a recipe postcard as their own “family heirlooms,” and send them to loved ones who were not present. An oral history radio producer attended the event, recording short informal interviews with the families who had come to share the holiday together. I participated in tea service, using the opportunity to share stories about the research and answer questions.

Curatorial components of the event included the dishes themselves, which were interpretations and reinterpretations of dishes from the Rice collection, a digital exhibition, presented on iPads, that integrates information about the Rice family with its historical context, and a trio of dramatized readings of letters from the collection, which could be listened to on earphones. Also available was a selection of ephemera from the Boston area during this period. All are now also presented on our website,, which also documents the recipe development process and is collecting growing documentation of the event and its afterlife.

My hope is that ONCE in Barre can provide a jumping off point for future experiments in this kind of multi sensory curatorial experience, in which guests reflexively explore and discuss their own food experiences in the context of a set of well-researched and interactively presented historic recipes. As the project develops, the website can become a site for us and for guests to share their own recipes and family stories in the spirit of dialogue, shared learning, and hospitality.

Suggested Collections

Thomas Hollis. The diary (Houghton Library MS Eng 1191) of Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) is available both digitally and in a full transcription (Houghton Library 95M-34). Many of the people, places, events, to which Hollis refers in his diary are well known and a large number of the books, letters and publications to which Hollis refers survive at Harvard as gifts of the University’s first major donor. There are exciting opportunities here for discoveries about daily life in 18th-century London and the interconnectivity revealed by this web of material.

The Frank Vizetelly drawings, 1861-1865 and undated, (Houghton Library MS Am 1585) consists of 32 drawings, mostly civil war drawings which could perhaps be connected with his war correspondence for The Illustrated London News. The backs of the drawings often have narrative descriptions of what is illustrated on the front. A good topic for the upcoming Civil War anniversary. Vizetelly was one of the few reporters who served his paper within the Confederate lines during the Civil War, reporting pictorially from the South and known as a newspaper “special artist.”

Edward Lear landscape drawings – (Houghton Library MS Typ 55.26),, 3500 landscape drawings and watercolors documenting Edward Lear’s travels through Europe, Middle East and India. In the process of being fully digitized. Geographic opportunities exist for mapping the collection and Lear’s travels.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection – Over 3700 photographs and lantern slides have been digitized documenting TR’s life and travels. Also, all TR’s diaries and correspondence have been digitized (over 15,000 text pages). At this point, the text and photographs remain unconnected from each other, but opportunities exist to relate them in various contextual ways.

Commonplace books: According to HOLLIS, we own about 90, of which 38 have been digitized. The most famous of these notebooks belonged to John Donne. The poems of Dr. J. Donne: not yet imprinted Houghton Library MS Eng 966.5 Lobby XII.4.10. Images are here

The Thoreau manuscript, Extracts, mostly upon Natural History: 1853-1858 (Houghton Library HEW 12.7.10). Autograph notebook, signed, in the hand of Henry David Thoreau. This volume is one of Thoreau’s “Fact-Books – citations which concern his studies. Includes loose material collected by Thoreau in HOLLIS here. The digitized version (358 pages) is here. It is mostly a commonplace book with quotations copied out. It would be interesting to know what Thoreau was reading on the topic of Natural History – what he felt was most important.

For example in the Thoreau manuscript, this page

We find a quotation from Agassiz and Gould’s “Principles of Zoology.” This is in Google and the manuscript page could be linked to the original context.

It would, of course, be better to link to the actual edition he would have owned or even to his own copy, but it would still be an interesting exercise.

Leo Bagrow Maps of Siberia: (Houghton Library MS Russ 72). Includes manuscript atlas of Siberia by Semën Ul’i︠a︡novich Remezov, manuscript map of Siberia by Ivan Kirillovich Kirilov, and others. The finding aid includes the earliest known map of Siberia (1667) and the Remezoy’s 165 bound sketch maps of Siberia (1720). The finding aid is here. And the images are attached to the finding aid including the earliest known map of Siberia (1667) and Remezov’s 165 bound sketch maps of Siberia (1720) – truly beautiful and fascinating.

Audubon: 109 drawings/all digitized

Early Instrument Room (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library)

Archive of World Music (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library)

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